Conversion

Interview on Mother Angelica Live 1995

A few months after taking over Crisis Magazine in February, 1995, I was very fortunate to be invited down to Irondale, Alabama, to the EWTN studies, to appear on Mother Angelica Live.  It was this appearance that really started the steady growth of the magazine while I was its publisher and editor.  Mother Angelica was one of a kind, perhaps the most naturally funny person I have ever met, but, more than that, she was sharp and shrewd, able to cut to the bottom line on any subject that was discussed.  As I watched this, I remember how much she put me at ease, though I was very nervous before going on.  The moment she came in and sat next to me, I knew the show would go well.  And, I think, it did.

A Baptist Minister Becomes Catholic

This is my appearance on “The Journey Home,” an EWTN program hosted by Marcus Grodi, a marvelous fellow, by the way.  The description of my appearance on the network website was as follows:

As a child, Deal attended a Presbyterian Church at his mother’s promptings. In high school, after being witnessed to by a Southern Baptist friend, he accepted Jesus and joined the Baptist Church. After attending the University of Texas, where he was president of the Baptist student union, he enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary and later received his Ph.D. from Emory. While studying at Emory, he met a Catholic friend, who led him deeper into the Catholic tradition. He started meeting with a priest every week for two years and was finally confirmed a Catholic at the Dominican House in Atlanta, where Flannery O’Connor convalesced.

Passion, Not Prejudice-Mel Gibson’s Christ

By Deal W. Hudson

Mel Gibson’s Passion is finally in movie theaters. Now people can see for themselves what all the hubbub is about. Most, I believe, will leave the theater shaken to the core by the terrible beauty of Gibson’s masterpiece. The media-driven expectation of an anti-Semitic portrayal of the Jews will be swept away by the spectacle of a man of peace abused, scourged, crucified, betrayed, and abandoned by all but a few of his family and friends.

When the ridiculous charges of anti-Semitism have finally passed, two questions will have to be asked. First, why was the attack on Gibson so pro-longed, so vicious, so multifaceted? Second, why did none of the liberal crowd who joined in the public hounding of Gibson ever concern themselves with his artistic freedom?

It was not that long ago when Andres Serrano was dipping a crucifix in urine to the delight of the New York Times and the anti-Catholic elites of the art world. Catholics who were offended at such vulgarity on display in an exhibit funded by public dollars were accused of censorship and the Philistine refusal of artistic license. Indeed it has been a virtual calling card of the left to place unflattering portrayals of Christianity in the arts beyond criticism. How, they ask, can the imagination of the artist be measured by the traditional religious creeds?

But what happens when an artist puts the central fact of the creed—”He suffered, died, and was buried”—on a movie screen? Apparently, concern for Gibson’s freedom as an artist no longer applies. When a major movie star employs all his talent and celebrity to put a conventional Passion play on film, everyone from seminary professors to movie critics and liberal pundits forget their defense of film director Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ a generation ago.

Once we acknowledge that the intelligentsia defends anything religiously heterodox, it then becomes apparent why Gibson’s film has drawn so much heavy fire. It’s perfectly fine if the meaning of Christianity is seen through the humanist vision of a Martin Scorcese or a Martin Sheen. Soon we’ll have a film version of The Da Vinci Code with its preposterous thesis about the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and about which liberal scholars and critics will say nothing.

But a film about Jesus Christ by Mel Gibson simply cannot be allowed. First, he’s a genuine celebrity, a mega-star whose film will be influential for that very fact. Second, he really believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that his death was not simply an example of love for his fellow man but the redemption of humankind. Third, as witnessed in Braveheart, Gibson is capable of making a classic film sure to be admired as long as film endures.

All this adds up to a movie that will be a powerful witness to the truth of traditional Christianity, precisely the force that liberal elites have been trying to still for decades. It’s Christianity—and especially orthodox Catholicism and evangelicalism—that denies them their total victory in the culture wars. Proponents of abortion, gay marriage, radical feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism all harbor a deep fear of the truth claims of Christianity about the fixed nature of God’s creation.

Gibson surely knew that making a film about Christ was scandalous to the unbelievers in Hollywood, but I doubt if he realized the threat it represents to the intellectuals who employ a neutered Christianity for their own ideological enterprises.

One final word on the question of anti-Semitism (an ugly and destructive force both here and in Europe): It’s possible that some bigots may have their prejudice reinforced by Gibson’s film. But that doesn’t make the movie anti-Semitic, nor does it justify the attacks on Gibson. Films are released every week that exacerbate the sick tendencies of child molesters, rapists, murderers, and Rambo wannabes. We can’t censor ourselves just because some nut somewhere may be influenced negatively by our work.

I thank Mel Gibson for his film and for all he was willing to endure in making his faith public. His life and career will never be the same—would it were that more men had such courage.

Addendum: Subsequent events in Mel Gibson’s life did reveal his anti-Semitism. His film, however, does not, in my opinion, express an anti-Semitic point of view, an opinion I am prepared to defend as I have in the past (June, 2016).

