I attended the Mass of Christian burial for the distinguished Catholic theologian and author Michael Novak last Saturday in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. It was a beautiful liturgy, and a wonderful group of Novak’s family and friends gathered to pray for him. It was a privilege to be able to participate as a concelebrating priest. I had come to know Michael Novak reasonably well over the previous two decades. I admired his important intellectual contributions and especially appreciated his service as human rights ambassador under Ronald Reagan during the final decade of the Cold War. He contributed in many ways to this country that he loved so much. Michael was a descendant of immigrants and he was passionate about the possibilities and promise of America. In the end, however, the Church was his bedrock along with his family.
Michael Novak wrote numerous books in the areas of philosophy, theology, and culture. He also received many awards during the course of his career––among them the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994 and the Masaryk Medal presented by Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic in 2000. These awards testify to the international impact of his writings. He stands as one of the most significant Catholic public intellectuals of the last half century. Many beautiful and learned tributes and obituaries have appeared since Michael’s death on February 17 and I have no desire to merely replicate them here. Rather, I want to draw attention to some areas that link him directly to the Congregation of Holy Cross and to Notre Dame, both of which he loved.
Michael Novak first came to Notre Dame in 1947 as a fourteen year-old to enter the high school seminary that the congregation ran in a building (since demolished) that occupied Holy Cross Hill overlooking St. Mary’s Lake. He treasured his studies and the comradeship shared there. He once wrote of his seminary years: “I basically loved the study, the prayer, the atmosphere of charity and learning.” I’m told that Michael never demonstrated much “charity” to his fellow seminarians on the basketball court, but his love for sport and for Notre Dame’s teams were firmly planted during these years. Michael stayed in formation with Holy Cross for almost 12 years. As a member of the Eastern Province of the Order, he did his undergraduate studies at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, and then was sent for his theology studies to the Gregorian University in Rome. After two years there he returned to Washington, D.C., to the Holy Cross theologate near Catholic University, and after some profound discernment and inner turmoil he concluded that he was not called to the ordained priesthood. He chose the lay vocation and the life of a writer and a teacher.
Michael’s connection to Holy Cross, however, did not end with his departure from the seminary. Those years had left an indelible mark upon him, and he had forged friendships that endured for years thereafter. Also, his brother Richard had joined the Order and was ordained a priest in 1962. Richard Novak offered to serve in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and proceeded on to teach at Notre Dame College in Dacca. Tragically, Fr. Novak was murdered in the midst of Muslim-Hindu violence on January 16, 1964. Michael Novak’s love for his brother and the Order to which he belonged lasted his whole life. In later years both Michael and his sister Mary Ann wrote about their brother Richard, and Michael thought of him as a Christian martyr. He was able to use some of the prize money from the Templeton Award to establish a scholarship in honor of his brother at Stonehill College, where Richard also had studied.
After Michael left Holy Cross he undertook further studies at Harvard and then pursued a career in teaching at places like Stanford and Syracuse. He had already begun his prolific career as a writer. He simply possessed an incredible talent for getting words down on the page. He could write quickly and clearly and never succumbed to the deadening prose and incomprehensible jargon that beset so much of academic writing. Michael wanted to communicate with his readers because he saw his writing as part of his teaching mission. As a lecturer and a writer he never ‘performed’ so as to display his brilliance, but rather tried to directly engage his audience so as to enlighten and persuade them. He had some advice for young writers, which might be of interest to present Rover writers and readers. He encouraged those who sought his advice to simply begin and to keep writing and to be willing to risk criticism by taking an unpopular stand. He wanted writers to have intellectual courage of the kind so needed in the American academy today, where only a narrow range of acceptable opinion is tolerated and rewarded. Novak possessed such courage and he stayed true to where his convictions and his clear-headed observations led him.
