Politics & Policy

Michael Novak: In Memoriam

Michael Novak at the Catholic Information Center in Washington in 2011 (Photo: Patrick Gerard Ryan)
NR contributors remember a great man and a great scholar.

National Review asked colleagues, friends, and admirers of the late Michael Novak to say some words about his life and work.

Carl A. Anderson

I first encountered Michael Novak while attending law school, not in one of his many lectures or conferences but in the pages of his 1972 book, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: The New Political Force of the Seventies. Michael wrote with audacity and insight about the experiences and expectations of those white ethnic families of Eastern and Southern European descent who, he asserted, were a new political and social force in American life. His words jibed with my own experience as the grandson of Italian immigrants who came to America at the turn of the 20th century, bringing an abiding religious faith, a love of their ancestral culture, and a fierce pride and loyalty to the land that would give them and their children unimaginable opportunities.

I knew what he was writing would be self-evident to millions of Americans and would in a few short years become a manifesto of sorts for many of us. “WASPS,” he wrote, “have never had to celebrate Columbus Day or march down Fifth Avenue wearing green. Every day has been their day in America. No more.” He was not talking about an early version of politically correct multiculturalism but something much more enduring in the American experience.

Michael’s observations would soon lead to a formulation of the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity” that placed new emphasis on the “mediating” institutions such as family, neighborhood, and civic organizations — the pillars of civil society essential to the sustainability of our freedoms. These were ideas that would find their way into the 1980 Republican platform and, with the corresponding rise of the blue-collar Reagan Democrats, would change the course of American political history.

Many of Michael’s friends will remember his many achievements as a teacher, a friend of Saint John Paul II, an author of books such as The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, and a devoted public servant. But for me it is even simpler: Millions of Catholics around the world have benefited from his scholarship and America is a better place because he lived and worked among us. Requiescat in pace.

— Carl A. Anderson is the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus.

 

Hadley Arkes

Michael Novak’s politics were anchored in that terrain in which he was born and spent his formative years — the land of steel mills and steep green hills in Johnstown, Pa. He wrote once that “it has never been difficult for me to identify with the poor. I was born among them.” And he grew up with these “plain, solid people.” He absorbed the sentiments of working people, ever loyal to their unions and the Democratic party. Michael absorbed those sentiments, and his sympathies with working people, woven with a Catholic culture, account for his early, strong tilt to a Democratic party that was liberal — and not yet “the Left.” He traveled back there this fall to attend a funeral in the family, and he was not surprised to see the signs for Trump springing up all over the landscape. Michael understood the shift in the politics of those “plain, solid people” because it mirrored his own.

That shift was made known to the political world in a gentle but telling way in 1976 with his classic piece in the Wall Street Journal, “A Closet Capitalist Confesses.” The idea of socialism was ever appealing — of material goods abounding, with no one left wanting, with everything distributed with a just, even hand. And yet, no one seemed to want to live in a socialist country. Not in Cuba or Tanzania or the countries of the Soviet bloc. Michael asked, What do you particularly like about socialism — that everything is controlled by the government?

The hard fact was that the system of “freedom” in the economy did produce its winners and losers, as everything in life produced winners and losers; but that system simply delivered more people more quickly from poverty and brought the most dramatic effects in lifting the estate, the living condition, of ordinary folk. “Socialism,” he said, “is a system built on belief in human goodness, so it never works. Capitalism is a system built on belief in human selfishness; given checks and balances, it is nearly always a smashing scandalous success.” Capitalism had “made the world rich, inventing riches other populations didn’t know they had. And yielding sinful pleasures for the millions.”

But the deep secret was that the system was not rooted in selfishness. It was fed by the freedom of “moral agents,” those beings capable of reasoning over right and wrong, and they were often driven to take risks and engage their full energies out of their drive to sustain the families they loved. Michael would bring out that fuller dimension of political economy with his classic work The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). And at this point he was in his dramatic leap: He would move from writing speeches for Bobby Kennedy and Sargent Shriver to becoming a leading public intellectual on the conservative side, and Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. When Bill Clinton was elected, Michael was still being invited to intimate gatherings with the Clintons. But he could never make his political peace with the party that became the party of abortion on demand for any reason at any time. And in later years, that party would be the one to cultivate the deepest contempt and animosity for those religious and moral convictions that still summoned the respect and devotion of those “plain, solid people”; those people, anchored in the world, and whose sense of the world Michael always respected.

