The pope and modern times — with Michael Novak (1995) | THINK TANK

By | September 11, 2019


Ben: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg, Pope John
Paul II believes he is battling for the souls of America’s Catholics, can his austere moral
vision triumph over America’s wide-open culture. Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute and winner of the 1994
Templeton prize in religion. Father Richard McBrien, professor of theology
at Notre Dame University and author of the award-winning book, “Catholicism.” Paul Wilkes, author of education of an archbishop,
and Helen Alvaré of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The topic before this house, “The Pope and
Modern Times,” this week on Think Tank. Over the centuries, popes have commanded armies
and controlled countries from the throne of St. Peter. Today, the pope’s power lies in his pulpit
and his pen. In 1935, the communist dictator, Joseph Stalin,
was asked to placate the pope by allowing Catholicism in the Soviet Union. Stalin scornfully and famously replied, “How
many divisions has the pope?” The communists ultimately found out the pope
has armies of the faithful and he is doing a whole lot better than the communist system
he helped overthrow. John Paul’s latest book, “Crossing the Threshold
of Hope,” has been an international bestseller. He has traveled more than any other pope over
half a million miles, and he attracts huge crowds of worshipers. But some critics say John Paul is too conservative. They claim the liberal reforms made by the
second Vatican council in the 1960s are being rolled back. The pope has ruled out consideration of women
priests, married male priests, the use of artificial birth control and abortion. Indeed among Catholics in America, affection
for the man has not translated into acceptance of all his teachings. Sixty-six percent believe that Catholic priests
should be allowed to marry, 59% believe women should be permitted to become priests, 88%
believe it is possible to be a good Catholic and still use artificial birth control. Seventy-one percent believe that abortion
should not be illegal. And 89% of American Catholics believe it is
possible to disagree with the pope and still be a good Catholic. And yet 74%, almost three-quarters of American
Catholics approve of the way the pope is handling his role as leader of the church. So, disagreement about his teachings, but
approval of the man. What is behind this apparent paradox? First question, Father Richard McBrien, is
the pope out of step with modern times or is he shaping modern times? Richard: He’s out of step and he is shaping
modern times. Now, I’m here probably as a progressive Catholic,
at least perceived that way. Ben: But you are a priest? Richard: I’m a priest, but I’m expected to
say yes, he’s out of step on birth control. He’s out of step ordination of women. Maybe he’s out of step on other issues related
to sexuality and so forth. That isn’t where he’s really out of step,
in a really crucial way, where he’s really out of step, especially with American culture,
is that he insists in his writings, his encyclicals, in his public utterances, that we should not
measure the worth of people by their net worth or by their power or by their status in society. He’s got a strong conviction out of the depths
of his own spirituality. What’s important is not what we have, but
who we are. Ben: Paul Wilkes, are you from the progressive
ranks as well. And do you think the pope is out of step or
shaping, shaping this [crosstalk 00:06:21]. Paul: We’ll take the Fifth on the labels,
Ben. But I think that of course he is the greatest
moral leader and has the greatest pulpit of any human being on the face of the earth today. I mean, there are almost 1 billion Catholics
out there and if they don’t believe in him, they still listen. I think that what he has perhaps failed to
do, is to look compassionately on us as human beings and frail human beings that we are. There’s an attitude in the Vatican and I was
just there about…that man is basically man and woman, excuse the expression, are basically
evil and we have to save them from that evilness. And I think that attitude of the Vatican is
the thing that most of us find very distressing in these days. Ben: All right. Thank you, Michael Novak. I know you are not from the progressive wing
of the Catholic Church. Michael: Well, I’m the kind of progressive
who was a progressive when he was younger and then had teenage children. Ben: He came to regret… Michael: A neoconservative is a progressive
with three teenage children. So, it’s sort of reality, the truth. Ben: What is your answer to this question? Michael: Well, look, the pope is out of step,
but that’s because he’s a step ahead. He is thinking about the reunification of
the Eastern Church of Constantinople in Moscow and the Roman church to end the thousand year
