End Notes: Gaudeamus Igitur

Michael Novak has been awarded the Templeton Prize for 1994, an enormous honor which puts him in the company of Mother Teresa and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I rejoice with him as a friend, colleague, and, over the past dozen years, comrade-in-arms in the publishing of Crisis. His wife, Karen, and their children must find this recognition sweet. They did not need to be told that Michael is an extraordinary fellow, gentle, brilliant, positively pullulating with ideas, and good, but it will be nice for them to have it so publicly acknowledged.

When conquerors returned to Rome in public triumph, a slave rode in the chariot with the returning hero and, while the cheers rang out, flowers were strewn, and the world was at his feet, whispered in his ear, memento mori. No one has to tell Michael Novak that estimates of his work have changed over the years, that cheers can give way to jeers, that we have here no lasting city. The steady development of his thought has puzzled and sometimes angered erstwhile allies, yet it can be seen in retrospect to have been guided by a single goal.

It was at the time of the Council, in the early 1960s, that Novak first became widely known. Pope John XXIII had called for a pastoral council, one that would pay particular attention to making the Christian Good News intelligible to the contemporary world. He called for aggiornamento, the search for means of communication and expression that would more surely touch the hearts and minds of men and women today. To recapture the excitement of those days, one can do no better than read what Michael reported from the Council.

He was there among the Catholic and secular journalists who were to make Vatican II unlike any previous council. It was covered like a political convention; dispatches went out that kept the world informed, more or less, of what was going on in the sessions, in the press office, in the restaurants and cafés of Rome. The feeling grew that the Church was on the threshold of a dramatic breakthrough into modernity.

For American Catholics, hopes for the Council were caught up in the euphoria generated by the election of John Kennedy. A largely immigrant church had, in a few generations, put one of its own in the White House, transforming the sense of what it meant to be a Catholic in this country. We were no longer on the margins of a WASP society, but at its center, assimilated at last. Pope John and the Council promised a similar transformation worldwide. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”

Michael, who had been a student for the priesthood in Rome, who would do his graduate work in theology, whose Johnstown, Pennsylvania, roots had been transplanted from Slovakia—this eager, tireless, restless man seemed providentially fashioned to give his life to the pressing questions of the relation of the Church and the modern world, of the Catholic citizen to his country, of ethnic Americans to their adopted homeland. One who does not see the relation between faith and reason as the abiding theme of Novak’s work can never understand the seemingly circuitous course he has come.

When Michael and I founded Crisis in 1982, we were not yet close friends. I had of course noticed that a lesser character in his novel The Tiber Was Silver was called Mclnerny, and I had read much else of his, something it had become increasingly difficult not to do. He had identified himself early on with those whose interpretation of the Council put them in opposition to the Magisterium. The spirit of the Council was invoked when Pope and bishops questioned the adequacy of certain interpretations. For many years, Michael was allied with progressives for whom aggiornamento had become a process with no predictable end. Everything was up for grabs.

When he and I agreed, so casually, on the telephone, to start a monthly journal of lay Catholic opinion, it was a conscious combination of opposites. Novak had come a long way from his earlier post-conciliar views. He had come to have second thoughts about dissent from the Magisterium, and he was thinking very differently about the nature of what he was to dub Democratic Capitalism. His neo-conservative politics enraged his former cohorts more, I think, than his unequivocal embrace of the Magisterium. Nothing becomes Michael more than the ideological enemies he has made. The simple fact is that Michael Novak is innocent of ideology.

The ideologue tailors the facts to his a priori theory. Ideology requires political psychoanalysis to discover the hidden source of what is said. Novak’s work, with all its alterations and evolution, is all of a piece. It is the work of a man of faith who sees everything in the light of Christian revelation.

Some will see here the quintessence of ideology: the lens of faith distorting the real. This is not the case because of Novak’s Catholic understanding of the relation between faith and reason, the sacred and secular, the supernatural and the natural. His Spirit of Democratic Capitalism is at once political philosophy and theology. That human persons are centers of responsible agency whose fulfillment is freely to direct themselves to the good, in communities small and great, is the theoretical foundation of Democratic Capitalism. The case has to be made in terms accessible to anyone, believer or non-believer. The case being made, however, Novak argues that democracy and a free-market economy represent the best moral expression of Christianity.

It is a particular delight for me to see Michael so honored. It is to some degree an honor shared in by Crisis. My editorial colleagues and I are here on the curb, throwing roses riotously with the throng. And Michael in the passing chariot, with the ashes of Lent on his forehead, needs no further reminder that he is in via and the best is yet to be. Let us, then, rejoice in his great good fortune and this richly deserved recognition of all he has done.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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