Michael Novak lectured far and wide across the world, and is especially known for his teaching endeavors in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism. But he also simply loved to come to Notre Dame to teach and lecture. The place had a firm hold on his heart, and he once wrote to me in 1996 (with perhaps a touch of hyperbole) that he loved “Notre Dame best of any plot of ground on earth.” He came here regularly in the 1970s and 1980s, lecturing on various topics, and in the fall semesters of 1986 and 1987 he held the Welch Chair in the Department of American Studies. He lectured across a wide array of topics involving religion, culture, politics, and economics. Especially following the publication of his influential The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in 1982 he focused on the compatibility of capitalism and democracy so long as they were undergirded by a strong moral/ethical cultural base. His views were not always well received by faculty here, and indeed, some of his old Holy Cross friendships were strained because of intellectual disagreements. Novak was saddened by ruptures in friendships that had lasted over three decades, but that in no way dented his desire to come to campus and his willingness to speak to audiences here. More recently he was a featured speaker at some of the fall conferences of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture and he also spoke on business as a calling at the Mendoza College. His love for Notre Dame was also revealed in his high expectations for how Notre Dame could contribute in American public life. It was these expectations for Notre Dame that made him so disappointed in Notre Dame’s decision to honor Barack Obama given his positions on abortion and religious liberty.
A part of Novak’s continuing desire to return to Notre Dame, however, surely resided in his passionate love for sport and especially for Notre Dame football. Michael published a marvelous book in 1976 entitled The Joy of Sports, and references to Notre Dame are constant throughout it. He argued that “few phenomena in American life compare with the mythic power of Notre Dame.” In the realm of football, he held that “the very words ‘Notre Dame’ mean a certain kind of spirit: a spirit of never quitting, of using one’s wit, of playing with desperate seriousness and intense delight, of achieving not just excellence but a certain kind of flair that must be thought of as gift and grace.” Michael feared that the spirit of Notre Dame was being dissipated in the world of luxury boxes and all the rest. Perhaps Coach Kelly might read select passages from Novak’s book to his players in preparation for next season to give them a richer sense of what Notre Dame football truly means. Through thick and thin, however, Novak’s loyalty to the team remained strong. He simply loved to watch Notre Dame play football and he hated when they lost.
Michael would often stay at Moreau Seminary when he came for a football game. He still loved to be around Holy Cross and to be able to attend Mass in our chapel. I would meet him there to talk over matters great and small. We did not always agree. I remember that he took me to task over a brief piece I wrote in 2007 criticizing the increased corporate influence in American universities. He thought that my article missed the main danger of the take-over by administrations and the “elephantiasis” (his term) of swelling bureaucracies on campuses. He argued that my piece reflected what he identified as a “reflexive Catholic anti-commercial sentiment,” and that I failed to appreciate the deeper and richer assessment of capitalism that he now held. We went back and forth over these points. I raise the matter only to say that Michael Novak loved to engage in conversation and enjoyed discussions with those with whom he might disagree. Michael did not always convince me of his positions, but I always benefited greatly from any exchange with him. In his memoir, Writing from Left to Right, Michael included a chapter entitled “Community Only Springs From Honest Argument.” He wrote there about the necessity “to engage in conversation” (his emphasis, p. 284). I am deeply grateful to have been able to engage Michael Novak in occasional serious exchange.
I am saddened that Michael Novak will not be coming to Notre Dame again to take in a game and to engage in conversation. I would be interested to learn of his view of the strange concoction that is Trumpism with its economic nationalist positions on trade and immigration, etc. I have no doubt that Michael would be only too keen to sit at a table in the Moreau Seminary refectory and to share his thoughts. No doubt he would want to convey his fundamental point that unless America’s religious, moral, and cultural life is nourished and renewed then what happens in the political and economic domains inevitably will go off the tracks. I suspect, however, that he is enjoying conversations of a different sort right now with his beloved wife and parents and his brothers, including his brother Richard. Perhaps as well he is catching up with his earthly hero Saint John Paul II, and such Notre Dame friends as Ralph McInerny and his Holy Cross teachers from the “Little Sem” whom he remembered so fondly. However that may be, we can be assured that come next fall he will claim a good seat in his new abode so that he might cheer on old Notre Dame. May he rest in peace.
Fr. Bill Miscamble is a Holy Cross priest, professor in the history department, and a faculty advisor to the Irish Rover.