Michael became the savviest writer on politics because he came to view politics with the sobriety of a theologian, but also with a lens that allowed him to see, in the grittiness of our lives, acts touched with grace. He was always steady. He was never panicked or distressed by the sudden turns or breaking news that stirred anxiety among the rest of us. And his interests were as expansive and unbounded as those of the Church in which he was raised, and which he nourished in turn with his writings. It was a Church, he said, “of the sinners, by the sinners, and for the sinners.” That sober realism, touched with humor, revealed also his confidence in how things in the end would turn out. When we would sit down to supper, he would often invoke this ditty, in part as blessing and part as assurance:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,

There’s always laughter and good red wine.

At least I’ve always found it so.

Benedicamus Domino!

— Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the founder and director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding in Washington, D.C.

 

Grattan Brown

My gratitude to Michael Novak began in mid August 2001, two weeks before my wedding, when he offered me a research position at the American Enterprise Institute. Great lover of entrepreneurship that he was, Michael delighted in the idea of a theologian heading off to his wedding gainfully employed.

During the three years that I worked with him, Michael helped me comprehend the free society in which I had always lived, but which I had never really understood: its culture, the spirit that kindles it, the institutions that establish it, the sacrifices that preserve it, its need for virtue lest its people enslave themselves, and its need for champions who understand and defend its foundations.

Michael showed me the impact that one person’s persistence and work could have on such a society. In his office at AEI, there were many signs of accomplishment and recognition: his published books, photos of him with presidents and popes, honorary degrees, gifts, and plaques. Among those signs of distinction, Michael took special pride in the samizdat version of Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. The small, black volume with no writing on the cover rested out in front of all the other books on a shelf to the left of his desk. It must have given him deep, deep satisfaction that his family’s Slovak, American, and Catholic experience had spoken to those yearning for freedom behind the Iron Curtain, giving them an idea of the kind of society they should work for after the inevitable fall of Communism.

Michael also taught me about friendship. He had a genius for making and keeping friends. In our conversations over the past few years, he often thanked me for my friendship. The first time, I didn’t know what to say. I was hardly among his closest friends, but he expressed his thanks with a sense of urgency. Why? I see two reasons. His wide-ranging friendships enabled him to understand the world’s great mix of peoples, philosophies, and cultures. Through friendship, he motivated others to work strenuously for those “unmeltable” peoples to establish societies guided by intelligently, charitably ordered liberty.

He, who had done so much to make such societies possible, died, as he had lived, with the great hope that they would endure. We all owe him our thanks.

— Grattan Brown is an associate professor of theology and the chair of the theology department at Belmont Abbey College.

 

Michael Novak writing in his study (Photo courtesy of Jana Miller)

John Garvey

In 1958 Michael Novak came to The Catholic University of America as a young man to study theology. He was a seminarian for the Congregation of the Holy Cross, discerning his vocation. More than half a century later, he returned to Catholic University, this time as a distinguished visiting fellow at the Busch School of Business and Economics. Novak began and ended his academic career as a member of the Catholic University community. I think these bookends provide an important insight into his remarkable intellectual contributions.

Novak made important contributions to theology and philosophy. He wrote about the American Founders and baseball. He was a novelist and poet. But his great masterpiece was The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

The defense of free markets and capitalism often rests on the results they produce: They have lifted billions of people out of poverty. They provide the most effective method of coordinating diverse and dispersed knowledge, materials, and the skills necessary for the efficient production of goods.

But for Christians, the ends cannot justify the means. And Novak recognized that capitalism presented a certain paradox to Christians trying to live out their faith in the world. The received wisdom about capitalism has always been that it accomplishes a highly moral outcome better than other systems do because it puts less stress on moral intentions and more on self-interest.

