Politics & Policy

Remembering Michael Novak

The American scholar of Catholic social thought will be read for a long time to come.

Michael Novak loved the Catholic Church and the United States passionately. And with his death at 83, both Church and nation have lost one of their most imaginative and accomplished sons: a groundbreaking theorist in philosophy, social ethics, religious studies, ethnic studies, and economics; a brilliant teacher; a winsome journalist and apologist; a great defender of freedom, as both ambassador and polemicist; a man of striking energy and creativity, some of whose books will be read for a very long time to come, and in multiple languages.

In his last weeks, however, my thoughts turned, not to Michael’s scholarly and literary accomplishments, which others will celebrate, I’m sure. Rather, I thought of the man I knew for almost three and a half decades, and with whom I shared various adventures. Some of them, recollected here, may shed light on aspects of his character that might have escaped the attention of his admirers, as they certainly escaped the attention of his detractors.

Tutoring the 1 percent. Shortly after his best-known book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, was published, I arranged for Michael to address a dinner meeting of the 20 top executives of Seattle-First National Bank. Seattle, in those days, had not yet become a contestant for most politically correct city on the planet, and I doubt that many of the Seafirst leadership imagined themselves to be anything other than bottom-line businessmen, skeptical of intrusions into their domain by intellectuals. Yet within a half-hour, Mike Novak had them thinking of themselves, and enterprise, in an entirely new way: as a moral system, a human ecology, in which habits of the mind and heart counted for as much as balance sheets. Terms like “sin,” “pluralism,” “practical wisdom,” and “the communitarian individual” were not staples, I dare say, in Seafirst executive dining-room conversations before that night. But over the course of three hours I saw Michael Novak make men of financial and economic power think — and think of themselves as called to a noble vocation, subject like all other vocations to temptations and very much in need of redemption.

When I moved to Washington, D.C., the following year, I quickly came to see how Michael Novak and his good friend James Billington, then the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, were making the nation’s capital an environment in which religiously informed moral reason was in play as in no other great world center. Jim Billington did this by quietly ensuring that the Wilson Center’s fellows included theologians and religious philosophers with a feel for applying their craft to the contingencies of political life, and then putting them in touch with the town’s movers and shakers. Michael did it by being himself in conversation with a wide range of Washingtonians, and by helping make the American Enterprise Institute a think tank where the software side of the democratic project was scrutinized for its weaknesses, and where possible improvements, informed by the biblical view of the human person, were imagined. There was nothing like that, then, in London or Paris; and there isn’t today. But there is in Washington, and that is in no small part due to the work and the personal example of Michael Novak.

Sweating it out in Naples. In the early 1990s, Michael, Richard John Neuhaus, and I all had books published in Italian editions by Mondadori, and the firm’s chief, the estimable Leonardo Mondadori (whose ardent Catholicism coincided with a social circle that included Bianca Jagger), insisted that we all come to Italy for presentations of our books in various forums.

The Roman event, geared to the Italian press, took place in the Collegio Teutonico, inside the Vatican, and was my first introduction to the fact that the border between fact and fiction in Italian journalism is, to put it gently, porous. Richard was talking about his book on John Paul II’s social encyclical, Centesimus Annus; Michael was talking about his new book on Catholic social thought; I was talking about my book on John Paul II’s role in the collapse of European Communism, The Final Revolution; yet in Italy’s newspaper of record, the Corriere della Sera, all of this was presented as a devious plot to gin up support for Silvio Berlusconi.

Even worse awaited us in Naples, where Leonardo Mondadori had arranged for a more academically focused session at which three Italian professors would discuss our books with us. Or so we thought. The event was held in a reconditioned monastery in the hills above the city, but despite the altitude the room was infernally hot and the Italian colleagues were infernally long-winded. An hour and a half into the program, neither Michael, nor Richard, nor I had said a word, and Richard’s patience was wearing thin. When the Italian academics finally quieted down, Richard began by saying that, given the hour and the temperature, he would follow the dominical injunction to “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6.36) and confine his remarks to five minutes; I followed suit. But Michael, sensing that something more was expected of us, saved the evening by talking with great clarity and precision about the contributions John Paul II had made to Catholic social doctrine, explaining how these ought to be of interest to even the most anti-clerical Italians. It was a bravura performance, and a lesson in patience and perseverance that I tried to follow in the years ahead.

Take me out to the ballgame. It must have been in the mid 1980s when I took Michael to old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore for an Orioles game on a glorious spring evening. There was one feature of that old brick-and-concrete horseshow that never failed to move me: As you came up one of the cement ramps to the upper deck, you caught a glimpse of the infield and a part of the outfield beneath the overhanging mezzanine section of the ballpark. That first sight of the greensward each season was always redolent of renewal, and as Michael and I shared that sense of vernal reawakening, the sharp crack of a batting-practice ball leaving an ash bat and heading for the bleachers rang through the stadium. “Greatest sound in sports,” I said. “Except for ‘swish,’” Michael immediately replied, thus revealing himself as a hoops man at heart.

I’ve watched countless hours of games with a vast number of people over the past six decades, on site or on television: but I have never met anyone, anywhere, who got such intense pleasure out of sports as Michael Novak did. And not “intense” in the Bill Belichick sense of the clenched-jaw scowl, but “intense” as in sheer pleasure. Michael being Michael, that passion for our games overflowed into his writing, including the book he wanted to call “Balls” until an antsy editor talked him into something a little more, er, delicate: The Joy of Sports. But whatever the title, it was a book replete with insights that could come from only a passionate fan who had played the games and then thought seriously about them: baseball’s freedom from clock time as a signal of transcendence and its unique combination of individual achievement and team play as the embodiment of the “communitarian individual”; football as “the liturgy of the bureaucratic state.” The thought of never having the opportunity to watch another game with him, swapping stories and second-guessing managers and coaches, is not a happy one. But if heaven is the perfection of earthly goods, we’ll pick up the conversation in a place without instant replay, because the umps and refs always get it right.

I came to understand that Michael — author, intellectual, diplomat, counselor to presidents and friend of a pope — was, in terms of his professional life, first and foremost a teacher.

Teacher par excellence. In 1992, Michael started a summer seminar in Catholic social thought that I took over in 1999, and that will have its 26th session in Cracow in July. As various ailments began to wear away at his physical capacities, Michael stopped coming, Cracow not being a city very friendly to people with difficulties getting about. But several years ago he asked if he could participate again, if just for a few days, and I readily agreed. The economics section of the program, of which he was once the star, was being covered by others, so Michael spoke about his first love, philosophy, and the modern experience of nothingness. He was not a histrionic lecturer, but his soft and rather high voice, surprising when you first heard it coming from such a big man, had a mesmerizing quality, and my colleagues on the faculty began to understand why Michael was voted teacher of the year two of the three years he taught at Stanford.

But it was less his lectures than his interactions with our students — young North Americans and central Europeans, all doing graduate studies — that I found most striking. They vied to push his wheelchair along the cobblestoned sidewalks of the city and jammed small restaurants to have lunch with him. He always had time for any number of questions. And in addition to what he brought to our work intellectually, he offered a model of patient counseling and courteous listening that our students will long remember.

And it was only then, more than 30 years after we had first begun to collaborate, that I came to understand that Michael — author, intellectual, diplomat, counselor to presidents and friend of a pope — was, in terms of his professional life, first and foremost a teacher. What gave him the greatest satisfaction was seeing others get the light of understanding in their eyes and the joy of discovery on their faces. He would, I think, be willing to be judged by the world on that, his vocation as a teacher: and the judgment would, if just, be a very favorable one.

George Weigel — George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center

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