Published in Crisis Magazine, March 1, 2004

How the Beatles, My Great Aunt, and Debussy Changed My Life

By Deal W. Hudson

It was the spring of 1970 when Paul McCartney announced he was leaving the Beatles. I had already grown discontent with pop music, the frenetic discord of Jimmy Hendrix touched no part of a young man brought up on Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, and Broadway show tunes. The Beatles, to my ear, wrote songs that expressed tonal continuity with the music I had grown to love.

My first year at the University of Texas, 1968, I set up an Akai tape deck on the desk of my dorm room and next to it laid a pile of reel-to-reel recordings of my favorite crooners. In my closet hung a row of Oxford cloth button down shirts next to my grey, blue, and brown wool pants. My penny loafers were kept shined, and when it grew cool in Austin I would put on my grey herringbone jacket bought for me by my great Aunt Lucile in London the previous year.

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My great Aunt Lucile Morley of Austin, TX

When Aunt Lucile met me in London at the end of my summer tour of Europe which she had given me as a Christmas present, she was not pleased with my attire. She hailed a taxi and told the driver, “Selfridges“! She led me into the men’s shop and told the attendant she was going to buy me new clothes and he could “dispose” of what I was wearing. Aunt Lucile insisted on adding an umbrella, which no “gentlemen” should be without. Once on the street, she was distressed that I didn’t know how to walk properly with an umbrella — she said, “Tap the sidewalk on every third step,” and I did, eventually.

Aunt Lucile lived in one of the historic houses in Austin, next to the Treaty Oak and the Coca Cola bottling plant. During my four years at UT, I served as her yard boy and as a waiter at her receptions and dinner parties. When she fed me breakfast after mowing her yard, she would lay out silver, china, and immaculate linen, in spite of the fact that I was sweaty and wearing gym shorts, tennis shoes, and a T-shirt.

My great Aunt had been a professional singer between the two world wars, singing mostly in Europe. She had sung the “Negro Songs” of H. T. Burleigh on the same program with Irish tenor John McCormack at Royal Albert Hall for the Queen Mother of England. In the summers, she sang with the well-known composition teacher and composer, Nadia Boulanger, at her American School at Fountainbleau. She was the one person in my family who appreciated my interest in, and passion for, literature, philosophy, and the arts. Years later, she was the only family member who read my dissertation on romanticism, concluding, “You’ve been a bit hard on the romantic poets, haven’t you?” And, yes, I had.

Back to the Beatles and my musical disorientation that followed. A few months after their breakup, I had just finished mowing my aunt’s lawn when she brought me a towel and a glass of water, and suggested I introduce myself to her new tenant who lived in the apartment on the side of the house. “She’s a new music teacher at the university, I think you should meet her.” I was anxious to get back to my apartment, but whatever Aunt Lucile wanted, she usually got. So I went around to the apartment door and knocked. A pretty young woman answered the door. I explained who I was and was invited in and offered a glass of delicious lemonade.

When she asked, I told her I was a junior philosophy major at UT. Then she asked what kind of music I liked. After I had shared my complaint about the direction of pop music, she asked if I had ever heard any classical music. I had heard some Gershwin, I told her, and had attended an opera as a high school student, but nothing had really left a big impression. “Well,” the young professor said, “tell me what you like in music.” “Melody,” I said. She went to a large stack of albums, pulled out a record, and put it on the turntable.

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French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

The music I heard over the next few minutes changed my life. It was so beautiful, the most beautiful music I had ever heard, and I sat transfixed until it ended. She saw my reaction, smiled, and said, “That was “Prelude to the Afternoon of Faun” by the French composer, Claude Debussy. I asked her if she had any more music like that, and she put on some Ravel and then some Wagner. I knew then that I would go immediately to the University Co-op and buy these recordings. I thanked her — I hope to this day she knew just how much I was in her debt.

At the Co-op, I bought a Debussy LP conducted by Pierre Boulez and played by the New Philharmonia Orchestra, along with some Ravel and an album of Wagner overtures. That day began a lifelong passion of exploring the entire history of classical music, every epoch and every form, from both played and sung, chamber music and orchestral, opera and oratorio, songs and choruses. Over the next ten years, I collected the entire standard repertoire and had started looking into the lesser known later romantics such as Delius, Vaughn Williams, Finzi, Hanson, and Pfitzner. At the end of my three years at Princeton Theological Seminary, I went on an opera tour of Europe with Aunt Lucile, the highlight being “Lohengrin” at Bayreuth and “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Munich Opera.

By the time I started teaching at Mercer University Atlanta in 1979, I knew enough to teach Music Appreciation in the prison program at the Atlanta Federal Prison. Being an amateur, I played my student/prisoners what moved me and found it moved them as well. Several cried when I played the Penitential Psalms of Lassus and, especially, “Pavane for a Dead Princess” by Ravel. My class was almost entirely African-American from cities on the East Coast, but the music built a bridge between us that made of all sad when the class came to an end.