Novak’s unique contribution was to show that the ideals latent in the practice of capitalism do in fact resonate deeply with Christian ideals — our view of God, creation, and the human person. Capitalism is animated by the idea that human beings can increase the goods of this world through cultivation and care. Novak put this idea in theological terms that any Christian could recognize: “Creation left to itself is incomplete, and humans are called to be co-creators with God, bringing forth the potentialities the Creator has hidden.” Capitalism respects the individual judgment of economic agents. This respect for men and women as economic agents, Novak recognized, is grounded in a respect for them as human beings, unique sources of insight, creativity, and action.

Novak had no illusions that democratic capitalism was a perfect system. No system, he believed, could ever be perfect, given the reality of sin. If Novak offered a Christian defense of the idea of democratic capitalism, it was only because he was willing to put that idea on trial. He began his career as a theologian, and throughout his career he remained a theologian first. The truth of the Catholic faith was the measure by which he judged all other truth.

— John Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America.

 

Newt Gingrich

Callista and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Michael Novak. Michael was a wonderful human being, an incredible theologian and scholar, and a brilliant author. We will miss him dearly.

I had the pleasure of working with Michael over the years at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Callista and I also had the good fortune to collaborate with Michael in 2009 on our documentary film, Nine Days That Changed the World, about John Paul II’s historic 1979 pilgrimage to Poland and its undermining of the Soviet Empire.

Michael had a special affection for Poland, having launched a summer program in Krakow in 1992. His Slovak ancestry gave him a special interest in helping Eastern Europeans transition from Communism to democratic capitalism and Catholic social doctrine.

I first encountered Michael during the Reagan years as we worked to defeat Communism. As a young congressman trying to help in the great crusade for freedom, I knew we needed intellectual help on three fronts — and Michael was the man for the job.

First, his great work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, enabled us to contend with the arguments of anti-capitalist and anti-Christian intellectuals in Congress, the news media, and academia.

Second, his explanation of Catholic just-war doctrine helped us defend President Reagan’s policies that sought to counter Soviet aggression and ultimately defeat the Soviet Empire.

Third, his critique of liberation theology in Latin America helped us defend anti-Communist efforts in El Salvador, Honduras, and elsewhere.

Michael Novak made an enormous impact during his lifetime and his work will be studied by many for years to come.

— Newt Gingrich is a former presidential candidate and speaker of the House of Representatives.

 

Novak served as dean of a new “experimental” school at the newly founded State University of New York in Old Westbury, Long Island. (Photo courtesy of Jana Miller)

Anne Hendershott

It was with deep sadness that I learned that Michael Novak had died. In preparing to teach a new course in Catholic social teaching and public policy, I recently reread his Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982) and On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (2003). Michael understood better than most that the Catholic social-thought tradition can offer insights into our understanding of economic and social issues, particularly in relation to the goal of promoting a just society through public policy. While he was humble about it, he knew that the social teachings of the Church have laid great emphasis on understanding the historical and social context in which economic and social activity takes place. He maintained a strict adherence to the Gospel values from which these teachings sprang.

Michael never tried to offer a “Catholic answer” to every economic or social question, but he did offer a Catholic social-teaching lens through which to view specific social and economic problems, including, most important, poverty and the denial of religious freedom. He knew and confidently proclaimed that, despite all of its flaws, capitalism offers our best hope for alleviating poverty and guarding against despotism.

I will miss him greatly — he was kind enough to offer to read an early draft of my last book on the “renewal” in the Church. He provided helpful criticisms and, eventually, a strong endorsement. He was generous with his time, and was always kind, even when he disagreed. His books will live on and will be appreciated by scores of students who want to know how public policy can reflect moral principles.

I know how much he missed his beloved wife, Karen, and I like to think about his reunion with her in heaven.

— Anne Hendershott is a professor of sociology and the director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of six books, including Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education.

