Some people still look askance at Catholic intellectuals. It doesn’t seem to matter to most British philosophers, for instance, that many of their greatest peers have been Catholics – from Anselm to Anscombe, from More to MacIntyre. They are still liable to sneer. Half a century ago Leonard Woolf tried to stop my father becoming editor of the New Statesman merely because he was a Catholic. Little has changed since.
There is one country, however, where the Catholic intelligentsia really matters: the United States. The death last month of the theologian and philosopher Michael Novak, at the age of 83, was treated as a major event on the other side of the Atlantic. Tributes poured in not only from Catholic institutions and individuals, but from Protestant and especially Jewish ones too. Why?
It isn’t just that Novak was highly respected by and influential on several presidents – though he was. This was all the more remarkable because those to whom he was especially close, Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, were Republicans, despite the fact that Novak was a lifelong Democrat.
Nor was it simply the prestige enjoyed by a distinguished scholar – Novak won the Templeton Prize in 1994 – who was equally eminent as a diplomat. In the 1980s he was Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and played a major role in the latter stages of the Cold War, leading the US delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
What really mattered about Novak were his ideas – ideas that will endure for as long as American Catholicism does. He began his intellectual journey in 1964 with The Open Church, the product of his time as a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter at the Second Vatican Council, which he attended while still studying philosophy and theology at Harvard. Novak welcomed Vatican II, but was alert to the danger that it might unleash revolution rather than reform.
His book established him as one of the best Catholic minds of his generation. Novak realised reluctantly that he had no priestly vocation. But his book is dedicated to his younger brother Dick, a priest who was tragically killed in Pakistan during riots between Hindus and Muslims.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection