On March 19, 1998, the young social historian Eugene McCarraher delivered a portion of his doctoral thesis as a lecture at the Cushwa Center of the University of Notre Dame. His subject was Michael Novak, “The Technopolitan Catholic.” Though the lecture was highly critical of Novak’s work, especially after his “rightward turn,” it also stressed the continuities in his thought. The Cushwa Center invited Novak to respond the following autumn, and on October 6, 1998, he delivered an account of his career from which the following article was adapted.
— The Editors (of First Things)
I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1933, and lived briefly in two other cities in western Pennsylvania towns, (Jimmy Stewart’s) Indiana and (Andy Warhol’s) McKeesport. At fourteen, I entered the Little Seminary on the campus of Notre Dame University for my high school years, graduating in 1951. From there I went to the novitiate of the Fathers of the Holy Cross in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, took simple vows, completed my undergraduate degree in philosophy and English literature, and was sent to Rome for theological studies. After two happy years I nonetheless began to believe that my vocation was as a layman. My superiors advised me not to make so weighty a decision on foreign soil, and brought me back to Washington to complete my theological studies at Catholic University. After eighteen months of great darkness but also inner peace, I became certain that I should not be a priest.
Thus, in early January 1960, after twelve years in religious life, having had a profound experience of religious and intellectual community, I found myself in a garret apartment in New York City working on the manuscript of a novel. I had one hundred dollars that my father had given me, plus a determination not to go to work at any job except writing. I was budgeted at $35 a week (rent took $10), and so I had three weeks to find the next check. Luckily, an assignment for a book review or an article kept arriving each month. The manuscript I was working on was not my first novel, but in June of 1960 Doubleday accepted this one for publication. The advance seemed to me a fortune. I believe it was $600, with a matching check when I would hand in the completed manuscript.
Meanwhile, I had also applied to graduate schools for further study in philosophy; naively, I sent applications only to Yale and Harvard. Yale offered me tuition but Harvard added a supplement for living expenses. I preferred Harvard for other reasons, and was there for election night of 1960 and inauguration day of 1961 when in the Law School dining room, surprised by tears gathering in my eyes, I watched on television as John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the first Catholic President. I had sent in drafts of speeches to his campaign, copies of speeches I had prepared for a young lawyer running for Congress in northern New Jersey, including one on “The New Frontier.” The Democratic pols in Newark had mocked my speech when my candidate started giving it, but once JFK used the theme in his acceptance speech at the convention they said it was brilliant.
In the spring of 1961, Robert Silvers of Harper’s asked me to write the article on religion for an issue on universities to appear that fall. That article, “God in the Colleges,” though it caused a lot of discussion, left my professors at Harvard not at all pleased. It was reprinted several times in various New Left publications a few years later, since in some ways it anticipated the Port Huron Statement (the founding document of the New Left) in 1964. What I wrote in that article—about the death of humanism under the onslaught of the Enlightenment—has been a permanent theme of my work, and I have reprinted that essay in later books in 1964 and 1994. These are its closing lines:
“God is dead. . . . What are these churches if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?” Nietzsche asked. But much of Western humanism is dead too. Men do not wander under the silent stars, listen to the wind, learn to know themselves, question, “Where am I going? Why am I here?” They leave aside the mysteries of contingency and transitoriness for the certainties of research, production, consumption. So that it is nearly possible to say: “Man is dead. . . . What are these buildings, these tunnels, these roads, if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of man?”
The greatest event of my Harvard years was meeting my wife, a painter who was then teaching at Carleton College in Minnesota, an Iowan herself, who had studied with Kokoshka in Austria and Lasansky at Iowa City. She came to Boston to paint for a year during her sabbatical, and despite serious competition from two lawyers I prevailed upon her to marry me. We took part of our honeymoon as a working autumn in Rome for the Second Vatican Council, beginning from late August 1963 until mid–January of 1964.
In late November I unexpectedly received a contract for The Open Church—an existing contract that the Time correspondent could not fulfill. Taking Lord Acton’s report on the First Vatican Council in 1870 as my model, I wrote with great intensity for the seven weeks that the contract allowed me after the Council closed in early December. It was a bitterly cold winter, and the marble rooms in our pensione had no central heating. Wearing gloves to grip my pen (for revisions) and my dictating machine (for reporting speeches at the Council), I kept as many as three secretaries busy—one transcribing dictation, one deciphering my handwriting for typing, and the third typing the revised versions of the work of the preceding day. Although I was supposed to be studying for my comprehensive exams at Harvard, I nonetheless completed the manuscript by the January 18 deadline.