 

Michael Leaser

There are many scholars and journalists today who will note the enduring value of Michael Novak’s seminal work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, and rightly so. But when I was a young theology graduate student, it was Novak’s discourse on the theological and spiritual dimensions of sports in his underappreciated The Joy of Sports that convinced this major sports enthusiast to want to work for him. Not two weeks after I started at AEI, he invited me to join him and his daughter Jana for a game at Camden Yards to see the Orioles play his Dodgers. This was several years before the Nationals relocated to D.C., so the Dodgers’ appearances in the area were few and far between. After we parked in a garage several blocks from the stadium, he was so eager to get to the game on time that he — at the age of 69 — ended up a full block ahead of Jana and me. A bit worried, I asked Jana whether he realized we weren’t with him. She smiled and said he would eventually. The next year, we had the pleasure of watching a 17-inning contest between the Phillies and Orioles together. And every year, when the Notre Dame football schedule was posted, we would go over his own schedule to make sure he could get to South Bend for a game that fall.

What I grew to admire most about Michael Novak, though, was his willingness to talk with, and be an encouragement to, so many of the interns and young staffers at AEI. There are days when I knew he was exhausted — maybe he had just come back from Rome — but if an intern came by unannounced and wanted to talk with him, he would invariably light up, invite the person in, and make him feel as if it were the most important meeting of his day. His was a great light, and I believe it will continue to shine brightly in the hearts of everyone who knew him and was touched by his work.

— Michael Leaser is vice president of Cave Pictures and an associate of the Clapham Group. He was Michael Novak’s executive assistant at the American Enterprise Institute from 2002 to 2005.

 

Christopher Levenick

Michael Novak’s many achievements now belong to history. His contributions to Catholic social thought, his efforts to frame a moral case for democratic capitalism, his work to explore the moral and theological roots of the American experiment: For all of these, he will rightfully be remembered.

But what his future students will not know, what they cannot know, is how Michael radiated joy. There was a certain lightness to his personality, a winsome combination of playfulness and kindness. He had an impish grin, and eyes that would light up easily and often. Michael spent a lifetime probing the weightiest of matters — sin and death, poverty and war — but never with a heavy heart. He had hope for the future and gratitude for the past. For now? A little joke, a smile, a word of encouragement.

People were drawn to him. Friendship came naturally and was expressed many thousands of times over coffee or drinks, in meetings or at meals. He could effortlessly transition from a morning talking with high-school students to an afternoon leading a graduate seminar to an evening mingling with Supreme Court justices and members of Congress. He was just as delighted to discuss tax policy with a Nobel laureate as he was to talk football with a journeyman electrician.

His writing could not help but reflect his disposition. His prose pulses with a love of life and is peppered with novelistic details. (Indeed, his two novels are unfairly overlooked.) The books are exploratory, probing, creative — serious without being scholarly. They will continue to testify to their author’s generosity of spirit.

In the meantime, let us remember the man and honor his accomplishments. Let us look forward, as did he, to that glorious day when we may be reunited, upon the distant bank of the River Jordan.

— Christopher Levenick is the director of public engagement at the John Templeton Foundation.

 

Michael with his wife Karen Laub-Novak (Photo courtesy of Jana Miller)

Kathryn Jean Lopez

I owe Michael Novak lunch. At the Palm in Washington, D.C., if I recall correctly. After a certain number of years, I think we had a silent agreement never to let him cash in on it so he could keep teasing me about it.

For all these years, I thought it was about a political prediction he got right and I was skeptical about. A Google search tells me it was about who would become pope after John Paul II (in 2005). Suffice it to say, I took it for granted there would be more time for lunch. Michael, of course, died Friday morning.

I spoke to Michael twice last fall — when he showed up for opening night of Mary Eberstadt’s Loser Letters (the origin of which was a National Review Online series that he encouraged her to turn into a stage play) and when he came to another evening event I hosted for the National Review Institute at my alma mater, The Catholic University of America, where he spent his final semesters. Rather than taking time for granted, he seemed to be living each day to the fullest. He was tired and in pain and didn’t have to show up to either of these things — and yet he did, showing support for efforts he wanted to make known he supported and was grateful for.

