Michael Novak, Noted Theologian, Philosopher and Author Was 83

Michael Novak, a Catholic philosopher, theologian and author who was highly regarded for his religious scholarship and intellectual independence, died Feb. 17 at home in Washington, D.C. He was 83.

His daughter Jana Novak told The Washington Post the cause of death was complications from colon cancer.

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A Second Brother Dies

For the second time, my brother Richard has died, first my blood brother Father Richard Novak in January many years ago in Bangladesh, now today Father Richard John Neuhaus in New York City. Surrounded by many of his friends and surviving family, Fr. Neuhaus died peacefully in his sleep, having been unconscious since the day before. He had been hospitalized Dec. 26 for the second (and last) time in recent weeks. Not long after having been diagnosed with a serious cancer about a month ago, he fell ill under a severe infection that (if I understand correctly) refused to be stopped, and slowly spread until it reached his heart.

It has been a very long time (if ever) since any American Catholic priest had as much influence in the Vatican, in the highest reaches of American life, on the intellectual culture of Christianity here and abroad, on Christian-Jewish conversations of the deepest and warmest sort, on the relations of Evangelicals and Catholics in this land, and on the intellectual life of his beloved New York City, which he first began to serve almost fifty years ago as a Lutheran pastor in a large black church in Brooklyn.

He died short of his 73nd birthday, which falls on May 14.

Neuhaus founded the journal First Things in 1990.Fr. Neuhaus was the best leader of a seminar that many participants in his many seminars had ever experienced. He seemed always to be in the lead of important moral, religious, and political movements, often even years before others came to see any such need. Friends teased him that Martin Luther nailed a mere 95 theses in one manifesto on a church door in Wittenburg, whereas Fr. Richard seemed to draft whole manifestos every three or four years. For instance, on the non-negotiables of Christian Faith, on religious liberty, on what was morally wrong with the conduct of the war in Vietnam, on ecumenical study and conversation, on Evangelical-Catholic cooperation, on abortion and other pro-life issues, and so forth.

He was many times a guest at the table of Pope John Paul II, and at least once, before he became Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was speaker, seminar-leader and guest of Father Richard at his Institute for Public Life in Manhattan.

The cherished center of the public life of Fr. Neuhaus has been the monthly journal First Things, which many around the world take to be the most serious and best religious publication in the entire English-speaking world – and perhaps without rival in any language. His own monthly round-up in that journal The Public Square always took up ample space, showed the most amazing wide range of reading and witty prose, and was by far the best-read section of each monthly issue. Its readers felt that no one they knew was in touch with as many vital cultural currents and on such a deep level, and wrote about them with equal wryness, humor, and adroit puncturing of pretence.

Richard Neuhaus always followed where the best evidence available to him called. He moved to the radical side of the critique of the too-complacent liberalism of the late 1960s, and then slowly toward the criticism of radicalism when it lost its Christian moorings, and drifted before the winds of unguided passion and political fantasy.

He bore with grace the charge of having become “neo-conservative,” when the term was intended as an insult, and even turned that charge into a positive advantage, carving out a new blend of Christian orthodoxy and political realism. Increasingly, he regained his love for the nobility of the American experiment, a term he understood with all its attendant ironies.

He was a great friend to Martin Luther King, William F. Buckley, Jr., Peter Berger and many other great public spirits of our time. In fact, few people in the world have shown his talent for friendship. Even fewer have a heartier laugh or a more frequent witticism. Almost none have his range of serious reading and profound observation. His judgment on ideas and events was unusually compelling and often much more on target than that of others. He welcomed objection, criticism, and open disagreement, taking all of them in generously and well, even when he sometimes felt their sting.

He was an extraordinary pastor of souls. He influenced, even directed, some thousands of personal voyages through dark and dubious times, and spoke with immediacy to many troubled hearts. He encouraged many budding talents, and gave many young writers (and preachers and others) a first start.

Brought up as the son of a Lutheran pastor, the younger Neuhaus was nourished from his seminary days on by the community of those Lutherans who held that the aim of Luther was to bring the Catholic Church back to fidelity to its origins, and who were deeply committed to a much-desired reunion of the two separated communities. Painfully, the younger Pastor Neuhaus came to judge that nowadays the Catholic Church was ever more serious about such self-reform, just as some key leaders among Lutherans were drifting toward not concretely wanting such unity, in any case not soon. He felt obliged to follow his vocation to join the Catholic Church, not as a conversion, but as a public declaration of what he had always believed. He did so despite a certain cultural resistance from others, even in his new communion.

Father Neuhaus was the most consequential Christian intellectual in America since Reinhold Niebuhr. He was the most consequential Catholic since John Courtney Murray, S.J., and Fulton J. Sheen. He was a worthy successor in a long chain of great witnesses.

Michael Novak, a member of the editorial board at First Things, is a scholar in residence at the American Enterprise Institute.

Published in National Catholic Reporter January 8, 2009