What provoked these memories was the death of composer/conductor Pierre Boulez at age 90 whose recording served my entryway into the vast universe of great music we, perhaps wrongly, call “classical.” I’m startled when people ask me why my musical tastes are so “narrow” (I haven’t listened to pop music since 1970). I am still discovering wonderful music (Norwegian Ludwig Irgens Jenson (1894-1969) for example) that makes me realize I will be on this musical journey until the day I die. Thanks to my Aunt Lucile, her tenant whose name I, sadly, cannot remember, Claude Debussy, and Maestro Boulez, my life has been inestimably enriched.

Published at The Christian Review, January 12, 2016

The Day a Red Bird Sang St. Thomas Aquinas

I was coming to the end of my first year as a college professor at Mercer University Atlanta. I was still a Southern Baptist though I had been wrestling with that affiliation since being introduced to St. Augustine at Princeton Theological Seminary.

One of the greatest Protestant theologians, Soren Kierkegaard, had provided the base motif of my dissertation, a critique of Romanticism. But after dismantling the Romantic pretenses to spirituality, as I thought then, Kierkegaard had not offered me the tools to put my worldview back together. (The target of my dissertation had actually been my own pretensions.) Nothing much was left after seeing through the limitations of aestheticism and ethical earnestness.

Kierkegaard

What was left of the Romantic in me, however, still yearned to view the totality of things, the truth behind the appearances. This desire comported with my fledgling knowledge of the Catholic faith which had been acquired through the agency of two friends at Emory University where I spent three years getting my Ph.D. Like a Gothic cathedral, the Catholic faith appeared to teach the fundamental connectedness of things. Faith, rather than being a leap into the abyss, could be assisted by reason both before and after conversion.

That spring day I put a chair in the back yard under a bird feeder and went inside to find a suitable for book to read and relax. I noticed the red spine of a paperback by St. Thomas Aquinas on the top shelf. It contained the Question 2, the Treatise on God, from the Summa Theologiae (Gilby trans.), which I had been assigned to read at Princeton but had failed to do. Feeling pangs of guilt, I took it down and decided to settle my debt with that class on Medieval Theology at Princeton.

It look me a while to realize that St. Thomas always started out stating positions he did not agree with, but once I got a handle on reading the article form I found him easier to read than I had anticipated. Then I got to the section in God’s goodness (ST 1a.2) and, specifically, to the question, “Whether all things are good by the divine goodness?”

I’ll be honest and say that this led me to think about myself and ask whether I was good. The tradition of Christianity I knew best did not have a very positive view of human nature. The propensity to sin — human fallenness — took St. Paul’s notion of carnality, in thinking and behavior, to its extreme. In practical terms that creates a negative attitude towards oneself, especially towards one’s sinful practices.

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St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274)

As I read through St. Thomas’s reply to his own question, I came to the final paragraph, “Everything is therefore called good from the divine goodness, as from the first exemplary effective and final principle of all goodness.” And as I read a red bird started to sing standing on the bird feeder overhead — it seemed as if the words of the Saint and the song of the bird merged into one. That day not only did I discover the source of my own goodness but I experienced a heaven-sent joy mediated by the beauty of this bird and the song.

What had stunned me was this: the goodness I possessed, and all creation possesses, could not be taken away from me, or destroyed by my own agency, even my sins and vices. It was goodness, St. Thomas says, added to my being by the Creator. Even the fallen angel, Lucifer, could be said to possessing goodness through he lives eternally separated from God. The connectedness of things was grounded in God’s own goodness which He chose to share with His creation.

Some might smile and think that the moment I describe was imagined, or was the product of young man struggling with his own penchant toward Romanticism, finally merging it with the teaching of a medieval doctor of the Church. I’m not given to mystical experiences, per se, but I’ll never doubt what was given me that day, a moment of sensual beauty and intellectual clarity that led me into the Church and rerouted my life completely.

I couldn’t let my Saint’s day pass without paying him tribute and expressing my gratitude.

Published at The Christian Review, January 28, 2016

Robert Novak–The Catholic Vote: Does It Swing?

Note: Robert (Bob) Novak was America’s premiere political reporter for decades until he died at age 78 in 2007. His work, starting at the Chicago Sun-Times and continuing through the Wall Street Journal, CNN’s “Crossfire,” and Fox News, is well-chronicled.  In 1998, the year of this article, Novak was received into the Catholic Church by Msgr. Peter Vaghi and Rev. C.J. McCloskey.  His wife, Geraldine, had been attending St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington, DC for several years, but it was some books given to Novak by Jeff Bell, a prominent Catholic political consultant, that began his journey. Bob and I became friends shortly after I came to DC in 1995 but it wasn’t until later we began having regular breakfasts at the Army Navy Club. Eventually, I would accompany Bob and Geraldine on their first, and second, trip to the Holy Land. This article was written at my request for a special issue of Crisis Magazine on the Catholic vote which would turn to be perhaps the most influential issue ever published.

