Public Arguments: The New Allure of Rome

Astonishingly, we are witnessing in our time one of the most fruitful periods for the charism of reconciliation with Rome in the history of the Catholic Church in America. A pride of young lions in the Christian faith, coming from every ecclesiastical tradition and from none, has slowly been assembling in the Roman communion. The grace of God is very active in our midst, perhaps because we deserve it so little.

We at Crisis are especially aware of this grace, since three of the five most prominent names on our masthead have come into the Catholic Church from other manses. But the phenomenon goes far beyond our small office — many of those who have been our most ardent supporters and best-loved writers, as well as many others whose lives and work we have admired from a distance, have made the same voyage of discovery. Think only for a moment of Walker Percy, Richard John Neuhaus, Peter Kreeft, Sheldon Vanauken, John Haas, Thomas Howard, Dale Vree, Alasdair Maclntyre, Lewis Lehrman, Jeffrey Tucker, Jonathan Tombes, Gregory Follesdal, Ann Burleigh, Stratford Caldecott, Terry Hall, Deal Hudson, Tracy Lee Simmons, Gregory Wolfe, Mark Henrie, George Rutler, Russell Kirk, Kenneth Craycraft, Michael Platt, Joseph Sobran, James J. Thompson, Jr., Charlotte Allen, Mark Shea, and Scott Hahn. It is true that some of these persons have always been Catholic in belief if not in external communion — and yet their public declaration of faith is evidence no less compelling of the new allure of Rome.

Nor are these conversions taking place solely among writers and public figures. Last year, the Catholic Church in America grew by a million new members. Virtually every parish in the country experienced a brace of adult converts, who usually join the full community (to the parish’s welcoming applause) at the Easter Vigil Mass.

The public culture of America does not go out of its way to put the Catholic Church in a good light. But in fact the sheer ordinary humanity of the Catholic Church suffices, all by itself, to keep the Church in a poor light, even without help from its cultured detractors. The Catholic Church — looked at with ordinary eyesight — can be fairly repellent. We are a community humbled enough by our own weaknesses.

Sociologically, the Roman Catholic Church in America does not at this moment appear to be a powerfully attractive moral, spiritual, and intellectual force. The scandals connected with pedophilia in the priesthood, especially, have sickened many. In combating abuses that have grown luxuriantly in recent years, like mushrooms in a dark and moist environment — abuses in catechetics, in the moral teaching of the seminaries, and in counseling — the flabbiness of our bishops has not been reassuring. After Vatican II, “progressives” have come to dominate every institution in the American church; “progressives” (at that time including me) inherited a fairly well-tended garden, and we allowed it to run wild.

From an extreme progressive point of view, it hardly makes much sense to become a Roman Catholic. Extreme progressives do not set much store by Rome nor, for that matter, by orthodox belief itself. “Study a little and decide for yourself,” is pretty much the kernel of their doctrine: “Believe as you will.” (This is called adult Catholicism.) The progressive doctrine of morals comes down pretty much to “Make a fundamental option for showing compassion and do what you will.” Progressives have a hard time showing how Frances Kissling and Anna Quindlen do not speak for them. Progressive Catholicism is all sail, without rudder; it is designed to be pushed around by leeward winds.

Not surprisingly, then, most of the converts of recent years are not drawn to where the leeward winds blow, but along the harder path toward Rome. For one gift, especially, lends the Catholic Church its quietly powerful beauty: it asks to be judged in one light only, viz., that it is the guardian of truth. Failing that test, it fails all.

Still, there must be at least a million reasons why the Catholic Church is the last place in which to look for the habitat of truth. Most of them occur to nearly everyone, including many Catholics. Nonetheless, there is a spot within the labyrinth, a blik from which everything falls into perspective with a radiance unforetellable, a work of grace as seemingly natural as normal eyesight.

Meeting that test, faith demands mostly courage — quite a lot of courage — to accept that the truth is to be found in that communion, so much despised among men. Humble and abject it is, as prophecy foretells.

The Impact of John Paul II

It appears that the impact of Pope John Paul II on the new converts is quite immense, and that the allure of Rome — although it far antedates him, and has sources quite distinguishable from his person — has been brought to hot focus (like the sun in a well-placed lens) by his papacy. The fierce integrity of the man, which shows in the contours and even the silhouette of his face, is exactly the right symbol for a Church that claims to be, all unworthily, the human habitat of the truth God brought to earth. Unflinching, flint-like is that face, quick to smile and to convey affection, irony, and suffering well known. Mostly, it shows rocklike determination to preach the truth, even — especially — the unpopular truth.

All around us in this world, we have many churches and church leaders (even among our own bishops) for whom a fitting symbol would be a copper rooster solemnly rotating in the wind. So many see the apologetical task as somehow to make the faith acceptable and relevant to today’s concerns. (The assumption of some seems to be that it is not.)

“DO NOT BE ASHAMED OF THE GOSPEL,” John Paul II announces, by contrast. “DO NOT BE ASHAMED OF THE GOSPEL!” And he isn’t. He doesn’t back away from a fight. He says all the hard things, in all the demanding places, and he doesn’t deviate from his duty an inch. His is a formidable witness to the truth. He is a Christian preacher’s preacher.