As it happened, Michael was a longtime contributor to and supporter of NRO. I couldn’t tell you exactly when it was now, but sometime around 2000 or earlier, I e-mailed Michael Novak and asked him to write for National Review’s website, still in its earlier years then. I had no idea whether he would reply, but he did. And write and write and write he would do for us for years to come. And on every topic under the sun. In many ways he was among those intellectuals — such as George Weigel and Princeton’s Robby George, to name just a few — who saw this online business as worth encouraging, legitimizing online commentary as a place where they would write on what they pleased, when they saw the need or felt the desire to do so, with the same care and consideration they would in print. He was a pioneer, in this way, as well established as he already was.

By far, his Notre Dame football pieces were his most passionate. But it was his love for his wife and family that will always be what I remember best. He and his late wife Karen went on an NR cruise to the Mediterranean with many members of their family. I remember them making the effort to travel through ruins in Ephesus, including where Saint John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, is believed to have died. The veil was thin between heaven and earth there, reminding us where we belong, where we were made for. There was tremendous peace — and joy — there that day. They seemed a witness to both enduring love and redemptive suffering.

Michael was a mentor to many, never taking for granted that he would be here on earth forever, making use of the time he had until the end.

While I can’t buy him lunch, I can share a story. Never forget you’re not guaranteed tomorrow. And, as Michael might add with a smile: Never trust K-Lo’s predictions. Or — my loss and regret — lunch promises.

According to his sister, Mary Ann, in his final days, when he could speak, he would say his most important words, after writing over 40 books: “God loves you and you must love one another, that is all that matters. God bless you all.”

Requiescat in pace.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.

 

Daniel J. Mahoney

One of Michael Novak’s most penetrating books is titled “On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding” (2002). Like the Founders he so admired, Novak drew on “humble faith” and a reason rooted in common sense to explore the genius of America, its commitment to self-government in the most capacious sense of that term. He knew that self-government depended upon self-command and self-control. He saw no fundamental opposition between Christian faith and a regime of political and economic liberty. He never reduced America to its roots in Enlightenment thinking, since he was also sensitive to the “Hebrew metaphysics” of contingency, openness, and liberty that inspired a founder such as John Adams. Like Alexis de Tocqueville, the greatest foreign friend and critic of the American experiment in self-government, Novak understood that “the spirit of religion” and “the spirit of liberty” stood or fell together. A defender of the prosaic but very real achievements of democratic capitalism (see his 1982 masterpiece The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism), he knew better than anyone that the promise of a free political order depended upon the cultivation of moral virtues and “habits of the heart” that were under threat from postmodern nihilism. No less than totalitarianism, such nihilism severed the connections between truth and liberty and threatened to mutilate the human soul. Michael’s most eloquent and discerning treatment of this problem was his 1994 Templeton Prize Address. (Novak was in distinguished company: Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were also laureates of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.)

In that address, Novak weighed and balanced the achievements and the limitations of modernity. While never ceasing to affirm the evident superiority of democratic capitalism to socialism in all its forms, he acknowledged the increasingly ascendant “vulgar relativism” that haunted the regime of modern liberty. The easygoing denial of objective truth was becoming the norm. He paid tribute to the likes of Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Bukovsky, Václav Havel, and Anatoly Sharansky, all of whom courageously defended truth and the integrity of the soul against the mendacity at the heart of Communist totalitarianism. Truth is what allows the free man, the man of moral and intellectual integrity, to stand erect. But too many people in the Free World have succumbed to what C. S. Lewis called “the poison of subjectivism” and the accompanying “great refusal” to recognize that the human mind and soul are oriented toward truth. Novak worried that the unmasking of the Great Lie, the illusion that men and societies could be transformed in a stroke, that human beings can live without God, was being squandered by relativism and subjectivism. Like his great and good friend Pope John Paul II in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Novak believed that modern intellectuals’ “devaluation of the human person” would poison the very real achievements of a free polity and a free economy. He affirmed that truth matters and that the totalitarians would win a posthumous victory if free societies capitulated to “nihilism with a happy face.” Let us repeat Novak’s striking and remarkably relevant warning: “Vulgar relativism is an invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving. The most perilous threat to the free society is, therefore, neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism.” Like Solzhenitsyn, Novak was an articulate critic of mendacity in both its totalitarian and postmodern forms. His defense of democratic capitalism was neither facile nor unqualified.