of separation. He wants that to happen before this Millennium
is out. He wants to re-enter Catholicism into China
and the split between the Patriotic Church in China and the church. He is very concerned about Africa and Asia. He also is, I think the prelate in Europe
with the single greatest prelate’s love for America, for its open institutions, for its
sense of economy and of a polity with all its faults. That this more response to, “The Acting Person,”
that’s the book he wrote before he became pope as a philosopher, a book on the acting
person. So, I think… Ben: “The acting Person?” Michael: The Acting Per… What’s different about human beings from every
other animal is we don’t only behave from instinct, we can think new thoughts, imagine
new possibilities, and choose to do them or not. Ben: All right. Helen Alvaré, is the pope out of step? Helen: Thank God he is out of step with modern
times because presently, I think what you’re seeing is a denigration of the dignity of
individual human beings based on their status, based on their quality of life to a very high
degree. The pope is calling people to the opposite
of that, to the dignity of every person. On the other hand, he is the precursor or
a herald of the times in the future that we want to see, that philosophy or theology succeeds
that calls people to what they really want to be or what they hope they are in their
best days. And that’s what this pope does for people. Paul: But the members of his flock in America,
as we saw from those numbers do not agree with him on a number of these issues that
have become sort of so controversial. Helen: We could get into the niceties of some
of the polling questions because I’ve seen many that disagree with the ones you’ve put
forward today, but to transcend that… Ben: Polling figures disagree, I’m shocked. Helen: Imagine that, yes, every once in a
while. People wish to be people who, when they give
themselves in marriage, give themselves once for all, give themselves sexually for the
first time. People wish to be people who respect the dignity
of every single human person. And he’s calling them to things that even
though they aren’t living it at the moment, and some of them may disagree at the moment
they have a feeling that what he’s calling to them is a better place. And that’s of a theology of the future. Richard: But you’re saying, and I totally
agree with what Helen has just said, but I want to make sure that when we talk about
the dignity of the individual person, we’re talking about people of color, we’re talking
about the immigrants, we’re talking about the poor. We’re talking about gays and lesbians who
without my position is the same as the Catholic Church’s on morality, but in terms of the
way people perceive them, the way people talk about them, the way people deal with them
in terms of legality, and so forth. I say the pope is out of step, especially
with American culture. It’s not just because of birth control and
ordination of women. If the pope is not…would not be happy frankly
with the contract with America. The pope would not be a conservative Republican
in this society. He talks in his encyclicals about the responsibility
of government to those who are least able to defend themselves. He talks about the concern… He talks about economic rights, which the
former secretary of the treasury Bill Simon said don’t exist. Ben: Is that accurate about the pope, is it
accurate about the Catholic Church, or are they for markets or are they for a sort of
semi socialistic collectives? Michael: This country is not for pure free
markets and wasn’t from the beginning. It has always had a vision of a proper role
of government in the regulation of business and in other kinds of liberty besides economic
liberty, political and civil liberties, moral and cultural liberties. I think this tripartite vision if you want,
is very much represented in the pope’s thinking. He would not be just a free marketeer. He’s in favor of capitalism and he recommends
it, provided that the political and civil liberties are also protected, law is respected,
and then moral and religious life is respected. It’s a qualified view. I want to support Father McBrien on his point,
the pope is neither progressive nor conservative. He’s pitching at a level of ideals that hold
the feet of everybody to the fire. Helen: I absolutely agree with that, that
the reason this pope is a prophet are for reasons that make far more people far less
comfortable than merely, you know, a single teaching on birth control. The wonderful thing about this papacy is that
it makes everyone equally happy and everyone equally uncomfortable all at the same time. And I think to try and categorize it in American
political terms misses the point. One of the points that I’d like to draw out
of what Father McBrien said was, with regard to the dignity of every human person across
