by michael novak
image, 336 pages, $24
Time seems to have mellowed Michael Novak, the well-known Catholic writer, theologian, and philosopher. In previous decades, he wrote that the neoconservatives who, like himself, had moved from the political left to right over the course of the 1960s and 1970s were motivated by “a powerful intellectual conviction that the left was wrong about virtually every big issue of our time: the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese regime, economics, welfare, race, and moral questions such as abortion, amnesty, acid, and the sexual revolution.”
Novak’s new memoir, published as the author celebrated his eightieth birthday this past September, contains no such searing indictments. It settles no scores, revisits only some of the old battles, and has kind words even for the Democrats’ most left-wing presidential nominee, George McGovern (“an extraordinarily decent man . How could you not love the guy?”). It contains some wonderful scenes from Novak’s life, including an affectionate description of his encounter in graduate school with the French playwright and philosopher Gabriel Marcel, and a useful reflection on the realism of his intellectual role model, Reinhold Niebuhr.
He does not suffer from false modestyhe points out that his writing influenced both the founding manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society and Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. But the book’s restrictive focus means that he says little about other events or even long periods in his life: his dozen years in the seminaries of the Congregation of Holy Cross, or his appointments at places like Syracuse University and the Rockefeller Foundation, or his reception of one of the world’s most prestigious honors, the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.