"Search for Truth" in an "Open Church"?

May 2002

Here’s a remarkable confession: “I deserve to be shamed for some of the things I wrote about experimental liturgies, about dissent in the Church, and about ‘the spirit’ (and much too little about the carefully formulated letter) of Vatican II. I fancied myself a leader among the young reformers,… part of the ‘new breed’…. My purgatory is bound to be very long and painful, even if all it were to consist of would be the humiliating contemplation of my past words and deeds.” So writes Michael Novak winsomely in the new Introduction to his The Open Church (originally published in 1964 and now reissued by Transaction Publishers). The book was an on-the-scene account of the second session of the Second Vatican Council, written in “white-hot haste” in six weeks at the rate of “ninety typescript pages per week.” Novak also confesses: “The reader will detect much hubris in The Open Church.” There’s no denying that.

Given all this, one may wonder why Novak allowed this book to be republished.

To get the flavor of the book, let’s consider what Novak said about the “conservatives” at Vatican II, those who, as Novak said in the book, belong to “the School of Fear,” who uphold a “closed Church,” who adhere to a “non-historical orthodoxy.” Here’s what Novak originally wrote: “If we are to understand what it is to live in an ‘open Church,’ we must try hard to come to grips with what exactly it is like to live in a ‘closed Church.’ The non-historical orthodoxy of the last few generations has…presented a withered, wrinkled face to the world. To many, and not only enemies, it has seemed a nightmare Church…. It seemed to some as though men formed in a system like that which fashioned Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor held influence in the Church — men who fundamentally feared freedom,…who knew what was good for their people better than their people did; who treated their people (and their fellow bishops outside of Rome) like children. For universality, such men seemed to substitute conformity to Rome; for the new law of charity, Roman law; for the morality of the Gospels, the mores of the Vatican…. The stronghold of the closed Church is its theology, complacent in its possession of the absolute truth…. The men who love the splendor of papal Rome, the clarity of Roman law, the absoluteness of non-historical theology…. are men who have tried to live outside history. They are…. ‘out of touch.’ …They no longer convince the believing intelligence.”

And this: “Non-historical orthodoxy... combines triumphalism about the glories of the Church with pessimism about the contemporary world…. It visualizes the Church as an anvil on which the ill-willed world rains its unavailing blows…. The order of fact, history, concrete reality is the enemy; the Church must try to remain in the pure world — the pure world of irrelevance…. It [non-historical orthodoxy] encourages a conscience formed around abstractions or general laws, rather than a conscience formed around personal and concrete decisions. As a consequence, it makes the supernatural world appear to be an artificial, abstract, distant world, instead of the world of sun, moon, stars, and wind…. It complicates and falsifies man’s approach to God….”

Why, all this sounds like it might have come from recent issues of the National Catholic Reporter — and, indeed, Novak was writing for the Reporter back in those days.


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New Oxford Notes: May 2002

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