Michael was also the most gracious of human beings. He was tough-minded but gentle in his own way. He loved the Catholic Church and the United States of America with a passionate intensity that was also thoroughly humane. One could not help but enjoy his company. When he moved from left to right (a long journey recounted in his 2013 political autobiography, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative), he lost many friends on the left who were all too eager to excommunicate him. But he always remained a model of civility and reasoned argument even when confronted by those who refused to reciprocate his appeals to dialogue. His example of “humble faith” and “common sense” remains a living testament to those inside and outside the Church. May this great American rest in peace, and may his life and thought be long remembered.

— Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College, where he has taught since 1986. His latest book, The Humanitarian Subversion of Christianity: Why the Christian Religion Is Not the Religion of Humanity, will appear from St. Augustine’s Press next year.

 

Michael and Karen with their children (from left) Tanya, Rich, and Jana  (Photo courtesy of Jana Miller)

Catherine R. Pakaluk

I believe it is one of those experiential proofs for the immortality of the soul that we can say what seems utterly impossible: that Michael Novak has passed from this life. When I heard the news, I was sitting in a hospital room not very different from the room in which I had last seen Novak, three days before his passing. The hospital room was occupied by my son Joseph, who had suffered a traumatic ski accident. Although I was expecting the news about Novak, indeed thinking of him nearly constantly in those last days, still it took my breath away, and its impossibility is what struck me most at that moment in the hospital room in Winchester, Va. Novak was that great-souled man described by Aristotle, and such greatness cannot simply cease to be. We sense that it must press forward, to be perfected and purified, until we can join him and resume the “conversation of friends” — in the art of which I have known no superior to Michael Novak.

Many have commented on Novak’s singular capacity for teaching and mentoring. I first met Michael precisely in that capacity, as a student in AEI’s Tertio Millennio summer institute in Krakow, Poland, in the summer of 1997. Together with other greats — George Weigel, Russell Hittinger, and the Reverend Richard John Neuhaus — Novak introduced us to the social teaching of the Catholic Church. I was a 19-year-old economics student from an Ivy League university: Catholic social thought was not on the curriculum. Nor did we study any of the classic texts of political and economic thought. To listen to Novak lecture was to meet these ideas in the flesh — ideas I later went on to read in print. I was transfixed and inspired that summer — and Novak may have saved me from leaving economics as a discipline, because to Novak these ideas really mattered.

The economics curriculum at my university (and Penn was not unique in this) suffered acutely from the problem identified by James M. Buchanan in his 1964 article “What Should Economists Do?” What frustrated Buchanan, who went on to win the Nobel prize in economics in 1986, was that to most economists “our subject field is a problem or set of problems, not a characteristic human activity” (emphasis mine). He argued that this mistake would lead inexorably to the disintegration of “economics as a well-defined area of scholarship.” What he did not say but might have said is that a set of merely technological problems cannot inspire, cannot ennoble, and risks a sort of massive irrelevancy with respect to the great questions of human life. I raise this point because it seems to me that there is no better way to describe Novak’s work than to say that he never touched on a subject as anything other than “a characteristic human activity.”

It is worth noting that Novak’s formal education in philosophy, theology, and religious studies was much more like that of Adam Smith than like that of any modern-day economist. This has profound implications for higher education and may explain why Novak was such a fan of religious colleges, helping to found Ave Maria University and finishing his academic career at The Catholic University of America. We should expect, I hope, many initiatives in the coming years, especially at religious institutions, which seek to unpack the importance of philosophy and theology for economics and social science at large.

— Catherine R. Pakaluk is an assistant professor of economics in the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America.

