National Catholic Register


‘Strong Language’

Theologian on Pope’s Message Of Thinking With The Church


May 11-17, 2008 Issue | Posted 5/6/08 at 3:11 PM


Michael Novak is a theologian and author who is director of social and political studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

He has served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He received the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994.

Novak spoke with Register correspondent Judy Roberts about Pope Benedict XVI’s recent address to Catholic university presidents and other educators, as well as other themes of the Papal visit to the United States.

The Pope in his talk to Catholic educators reaffirmed the concept of academic freedom, but he added that “the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church, would obstruct or even betray the [Catholic] university’s identity and mission.” How would you say the Pope handled the issue of dissent from Church teaching during his visit to the U.S.?

This is very strong language from the Pope, especially since his main effort was to give encouragement to the presidents and deans of Catholic universities, as to the American Church generally.

In practice, many faculty at Catholic universities these days are not Catholic — which, in itself, is not a problem. But some of them are not at all in sympathy with the Catholic faith nor with the purposes of the Catholic university as the Pope describes them. Very few steps have been taken, in most cases, to ask new faculty to pledge to support the purposes of the Catholic university or college, even if they are not themselves Catholic. Doing this is only truth in advertising.

Many middle-class families make huge sacrifices so that their youngsters will get a Catholic education. They could have sent them to state or secular schools at far less cost. Imagine how cheated they feel when their young adults come home from university far less Catholic than they had been, and far less knowledgeable about their faith than the parents had anticipated and paid for.

In addition, many Catholic faculty have fallen into the habit of thinking contrary to the mind of the Church, some of them on very substantial matters. This is true even of priests and religious. Some pride themselves on being hostile to the Vatican, and entitled to invent their own version of religion (sometimes only loosely Catholic). Perhaps these habits were learned during the Second Vatican Council, when everyone could observe the strong arguments in the Church between “conservatives” and “progressives.” Some got into the habit of thinking that the progressives were always right, and indeed that anything described as progressive is always (or nearly always) right. What some fear most of all is being called a conservative.

How would you describe dissent as we see it in today’s Church?

There are two kinds of habits of “dissent” that are worrisome. Sometimes we meet Catholic faculty who are not intent on “thinking with the Church” or “growing into the mind of the Church.” On the contrary, the magisterium they obey is the progressive zeitgeist, or the opinion of their peers, or the views of any dissenters from Church traditions or papal teachings they can locate. They freely sow division among their charges, in the thought that this is preparing them “for the Church of the future.”

The second kind of dissent is that of faculty who are openly anti-Catholic, and who abhor a great deal of what the Church teaches. Some are a bit ashamed to be teaching at a Catholic university. One sometimes hears such professors speaking disparagingly of their own institution to their friends in other locales. On the other hand, one sometimes meets non-Catholic faculty who in their depth of soul and will for the good and the true shame their Catholic peers. Some even love the Church and her beauties and traditions more than their Catholic peers do.

 One thing the Pope says that cuts through all this fog and complexity is that everyone connected with a Catholic university ought to encounter there the presence of the Living God.

 Think about that for a moment. That is a powerful criterion.

What would you say to those who have criticized the Pope as a doctrinal “enforcer”?

The Catholic Church is not so much a doctrine as a life. If you wish, it offers a living doctrine, an inner core for good, true, honest, loving and just living. This inner life is freely offered by God. All are invited to allow it to penetrate them — or to reject it.

One problem is that most Catholic colleges and universities have become so mired in their lack of attention to this aspect of Catholic academic life that it will take them some time to deal with the dissenters of both types who are still in their midst. One might not want to have “The Vagina Monologues” shown on campus, but there might be greater scandal from forbidding it than letting it be shown. The problem is, the groundwork for establishing the understanding that such a work is hostile to the Catholic way of regarding the human body and the lives of women has not yet been done. This fact sometimes puts a college president in a bind, but a bind partly of the making of the Catholic leaders of the university themselves.

 The odd thing these days is that many who do not love the Church, and who in fact have some contempt for the Church, do not resign their university positions and go elsewhere. They stay where the jobs are, no matter whether they do not wish to think or to speak from the heart of the Church.

Can dissenters serve a prophetic role in the Church, as they often say they are doing?

Sometimes, the dissenters claim to be saving the Church from the teachings of the Pope, or of tradition, by presenting a more up-to-date version. It is true that the Church always moves through history with strong arguments and adversarial positions. On certain points, it may require several generations to become clear about what is the true and most life-giving path. Sometimes those who are in a small minority win out in the end. Usually, though, they win out not only by the clarity and depth of their ideas, but also by their humility and holiness of life. One practical test I have found helpful: How deeply are disputants committed to the principle that to be Catholic is to be with Peter?

Those who offer new light to the Pope, new arguments and new ways of seeing things, may on occasion be correct, and popes will eventually winnow through and absorb what is good about their explorations. The inner test is: “Do I lay my ideas before Peter, awaiting his winnowing? Maybe I am wrong.”

 When professors speak disparagingly of Peter — not perhaps of any particular pope (for all are limited, and subject to criticism) — but of the Petrine office itself, experience has shown me that I should not take them as my guides.

Judy Roberts is based in

Graytown, Ohio.