The passing of a Catholic lion

The Catholic world lost a public intellectual last Friday. Michael Novak, in the tradition of William F Buckley, Richard Neuhaus and George Weigel, was a lion among intellectuals. His thinking and writing encompassed a universe of ideas, movements and events. His career included teaching, theological scholarship, politics, statesmanship and even novel writing.

In many ways, Michael was the true American story. He came from a small steel and coal town in Pennsylvania and rose to advise popes and politicians. He is a 20th century story of Catholic achievement -- parochial elementary school, time in the seminary, elite graduate school, councilor to the powerful, a loyal Notre Dame football fan, and yet he never lost the common touch.

He was intellectually entrepreneurial, writing novels, discussing theological questions, unafraid to deal with unbelief and atheism, making a movie, writing political speeches and speaking across the globe. Culture was at stake and the Catholic voice needed to be heard.

In between authoring dozens of books, he founded the influential Crisis Magazine. Our older daughter worked for him there in Washington, D.C. and, as with so many young Catholics, his generous mentorship was a life-changing experience. She wrote us recently about how many minds Michael changed from believing capitalism as something rapacious to the instrument of providing opportunity, better health, longer lives and, yes, liberty.

We met Michael and his artist wife, Karen Laub-Novak, in 1965 at Stanford University. Michael was a superstar. He had been writing brilliant essays on the Vatican Council for Commonweal and other magazines, so it was no surprise when he was invited to be the very first Catholic theologian to teach there. Not long before, a Catholic faculty member said in class that a Catholic would never receive tenure in his department at Stanford. But Michael was there and quickly popular with both students and faculty.

Although an assistant professor, he was still completing his doctoral work at Harvard. But he did the unthinkable! He had published widely before completing his dissertation. The aging dons of the philosophy department would show him. Ergo, thumbs down on the dissertation and no degree. Typical of Michael, he never spoke about this event with any bitterness. He was too charitable to hold a grudge.

We had our first taste of Roman life at a meal Michael arranged. Having lived and studied in Rome, he loved the city, its foods, its wines, and its tradition of meals as a feast of ideas.

Michael had a life-long passion for public affairs and politics. Over his lifetime, he worked with folks throughout the political spectrum, but always his lens was Catholic. He wrote speeches for George McGovern and Sargent Shriver and some say his was the thinking and writing behind St. Pope John Paul II's encyclical on socialism and capitalism, "Centesimus Annus."

His book, "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism," had its inspiration in Catholic social thought and is likely the most influential of his many writings. The late Senator Patrick Moynihan wrote that Michael "had changed history in 1982 with the publication of this book." Businessmen, academic and think tank scholars, prime ministers and presidents, all have credited his writing on capitalism. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were his admirers.

Although he was among the most joyous people we've ever know, his life was often touched with pain and disappointment. Sabotage by petty academics, at times suffering breaches with his children, and finally the loss of his wife Karen. Earlier on, he lost his brother, a missionary priest in Pakistan. He was reported murdered in a religious riot and his body was never recovered. But through his struggles he was too much in love with life to let setbacks dent his good nature.

In later years, he was in residence at Ave Maria University near Naples, Florida. He helped Tom Monaghan bring to fruition his dream of carving out of the tomato fields of Florida a great Catholic university surrounded by a town committed to its ideals. Michael was a major influence at Ave Maria both as a member of the Board of Trustees and a teacher. He was and is beloved by Ave Maria's students, who were constantly in Michael's home or around him at The Bean, the campus coffee shop.

He encouraged young students with their careers, in later years inviting them to his Delaware vacation home to help him with research. Critiquing their writings, discussing ideas, creating projects, to the end, Michael was engaged with them.

In the last year, he had accepted a position at Catholic University, no doubt at the invitation of its president, John Garvey, a contributor to these pages. A longtime resident, Michael felt at home there. As a scholar in residence at American Enterprise Institute, he and Karen had lived in Washington, D.C. for many years. Here he had a grand circle of friends and colleagues, priests and scholars.

But we knew he was in ill health and was weakening. A few weeks before his death, he called us, told us of the dire cancer prediction and then with characteristic Novak faith and good cheer, said, "Now I can be with Karen again."

R.I.P., Michael.

- Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.