My second nonfiction book, which was also published in 1964, was a collection of essays called A New Generation: American and Catholic. In it I laid out my dissatisfactions with the various philosophies of the Enlightenment that had been my diet at Harvard, and announced my intention to pick up and develop the ancient and more capacious pragmatism and empiricism of Aristotle and Aquinas. I declared that in solving the crucial problems of Americans and Catholics in America, one needs “a consistent point of view, [one that is] empirical, pragmatic, realistic, and Christian.” To this day, I think I have been faithful to that vision.
Although I have published versions of this story before, certain persistent misreadings of my intellectual biography make it seem judicious to give a short account of a half–dozen of the main continuities, the undergirding, of my intellectual life these past fifty years, before turning to those areas where my thoughts have changed significantly.
Most Americans seem to believe that every single human life has value and worth. But, I wondered from the beginning, is that really true? Is that how hurricanes, cancer, Hitler, and communism have treated human beings? During my lifetime, nearly one hundred million persons have died by violence, making life seem cheap. When I was eleven years old I saw the first movie reels from Auschwitz. What if this planet is as empty of meaning as it sometimes seems? I was struck very deeply by this at least apparent meaninglessness, and I took very seriously the challenge of Albert Camus that any philosophy of the future, any ethic, must originate within it, or risk not being credible. To build a new civilization on the ashes of Auschwitz would take much hard thought.
Most of my colleagues and friends didn’t share my problem. It is not that I didn’t believe. My faith never flagged. It was only that I felt nothing, I was empty, and I could not see how to answer the problems put by Auschwitz—and by explicit nihilists, including defenders of Hitler and Stalin, not to mention by nice atheists like some of my professors at Harvard.
Some of my friends could say with Pascal, “The heart has its reasons which the reason knows not of.” Others could say: “Faith is a leap; you just have to let go and leap.” In my case, I have known my own heart to have many bad reasons, and to be a great deceiver. So I didn’t like these two existentialist dodges. Regarding the first, I admire but I don’t quite trust “reasons of the heart.” Regarding the second, I appreciate why others are content with a “leap” of faith, but it has always seemed to me that creatures blessed with the sort of minds God gave us should be able to give a better account of the why of our faith than that.
In other words, even accepting the Christian account on its own terms, we should from within it be able to find the way out of meaninglessness. We should be able to take in the worst this century has had to offer, and show why it is reasonable to find God also in that. I put the emphasis on reasonable. Many people I have talked to over the years think that that is asking too much. But if God really does want the worship of free men standing erect (and He does), then that much we have to achieve. Fides quaeret intellectum.
The second continuity in my work has been an experience of the dark region wherein God dwells. God is best understood to be caritas, a dark and terrible form of realism best symbolized by the Cross on which He willed his Son to die. God is best understood to be Love, but not in the types of love associated with the English word “love.” Latin has at least five words for love—amor, affectus, dilectio, amicitia, caritas—and then the Greek agape adds a nuance, as do certain Hebrew words such as the one we usually render “compassion” but which more literally means “moved to the very bowels.” Even when we cannot see God, we can turn our wills and intellects toward Him, aim them like arrows bound to fall short, and in effect say Fiat. The fundamental prayer to God is only one word, in the teeth of any storm: yes. Ivan Karamazov swore he could never say that. Not in a world in which so many children go to sleep in tears and alone.
The greatest continuity in my work is this affirmation that the basic energy, power, and force in creation is caritas. In this otherwise vast and possibly empty series of silent galaxies, the Creator made humans in order to have at least one creature able freely to respond to Him—either with love or not. Caritas is the one energy that matters. In it, we are first related, before we are solitary. We first receive, before we act on our own. We are first empowered, before we take responsibility for our own acts. We are first endowed, before we have rights. In all these things, all humans are linked together. Creatures depend. That is the great “intuition of being” that Jacques Maritain talked about.
In 1979 I gave a lecture at Notre Dame I have never forgotten—not, at least, the reaction of the audience. It was my first public defense of capitalism. In that context, I began with the presence of caritas within all of us. “Through the work of our minds and hands,” I said,
the life of the triune God expresses its own love and truth and healing power, not all at once, imperfectly and in the darkness, but yet effectively. We build up the social institutions by which human history is slowly, very slowly, transformed into God’s own image. As our God is triune—a communal God—so is our vocation communal.
