Crisis Co-Founder Celebrates 80th Year with New Memoir


September 9, 2013

It is a small detail, but a revealing one, as the small details tend to be.  Michael Novak in the final chapter of his personable memoir tells the story of his first meeting with John Paul II.  Friends of Novak know that Wojtyła counted him as his friend too. But somewhat surprisingly they did not meet until as late as 1991, already thirteen years into Wojtyła’s papacy.  Novak was in Foligno for a conference on economics and, through the efforts of the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, he was invited to dinner with the Pope.   You might as easily guess as read why.  That year was the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, and John Paul II was at work drafting Centesimus Annus (the other truly great social encyclical), and he wanted to meet at last the author of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, a book which informed much of the philosophy of the encyclical.

At this first meeting, Novak was already unsettled simply by the trek up three long flights of stairs on the other side of the Bronze Door: “When I arrived for dinner, after the very long climb up three flights of stairs, accompanied by a serious Swiss Guard, my lungs were burning with the strain (but my tall young guard was not even red in the face.”  Novak is referring, of course, to the Scala Regia, that magnificent staircase which Bernini restored under the direction of Pope Alexander VII, the imposing grandeur of which was designed to impress upon the proud souls of visiting dignitaries something like the effect which out of shape visitors will today feel in their bodies.

When Novak saw the guests gathered around the table, including the brilliant Italian political philosopher, Rocco Buttiglione; the papal secretary, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz; and a bishop from Poland invited because of his easy fluency in Italian and English, he reports, “I was so awestruck that I hardly said a word at first.”  The other guests bantered away with light talk and humor, and Novak found himself tongue-tied.  At one point he tried to enter in with a comment about the “unexpected miracle of the fall of communism,” which the Pope dismissed jokingly (and for us hearteningly): “Getting rid of that Mickey Mouse system was no miracle. It was a matter of time.  It was built to fail”—after which Novak fell back into silence and was left secretly resolving to bring a supply of jokes and quips if he were ever invited back.

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Novak CoverBut as he was leaving, the Pope took his hand and looked right at him, with a twinkle in his eye.  Referring to a piece on the development of his own economic philosophy, which Novak had just published in a Polish newspaper—and which could have looked brazen in view of their unexpected dinner meeting—John Paul II warmly told him, “You understand my thought pritty gut.”   And that was that.  Any remaining awkwardness vanished, and Novak left elated and, as he says, walking on air.

This story shows Novak boyishly admitting being awestruck and tongue tied.  Recall that this is someone who by then had served as a speech writer for a couple of presidential nominees, and an ambassador under the Reagan administration, and—the friend of many powerful and accomplished men and women—had, for instance, spent a week on a beach holiday with Lady Margaret Thatcher and her entourage in West Palm Beach.  Novak’s equipoise of character, his civility and gentility, are legendary, or if not, ought to be.  He really is one of those persons who “seems always to know just what to say,” in any kind of official capacity or circumstance.  So it is refreshing to relive with him this first, unexpected meeting with the Pope and feel the same thrill, awe, and even awkwardness.

But a reader who is paying attention will see how Novak’s telling of this incident puts a beautiful closure on the pathway taken and explained in the memoir.  This incident from the last chapter matches perfectly an incident from one of the beginning chapters, where Novak recounts his studies in philosophy at Harvard, and an evening spent one-on-one with the profound French Christian existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel.  Novak was a graduate student: graduate students at Harvard are used to feeling abandoned by the faculty, but Marcel was in the unusual position of being a distinguished visiting professor also abandoned by the faculty.  He was invited to give the prestigious William James Lectures, but the Harvard philosopher who had been keen on the invitation, and who had arranged the visit—Henry Aiken—had left precipitously just before Marcel’s arrival to take a position at Brandeis (where he later wrote a book arguing that a small, experimental, and religion-based institution such as Brandeis then was, represented the future of genuine higher education rather than Harvard), and the other philosophers of the department, of the “analytic” persuasion, would have been too polite to say what they thought, that Marcel’s philosophy was meaningless, although they did show that by their actions.  So Novak could befriend Marcel and in a way serve as the host which the university never was.  Novak, at least, would be disponible (“available for the other”), to use a technical term from Marcel’s  philosophy.

So Novak describes an evening when he walked Marcel back to his rooms in the 18th century Harvard College dorm building where Marcel was staying and essentially sat at the master’s feet while Marcel read aloud one of his famous philosophical plays.  At the end of the evening, Marcel said goodbye to Novak, making use of another of his technical terms—“encounter”—which contains the idea that persons meet and experience the presence of one another in a way different from how they experience things: “Tonight,” Marcel said, “I think we have had an encounter.  I think so.  Don’t you?”  And then, as a last parting word, “Voilà!”