the board and this pope standing for that. One of the reasons the American culture is
uncomfortable with this is because we don’t have the moral framework to make a distinction
which the pope makes and Catholic teaching has always made, between the act and the actor
to love the actor up one side and down the other in a no matter what way, but to say
no to certain acts and certain ideas. We’re uncomfortable with that because the
American idea of tolerance is yes to both all acts, all ideas, and all people. And that is not the Catholic notion. Paul: I think the recent document that came
down about divorced and remarried Catholics. If you’re divorced and you do not have an
annulment in the church, you’re not supposed to remarry. And if you have not had this annulment, you
are not to receive the sacraments, underlies the thinking that goes on with this pope,
is that we all have to march to this very regimented tune. And if you don’t, you’re really outside the
church somehow. Now, here’s the case. Here’s a woman who has married a man and he
has been a drunkard and allowed to…and she divorces him and marries another fellow who’s
a good guy. She is not supposed to go up to the Holy Communion
in our Catholic churches. Now, I’m thinking about Jesus who started
this whole business, 2000 years ago at the last supper saying, “Well, Mary Magdalene,
look, we know how you earn your living.” “Well, John, you’re not living with Susie
who you married 30 years ago, you stay out by the kind of the margins and all you good
Catholics come in here and share this bread with me.” I don’t think so. I think the Catholic Church is about being
inclusive and loving, compassionate, and forgiving. And I think that this is not something that
this pope has really preached or promulgated. These documents come down to the Vatican. It is not that he writes every one of them
he does not, but it is an attitude. I call it an attitude of government that we’ve
got to keep people in line. We’ve got to protect them from themselves. And I don’t think we need that. I just don’t think we need it. Richard: You may wonder before Paul just spoke,
you may wonder what the argument is all about because here I was, and Michael agreeing with
me and Helen and so forth. The argument is, at Paul’s point, is that
is it’s what makes John Paul II such a controversial figure even for Catholics, I should say, especially
for Catholics, is not so much the values that he preaches and the work of evangelization
that he so heroically, and so powerfully and courageously preaches all over the globe in
the face of his physical disabilities and all that. It’s how he manages the church internally,
that it’s a style, in other words, we can agree on the values, but at least in terms
of perception and I think no one, even my friends on the other side of the aisle here
couldn’t say at least in terms of perception, many perceive as Paul just articulated a certain
hard-line, a hardness in the way those values are actually enforced within the church. That’s the tough part. Michael: It’s called tough love in executive
circles. Richard: Well, you can say that Michael but
you can disagree and whether it is. Michael: Well, yeah, there’s room for disagreement
on it. That’s what we’re doing. But I want to make sure the other side of
the argument is heard because it’s almost never heard in print. I think of your view, Paul, that you just
expressed. It’s much too soft. Paul: It’s much too? Michael: Soft. It makes a mush of any distinctions. It’s just sentimental compassion for everything. I think that has got this country in deep
trouble, I think it gets human beings in deep trouble. I think it’s much better if there are rules,
you keep a clean line on the rules. And you understand that human beings don’t
always live up to them. I think the pope is very good at this. He has a tremendous reputation as a pastor. He wouldn’t have the allegiance of so many
people, Krakow and so on, if he weren’t. So, I think he’s as good at understanding
the distinction that Helen mentioned just a little while ago. The difference between human beings who are
sinners who don’t live up to the ideal and the sense of keeping the ideal clear, and
ending the sandbox Catholicism, which approves of everything. Ben: See, but sandbox or the mush is exactly
what we are. I believe that there should be rules and regulations. I believe in the pope being is my guy. You know, I’m a practicing Catholic, he is
my guy, and I look to him for leadership. But then we enter into the human condition
and realize that we are all less than perfect. And again, taking the most immediate example
to deny a person, Christ’s body and blood in the Holy Eucharist is too much to deny
a person. Please? Helen: There’s a distinction and you made
it in an article that you wrote recently about the papacy in “The New York Times” that I
think is too firmly drawn between law and love. You mentioned that more law or more love,
