On Michael Novak's Conversion
I was pleased that John C. Cort took Michael Novak to task on his social thought (Nov.). Novak has drifted a long way from his 1969 A Theology of Radical Politics, a bad book, which still probably embarrasses him. In my judgment, Novak still has some nostalgia for the authoritarian immigrant church that had all the answers, but, in effect, ceased to exist shortly after World War II. On the other hand, there was a certain crudity and lack of aesthetics in this church which, despite these shortcomings, managed to serve the needs of both poets and peasants.
The conservative establishment has always known how to exploit the gifted among the newly arrived, convert them to comfort, and make them even more conservative spokespeople than they could be themselves. Novak seems to fit this pattern and it is entirely possible that there is a greater emotional base to his conservatism than there is an intellectual base.
I have always had great difficulty with the baptism of the capitalist system. Many years ago I was struck while reading some of the Spanish natural law philosophers of the 16th century. Francisco de Victoria considered usury and excess profit to be absolutely against the natural law. In fact, it seems so obvious to him that he begins one of his tracts on the natural law with “if something is against the natural law, such as, for instance, usury….”
I commend Cort for an excellent article and commend even more his charity in dealing with Novak’s born-again capitalism.
Lecturer of Classic Studies and Comparative Literature, SUNY
Stony Brook, New York
Christmas Presents No One Needs
Several years ago, when Cambodia was disgorging refugees to camps in Thailand, my parents were so deeply moved that they elected to stop giving Christmas presents and to send the money which would normally be spent on them to the refugees. My mother phoned me at Maryknoll School of Theology with the news — and I was overjoyed. Shopping for and receiving presents no one needed always dimmed the brightness of the feast for me. We continue to give gifts to the kids but refrain from exchanging them with each other; we continue to send the money to deserving groups and, in answer to your recent appeal, your magazine certainly qualifies.
I cannot tell you how much I enjoy the tone of NOR: you never lose that much needed charism in presenting both the good and the bad news about the Church — wit. So much of what is churned out by the conservative and liberal Catholic media lacks what you have in abundance: humor, balance, taste, and, considering recent challenges, grace under pressure.
Enclosed is a gift subscription for a young family who came into the Church after I shared some old issues of the NOR with them. I am not saying that the NOR was totally responsible for their transition, but you played a part in a way that no one else is playing.
Rev. Patrick J. Dooling
St. Angela's Church
Pacific Grove, California
We recently read the guest column by Bill Kauffman entitled “The Mormons Reconsidered” (Oct.). We appreciate very much the general tenor of the column and in the main found it thoughtfully prepared. We would, however, like to point out that one statement is in error — regarding our church missionary system and its linkage with the CIA. Our-church missionary system has no connection with the CIA and has gone to great lengths to avoid any such connection. If the author purports to have any solid information to the contrary, we will be pleased to share any such information with our church leaders.
Richard P. Lindsay, Public Communications/Special Affairs Department
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Los Angeles, California
On Jonathan Edwards
As a stripling church historian and a long-time “fan” of Jonathan Edwards, I greatly appreciated Michael Nelson’s article (Oct.), “Reclaiming Jonathan Edwards for Political Progressivism.” Nelson is absolutely right to identify Edwards’s concept of “disinterested benevolence” as the root from which sprang a thicket of 19th-century movements for social reform.
By way of qualification, I would only note that current scholarship discounts Locke’s influence on Edwards (see Norman Fiering, Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought and Its British Context, 1981), and that Perry Miller’s admittedly classic biography of Edwards is today seen as a rhetorical tour de force that tells us as much about the author as about his subject. In particular, Miller’s assertion, quoted by Nelson, that Edwards worked “in full cognizance…that man is conditioned and that the universe is uniform law” is dangerously misleading: Edwards, after all, went to great lengths in his massive treatise, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, to debunk a priori, uniformitarian notions of natural law in favor of an approach that came to be called “continuous creation,” in which “natural law” is nothing more than God’s habit. The best recent biography of Edwards is Patricia Tracy’s Jonathan Edwards, Pastor (1979).
George W. Harper
I find the NOR to be a mixed blessing in my life: equally vexatious and uplifting, often in the same issue. The November issue is a good case in point. I am one of those Catholics who finds the organization’s preoccupation with things sexual to be entirely misplaced, particularly in light of more pressing matters. Therefore, when I continue to see the likes of Sheldon Vanauken constantly thrusting their near-hysteria about the Charles Currans and Hans Küngs of the Church at me in the NOR, I get disturbed to the point of threatening to cancel my subscription. However, John Cort’s skilled flaying of Michael Novak and Frank Haig S.J.’s illuminating analysis of Stephen Hawking’s thought were so very well done that I know I would miss the NOR’s particular brand of non-vicious acerbity.
So, vex away, as long as you also continue to bless us with criticisms of the Right-wing.
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