I gave the lecture at a conference occasioned by a Declaration by Chicago Laypersons fourteen years after Vatican II on the continuing neglect of the laity in the Church. After setting forth my theological vision of the action of the Trinity in this world, and on the need to reconstruct the social order, I spoke of the need to transform our approach by grasping capitalism’s religious possibilities. The capitalist system, after all, was the system in which most Notre Dame graduates would work. There could not be a realistic theology of the laity, or theology of work, without a theology of capitalism. When the lecture period adjourned for dinner, no one would speak to me. I had violated an important Catholic taboo. Those last few moments of that lecture—the capitalism part—admittedly marked a great discontinuity in my work. And that meant, of course, that I had excommunicated myself from the Catholic left.
The third most important continuity in my work is the theme that supplies the philosophical root that unites the first two themes: our unlimited, unquenchable drive to ask questions, the eros of inquiry. This is the organ of our appetite for transcendence, the point in us where our union with the communion of persons of the Trinity is joined, like two fires becoming one. We do not see God, but we thirst for Him. We seek Him. Our relentless drive to inquire is present in every act of our awareness. Thus, in every act, the transcendence of God is present to us (by reverse image, as it were). Furthermore, to pursue this unlimited drive within us is the best way to discover the multiple aspects of our duty on earth to build up the Kingdom of truth, liberty, justice, and love. The light that emanates from this drive to understand suffuses all we do. Issuing in caritas, it is the dominant dynamic of civilization.
A fourth crucial continuity is my emphasis on the incarnational dimension in theology. Some Catholics commit their lives to an eschatological witness, some to an incarnational witness. The former (Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day) believe that the world is sinful, broken, even adversarial, and they choose to light within it the fire of the love of God, while having as little to do with the things of this world as they can. Those who choose the incarnational witness try to see in every moment of history, in every culture, and in every place and time the workings of divine grace, often in ways that are hidden like the workings of yeast buried in dough. And they lend their energies to altering that world in its basic institutions, even if ever so slightly, in the direction of caritas. Both traditions are legitimate.
Early in my life, as I will recount later, I was sorely tempted by the witness of Dorothy Day and by Baroness de Hueck with her Friendship Houses, and even by the Benedictines. I was also drawn toward becoming a missionary. Yet I gradually realized that my own vocation lay in working in the world, in intellectual life, preferably in environments in which Catholics were few. Early in this pursuit I inclined toward a vocation in political action. By 1968, teaching in Cuernavaca, Mexico, that summer with Peter Berger, I came to see that economics was an even more neglected field in Catholic thought. By about 1976, I at last recognized that a capitalist system was not in fact what I had been taught it was; that no system is, in practice, more likely to raise the poor out of poverty than capitalism; and that capitalism is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for democracy. I began to see that grace works also in economics.
Thus, it slowly dawned on me that, just as Jacques Maritain had recognized in American political institutions the yeast of the Gospels working in history, so also Max Weber had dimly seen that the original impulses of capitalism spring from Christianity, too. These impulses had been systematically neglected by economists, who had abandoned religious and even philosophical considerations in order to model their discipline on the physical sciences. In this way, economists had lost sight of the spirit of capitalism, and neglected the human habits on which its survival depends. Simultaneously, nearly all theologians had become as adversarial toward capitalism and business as Europe’s aristocrats were; they looked down upon economic activities as vulgar and crass, if not evil. In other words, I came to see the need for a reconstruction of the world’s understanding of capitalism and, beyond that, a reconstruction of capitalism’s realities.
We need to think of capitalism in a larger and deeper way than the economists and business schools typically think of it. We need to think of it in a Catholic way. This is what Pope John Paul II does in Centesimus Annus. He describes the business corporation as a community that is a model for truths Christianity has always attempted to teach about the human person and community.
Note, however, that the underlying continuity I am stressing here is theological. I am stressing the incarnational emphasis in general, not my particular judgment about capitalism. Whatever the present model of political economy, it will not measure up to the height and depth of the Kingdom of God. It will always be inadequate. The city of man will never be the city of God.
Just the same, it is important that there be Christians who go out into this city, whatever its stage of moral and religious development, and try to incarnate the Gospels in it as Jesus incarnated God in history. No doubt, this will often enough be by the way of the Cross and rejection, as it was for Jesus. But it is only thus that great Christian civilizations have been reared in the past. In any case, the “liberal popes” from whom we learned so much—for that is how scholars in my youth described the social teaching of Leo XIII, Pius XI, and Pius XII—called millions of us precisely to this task of “reconstructing the social order.”
