The Catholic Dilemma

A New Generation, Michael Novak, Herder and Herder, 250 pp.

Denis Brogan has written that "in no Western society is the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in this country, where in such respects as wealth, numbers, and strength of organization, it is so powerful." No well-informed Catholic, as Monsignor John Tracy Ellis said, would challenge this statement. But the Church is changing, and it is now possible to imagine Catholic intellectuals who instead of abandoning their religion, accept it, and become absorbed in it.

Michael Novak is such a man, and his New Generation attempts at once to criticize contemporary Catholicism and to invest it with new life by expanding its intellectual and social vision. It is the angry and hopeful manifesto of a young Catholic--a personal statement of faith and a challenge to others. As a general critique and broad declaration of purposes, A New Generation often fascinates, sometimes convinces, and occasionally aggravates; but as a program upon which liberal Catholics could agree and act, it fails--largely because it is too vague.

Like many of us who have grown up Catholics, he finds Latin Scholasticism--the endless manipulation of dogma, the recitation of catechism--empty and banal. And yet he sees no comfort in what he calls the "moral relativism" that so dominates the social sciences and is embodied in the humanities by the New Criticism.

Instead he seeks a middle course, represented by Pope John, who saw that "men learn the natural law only gradually and according to the lessons of history." Novak seeks a Catholicism that blends fact with mystery, that sees man as he is and should be--in his words, a "Christian empiricism."

Novak's concerns, though, are not strictly limited to Catholicism. Along with many other Americans who spurn the apathy that grew out of the affluence of the 1950's, he is searching for a national purpose. As he says, his book has two aims: "the recovery of the sources of our inner life" and "an ever more accurate assessment of our changing external life." Here he echoes the liturgy of liberalism, not Catholicism, but with a special twist. He asserts that Catholics have much to contribute to liberal causes. "When Catholics become alive in America, the moral revolution ... will be one step more advanced. The entire race will feel the difference."

Most progressive Catholics would agree with Novak's generalizations. Unfortunately he rarely moves beyond them; he seems captured by his rhetoric, satisfied with abstractions, at times too tolerant of superficialities. For example, Novak demands a sweeping revision of American education (particularly at the college level) but never says in concrete terms what he means. "The greatest contribution to the religious life of the university," he says "could come from teachers and scholars--formally religious or not--who could lead the student to the profound experience lying below the surface of the academic curriculum." Interesting, but what is his recommendation? And how can it be accomplished? He never bothers to say.

As a critic of Catholicism, Novak suffers from much the same vagueness. He ignores many of the internal policies and attitudes of the Church. Never does he discuss the close identification the Church sees between itself and the propertied classes. In fact, he refuses to examine in any detail the cleavages within the Catholic hierarchy that inhibit reform--the tremendous bureaucracy, the parochial mentality, the strong conservative bias.

In addition, Novak moves too glibly over the substantive issues that divide the majority of Catholics from the liberal mainstream. He fails to explore adequately such problems as federal aid to parochial schools and birth control that threaten not only to divide Americans but to block an inclusive Catholic identity as well.

Novak covers his vagueness with a varnish of prophetic rhetoric in mystical language. The result is often powerful as when he talks about the civil rights movement: "Let us hope that many from among young Catholics join with their brothers, join the few, who work always and everywhere for justice." But more often his style is frustrating; it clouds his criticism and obscures his proposals.

Where Novak is most eloquent--as in his chapters on "God in the Colleges" and "The Secular Campus," which speak with an intensity that could only come from personal frustration and irritation--he leaves too many ideas dangling, too many problems unconsidered. In these sections particularly I wish he had stated in more rational and specific terms what needs to be done. Had he translated his anger into recommendations, the result would have had meaning for all doubting Thomases as well as for Catholics.

In part A New Generation is an annoying book, for so much more could have been said. But it is also brave and honest, and in a religion too dominated by platitudes such a break with tradition is encouraging.

Novak has rightly seen that before Catholicism can become a truly dynamic force in America it must develop a more inquiring intellectual life and a more receptive attitude toward social change. Unless the Church continues to pursue these goals, continues to allow the example of Pope John, it will be threatened (in Monsignor Ellis's words) "by having the laymen's repressed zeal turned into a dillusionment and embitterment that will breed in our land the kind of spirit that has poisoned the relations of the clergy in so much of western Europe and in Latin America." But if Novak clearly envisions the dilemma of contemporary American Catholicism, he shuns too many of the specifics upon which its future will depend.