Robert D. Novak

Published November 11, 1998

The conventional wisdom among politicians and journalists for much of the past half-century has been that Catholics, 44 million currently of voting age, comprise a swing vote.

As the 1950s began, Catholics were departing their traditional home in the Democratic Party to support Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower for president. That was followed by a massive return of Catholic Democrats—accompanied by a good many Catholic Republicans—to vote for their cocommunicant, Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960. The gradual attrition of Catholic support for Democratic presidential candidates climaxed with heavy backing for Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

But by 1996, Catholics were supporting Democrat Bill Clinton’s reelection much more strongly than other Americans; among Catholics, it was 54 percent for Clinton, 38 percent for Republican Bob Dole, and 8 percent for independent Ross Perot. That’s not the whole story. While Clinton ran worse among many voter groups in 1996 than he had in 1992 (including seniors and youth, at opposite ends of the age spectrum), he did better among Catholics: a gain of 2.3 million votes compared with Dole’s gain of 400,000 and Perot’s loss of 3.3 million. Of the 23 states with a Catholic vote above the national average, Dole carried only two: Texas and Colorado. Had Dole run just a little better among Catholics, his supporters surmised, he might well have been elected.

Is There a Catholic Vote?

Thus, at a time when the conventional wisdom has assumed a divorce between Catholics and the Democratic Party, it is no exaggeration to say that the Catholic vote elected Bill Clinton. In the Midwest (where there is a plurality of Catholics) and the Northeast, this vote was indispensable to the near-sweep Clinton had in these two regions. The apparent oscillation of the Catholic vote over nearly 40 years raises difficult, even troubling questions.

•If Catholics appear always to be on the side of the winner, whether it be Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, is there no driving principle that informs the choice? Or, are Catholics really no different from other American voters? If Catholics preferred Clinton in greater numbers than their fellow citizens, does that mean that they prefer a candidate who is irrevocably tied to abortion rights, gay rights, and racial preferences and is irrevocably opposed to school choice and school prayer?

•Does this then demolish the Republican concept of the Catholic voter as a natural partner of Protestant fundamentalists and evangelists in a religious coalition?

•Put bluntly, what evidence is there that there are distinctive political characteristics that bind together Catholics sufficiently to form a bloc vote with even some elements of coherence? Is there really a Catholic vote?

The only logical answer to this paradoxical question is that there are two Catholic votes—just as there are two kinds of Catholics in America, active and inactive religiously.

The active Catholic attends Mass every Sunday, probably subscribes to religious publications, may well belong to the Knights of Columbus and the Legions of Mary, and will tend to conform to the views of the Catholic bishops, at least on abortion.

The inactive Catholic is an inconstant communicant, likely is not a member of any parish church, and is cut off from the views of the bishops—particularly when it comes to abortion.

This distinction makes some sense out of what has been the otherwise inexplicable political migration of Catholics during the past half-century. Prior to that time, there was not much swinging by Catholic voters; they were—with some notable though temporary exceptions—Democrats.

Political History

The first migratory wave of Catholics in the 19th century was composed of Irish fleeing the potato famine and political exclusion. They settled into the Democratic Party in their new nation’s big cities as a power base against the American establishment—Protestant and Republican—that excluded them from power and privileges. German Catholics, many fleeing post-1848 political repression throughout Europe, followed the Irish and were generally their political allies in the Democratic machines.

The Irish-German Catholic loyalty to the Democrats was interrupted by Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s Anglophile policies and intervention in World War I, with Republicans scoring major Catholic gains at the presidential and lower levels in 1920. By 1928, when the Democratic nominee for president was urban Catholic Al Smith of New York City, Catholic voters returned to the fold and for the most part stayed there during the Franklin D. Roosevelt era and Harry Truman’s 1948 election.

But beneath this seemingly steadfast adherence to their ancestral party, Catholics were restless. They were unhappy that the Democrats seemed to have become the liberal party of blacks, Jews, and silk-stocking Protestants, as reflected in international policy toward Communism and domestic policy toward the welfare state. Eisenhower ran well in Catholic areas in both of his landslides over Adlai Stevenson, which began the political analysis of a Catholic swing vote.

But through the last ten presidential elections, there has been marked difference in the voting patterns of active and inactive Catholics, as the numbers of the latter rose dramatically. In 1960, 73 percent of Catholics still said they regularly attended Mass. The figure dropped to 64 percent in 1964 and to an all-time low of 40 percent in 1988, before returning to 47 percent in 1992 and 46 percent in 1996. That signifies a stabilized base of active Catholic voters for the past decade. Here is a rundown of the voting patterns of the kinds of Catholics in those ten elections:

1960:With John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic nominee for president since Al Smith, Catholics returned to their Democratic roots—especially the active Catholics. Kennedy won 83 percent of the Catholic vote (comprising 22 percent of the electorate), getting 87 percent of religiously active Catholics and 69 percent of inactive Catholics. This nonideological support from his coreligionists elected Kennedy. He lost to Republican Richard M. Nixon among both religiously active Protestants and inactive non-Catholics.