was sort of the question about the next papacy? I think that that it’s not a proper distinction. There’s…you can have both and. And in fact, it’s very much a Christian tradition
to say and beginning in the Old Testament where it could be said in many ways to be
the sum of it that law is love, that thank you, that how many times we thanked God for
giving us God’s law. And so what I’m thinking here is that twofold,
number one, that it was a theme of Veritatis splendor, and it’s the theme of a lot that
the pope says… Richard: Now, what is Veritatis splendor? Helen: The splendor of the truth, the encyclical
that was issued recently, that in being true to ourselves being true to the truth, we are
in some ways following what you call natural law or God’s will for us, and that is authentic
freedom. And the other aspect of this, maybe a practical
point, but I guess I’m not someone who expects from the pope in particular that he also has
to dry out all the pastoral repercussions and possibilities from every teaching he gives. I understand in my life as a Catholic and
in studying it generally, that that is generally done on a local level. And so it is not his job to articulate every
circumstance. Ben: Let me ask you a question. How much of the controversy about the pope
and modern Catholicism is hitched to the issue of abortion? Richard: Very little. I’d say almost none because abortion has a
peculiar face on the American scene because of the little interplay. Ben: Well, let’s limit it to America for the
moment. Richard: The pope is against abortion. His predecessor Paul, the V1 was against abortion. John Paul, every pope’s been again…it’s
not a distinctive feature of this pope. Paul: Abortion is not the ordination of women,
is not…these are not things that are the pressing issues. The pressing issues I think are moral hunger
that we need. We want a strong leader. We want to live good lives. We want to look to somebody with…the element
of compassion is not there. Him making a trip, God bless him, 20,000 miles
and Heli dropping down into 4 million people. God bless him. But I don’t think…that’s not compassion. People do not feel compassion coming from
Rome about their life circumstances. These cardinals are walking around in their
little soft leather shoes and these sumptuous rolling meals. I mean, here’s a guy that’s with his kids
and his family and we’re trying to live out our lives. Richard: But you’re saying he’s not compassionate,
but you do not want to accept any specificity to that so-called lack of compassion. I mean, I say, does it involve abortion? Does it involve birth control? No, no, it doesn’t involve any of those things,
well, what does it involve? Paul: We didn’t go to birth control. We didn’t go to birth control. I think it’s not even an issue that’s talked
about, but I think it is a divisive of issue because socially he’s such a progressive about
the poor and caring for them. And yet the thing that the poor in the third
world absolutely need is birth control. But we won’t draw that line because it has
been the church teaching this seamless line of Church teaching has come to this day and
we’re afraid to say, “Hey, maybe we didn’t do the right thing.” Michael: There’s something different about
being a Christian and being a Catholic regarding sexuality and that is what he is trying to
teach. If you look at his little book on the subject,
love and responsibility, it’s a beautiful articulation of a certain vision, a distinctively
Catholic vision of marriage. Marriage is a covenant between man and woman,
mirrors the covenant between God and His people. The body is holy and people are involved not
just in the fun and pleasure that they get, not just in the reproductive role, but in
a sacrament involved in it. He keeps trying to lift the vision of human
beings to that specifically Christian dimension, and he thinks that if the world is absent,
that the view of sexuality gets flattened out and terribly confused. I think he doesn’t respect and doesn’t like
the American general view of sexuality. Richard: Without in any way disparaging what’s
been discussed so far, sexuality is an extremely important dimension of human existence. And I’m glad that Michael, for example, gave
a good argument for married priests. Because if married priests could have children
and once they became teenagers, they become neoconservatives. It’s like Michael, but see, because we can’t
we’re gonna remain hopelessly progressive. Listen, what I want to get off again is…and
this is something that you would certainly identify with Ben, he’s a man of great expertise
in politics. Try to imagine we have a new speaker of the
house in the U.S, Newt Gingrich. And you’re already you’re trying to figure
out what kind of a model of speakership he’s going to follow. Is it the Joe Cannon kind of rule with the
iron fist or is it going to be laid back Tom Foley, or whatever. Part of the pope’s problem, a large part of