In my earlier years, I thought the best model for this reconstruction lay in a blend of democracy with some form of socialism. Later, I came to believe that socialism in any of its forms would be futile and destructive. I saw greater hope in a more realistic effortto reform and reconstruct society through the unique combination of capitalism and democracy that we have been lucky enough to inherit in America. But my point, to repeat, is that my own strategic vision, which is incarnational rather than eschatological, has been constant throughout my life.
The fifth continuity—related to the incarnational theme just mentioned—is a sense of the importance to Christian thought of the body, the flesh, the senses. No other religion promises the resurrection of the body. No other is so lavish in its evocations of the senses, as a holiday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica dramatizes. Catholicism, G. K. Chesterton once wrote, is a thick steak, a glass of stout, and a good cigar. He wrote this not because he was a materialist, or blind to wit and spirit, but because turning away from the body weakens our grasp of the Incarnation. That is why an important theme of the Catholic Renaissance during the past hundred years has been a recovery of the theology of the body. In the Catholic America of my youth, this recovery was badly needed. One saw it in renewed emphasis on poetry, fiction, sound, smell, and texture. One saw it especially in the early liturgical renewal. I felt it keenly in my own struggles to learn the craft of fiction.
The sixth fundamental theme in my work has been “intelligent subjectivity.” By this concept, beginning with Belief and Unbelief, I have always protected the role of the tacit, the inarticulable, the well–ordered senses and passions and emotions and heart at the very center of our acts of insight and judgment. But I have also tried to show how these are, properly, acts of reason.
Some critics mistakenly read my use of “intelligent” and “rational” as if my intellectual roots were utilitarian, post–Cartesian, and merely concerned with skill or techne. In fact, my primary concern has been that “knowledge by connaturality,” that “wisdom,” which my parents exemplified for me, and which Jacques Maritain and Michael Polanyi first taught me how to express. To make myself understood at Harvard on these matters, then a bastion of Quinean logic where Maritain and Polanyi were rejected (or simply disregarded), I needed to spell out the working of a form of “subjectivity” that is intelligent, reasonable, and empirically present in every act of reasoned judgment. That was the main effort of Belief and Unbelief, The Experience of Nothingness, and Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove.
These six continuities—and there are others—are plainly interrelated. Every one of my books had a place in the journey whose route I announced in A New Generation in 1964, and I have never deviated from it. I do admit plenty of errors, oversights, hasty judgments, and wrong turns. According to Winston Churchill, consistency is like a helmsman in a small boat amid thirty–foot waves; the only way to keep going is to lean hard first to one side, then to the other. That is not inconsistency. That is prudent sailing. Whatever the storms of my time, from Auschwitz to Vietnam, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to welfare reform, this particular Michael has always hoped, in the end, to row his boat ashore.
The great discontinuity in my life occurred when I decided, from much evidence, that the economic and social thought of the left which I had long supported—working for John F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, George McGovern, and Henry “Scoop” Jackson—was turning out, despite our good intentions, to be injurious to the poor of the world, including the poor among whom I had grown up in Johnstown during the 1930s. It was my rule—inculcated in me by my father—never to forget where I had come from and who my family was. But I owe a lot, as well, to my “second family,” the Congregation of the Holy Cross.
I can hardly give enough credit to the Holy Cross seminaries for what they taught me between 1947 and 1959 about caritas, the drive to understand, and an incarnational humanism. There my soul became in a sense a child of France. I learned to love the Jacques Maritain of Integral Humanism, François Mauriac, and Albert Camus. From the French I learned the desire to write both philosophy and fiction. I also began an intense study of the life and work of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
St. Thérèse (1873–1897) is the teacher of the Church about the everyday exercise of caritas, in ways so humble that they mostly cannot be seen, even though their effects may be subjected to the tests of the gospel. She taught me the importance of thinking small and honoring the humble things that I at first tended to despise. For the theology of the laity and the theology of work and the theology of daily institutional life, her work has been described—by no less an authority than Hans Urs von Balthasar—as revolutionary.
