Michael Novak, Founding Father

Published July 20, 2011

The Catholic Difference

CRACOW. Twenty years ago, the American Catholic thinker Michael Novak put his head together with his friend Rocco Buttiglione, a distinguished Italian thinker, to see what might be done about educating a new cadre of young Catholic leaders in the social doctrine of the Church. John Paul II’s recently-released social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, seemed an ideal intellectual anchor for such an enterprise, given its rich development of the social doctrine and its bracing challenge to build free and virtuous societies in the 21st century. Rocco had a teaching position in Liechtenstein at the time, and it was decided that the Centesimus Annus Seminar on the Free Society could meet at the International Academy of Philosophy there.

Michael recruited Father Richard John Neuhaus, Father Maciej Zieba, OP, and me onto the faculty team, and the project was launched in July 1992. As we were completing the second annual seminar the following year, I suggested to my colleagues that God did not require us to spend any more of our lives in Liechtenstein, and that we ought to look for a new seminar home. Given that the majority of our students were recruited from the new democracies of central and eastern Europe, the two likeliest places to move were Prague and Cracow. I was decidedly in favor of the latter, as was John Paul II, and, with the invaluable aid of the Polish Dominican province, the move was made.

The annual seminar has been in Cracow ever since; its name changed during the Great Jubilee to Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society, in order to catch the emphasis of our patron, John Paul II, on the future of evangelization in the third millennium. The world’s only seminar named by an ablative absolute has just completed its twentieth annual assembly, bringing American graduate students together with peers from all over central and eastern Europe for what my faculty colleagues and I have come to think of as Officer Training School for the culture wars.

On this twentieth anniversary, it’s worth noting and celebrating Mike Novak’s indispensable role in launching this unique program in international Catholic education. I tried to capture some of the flavor of Mike’s presence to the seminar in recent years in a toast I offered last July at his retirement dinner:

Just last week, Michael and I were teaching in Cracow, in the nineteenth annual assembly of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society….Michael has made many original contributions to the development of contemporary Catholic social thought, principally in helping the Church grapple with the meaning of democratic capitalism. Yet, in our seminar last week, Michael returned to his philosophical roots and spoke about ‘the experience of nothingness.

He wasn’t discussing the Washington Wizards’ 2009-2010 season; nor was he reflecting on his daily encounter with the New York Times editorial page. Rather, he was leading our students through an exploration of the soul-withering nihilism that has eaten the heart out of so much of the contemporary world, and into an examination of how we might heal those wounds in our culture.

As I watched out students interact with Michael, an image from Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen, came into my mind. At the novel’s dramatic climax, the old Hasidic rabbi, Reb Saunders, is mourning the fact that his brilliant son, Danny, will not to take up the hereditary rabbinate in his father’s stead, but will pursue a vocation in the world as another kind of healer, a psychologist. Yet Reb Saunders consoles himself with the fact that Danny can still be a tzaddik, a wise man who can help others grasp the truths of a truly human life amidst life’s inevitable pain. Danny, Reb Saunders says, will be “…a tzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik.

That is what Michael Novak has become in his eighth decade: a tzaddik for the world, a man of wisdom who invites others into wisdom. So please join me in a toast to a Catholic tzaddik-for-the-world: Michael Novak, the tzaddik from Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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