In 1992 I read a column in Crisis by the magazine publisher who warned, “no one should doubt that … this election is a choice between two radically opposite national directions. The outcome will deeply affect the public life of Catholics.”
The author of that column, Michael Novak, will be remembered for his stellar achievements. He was a “public Catholic” whose forty-odd books, numerous articles and speeches influenced so many in American public policy. Michael was the co-founder of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and not coincidently, the co-founder of Crisis. I will always be grateful that he jolted me with that 1992 column, “The Coming Cultural Crisis.” Thereafter, I understood that politics didn’t only shape America, but the public lives of Catholics in America. And, his words were prophetic—Bill Clinton set a troubling moral direction for the country.
As heaven often arranges such surprising intersections, just four years later on a lovely September evening in Washington D.C., I was introduced to Mr. Novak by Ralph McInerny, his friend and the other Crisis co-founder. The preceding year I (who had never published anything) had been invited to write an article on Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a concord between prominent Catholic and Evangelical leaders in hopes that differences could be set aside in order to fight the urgent cultural battles that imperiled all American Christians. Michael Novak was a signatory to the document.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Before we were introduced, I mentally rehearsed what a fledgling might say to this influential Catholic leader. Truthfully, I felt a certain reserve toward Michael, even skepticism due to his early waltz with leftist politics, which I knew of from Dr. McInerny. How does one travel from the office of George McGovern to diplomatic envoy for Ronald Reagan? But Novak had recently won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. (1994) That coveted honor glimmered over him and lent Michael a certain aura that would cause any outlander to approach only hesitantly.
Once introduced, we sat at a table in the garden with his wife Karen, an accomplished artist. Michael seemed mildly amused by and curious about this new contributor to Crisis, particularly one with no prior connection to the world of American Catholicism in academia or politics. For my part, it was an awkward moment: What does one offer in a conversation with such a luminary? Wise and alert, Michael deftly sidestepped my nervous awe and gently provided an opening, “Tell me about your formation,” he said. Thus, his own seminary formation—an interest in care for souls—framed our first conversation.
“Why do you care about Catholicism? The Church? What motivates you?” With a bluntness that still causes me to blush, I replied, “To defend it from the rabid dissidents!” His eyes crinkled. “You don’t think they also care about the Church?”
Mindful of his own earlier liberal persuasion, a “Kennedy Catholic” until the Democratic Party embraced abortion, it occurred to me for the first time that some liberals within the Church might be misguided but sincere. What followed was a discussion of Catholic liberals who sought to impose American style political dissent on the teaching authority of the Church. Additionally, at that time, there was a substantial group of conservative Catholics, including bishops, who were publicly critical of the American market economy.
In my view these orthodox Catholics misled the political community with dangerous socialist ideas under a veil of “Catholicism.” Michael saw matters differently: when this group understood that the teaching of the Church brought greater virtue to individuals and societies, then those improved societies fostered the proper use of freedom, including economic opportunity for all. Michael Novak cautioned, “All that we do must be done with the long view; bringing others with us for love of the Church.”
Novak was especially focused on the contributions that the laity should make to a virtuous society. His book, Business as a Calling, was published that year. The following year I was invited by Dr. McInerny to give a talk on the lay vocation, based on the Second Vatican Council document, Apostolicam Actiositatem, and the recent exhortation of Pope John Paul II, Christifideles Laici. Again, Michael was instrumental in guiding my own vision for how the lay vocation actually operated in a rapidly secularizing culture. “Vocation is what we give back to God for the life he gave to us.” Novak had written and acted on this very point so inspiringly, making urgent the vocation of the laity in today’s world of greater political and intellectual freedom. He stressed a line from Christidifideles Laici: “It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.”
The new millennium took me to the United Nations to cover the work of both dissident and faithful Catholic NGOs. The battle was often bitter—Catholics for a Free Choice (abortion) openly opposed the Holy See Mission to the U.N. and pro-life, pro-family groups such as Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. Nations struggled intensely over abortion, religious freedom and population control. Two decades earlier, Michael had built the crucial intellectual framework for a truly humane diplomatic defense of Human Rights during the Reagan years as US ambassador to the U.N.’s new Human Rights Commission. He brought Catholic theological truth about the Human Person to the world’s diplomatic community.
His goal was to locate the concept of “human rights” in a universal principle, untethered to any nation, or block of nations’ geopolitical vision. His early work was invaluable to the incoming Bush administration diplomats whose mandate was to defend life and the traditional family. American diplomats and NGOs worked closely with the Holy See Mission to reverse or forestall some of the most pernicious proposals inspired by a nihilistic worldview.
There was at that time a growing excitement in some Catholic circles that being a knowledgeable Catholic and offering that foundational understanding of “human rights” to the American public and foreign policy establishment was an urgent project for a world moving past the chasm of communism.
However, few “public Catholics” like Michael Novak have illusions. The battle to reclaim the culture is long, perhaps many generations. In his acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize, Michael warned, “No one ever promised us that free societies will endure forever. Indeed, a cold view of history shows that submission to tyranny is the more frequent condition of the human race, and that free societies have been few in number and not often long-lived.” He urged people of faith to fight on with “the moral seriousness of those who know that the survival of liberty depends upon the outcome. The free society is moral, or not at all.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Michael Novak with Cardinal Caccai Villan and Pope John Paul II. (Photo credit: Michael Novak website)