 

R. R. Reno

The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism was a landmark book, not just for me, but for many others as well. After the end of World War II, the Soviet Union emerged as an existential threat, and the mainstream of American liberalism was clear about the need to defend “the American way of life,” which included capitalism. But their hearts were not in it. When I was a college student in the late 1970s, socialism was widely acknowledged as morally superior, even if unworkable at a practical level.

Michael Novak had thought that way himself. Born during the Depression and raised in working-class Johnstown, Pa., Michael had a native idealism, fueled by a passionate religious faith, that led him in the direction of utopian thinking. As a young man, he wrote a number of books promoting progressive social and religious ideas. But Michael began to have doubts.

As with so many who moved from left to right in the 1970s, his initial concerns were cultural. The universities became anti-American and perversely anti-intellectual. The Democratic party pledged its troth to an unlimited right to abortion. Instead of being pro-worker, post-Sixties progressivism became antagonistic to the kinds of people Michael grew up with and to whom he always remained loyal.

As the magic charm of progressive utopianism weakened, Michael turned his attention to political economy. He was a religious thinker and moralist, not an economist or policy wonk. The superior efficiency of free markets left him cold. Wealth alone does not make a society healthy. He was interested in the spiritual and moral contributions a modern capitalist economy makes to a good society.

His ability to articulate those contributions was why The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism exercised such remarkable influence. Michael overturned the almost universal presumption in favor of socialism in the Catholic Church. The lines of thought he pioneered were taken up by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical on society and economics, Centesimus Annus (1991). More broadly, he put paid to the conceit that the “good people” who care about justice necessarily favor a state-dominated economy.

Michael’s intellectual gifts were intuitive. His training in theology gave him insight into the spiritual dynamics that animate us far more deeply and powerfully than the material ones that are so thoroughly studied by the technocratic experts who dominate our political scene. This gave Michael a deep intellectual freedom. He was not wedded to ideologies.

The same mobility of mind that allowed him to think his way out of the dead end of utopian progressivism kept him from becoming a tediously pro-capitalist pundit. He never imagined that capitalism was a perpetual-motion machine that automatically delivers wealth and freedom, and he did not think we could deregulate our way to the Kingdom of God. Capitalism’s contribution to a good society requires the counterbalancing influences of a strong religious and moral culture as well as effective democratic institutions. Late in life, Michael recognized that these elements of a good society — especially the spiritual and moral dimension — must be strengthened. Once again, he was right.

Michael came through the revolutions of the 1960s with his religious faith and moral judgment intact. We are presently amidst another season of tumult and transformation in our politics and culture. I wish Michael were here to give us good guidance and counsel. We’re surely going to need it. May he rest in peace.

— R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things.

 

Michael Novak

Elizabeth Shaw

Editor’s Note: This piece was adapted from the introduction to The Myth of Romantic Love and Other Essays.

Anyone who knew Michael Novak will not be surprised that the bibliography of his published writings runs to over 100 pages. I suspect that most who know his name are also aware that he was once a man of the Left. But some may not know the full breadth of issues and themes he spoke and wrote about over the course of his career, including, according to his website, “capitalism versus socialism, human rights, faith, labor union history, sports, ethnicity, peace, liberty and justice, the American presidency, families, welfare reform, television, and the role of the churches in a pluralistic world.” We could also add Glasnost, business as a calling, American philosophy, the lay vocation, social justice, moral ecology, and much more.

For all Novak’s varied interests and his political transformation, however, there is a deep unity to his oeuvre. Even in his most left-leaning days, he remained clearly rooted in the ancient and medieval Catholic tradition. Take these words from his 1971 essay “The Volatile Counterculture”:

My own relationship to radical politics is difficult to state. . . . Secular liberal humanism — the “modern consciousness” to which we are often told we must conform — has long been my main target. It is, for all its power and achievements, a too-narrow, manipulative, alienating, and destructive form of consciousness. I am not a child of the Enlightenment; its rationalism is only one episode in my psychic life, a beautiful and powerful one, but also a narrow, parochial one.