1964: Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson for the most part kept the Catholic voters he inherited from Kennedy. But the 79 percent he received represented a resumed Catholic erosion in the Democratic Party. Actually, he received a higher percentage of the inactive Catholics than had Kennedy, but dropped among the active Catholics. Also, the intensity of Democratic support among active Catholics was diminishing. In 1960, 52 percent of active Catholics described themselves as “strong” Democrats; in 1964, the figure was 32 percent.

1968: The migration of Democrats out of the Democratic Party continued, though less so among active Catholics. Democrat Hubert Humphrey fell well below the JFK/LBJ totals, but he still won 57 percent—divided by 58 percent from actives and 52 percent from inactives. Active Catholics were still supporting Vietnam policy more strongly than the national average, and that may have contributed to Humphrey’s residual strength among that group.

1972: In the year of President Nixon’s reelection landslide, the Catholic vote for a presidential candidate fell to the national average for the first time. Democrat George McGovern received only 39 percent among both active and inactive Catholics, reflecting the national antipathy to what was perceived as a fringe candidate. Little more than half of the nation’s Catholics described themselves as Democrats, though their ancestral hostility to Republicanism led them into independent ranks. Asked for the first time by the National Election Study to list their ideology, only 19 percent of active Catholics said they were “liberal” compared with 31 percent of inactives. Stating a “conservative” preference were 36 percent of actives and 30 percent of inactives.

1976: This post-Watergate, post-Vietnam election, paradoxically, showed Catholics rallying for Democrat Jimmy Carter—a born-again, Protestant Southerner—with 57 percent and 56 percent from actives and inactives, respectively. Both kinds of Catholics were clearly repelled by the Nixon scandals, but their ideological split was becoming more obvious. For the first time, a plurality of active Catholics (42 percent) called themselves conservatives; inactives were evenly divided between “liberals” and “conservatives.”

1980: Now the ideological division of American Catholics became clear. A majority of actives (54 percent) voted for Ronald Reagan, marking the first time this group had given a Republican presidential candidate a higher vote than the general electorate. A plurality of inactives (48 percent) backed President Carter. The party preference of all Catholics dropped from 49 percent to 42 percent, with some of them going to the Republicans (21 percent among actives, 11 percent among inactives).

1984: In his landslide against Democrat Walter F. Mondale, President Reagan won equal support—and lots of it—from active and inactive Catholics: 58 percent, one percentage point below the national share. Here was a national sweep that obliterated religious voting lines. Stated Democratic affiliation of Catholics fell to what is still an all-time low of 37 percent. For the first time, Catholics voted for the Republican nominee with a higher percentage than the country at large.

1988: Republican George Bush received 2.4 million fewer Catholic votes, including 2.1 million actives, than Reagan had four years earlier. In defeat, Democrat Michael Dukakis cut into the church-going Catholic, labor-union, and lower income households that had gone heavily for Reagan—in short, the famous “Reagan Democrats.” But Bush retained Reagan’s inroads among the inactives.

1992: In this year the gap between Catholics who go to church and those who don’t became an abyss. The inactives liked the looks of Bill Clinton so much that they backed him against President Bush, 51 percent to 28 percent in the three-way race with Ross Perot. But active Catholics who had turned away from Bush in 1988 did not like Clinton either; it was Bush over Clinton, 42 percent to 37 percent, among the actives.

1996: Beneath the superficial indication that the Catholic vote had reelected Bill Clinton while white Protestants overwhelmingly supported Bob Dole’s losing campaign lies the Catholic division. The inactives backed Clinton, 56 percent to 33 percent; actives supported Dole, 47 percent to 44 percent. This year also produced evidence of an ideological split. For the first time since the left-right preference began to be tested in 1972, half of active Catholics identified themselves as “conservative” and, also for the first time, a plurality of inactive called themselves “liberal.” Self-identified Democrats constituted 41 percent: the same as 1992, up from the low of 38 percent in 1988 and down from the 40-year high of 64 percent starting the period in 1960.

The 1996 Catholic vote was 29 percent of the national total, the highest in this 40-year period, but divided evenly among actives (15 percent) and inactives (14 percent).

Active Catholic Identity

The reality of two increasingly distinct Catholic votes should provide clear lessons for Republican politicians.

Inactive Catholics are an amorphous blob, undetectable from the rest of the electorate and certainly not classifiable as a voting bloc to be courted.

Active Catholics certainly do not constitute a monolithic bloc in the nature of African-Americans or even pietistic white Protestants. But they do have distinctive characteristics—including an anti-abortion position that belies claims by pro-choice Catholics.

In 1976, the National Election Study asked voters about abortion for the first time—and again the active/inactive dichotomy was apparent. Among active Catholics, 88 percent opposed permissive abortion laws, compared with 53 percent by inactives. By 1980, the anti-abortion bloc among active Catholics had declined to 75 percent.

In 1996, the National Election Study had changed the questions to make comparisons unrewarding, but the gap among Catholics widened. Enactment into law of a woman’s right to an abortion was favored by 26 percent of active Catholics but 50 percent of inactives.

