He lamented Americans’ lack of moral consensus about the common good. But unlike his critics, Novak would not impose his vision of it from the top down.
Michael Novak, one of the country’s most eminent thinkers, theologians, and public intellectuals, passed away this past Friday at age 83. His many friends mourn, and the Heavens rejoice. They’re probably listening to Johann Sebastian Bach up there—by Michael’s lights, the best Catholic who never actually was one.
I can’t say that I knew Michael Novak particularly well. I first met him in 1985, when he interviewed me for a research assistant position at the American Enterprise Institute. I had read The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), Michael’s confident and justly famous embrace of a free economy and the rule of law, embedded in what he called a humane “moral ecology.” I found much to admire and to inspire. I didn’t care for all the high-octane religious stuff; but, I thought, if the Catholics want to believe the Reagan agenda for their own idiosyncratic reasons, by all means let them. You could say that I missed the point. Predictably, the interview did not prove productive.
Many years later, and a little bit more grown-up, I was privileged to join Michael Novak as an AEI scholar. My presence in that company was obviously absurd; but he never let me know. In fact, he never let anyone know that he was so much smarter and wiser than the rest of us. In that sense, no one may have known him really well. What everyone did get to experience was his cheerful, engaging, consuming friendship and the spectacular, unremitting love between him and his late wife, Karen.
I call you my friends.
That, I have come to believe, is the one sentence that ever made a real difference in this lousy world. Michael Novak knew it. More importantly, he lived it.