According to Marcel’s philosophy, and as Novak explains it, an “encounter” is an insight into the “inexhaustibility of the human person” and a felt sense that no description, even the most exhaustive scientific description, when applied to any person, in his dignity, can ever be complete. And that idea from Marcel provides the interpretive key, I think, to Novak’s memoir.  Put simply, it is a telling of his encounters of this sort with persons over a life.  Some of these encounters he can dwell upon at length, and no one who reads the book will easily forget his portraits of Eugene McCarthy or Sargent Shriver, for instance.  Others he merely mentions by way of a phrase or quickly sketched anecdote.  Indeed, Novak’s life was so charmed, and he found himself in the thick of so many crucial turns, and cast among so many upcoming circles in American life in the second half of the twentieth century, first “left” and then “right,” that the memoir can seem to contain a lot of name-dropping.  But the mentions, as I think, are to be interpreted in light of the fuller portraits—which say the more that could be said if there were time and space—and the portraits, in turn, are to be interpreted in light of Marcel’s notion of “encounter”: that is to say, all descriptions anyway fail us, and these are “persons” whom (we can easily think) Novak hopes and looks forward to seeing again, and in God’s mercy spending an eternity with.

Novak’s meeting and eventual friendship with John Paul II provides another key to the book.  Perhaps because of a publisher’s imperative, either ideological or with a view to limitation of space, the book in its relatively brief compass tells the story of mainly a conversion based on economic reasoning.  Why did Novak move from the political left of the spectrum to the right?  The high-concept answer given by the main narrative of the book is that, as a matter of empirical evidence, confirmed in the Reagan years of supply-side economics and deregulation, but sensed also before then, Novak saw the poor lifted up and countries prospering where free enterprise was fostered and economic liberty respected, whereas wherever socialism was in force the poor remained stuck in their poverty.  But Novak himself says that of the three domains—political, economic, and cultural—the cultural is the most important, and, of this, the religious.  So one wants to know what the religious journey and “logic” was, which underlay Novak’s change.

We get only hints in the book’s main narrative.  For instance, in recounting how he covered the Second Vatican Council and at first staked out the idea of “nonhistorical orthodoxy,” Novak however writes that “Within a few years of the Council, I found myself reacting more and more negatively to the large faction of the ‘progressives’ who failed to grasp the truly conservative force of Vatican II—its revival of ancient traditions, its sharper disciplines, its challenges to mere worldliness and mere politics.  I began moving from left to right in restoring real contact with the actual texts of Vatican II.”  Fascinating stuff (and not irrelevant to the current Year of Faith, with the task set for the entire Church of ‘real contact with the actual texts’): and I think this is the very first place in the book where Novak notes a move rightward.  So, then, the start of his journey was a religious realization.  But it seems a deficiency that this dimension is rarely touched upon again.  However, if the reader postulates, as he is invited to do, that John Paul II’s social thought in its integrity and fullness represents something like the culmination of Novak’s own journey, then one can fill in many of the dots.

I will conclude this review with another mention of John Paul II.  It is somewhat startling for a reviewer to find himself mentioned in the book he is reviewing.  Yet there I was, turning up in Novak’s account of John Paul II’s audience, in early January 2000 at the turn of the Millennium, with alumni and friends of the famous Tertio Millennio Seminar in Krakow, which Novak taught with George Weigel, Fr. Neuhaus, and Russell Hittinger.  Novak recounts how the group, about a hundred of us, learned a Polish Christmas carol for serenading the Pope with at the audience.  For me this jarred a memory of desperately striving to learn up Polish pronunciations on the bus ride in with the group from Castelgandolfo where we were staying to the Vatican.  As I recall we also learned for the occasion the famous Polish song celebrating a life, Sto lat!, “May he live a hundred years!”, sung on birthdays or occasions which marked some significant achievement or time period (which the Pope’s ushering of the Millennium for the Church definitely was!).

Novak claims he is Slovakian, but John Paul II used to joke with him saying, “You say you are a Slovak, but you are really Polish, like me.”  Novak tells how he denied this good-naturedly but then later looked at an historical map and found that the area from Slovakia where his ancestors lived was actually counted as a part of Poland for most of recent history.  Today is Michael Novak’s 80th birthday, and if we can with the authority of a soon-to-be-canonized saint count him as Polish, it seems only fitting that the life of this great Catholic public-spirited man, and co-founder of this magazine, be celebrated as he once wished to celebrate the life of his friend, Wojtyła, with the same Polish song:

Sto lat, sto lat/Niech żyje, żyje nam./Sto lat, sto lat.  “A hundred years, a hundred years, Let him live, live for us. A hundred years, a hundred years!”


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