The influence of Thérèse is most often visible in my work when I refer to the transformation that St. Thomas Aquinas wrought in Aristotle’s philosophy of human action. Aristotle organized his thought around the conception of phronesis or practical wisdom; Aquinas saw the potential in this concept to support a new mode of caritas. This transformation shapes the horizon within which I placed the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, on whom I had intended to do my doctoral thesis at Harvard. (I wrote and published Belief and Unbelief instead, to clear away a conceptual obstacle to understanding the theology of the person and community, by way of “intelligent subjectivity.”)
By 1965, I had accepted an assistant professorship at Stanford—the first Catholic ever to be hired in the religion department—and my duties and purposes there took my writing in more practical directions. I attempted to read every word that Maritain and Niebuhr had written, including as much of their occasional journalism as I could lay my hands on. How they applied their vision to the practicalities of lay life in the world interested me greatly, but so did their theoretical framework.
As mentioned above, early on in my life, mainly through the subscription to the Catholic Worker that my father brought into our home, my heroes were Dorothy Day, Baroness de Hueck, and (later) Michael Harrington. While I was at Catholic University (1958–59), the radical writings of the sociologist Paul Hanly Furfey were added to these influences. Nonetheless, I hesitated about declaring myself a democratic socialist or social democrat, because I was unclear about the implications of that allegiance. I resolved to study economics more carefully, and to clarify in my mind questions about poverty and wealth, economic development and religion. I devoured Weber, Tawney, Fanfani and others, as well as magazines such as Dissent. I thought it morally correct and religiously satisfying to be something of a socialist and a tart critic of capitalism. I tried hard.
It was during my years at Harvard, 1960–1965, that I first heard the term “WASP,” and had to ask its meaning. At the Divinity School, I learned how loftily “mainline” Christians looked down on the vast majority of evangelicals in America. When Billy Graham came to lecture, most went to jeer (at Harvard this means making dry jokes), although some said later he did much better than expected.
One exception to the general climate was James Luther Adams, a great defender of what others at Harvard referred to as “the garbage bin of the Reformation,” the Anabaptists and all the free churches that sprang from them, who eventually became the largest number of Protestants in America. Adams held that the free churches, more than any other social movement, taught America the practice of association that Tocqueville later described as “the first law of democracy.” Leo XIII had won the sobriquet “the pope of associations,” and this link to an entire world of Protestantism, a world I had never before clearly distinguished in my own mind from the Philadelphia–New England “mainline,” gave me a new conceptual tool. From then on, the principle of association became a golden thread in my analysis of society, democracy, capitalism, welfare policy, and civil society. It is at the heart of my conception of the open society and the open church.
The theology of caritas, the Catholic tradition of personalism and community, and now the principle of association—all these helped me to break the horizon of left–wing socialism in which I had been formed. “A Catholic boy like you has to be a Democrat,” our high school advisor, Father Peverada, had told me in the fall of 1948, when he caught me making counterarguments in favor of Thomas E. Dewey. (I have always been, in discussions, a counterarguer. My friends purposefully used to advance arguments they had first learned from me, in order to trap me into arguing against my earlier self—and I always fell for their deception.) Similarly, I remember Maritain writing about wanting always to be “a man of the left.” (Though in France, “right,” and therefore “left,” mean something very different from anything in America.) Paul Tillich added that “Any serious Christian must be a socialist.” Practically everyone concurred. It took me many years to begin questioning this magnetic pull, and to figure out whence its power came.
When I found myself questioning my own left–wing commitments, which had been somewhat influential in the “radicalization” of other liberals, I was frightened. I thought something must be wrong with me. As Kathie McHale Mulherin noted in Commonweal, my turn to the radical left in politics was a matter of intellectual conviction, against my own conservative temperament; she had been my research assistant and watched it happen. Her comment surprised me when it appeared, but I came to admit that she was right. The radicals, temperamentally, were not my sort of people. When they said “power to the people,” the last thing they meant was the workers of Joliet and Johnstown, the white ethnics of Mayor Daley’s Chicago, or the Moral Majority. They did not have the good of my Uncle Emil in mind.
I need to say a word about Uncle Emil. He was my father’s oldest half–brother, by an earlier marriage of my grandfather. He was a big, rough, hearty man who was missing one whole finger and part of another from accidents in the steel mill, and his language was goodhearted, loud, punctuated by laughter, and not at all suited for Sunday School. He made his own wine. His Slovak was as rough as his English. Around his humble frame house, which even then seemed like an antique in a mining town, he grew hollyhocks and a grape arbor, of exactly the sort I was later to see in Slovak mountain villages in the Tatra mountains whence our family came to America about 1885. He was a boisterous supporter of FDR, the Democrats, and the unions. In all my memories, Emil seems to be in a sleeveless T–shirt, although I must have seen him squeezed uncomfortably into a suit, shirt, and tie at one or another funeral or wedding.
