CBB Interview with Michael Novak

PETE: In your latest book Writing from Left to Right you detail your personal experiences with some of the most important people and events in the past few decades. What thoughts came to mind as you wrote this book and pondered this?

MICHAEL NOVAK: My daughter Jana, the writer, urged me some years back, as my 80th birthday lay not too far ahead, that I should begin writing down a lot of the things that only I knew, about the episodes and adventures of my life. She even promised me that she would finish what I left unfinished, should a stroke or something stop me. She wisely advised me not to do any re-writing at first, just push steadily forward, so that what she wouldn’t otherwise know would be in her hands. This encouragement made the big job seem doable. I guess I got nearly 700 double-spaced pages done, the ending in sight, when I began serious re-writing. My first drafts always seem good to me as I saved them in the computer at night. But in daylight they look just awful. They need a lot of re-arranging and polishing, and above all cutting and tightening. I have had so many unexpected and exciting twists in my life that I began really to enjoy re-living them. Such wonderful, good people called me to meet them.

PETE: You have written many books but this is your first personal memoir. Why now?

MICHAEL NOVAK: I was almost 80 when I started work on it – well, 75ish. I have never promised myself another year to live. I have always thought I would die younger than 60 (maybe that’s why I wrote so fast and so much in my career, trying to get it all in before the buzzer). Besides, for old men reminiscing is a sweet, sweet pastime.

In volume I, as I call it, my editor wisely suggested I concentrate on the political and economic learning curve of my life, as more understandable and “objective” than my more personal and familial and religious story. Thus, I had to do a tremendous amount of cutting – more than a couple of hundred pages – to get volume I down to its current size. Some of my favorite parts – about my parents, my twelve years studying to become a priest of Holy Cross, meeting Karen and finding her the joy and axis of my life, our children and their sufferings and triumphs, my battles to engage the Catholic faith in public intellectual life, while making myself a radioactive nuisance to those “social justice” Catholics who (I thought) missed the great story of Catholic social and economic history – namely, how in America one of the poorest of Catholic bodies in the world, penniless immigrants (the “wretched refuse of the earth”) became in less than eighty years one of the most affluent and faithful.

PETE: What do you hope readers of your book Writing from Left to Right take away from it?

MICHAEL NOVAK: Maybe some will enjoy re-living the intellectual struggles of the last fifty years. Maybe others will enjoy discovering how many battles were won in the years since 1939 – and also how many things are now worse than then. The adventure of the Catholic faith in history is always tumultuous, and fraught with defeats and victories during the same historical period.

PETE: I would like to focus a bit on your experience at Vatican II. For those who have not read your book yet, you were there for the second session and your book The Open Church developed from it. How pivotal do you feel Vatican II was for the Church and do you feel the full effects of it have been seen or is there still more to come?

MICHAEL NOVAK: I was also at Vatican II for the Preparatory Session in its early part, and for the first weeks of the Third Session, while Karen stayed on for the full Third Session, working on her six etchings expressing visually each movement of T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” (At Ave Maria University in 2013, we had a reading of each stanza, with a brief commentary on each and then on Karen’s visual interpretation of it – a lovely event.)

We found the Second Session the most important, the spine of the whole. Karen enjoyed the whole experience as much as I did, the intensity of it, the triumph of the thing. The concentrated arguments, the bursts of news, the delays and the breakthroughs, the new things and the old. Much of this is expressed in my week-by-week account, The Open Church. Some other vivid detail and additional perspective fifty years later are offered in Writing from Left to Right. There will be more, from a more personal side, in volume II of WLR, if there is one.

One argument Karen and I used to justify our trip to Vatican II, just three months after our wedding, is that councils of the Church are held on average once every hundred years, and many of them have repercussions and transformative energies that last for centuries. We will be living with the energies from Vatican II for generations. Energies both good and flowing from “the smoke of Satan” (Paul VI).

PETE: In you impressive career you have had the opportunity to spend some time with a number of people that influenced the world as we know it. Of those, who most made an impact and why?

MICHAEL NOVAK: I love every one of those I worked with, from 1960 until the very end. I especially enjoyed meeting with Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy (a frequent guest at our home, and eloquent reciter by the hour of the lesser known odes of W.B. Yeats – it felt like listening to an after-dinner bard of long ago). Sargent Shriver was so deep a Catholic of faith and goodness that I often thought of him as one of those hidden saints unrecognized among us. George McGovern was also a really decent and brave man, an airman who faced immense dangers night after night over Germany in World War II. Bill Clinton seemed to me like the most talented “politico” of all American history, and jovial, and large-minded, even with all his faults and scandals.