The body of active Catholic voters cuts across economic lines and social status. Although they are patriotic, that is not a live issue with the end of the Cold War. What is relevant today, they are disturbed by the decline of traditional social values and maintain a belief in absolute moral values. As such, they prefer the conservative position on abortion, school choice, school prayer, and affirmative action.

If that profile seems familiar, it is because it is not much different from the outlook of born-again, fundamentalist, and evangelical Christians. In 1996, these pietistic Protestants constituted 18 percent of the electorate—combining with active Catholics for a 33 percent share.

What this coalition feels about the size and function of government is unclear and surely not monolithic. What is certain is that these voters will not vote for a pro-choice candidate opposed to school vouchers and school prayer who advocates racial preferences. They supported the losing Republican candidates in 1992 and 1996 but not in sufficient numbers to avert the Clinton victories.

Will the Republican candidate and managers in 2000 be confused by lumping together the voting preferences and ideologies of all Catholics, active and inactive, and seek a centrist position on social issues while avowedly pursuing a phantom Catholic vote? The answer will shape the politics of the 21st century.

Sigrid Undset: One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church

Editor’s note: The Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) is best known for her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter published between 1920 and 1922. Undset would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1924 while her many novels, memoirs, hagiographies, and miscellaneous works would make her a major figure in world literature. The same year she was honored with the Nobel Prize, Undset was received into the Catholic Church at age 42 becoming a lay Dominican. Her life both before and after her conversion was turbulent, filled with spiritual struggle, exile, and grief, but finally crowned with both the satisfaction of survival and peace of mind.  Her works, especially Kristin, have been credited with helping many readers find their way into the Church.  Crisis published the first English translation of this Undset essay.

One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church

Published December 1, 1995

If all the converts who entered the Catholic Church were to tell about their road to Rome, it would probably appear that no two of them followed exactly the same route. It does not surprise us, having accepted the claim of the Church to be the “pillar and ground of truth,” that as many roads lead to Rome as there are human minds.

When people stubbornly hold on to the hope that it is impossible to find any absolute truth, it is because they fancy that life would lose its excitement, would have no freedom, if there really existed one truth — one alone in which all other truths are contained.

Most of us have felt at some time that it is insufferable that two plus two always makes four. We have all known the longing for a dream world where two times two is five, or zero, or seven, or whatever we want at the moment. Of course, the freedom of the dream world is quite illusory. In fact, the number of dreams and combinations of dreams is not unlimited. The life of dreams is bound by laws to a higher degree than most people think. But what I don’t know can’t hurt me. That’s how people think. What glorious freedom, to fly into a world where people decide for themselves the nature and property of things. In the reality into which we are born, the nature and property of things is already given, everything is knit together by laws. For people as they are, there is only one possibility for freedom: they must find their own way through this whole net of causes and connections.

The attempt to find the way ends all too often in becoming ensnared and hung up in it. In this world we can only attain one kind of freedom, that which our Lord spoke of when he said: “The truth shall make you free.” But even after this truth has been acknowledged and a person is set free so that the deterministic factors in life can no longer bind one in chains, this freedom is maintained at no less a cost than the continual struggle against the powers from which one has escaped. First and foremost against the temptation to look back and long for the old romantic dream world, where two and two can be whatever, and one decides for oneself what shall be true.

To this extent, it is understandable when modern man exerts all his inventiveness to escape from the authority of the Church. In any case this is how it looks to those who have tried to escape from everything that came to them demanding to be authoritative. The effort not to be bound — and this fight against a Church that has always openly declared that it demands that its authority be acknowledged — are not unique to modern man. The same tendency was shown with great force already in Jerusalem in the days before the pascha in the year our Lord was crucified.

However, there are probably only a few converts who are prepared to explain their own conversion, why their resistance to one who calls himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, a resistance dictated by fear and mistrust, has been overcome. It does not happen without the cooperation of the mystical and supernatural power that theologians call grace. We can only say that one day we had to acknowledge that our resistance was perhaps illegitimate.

We have a basic mistrust for all authority that is of this world, and at the same time our human nature is subject to an incurable desire for authority. We want teachers who can teach us something. We want teachers who can give us prohibitions and commands. We want someone over us whom we can depend on and admire, even love. Even in my childhood it didn’t take terribly much cleverness to discover this mistrust, even if the world’s hunger for authority had not taken the pathological forms that it has taken since then. The question arises, do we long for authority because in reality we are created to bow to an authority that has the only legitimate right over us — the right of the creator, the author of life?

“Think for yourself” was enjoined on us constantly at the school that I attended. But when I followed this advice to the best of my ability — and the result was that I thought something other than the teachers had meant that I should think — I soon discovered that they were unpleasantly surprised. They couldn’t consider my differences with them to be other than an improper desire to oppose them.