Moreover, he is deep. He is not anti-intellectual. You want an explanation, he has more phenomenological categories and moves than you probably were asking for. He doesn’t dodge the question. But questions that you should be able to figure out for yourself he just might turn back on you; he is a serious man, and is not willing to play games. In evidence here may be placed his encyclicals, his Instructions (with Cardinal Ratzinger), and his (yes, his) catechism: altogether a massive and solid body of work, of such high quality as to have no precedent in modern history.

The nearest point of comparison to this pope, indeed, may be Leo XIII (1878-1903), whose many encyclicals ushered in the twentieth century and remain still the charters of the modern papacy. Yet even here, for depth and range Centesimus annus may be thought superior to Rerum novarum; and Veritatis splendor clarifies much that Libertas praestantissimum left clouded about the relation of liberty to truth, and does so on a deeper and more self-consistent philosophical level. To be sure, John Paul II has the advantage over Leo XIII of nearly a century — and such a century! — of experience. But he also has the advantage of reaping the fruits of the revival of Thomism for whose sowing and cultivation Leo XIII was only in a position to cry out, virtually alone and nearly without support. Nonetheless, future generations will probably concur that John Paul II left ample evidence of the deepest and most finely honed philosophical mind in the history of the modern papacy.

Moreover, John Paul II almost effortlessly thinks through his philosophy in the context of faith, his reflections on nature in the light of grace. His sense of the interplay between nature and grace, reason and faith, is not exactly original; it owes a great deal to de Lubac and von Balthasar. And yet in his own hands the treatment of this difficult material flows so naturally, so gracefully, that naturally and gracefully seem to belong together, as if both grace and nature had been conceived before Time was, in the image of the Word of the Father, and as if per Ipsum, et cum Ipso, et in Ipso were made all the things that were made. Thus reason’s home, haven, and hearth is the light of faith that surrounds it. And faith’s home, haven, and hearth is the hungering, inquiring spirit aimed like an arrow beyond itself, toward the inexhaustible goodness of God.

Surely, no one planned the new tide of conversions. Indeed, the tenor of Catholic America these last thirty years would seem to have been mostly against it. Who was looking for converts? Bishop Sheen, Father Gillis, Father O’Brien — such convert-oriented priests belonged to a departed generation. We have grown up in a time in which even the devil, if his existence were not smiled at, could be referred to as a separated brother. “Stay where you are,” seemed to be the most devout advice, “and work for the union of all churches and all humankind, through the ecumenism of like-minded elites.” God, it turns out, was working even through this oddly designed stratagem.

The Impact of Ecumenism

For in the Age of Ecumenism launched (or, rather, extended) by Vatican II, Protestants and Catholics began to open themselves to one another and to study one another’s materials in a fresh and open way. It became obvious that the Catholic Church was serious about reforming itself. It became further obvious that doctrinally the many Christian communions were often far closer on fundamental points — the absolute need of God’s grace in and through Jesus Christ, for example — than had been grasped by previous generations, even among those of good will. Moreover, it became much clearer through the events of the twentieth century that all the Christian (and orthodox Jewish) communions were under siege from a common enemy more powerful than any of them alone and perhaps all of them together: an aggressive secular hostility not only to the truths it was their responsibility to cherish and to teach, but even to the very possibility of truth, whether of reason or of revelation. Both Athens and Jerusalem, so to speak, are under heavy fire from contemporary nihilism. The very soil of reason, in which revelation would take root, is being scorched and mined with salt lest anything living grow in it.

In this post-modern context, some of the most profound of the spirits nourished and kept alive by the Protestant Reform have begun to ask themselves whether it still makes sense to maintain our inherited separation. In what sense can it still be maintained that one or another Christian communion is more, or less, faithful to the Word of God than is the Catholic communion? In what sense is one or another communion a fuller witness to the revelation of Jesus Christ or to the Covenant that God has made eternally with His people? Can anyone maintain that separation is a spiritual and moral responsibility that must still be borne?

Some are convinced that it is better for those who aspire to the unity commanded by Christ to remain in the communions in which Providence has placed them, trying to move those communions toward the ultimate communion in one Body which must take place, according to the command and promises of God. Only in this way, they hold, can entire communions come ultimately together, in the Providence of God, to end the age-long scandal of division. Fidelity in this case demands bearing the sorrow of separation a little longer, for the sake of the eventual reunion of the Christian churches.

The contrary conviction is that there is very little evidence that separated Christian communions intend at all to work toward unity with Rome in a serious and purposive way. Moreover, after all the immense theological work that has been done in laying bare the fundamental positions of faith of each communion, the doctrinal grounds that might be adduced to justify continuing separation from Rome bear little scholarly scrutiny.

The Burden on Cradle Catholics

The fresh tide of converts places a very heavy burden on cradle Catholics. The Christian call to conversion is always universal, insistent, and omnipresent. No one is exempt from it. When those of us who have been brought up Catholic witness the interior sufferings and courage of those who, despite all, cut familiar ties and cast their lot with Rome, we are mightily challenged to go deeper into our own faith. We are also called to a shattering conversion of life, not least because we see clearly enough that it is our own failed witness to the Gospels that clouds the witness of the Church. We do not look like the Body of Christ. To believe that we are requires an infusion of heroic faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.

To read the “signs of the times” today, therefore, is to feel the teeth of biting judgment. We recognize that we are being called to turn ourselves toward God — away from our long-established predilections — as never before. We are being called to be converted, to change the way we live, to pray as we have never prayed before, and to strive for simplicity of heart. That is, to will one thing: that God may be present in our every act and in our person, burning away what is not of Him, so that in the end He may be all in all.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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