In Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation, the philosopher and theologian Michael Novak and businessman William E. Simon Jr. have teamed up to highlight what Harvard professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon has called “The Hour of the Laity,” a real revolution in lay leadership in the Catholic Church. It’s a collection of profiles in Christian witness, offering both encouragement and a menu of options. And in All Nature Is a Sacramental Fire: Moments of Beauty, Sorrow, and Joy, Novak reveals his heart and soul, with poems he penned throughout his life, including some about his late wife, Karen. Novak talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about both fall books.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You went to Rome to cover the Second Vatican Council and hoped to pay your way by writing articles? Who was paying rates then that might make that possible? Did you pull it off?
MICHAEL NOVAK: We carried with us a famous book of those days, Europe on Five Dollars a Day. Well, each day cost a little more than that, but each time I sold a book review for about thirty dollars or an article for maybe ninety, that was like adding an extra week — or two weeks — to our budget. Once you set aside the weekly amount for our pensione, the cost of two meals out was not high, if you picked local places. Karen and I were both Depression children, able to get along on a little. Since we were newlyweds, Signorina Baldoni started to pray that Karen would conceive in her pensione, put us in “a room on the corner” (which was supposed to bring good fortune), and made sure Karen had a poached or soft-boiled egg every morning, in addition to the normal generous layout for the rest of us. Midway through, I took over a contract for a book on the Council (The Open Church, still in print) that the author was unable to fulfill, and so that solved our problem in one fell swoop.
LOPEZ: You use the phrase “social justice” in the book. That’s a phrase that has largely become a buzzword of the Left. Is it worth taking it back?
NOVAK: Don’t forget that the reason Leo XIII went searching for the new habit of mind and action that was later named “social justice” was to develop an alternative to statist forces such as Communism and Socialism. He wanted a habit that would enable the no-longer-rural Catholic people to achieve their social goals without falling into statism, that is, massive dependency on the state. That is why it is so sad to see many partisans of “social justice” nowadays, even in the United States, work uncritically to expand the federal state.
LOPEZ: The book gets into immigration early, through the eyes of a first-generation American from a Mexican family. The book notes that the Catholic Church grows in the United States, in part due to immigration. But look at a place like Los Angeles, and you realize some of those Catholic immigrants are not legal immigrants. How can we address this? There’s a definite gap between those looking at them pastorally and those looking at the issue as a public-policy one. How should lay Catholics be addressing this issue, as Catholics?
NOVAK: I never forget that I am the grandson of immigrants (from Slovakia, in the mountains of central Europe). This means treating new immigrants (from wherever) with a warm welcome and kindness. Illegal immigration is becoming a severe problem in many countries around the world (especially capitalist nations, which immigrants overwhelmingly prefer), no ducking it. Here it is the right and duty of each nation to set up orderly requirements and procedures. Meanwhile, at our U.S. birth rate (and abortion rate) our country has a severe infant deficit. We do not have nearly enough young workers to support the elderly, who depend on them. So it is right to encourage our nation to organize a good flow of immigrants. But it is wrong to foment lawbreaking through illegal entry.
LOPEZ: The Alliance for Catholic Education program at Notre Dame comes up in your book and is an undervalued gem there. Are programs like that and the Fund to Protect Human Life the hope of the place? Or will football and bad leadership kill the place, at least as a beacon for Catholic education?
NOVAK: The Alliance for Catholic Education has produced some great Catholic leaders for the future, and so have many other Catholic initiatives at Notre Dame. Some of the greatest lay (and priestly) thinkers in the world are on the faculty at Notre Dame. Don’t undersell the place because its Board of Trustees has become so secular and/or religiously shallow. . . . And would that the whole world hit such high standards for excellence as the Notre Dame football squad has down the years, despite its downturn periods. Kathryn, don’t ask me to bet against Notre Dame, ever!