Michael Novak, Founding Father

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 20th 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 20th 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 19th 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 our 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, Rav Saunders, is mourning the fact that his brilliant son, Danny, will not 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 Rav 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, Rav 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’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

  • antigon

    Novak’s a “Catholic” thinker in the same way that Christopher Hitchens & his hatred of Mother Teresa’s holiness are, as Novak described it, “a national treasure.”

  • Ken

    Sorry, but this back-patting begs the question: where are the results?

    There are many of us out here who believe Michael Novak and George Weigel made things worse, not better, during the reign of John Paul II, which can easily be described as an utter disaster for the Church from 1978-2005.

    What good things (that can be measured, not just feel-good emotional stuff) happened during these years?

    Thankfully there is a new sheriff in the Vatican.

  • Stephen

    Antigon, please either provide a link and reference to your claim, or an apology to Mr. Novak.

    And ken, NO good things happened in the Church from 70 – 05? That is some claim. Weigel’s biographies of JPII alone get him on the list of those who have helped the Church over this period, though those are not his only contributions; and whatever you think of Novak’s economics, he did ably defend the Church in many ways, and in his own way.

    The uncharity in these comments smacks of envy. A serious critique of either writer would acknowledge the real goods of their work and challenge those things that required challenge.

    • Ken

      No, Stephen, it is not “uncharity” or “envy” to praise and defend traditional Catholicism while criticizing liberal and radical progressivism within the Church.

      Michael Novak started out as an extreme anti-Catholic radical in the 1960s and didn’t get a heckuva’ lot better as the years went on. Some would even say society simply drifted to the left as he remained the same, so he merely appeared more conservative than when he was signing dissents against the pope and the Catholic Church on birth control in the 60s. I think we can find better men to praise.

  • Bob G

    Weigel’s encomium deserves better than such sour responses. I haven’t agreed with Mike Novak on everything but he filled a crucial gap between 1970 and the end of the century by defending the market economy against hordes of socialists. He has always been extremely illuminating on a host of subjects, including, of all things, George Washington. If Novak reads Weigel’s testament, I hope he takes comfort from the great appreciation that thousands of readers have for his work. May he live many more years.

  • antigon

    No apologies.

    From NRO Online, May 17, 2007:

    Michael Novak

    Title: Christopher Hitchens Is a Treasure
    Subheading: A good, useful atheist.

    Opening lines: One of the writers whose courage and polemical force I highly admire is Christopher Hitchens. He gives frequent proof of a passionate honesty…

    But I fear Stephen will find it a more daunting task to cite any “real goods,” – as opposed to a long career of sycophantic hackery – in Mr. Novak’s already forgotten oeuvre.

  • Stephen

    Antigon, still looking for where Novak said, as you claim he said, “Christopher Hitchens & his hatred of Mother Teresa’s holiness” are a “national treasure.”

    It strengthens your argument to admit error and clarify where needed. Baseless and virulent exaggerations don’t help.

    But I think it’s clear to readers here where you stand.

  • Gabriel Austin

    I have long suggested to readers of GKC’s articles reprinted from the Illustrated London News, that they staple together Mr. Novak’s prefaces so as to avoid them. Mr. Novak quite simply contradicts GKC on the subject of industrial capitalism. “What he really means…”. GKC does not need Mr. Weigel’s “explanations”. To my mind they are attempts to round up GKC into some sort of capitalist corral: the kind that GKC spent his life fighting.

  • antigon

    Syllogism for Stephen:

    1) Mr. Hitchens is (in)famous not least for his baseless & virulent book of hate against Mama T’s manifest (& formally recognized) holiness.

    2) Novak, aware of this, lauds (see above) Hitchens’s ‘courage & polemical force’ that ‘gives frequent proof of passionate honesty’ of a kind as to make the man no less than a ‘ national treasure.’

    3) Look no further.

    Alas, even admitting error wouldn’t do much to strengthen the pretense that Novak provided any – uncited to be sure – real goods, so baseless insinuation will have to do.

    But since Novak, like Hitchens, is a dutifully predictable war boy, it should be clear to readers that for some that’s all that’s necessary even to win unmerited plaudits.