It is with sadness that we at American Greatness note the passing of the accomplished writer, thinker, and theologian Michael Novak—a man whose influence extended to everyone from statesmen, to popes, and intellectuals, to the common man. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, praised him and Pope John Paul II called him a friend. He was wise, but what is even more, he was kind. Indeed, he was a dear man who brought out the best in others and who, when he did so, was not afraid.
One summer while I was a young graduate student, I had the pleasure of spending three weeks abroad in Liechtenstein with him, the late Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel studying Pope John Paul II’s great encyclical, Centesimus Annus (a great work on political freedom that Novak is widely considered to have influenced) among other works. This was not long after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, so the point of the program was to mix young American Catholics with their counterparts who hailed from the old Eastern bloc countries. It made for fascinating conversations about the meaning and purpose of freedom and more than a few “interesting” dinners (as one of the duties of the students in the program was to take turns cooking). Novak was a delight throughout and an inspired patriot.
My friend and colleague, Seth Leibsohn, reminded me today of a recent volume published by the Heritage Foundation that has the rather dry title, 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity. Of course, it is intended for policy makers and the like and it is full of important data and analysis surrounding the leading issues of our day. Seth even contributed an important section to the work. The point is, the work is not really meant to be literature; it’s serious policy material.
Yet, consider these beautiful words from the introduction:
The free society is the most fragile of all societies because any one generation can become oblivious to its multiple living principles, live unworthily of them, hand over the keys, and walk out into darkness.
Only one generation is required. Yet in practice, the downward slide usually begins three or four generations earlier than the final collapse. Our own generation sometimes seems to be hurtling downward.
We have hardly begun to address the rapid decline in the social ecology of our time. Many evils and self-destructive behaviors run rampant. Moral ecology is the new frontier of political economy: the culture in which the free society thrives — or destroys itself.
That is Michael Novak. Is there a more clear statement of the connection between our freedom and our civic duty? Of the threat we face if we do not seek to re-establish that connection in healthier ways? And that was just in an introduction. If you are not familiar with his other works, let that introduction be an invitation to discover more. You will not be disappointed.