Somewhere along the line at Harvard, I got the idea of submitting every generalization I heard about “the Americans” to a test: Did that sentence fit my Uncle Emil? For instance, 1968 newpaper reports that “Catholic ethnics support Wallace.” I could agree that Emil might have admired the guts of George Wallace in his presidential run in 1968, when Wallace took on the “pointy–headed liberals.” But I am certain that the Wallace crack about “running over protestors” would have disgusted Emil; and compared to Wallace, Hubert Humphrey was the proven union man. Humphrey was Emil’s kind of Democrat. Many political writers and sociologists, in those days, seemed not to know of Uncle Emil. They confused him with the migrants from the South who migrated north into the mills, and did support Wallace. Ethnicity confused them.
In the autumn of 1970, I took a leave of absence from Stanford to accept an invitation from Sargent Shriver during his campaign to elect Democrats to Congress around the country. We visited some thirty–nine states, and spent nearly every day from August through November on the road. Years later I wrote that by election day,
I had a far better grasp of the diverse neighborhoods of America than I had ever had before. I had seen at first hand the true significance of ethnicity and localism in American life. . . . Words that I had written about the American majority—complacently drinking beer in front of television—in Toward a Theology of Radical Politics now made shame color my cheeks. I met the American people in the flesh; my literary imagination had been calumnious. But this had not been my vision only. In rejecting it, I was rejecting the leftist vision of America (or Amerika), the anti–Americanism so common among my intellectual colleagues.
This thought weighed on me as time passed. I saw many analyses of American politics and social needs go wildly wrong about the actual texture of American social reality, and decided I must write The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1972, 1996). Later, I followed up with an account of a crucial but almost totally neglected union struggle among Slavic miners in eastern Pennsylvania, The Guns of Lattimer (1978, 1996). It remains my ambition to tell the story of my grandfather’s immigration and the great Johnstown flood of 1889, which took more lives than the battle of Gettysburg.
There is one minor continuity in my work that I should mention here. In every period of my life, I have come back to the “gap” in our society between the intellectuals and the people. I make a sharp distinction between two halves of the American elite: those who choose to support the growth of a larger, supposedly more compassionate state, and those who choose, because it is actually better for the poor, to support the growth of the private sector. I define “elite,” roughly, as the top 20 percent of the population as sorted out by three measures: income, years of education, and professional status. Since World War II, about half of this elite has found a new route to power, wealth, prestige, and influence through the promotion of a larger, more activist state. The others see a better route for themselves and the country through the promotion of a limited state, and a larger, more compassionate civil society. I call the first of these “the new class” and the second “the old elite.” It is good for America to have a divided elite, of roughly equal size, so that the two elites check and balance each other. In terms of political economy, the new class tends to favor the political solution, while the old elite tends to favor the free economy, a reformed welfare state (toward which we have begun to move), and a civil society with the state “off its back.”
Once I started criticizing the errors of the left, I was en route to becoming a “neoconservative,” a term that I at first hated. The term was invented as a sign of excommunication by the Catholic socialist (and my good friend) Michael Harrington. Harrington, who began with the Catholic Worker, committed himself to the left; he became a socialist in the way that some people become Catholic. Socialism became his religion, not only his politics. He meant the term to signify a way of life, a horizon, a way of seeing things, an ethos, an ethic, a dream, an ideal goal. He called those of us who were beginning to question the premises of his faith “neo,” to suggest “pseudo” or “imitation,” and he called us “conservatives,” knowing full well the judgment of Louis Hartz and Lionel Trilling that “there is no conservative intellectual tradition in America.” For a socialist to call someone a conservative is the meanest name he can think of. It means outside the moral pale—greedy, money–grubbing, narrow–minded, bigoted, troglodytic—you get the picture.
Breaking ranks with the left is a phenomenon that deserves its own study. I lost the company of formerly good friends, received some letters from friends who severed all contact with me or pleaded with me not to continue in my horrible mistake. I had articles returned from magazines that had once begged me to write for them, and watched hostile and ad hominem reviews replace the glowing notices of just a short time earlier. But this has been a common experience among ex–leftists; some had it far worse. I took comfort from noting that Paul Johnson had just made the same break with the socialist left in England, and Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz had done so in New York. There seemed to be a growing band of us: “We few, we happy few!” (The literature on, by, and about neoconservatives is by now quite extensive.)
What we had in common was a past on the far left—not necessarily at the Communist extreme, but well to the radical side of Arthur Schlesinger’s “vital center”—and a powerful intellectual conviction that the left was wrong about virtually every big issue of our time: the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese regime, economics, welfare, race, and moral questions such as abortion, amnesty, acid, and the sexual revolution.
In my experience, people join the left out of idealism. Once they see through the deceptions of the left, and break with its powerful set of internal controls, including censorship, they come to hate it. One must fight this hatred in oneself, and try hard to remember how one fell for the left because of one’s own uncritical ideals. What defectors come to hate in the left is its pervasive lack of honesty—the constant use of euphemism and linguistic deception (in public, socialists call themselves liberals and liberals call themselves moderates), its black–and–white vision of the world, its intolerance of any questions about its own principles.
It has been said before that a neoconservative is a radical who has begun to understand economics. In studying economics, one begins to grasp why socialism cannot possibly work in practice, and why it is especially damaging to the poor. In the days of my left–wing idealism, I thought the left would help the poor. I favored the War on Poverty. But then I watched what actually happened: A 600 percent increase in births out of wedlock (especially among the poor), a 600 percent increase in violent crime (especially among the poor). Once you begin to judge the fruits of programs inspired by a socialist analysis of social reality, not as dreams but as realities, disillusion begins. I watched the most liberal city in America, New York, slide into social and financial bankruptcy, becoming less civilized and more dangerous with every year that passed. I watched North Vietnam after the war was over, and noted what happened in the prison camps and reeducation centers, and wondered where now were my friends from the antiwar days who once said they cared so much about the Vietnamese people.
Nonetheless, the great intellectual utility of being a leftist, a utility I at first missed, is that you have a clear compass for interpreting every day’s events: If x undermines business, corporations, and capitalism, x is good. If x strengthens the central state, x is good. Using this template, you can detect instantly what the proper “progressive” line is. For cultural critics and journalists, as well as activists, having such a template is a great advantage. In cases of serious doubt, you have only to wait for your favorite left–wing journal to put out the correct line.
Well, you can see why my first articles reflecting a fundamental change of mind on political and economic matters seriously disturbed my former friends. Some were accustomed to looking to me to see where the progressive line lay; in the past, I had sometimes seen it before others. They were used to regarding me as one of their minor leaders. Then, in about 1976, I published two quite tentative articles, but only after I had estimated the probable incoming fire. One was called “A Closet Capitalist Confesses,” in which I expressed shame that I could no longer, try as I might, desire to be a socialist. I couldn’t find, anywhere in the world, one single example of socialism that worked in practice, in a form that I could admire. Even when I pulled photos of Sweden out of my desk drawer, I wrote, Sweden no longer held any attraction for me. Neither did Cuba. Nor any other of the romantic options held out by the left. I didn’t even admire the British health service.
My wife didn’t want me to announce this disgrace in public, but I had to be honest: Once I thought about it, it was clear to me that capitalism had been better for my Uncle Emil and other poor folks than what had befallen those in our family who were still in the Slovak Socialist Paradise or had migrated anywhere else on earth.
The other article, at greater length, was not yet ready to become positive about capitalism, but its title announced its thesis well enough: “Capitalism, An Underpraised and Undervalued System.” I did not renounce my former criticisms of many aspects of capitalist reality. Admittedly, it is a bad system, except, as Churchill noted about democracy, that all other known systems are worse.
When an intelligent person loses his or her confidence in socialism, what he or she most misses is the North Star it placed in the sky, its guidance system. Once you stop believing, you feel the ideological vacuum keenly, and recognize its moral hazard. Never again do you want anything else so totalistic to take its place. Irving Kristol in his book On the Democratic Idea in America argued that the American experiment, rooted in Aristotelian prudence and a sense of human fallibility and evil, is a bracing corrective to the ideological and utopian thinking of Europe. Hannah Arendt and others have pointed out that the American experiment is the most intellectually neglected social reality. Nowadays, almost no one grasps its originality or can articulate its specific moral vision, its table of virtues. The American tradition teaches a modest and humble way of thinking, close to earth, anti–utopian. It is also internally conflicted. Its tendencies toward liberty are at war with its tendencies toward a broad egalitarianism. To begin explaining this novus ordo seclorum, my first neoconservative book properly so called was The American Vision (1978).