the pope’s problem with the Catholic Church with Catholics like myself, theologians and
professionals, pastors and others, many, many bishops, by the way, is the way he conceives
the papal office without taking anything away from the moral values that he preaches and
the Christian faith that we share with him. There’s a problem with the way he conceives
the papal office. He has personalized the office far too much. He has exaggerated really the power of the
papal office. Ben: Michael, you have met with the pope? Michael: Yes, once briefly at dinner. Ben: Is what Father McBrien says about his…the
personal aspect of him, this authoritarian sense. Do you find that so? Richard: I didn’t identify his personality. I said his conception of the papal office,
he might be a very sweet man, but I’m talking about his conception of the papal office. Michael: Let me say about both of those things. First, you’d find him a good Jewish uncle. Very comfortable, very funny, very joking,
very shrewd, very tough-minded person to sit with. It’s just a great… He just makes you feel at home. Ben: With a remarkable… Richard: Does he ever dine with non-conservatives,
Michael? Can you get me a dinner invitation? I would love to dine with him. Michael: Sure, he does lots of people. What I wanted to come to is, I think, yes,
he does have a view of a strong papacy and I don’t know what he thinks about it, but
I think we had in Paul VI, for example, his predecessor, but one, a hamlet like papacy,
it was not very decisive. And this man used that strength to bring down
the Berlin Wall. That’s one of the first things he said when
he became pope. He dedicated his whole pontificate to that,
to bringing together the twin branches of Christianity in Europe. And he achieved that and he achieved it by
the strength and power of his preaching of his…and of his teaching, having been brought
up under Marxism, he had the greatest possible arguments against their own theories about
work, about labor, about the rest of it. And he took Marxism and turned it inside out,
denying them even a theoretical justification of what they were doing. He’s now starting to do that on the west. He’s performing a kind of Jujitsu on liberal
ideas and showing a much better foundation for them. The John Locke, let’s say. Ben: What as a panel for the edification of
our audience, would you agree and disagree about? And sooner or later there is going to be another
pope. Which way is the church going to choose to
go? I mean, we have one vision of it and another
vision of it. And we do have to keep it fairly brief. Let’s just start with you Helen, and go around
the [inaudible 00:24:51] here. Helen: I’d say we’ve agreed the pope is a
challenge to everyone. No matter what their political labels are. And I think we disagree about this distinction
between law and love, that somehow they can’t be brought together for the good of the human
person. So that acting correctly for the truth, you
can also find freedom. Michael: We disagree about what’s happening
in American Catholicism. I think most of the magazines, most of the
colleges, most of the schools, the whole establishment is very “Progressive.” Such people have a kind of monolithic of their
own. The pope breaks in on that and challenges
it. I think they don’t know how to deal with the
arguments on the other side. Paul: This pope has appointed most of the
people who will elect a successor in the Sistine Chapel some years from now. My sense is that they will not elect another
one of him. I think many cardinals and bishops around
the world feel infantilized by this pope. He listens, but he doesn’t hear when people
are in Rome. We’ve had a million synods and not much has
come out of them. And I think that who will be elected will
be…and maybe this is just wishful thinking, but more of a pastor and less of an accountant. Richard: What we agree on are the basic values,
which are both humane, natural law sort of things, and Catholic/Christian that the pope
articulates and preaches and lives by. What we disagree on is the pastoral style
that he uses to oftentimes to enforce if you will these values on…and especially within
the Catholic Church. And Paul is right, history shows and especially
the history of the last two centuries of papal elections, the next pope will not be a clone
of John Paul II. Ben: Okay. We have to end it there. Thank you. Helen Alvaré, Father Richard McBrien, Michael
Novak, and Paul Wilkes. And thank you. We enjoy hearing from our audience. Please continue to send your questions and
comments to New River Media, 1150, 17th street, NW, Washington, D.C, 20036, or we can
be reached via email at [email protected] For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Incorporated in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its
content.

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