The Prince of Darkness’s Augustinian journey.
I only met Bob Novak once and relatively recently, at my daughter’s wedding, as he was a dear friend of the groom’s family. After offering him my personal appreciation for his writings over the years, the brief conversation turned to the newlyweds, the Illini, and other pleasantries.
I had read his columns all my adult life and several of his books. I was in complete agreement with him on issues ranging from his strong anti-Communism and social conservatism, supply-side economics, and his prescient opposition to the Iraq war which earned him an unjustified insult from David Frum who accused him of being part of a posse of so-called “Unpatriotic Conservatives.”
Reading all the heartfelt tributes to Novak as a reporter, controversialist and a human being, I am struck by the trajectory of his life and thought which seem to have come to a kind of Augustinian position, a place of rest, an angle of repose to use an engineering term appropriated by Wallace Stegner for his famous novel of the same name.
Bob Novak was an unsparing observer of the Washington circus, a very unedifying spectacle of the works of the City of Man. In later life he was drawn to the nearest thing to the City of God on earth, Roman Catholicism, at least from his perspective.
As a Catholic I was both surprised and heartened by this development. I was surprised because Novak’s public persona was curmudgeonly and fierce. There is a great line attributed to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) in which he said, “Well, we’ve now made Bob a Catholic. The question is, can we make him a Christian?” Only later did I read the testimony of so many of his close friends who spoke of his kindness and sacrifice on their behalf.
I was heartened by Bob Novak’s conversion, as I am with all conversions, since, like many “cradle” Catholics, I sometimes become too immersed in the culture of Catholicism as just part of the furniture in your life, taken for granted, often losing that sense of the power and glory of Jesus who lived, taught, suffered, died and rose in untold love and mercy for us all. For a mature adult to take the plunge into faith is always a wonderful thing to behold and a jolt to a dormant spirituality of other persons of faith, often distracted by the cares of daily life and in need of spiritual rekindling.
As to this theory of mine that Novak developed a kind of Augustinian sense that the City of God was not of this world, recall Voltaire’s quip that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman nor an empire. Some fabulists in the Middle Ages misread St. Augustine’s great text on the subject as justifying such a thing, thereby rendering unto Caesar the things of God. The City of God does exist, but not in the same dimension of time and space as the Terrestrial City. It is a thing to be longed for, strived for. As Richard John Neuhaus has written, we rely on that hope even as we do what we can to serve and work for the welfare of the city of our exile as the Old Testament prophet counseled the Jews in their Babylonian exile.
Tim Carney, who worked for Novak at the Evans-Novak Political Report late in the great man’s career, describes his change over time:
Novak earned the nickname the Prince of Darkness for being so pessimistic so young. Early in his career, his bleak outlook stemmed from a fear that freedom would fall to Communism — a worry he would shed by the time Ronald Reagan became president. Later in his career, Novak’s pessimism and reputation as a curmudgeon derived from something altogether different — he had lost faith in politics to make the world better.[Emphasis added]
Noting that Bob Novak was influenced by Whittaker Chambers, author of Witness and an ex-Communist, Carney states, “After Novak’s trust in politicians was steadily worn down by the gritty facts of politics, the old man found faith in God. I believe this is no coincidence.”
St. Francis of Assisi urged us to “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Bob Novak would, no doubt, appreciate the irony that his very life itself, rather than his outstanding reporting and written words, may be his greatest gift to us all. May he rest in peace.
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