By the late 1970s, I realized that it is worse for the poor of America (and around the world) to rely upon the state and to pin its main hopes on political measures. And it is better for the poor of America and the world to support a limited state, in which the conditions are favorable to the growth of business (especially small business), and to prefer opportunity rather than handouts from the state. Characteristically, neoconservatives favor the welfare state for those really unable to care for themselves, but try to break the corrupting bond between the central state and the welfare function. There are better ways to provide welfare than what we have constructed since 1965. About the specifics of such matters, persons of good will can argue long into the night. Politics is about argument.
In brief, my conversion from a mildly socialist way of viewing reality to a more distinctively American (that is, enterprising) way did not occur all at once. I can’t quite determine whether foreign or domestic experiences generated my first doubts about the leftism I effortlessly acquired with an excellent education. After all, for at least a century the humanities have been anticapitalist for traditionalist reasons, and the social sciences have been anticapitalist for socialist reasons. Against the pressures of my education, one experience after another during the 1970s made me a Reagan Democrat even before Reagan became President. In fact, a set of themes I articulated in an article in 1978 about why I still remained a Democrat, even while moving away from statism in my principles, was field–tested by Richard Wirthlin and adopted by Ronald Reagan as his election slogan: work, family, neighborhood, peace, strength.
The collapse of communism between 1989 and 1991 persuaded even many of its former adherents of the failure of socialism. As the people of the world gradually learned the condition of the mass of people under the Soviet Union, they learned what Gorbachev had already admitted: Under a first–world military establishment, the USSR hid a third–world economy. Socialism was a fraud. This did not surprise those of us who had learned from Hayek and von Mises why socialist economics is irrational and unworkable, and from Leo XIII why a socialist anthropology is both evil and futile.
Let me return, in closing, to the theological development, the “open church,” that corresponds most closely to my developing appreciation of America.
The “open church,” like Karl Popper’s “open society,” is utterly different from the idealized “secular city” (which even Harvey Cox has now disowned). Its dynamism springs from a fidelity to the drive to understand, in all its workings throughout human life. The gospel is best preached when it uses this dynamism, since here the divine purpose in creation and in history works its way out.
My book The Open Church was a report, both journalistic and theological, on the second and most crucial session of the Second Vatican Council, where the nature of the Church was the focus. Unlike the secular city, this open church has a vicar of Christ as its visible head, the Pope, and a highly visible body of bishops around the world in communion with the Pope. The open church, therefore, does not lack a center and a hierarchy and a visible symbol of worldwide communion. Its reason for being is to form a community around the Eucharist and the Word of God. Against the widespread urges to tamper with doctrine in the years since the Council, the criterion of the open church is analogous to that of the open society, as described by Karl Popper: the falsification principle. New proposals must be submitted to rigorous tests.
The Second Vatican Council took care to preserve an important check–and–balance. The bishops in collegiality, including the Bishop of Rome, are the authenticating body of last resort—yet with an important twist. Even all the bishops of the world together, if without the Pope, do not suffice for authentication. The Pope must concur. On other occasions, he is bound to teach and confirm the brethren, even when alone. All are bound by the Word of God as held by the whole Church at other times and places. No mere majority vote suffices.
In writing The Open Church, I did not foresee such an exemplary Pope as John Paul II. I did not foresee most of the things that would happen between 1968 and 1999. But I did suggest that they would be ironic, and that at the conclusion of the Council the jesters of the Roman fountains would be laughing at yet another generation passing through that eternal city, with high and unrealistic hopes. “All things human,” was the inscription on the fly leaf of that book, “given enough time, go badly.” The progressives who have dominated the American Catholic Church since that time have not yet drawn up a realistic accounting of their own failures.
A future generation may find it hard to believe that so many theologians of his time failed to see the greatness of Pope John Paul II, and the precious gifts he gave the open church. During the darkest years he helped throw the Polish church open to all comers—believers and unbelievers—for intensely vital civil discussions. He encouraged associations of all sorts to press forward with their work. The Polish church met in factories, in homes, in the private quarters of professors. There were underground newspapers, theaters, printing presses, universities, catechetical centers, liturgies. There was little that I imagined in The Open Church that Archbishop Wojtyla did not try.
It gives me no small pleasure when I look back at my life of battles and controversies to find that, at least intellectually, I have ended up trying to further the great work of Karol Wojtyla.
Published in First Things May 26, 2004