The first person who gave me a kind of complete picture of the conservative viewpoint was the Lutheran minister who confirmed me in the state church. It made a very negative impression on me. I became especially upset when he dealt with the sixth commandment with us. Almost exclusively, he dealt with the girls from the folk school. He warned them against getting mixed up with men who wanted to pick them up on their free afternoons, and he told a frightening story about a young girl he had been to visit in the hospital: there she lay, destroyed “merely because of one kiss.” I thought angrily, the girl hadn’t committed any sin — but the fellow on the other hand! And I knew well that in our class, “ladies” often did things that were many times more immoral than a servant girl’s jumping into bad luck. That virginity was a positive value, a reservoir of strength, not just a negotiable value in the marriage market, no one could expect a priest of that spiritual milieu to enjoin on us. It was a bit of bad luck and a funny thing if a woman became an “old maid.” I had read what Luther wrote about virginity, and it had made me very anti-Lutheran.

That this priest himself acted in good faith, that he was prepared to suffer and offer himself for his unattractive concept of God, I did not doubt, even at that time. It did not occur to me to take his version of Christianity to be a more authentic version of Christianity than any of the other versions I had come across. Even so, my confirmation instruction had made it clear to me that I did not believe in the religion that I had held in childhood.

In Protestantism, as I came to know it, almost every person I met who was on the whole religiously inclined had his “personal conviction” or his “independent conception” of Christianity. The God taught to us by my religion teacher in school was rather more sympathetic than a Uranien god-human, but not more humane than the most sympathetic person I was prepared to conceive of: wise, but not wise beyond all human understanding. Like so many young people from a free-thinking milieu, I had gotten the impression that one’s faith was a private matter, not to say a minor matter. I also had my faith, but even at that time I didn’t think I needed any God, but that he should be there to approve my own ideas of right and wrong, honor and dishonor, my ideals and judgments. They were as they might be after my nature and education: I understood enough to know, I myself was able to defend these ideas without a God who was one with me.

A God who was the “Absolute Other” and also a person who could communicate with me, whose ways were not my ways, whose distinct and unconquerable will could be distinct from my own will, I was not bold enough even to conceive of it. Those who spoke to us in the name of Christianity had not only sought justification for their usual way of thinking. Very many of them had given up historic Christianity as a teaching that was no longer tenable, even if they, purely on the grounds of feelings, could not give up their view of life that was colored by Christianity. They had given up faith in Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, but they continued to worship Jesus, the carpenter’s son, as an ideal human and human ideal. Dogmas: truths revealed from “the Other Side and formulated in human language,” they could not believe in, but they believed in religious intuition and a religious genius in men.

I was certainly not disposed to worship any form of humanity — surely not a person who said of himself, “learn of me, for I am gentle and humble of heart,” even though he used a language against his opponents that, speaking kindly, was arrogant. I accepted as proven (without asking for proofs) that the historical Jesus was a religious genius whose intuition had brought mankind’s concept of God many steps upward in the path of development. At that time we always proceeded from the thought that development was always the same as improvement. But it didn’t seem to be of interest to me that a young Jew nineteen hundred years ago had gone around and assured people that their sins were forgiven — especially when he said of himself, “who can convict me of sin.” He couldn’t know from his own experience how it felt to have done something to another person that one would give all to have undone — to have fallen short of one’s own best purposes so badly that it seemed one couldn’t forgive oneself.

I knew what it was to be sorry for cruelty to others, secret cowardice, and indolence when indolence was unpardonable. For self evidently I did not know how to live in accord with my own private religion in such a way that I would be content with myself. Even less did I want to descend to that which was most miserable of all: to compare myself to people who, seemingly at any rate, lived after easier standards. I knew well I did not know them from inside, and so I could not really judge them. And as far as I knew, they had never said that they accepted my moral concepts either.

I was still far from believing that Jesus was God revealed in the Incarnation and that the Church was the organism in that he remained to do the work of salvation which he, nineteen hundred years ago had completed on the cross.

But I saw more clearly that the new systems of religion, either built on godlessness or on humanism plus a kind of deism, were not in the least more scientific than the old religions. Just the opposite. They built in ever higher degree on hypotheses and were in the highest degree matters of taste. Many of the current opinions that, without criticizing them, I had let go in one ear, but unfortunately not out the other, were in reality loose opinions or speculations determined by time or milieu.

I don’t know how many times I heard that God was the wish expressed by a human dream and that faith in life after death was probably invented by an unfitting greed for more life than that portion nature found fitting to give each of us. Now, I saw that the first supposition was a knife that cut both ways. I knew that people believed in a life after death, but that it seldom was an appealing form of life. They believed in Hell or Hades as a fact they were content to experience. For myself, I couldn’t find any form of eternal life that was not appalling in length. All the goods of the world finally receive their charm because we know that we do not have permission to use them long. The miracle of the seasons goes through our bone and marrow for we know, sooner or later, a spring will come that we will not experience. One year the first snow will fall on a mound of dirt under which we will lie.