But undoubtedly the three who affected me and changed me most importantly were that blessed threesome of the 20th century, Prime Minister Thatcher, President Reagan, and Pope John Paul II. I was very, very lucky to be asked to join them at significant points. In the memoir, those three get most attention, including the work on human rights that President Reagan assigned me. In the economics of joy, growth, opportunity, and the actual lifting of the poor, Jack Kemp and Steve Forbes brought me into many public policy “battles of ideas.”

PETE: This book covers your journey from liberal to conservative. Realizing multiple influences impacted your change in ideology, what were some of the greatest contributors to this?

MICHAEL NOVAK: The changes of direction by the political and cultural left from about 1968 on. The immense damage done to the family and young adults and children by the way the “War on Poverty” was carried out, especially in the moral and cultural sphere – even while great gains were made in reforms to help the elderly, who were much better off thirty years later than they had been in, say, 1960. The loss of will on the left to resist fighting for the advance of human rights and democracy in outlying vulnerable nations. I wanted to be loyal to John F. Kennedy’s “pay any price, bear any burden.” Many of my former companions started wilting away. They had some good reasons for doing this, while I thought (and think) that they were weakening just in the climactic moments.

I felt as if my Party, the Democratic Party, was pulling away from me, and going in new directions I didn’t always want to go. Suddenly, under Reagan some of my Republican friends seemed to become more internationalist, more eager fighters for human rights and democracy around the world, and much more practical about the economics of how actually to help the poor to rise, in dignity, self-worth, and working their way out of material indigence.

It seems odd, but I did think that the ground under my own feet stayed relatively constant, while the two political movements Left and Right virtually changed sides. By 2001, in the aftermath of the acts of terror on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the flight taken down by American resistance in the air over Pennsylvania, I felt again the spirit articulated so well by JFK. Year by year, my Democratic friends again wilted away. Good people all, but disappointing.

In fact, of course, I did learn a lot from year to year, and watched my old ways of thinking fail, met new ways that struck me as more correct than my old ones, and tried to follow the lessons of our public experience. And I deepened my mind in studies of poverty and welfare, and human rights abroad, and the ideas and religious principles behind the American founding.

PETE: In your career, how has your Catholic faith influenced you?

MICHAEL NOVAK: I began my studies for the priesthood at the age of 14, entering high school at the University of Notre Dame. From very early on I committed my life, in my own location, to “instaurare omnia in Christo,” as St Paul puts it. In my young mind I translated this as “to re-found all things in Christ,” to penetrate every profession and environment in this world with the yeast of the gospels. I prepared myself for twelve years for a priesthood of doing this. Then, after a very dark night of two years or more at the end, I came to see (and at last so did my spiritual director and religious superiors) that the Lord wished me to labor in the lay world. I felt a vocation to the missions – not overseas, but in the secular world around us. I felt called to work outside Catholic institutions, at the heart and center of American secular intellectual life, in the university and in journalism, and in study of foundational political and economic ideas. Naturally, all this was too big for me, and I failed a lot. None of it would have made any sense if I had not had that underlying commitment to the Lord – the Lord here and now, in this country, in the battles of my generation – or rather three generations, for we inherit the struggles of the preceding and find ourselves drawn into the rapidly coming fresh battles of the next.

PETE: Time for my signature ending question. This is a blog about books, what is on your bookshelf to read?

MICHAEL NOVAK: At 80, I find that I cannot read for as many hours as before. Still, books keep flowing into my home in a stream and I am quite weak-willed about ordering others online – in tune with all the main passion of my past. Right now, a re-reading of Bridehead Revisted. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, on the newly shifted class will dividing American society. A new collection of what appear to be brilliant and provocative chapters on Muslim perceptions of the Crusades, Sir Walter Scott’s Crusades and Other Fantasies by Ian Warraq. The superbly tender new biography of her two parents, one Jewish, one Catholic, during the agonies of the Holocaust, I Kiss Your Hands Many Times by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak.

Finally, since I am to teach a course on the philosophy of John Henry Newman next spring, I have a solid list of re-readings to do.

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Michael Novak received the 1994 Templeton Prize, an award that has also gone to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mother Teresa, and Charles Taylor. He has taught at Harvard and Stanford and has held academic chairs at Syracuse University and Notre Dame, and now holds the Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. You can learn more about him and his work at his website http://michaelnovak.net/

 

 


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