It was the old story — I had rejected the beliefs and disbeliefs of others because they were sadly full of their own idiosyncrasies. But I realized that my own thoughts, to a large extent, were also decided by my idiosyncrasies. Naturally I could continue to believe in “my own power and strength” knowing well that it wasn’t much to believe in. But those who in the old days had managed with so weak a faith had not presented it as being other than a hand weapon with which they could cut their way through a short life.

I could not lose the feeling that the one who isolates himself in this way is a traitor, even though I couldn’t say what this betrayal consisted of, or what I had betrayed. I believed in a brotherhood of man, although it was impossible to convince myself that I believed in human perfectibility. I believed only in the dumbness and intelligence of man, in human good and evil and courage and cowardice, and in the unstable nature of each person. Even so I felt that what the Salvation Army soldier had said was true (she had been our servant in my childhood) that God loves sinners. “The greater sinner a person is, the more he loves him.” He has to love those, humanly speaking, most perfect people most highly: they always stand in danger of sinning in their minds and in their thoughts in a worse way than the common decent cheat and whore can dream of.

Human solidarity consists in all of us being common heirs of a bankrupt estate. After the bankruptcy of the fall into sin, a common loss of our ability to rise above the point of failure in our virtue and insight makes it impossible for anyone to lead other people anywhere but astray. Only a supernatural intervention can save us from ourselves. The Christian churches teach that Jesus Christ is himself that intervention — God, who was born of a woman, made himself one with our nature, and allowed himself to be killed for the sake of our sins, has shown us the way to eternal life. Not Hell or Hades, which people had always looked to with reluctant fear, but a life in and with God, the eternal blessedness of which we are not prepared to conceive. Already in the life we live here on earth we can experience such contact with the divine that we know life can be happy, even a life without end, when we renew our strength from the strength of which everything in the world is an outpouring.

At last I had come so far that I certainly did not believe in God. But neither did I believe in my disbelief. Proofs that force us, against our will, to accept Christianity as one accepts, for example, a demonstrated family relationship in botany, are out of the question. Otherwise, how could Christ say that “he who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be damned”? This does not presuppose that the power of judgment should not be used. In the last instance it is with the will that man either will isolate himself in the hell of his egotism or will commend himself to God and be freed from the constraints of ego-worship, unto eternal possibilities.

I had nothing else to do than go to a priest and ask to be taught everything that the Catholic Church really teaches. That the Catholic Church was identical with the Church that Christ had founded, in itself, I had never doubted. For me the question of the authority of the Catholic Church was exclusively a question of the authority of Christ. I had never understood the history of the Reformation as other than a history of a revolt against Christianity, even if it was a revolt by believing Christian men who subjectively hoped that the true Christianity was something which agreed better with their own ideals.

The customary objections to Catholicism that I had heard had never made a great impression on me, although I had gained a rather vague conception that there was certainly something in the prejudices against the Church that were so widespread. There are prejudices — and there are two special reasons for them. The one is our displeasure at giving up our favorite fantasies that we are afraid a teaching church will take from us. The other is the scandal poor Catholics in many ages have caused — the dark backside of the shining doctrine of the communion of saints.

It should be easier for people today, I think, to discover what is meant by the merits of the saints as a treasury from which the whole Church profits. Clearly in our day not only Catholics, but Christians of all sects and nuance, experience that all of Christianity must atone for what each of us unholy Christians owes God and our neighbor. No human solidarity is so absolute as the solidarity between the living cells in the body of Christ.

In and of itself the cult of the saints that the Church has fostered from the beginning answers a need that appears to be ineradicable in our nature. We want to venerate the saints. For want of better we have hero worship of kings and queens, sportsmen and artists, film- stars and gangsters. We set some of them on pedestals to admire something of ourselves in them. In the saints, God’s purpose for us is realized, when he, to use the words of the Offertory, “wonderfully created human nature and still more wonderfully renewed it.” Only facing the saints can we find a solution to our need for hero worship, without at the same time worshipping something of our own nature, which it is cowardly or demeaning to do.

And the veneration of Mary? I have always thought that a matter of course: if anyone believes that God has saved us by himself taking on our flesh and blood, he must embrace with affection her in whose womb he built his human body and this with a special deep reverence, gentleness, and sympathy with the inconceivable difficulties of her life on earth, as well as a shared joy in her unutterable place in the kingdom of God. Because it is true that the son of Mary is both true God and true man, so the son is the son in all eternity and she the mother in all eternity, although he is the creator and she is his creation.

Because I believe that Jesus Christ is God who created us, I believe that he has built his Church as it is required for people. What God has given me through his Church is difficult to express in words. He himself has said that he gives us his peace, but not the peace that the world gives — it is of another sort. Perhaps it can be compared to the peace that reigns over the sea, the great depth. Bad weather and good weather on the surface do not influence it, neither does the rare animals that live and eat each other in the depths. It is the practical experience that the kingdom of God is within us. Even if surrounded by one’s own unpeaceful self, which is half real and half illusion, we experience that God in a supernatural manner is in us continually and establishes his kingdom in us — against our own attacks on it.