But neither am I a child of the Reformation. I inherit a long, wise, and Catholic suspicion of enthusiasm — not only of the sort Luther opposed but also of the sort he manifested. . . .

It was precisely the image of Aristotle pointing downward to the earth, here and now, as opposed to Plato’s finger pointing toward the heavens, that always excited me: the sacramental love of this concrete form, here, now. God is not “out there.” . . .

My God is a God of ordinary things, of routine, of the grind and jading of everyday life of a simple cigar, of a grain of sand, of boredom and tedium and hard work as well as of moments of rapture. One way I test politicians, theoreticians, poets, activists, philosophers, and friends is by how alert they are to the mysteries of the ordinary.

I love that phrase, “the mysteries of the ordinary,” and I quote at length because these words very nicely help to explain Novak’s political “turn.” Seemingly as a matter of congenital temperament, his mind and heart were moved not by abstractions or ideology but by attending as impartially as possible to the facts at hand. In a similar vein, in 1983 he wrote: “Intellectual fairness is not being served by allowing partisan passion to inflate and to obfuscate the ‘fairness’ issue.” A welcome and refreshing affirmation, indeed.

Novak’s clarity and intensity as a writer infuriated some readers and inspired many others — but both comrades in arms and intellectual opponents steadily read and reacted to his work. To be sure, after he departed from his early leftish tendencies (“awakened from his dogmatic slumbers,” he somewhere put it), he lost many readers of that persuasion and slowly had to build up a new, and eventually larger, audience.

One of Novak’s essays that drew considerable interest at the very beginning of the so-called youth movement of the 1960s was “God in the Colleges.” Reprinted elsewhere several times, it was originally published as a cover story for Harper’s magazine in 1961. Penned when he was just 27 years old, its haunting last sentences express the inner aspiration of all of Novak’s work:

What, then, is the place of God in our colleges? The basic human experiences that remind man that he is not a machine, and not merely a temporary cog in a technological civilization, are not fostered within the university. God is as irrelevant in the universities as in business organizations; but so are love, death, personal destiny. Religion can thrive only in a personal universe; religious faith, hope, and love are personal responses to a personal God. But how can the immense question of a personal God even be posed and made relevant when fundamental questions about the meaning and limits of personal experience are evaded?

“God is dead. . . . What are these churches if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?” Nietzsche asked. But much of Western humanism is dead too. Men do not wander under the silent stars, listen to the wind, learn to know themselves, question, “Where am I going? Why am I here?” They leave aside the mysteries of contingency and transitoriness, for the certainties of research, production, consumption. So that it is nearly possible to say: “Man is dead. . . . What are these buildings, these tunnels, these roads, if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of man?”

God, if there is a God, is not dead. He will come back to the colleges, when man comes back.

These words convey the early-conceived mission of Novak’s life’s work, to which he diligently remained faithful throughout his career. Novak’s humane perspective honored the primacy of man and his immediate experience, thereby giving glory to the Creator, who made man to know and to love Him.

Know and love Him Michael Novak surely did. Requiescat in pace.

— Elizabeth Shaw teaches philosophy at The Catholic University of America and is associate editor of The Review of Metaphysics. She worked with Michael Novak from 2009 until his death.

 

Robert A. Sirico

I first encountered Michael Novak’s writings just as I was entering seminary in the early 1980s. I recall Avery Dulles, S.J., a mutual friend and a professor of mine at The Catholic University of America (he was a towering American theologian, and the son of John Foster Dulles), also marveling at the scope and depth of Michael’s work in the fields of theology and civil life.

Others have noted and will note Novak’s impressive contributions over the course of a half century while endeavoring to forge a synthesis between the free society and the Catholic tradition. I am aware of the personal cost much of that engagement took on Novak.

I was repeatedly struck by the steady stream of dismissive diatribe directed at Novak throughout this part of his public life from some of his former comrades on the left. Whatever else Novak was in his writings, “thin” (as one egregiously superficial reviewer for the National Catholic Reporter said) does not describe the scope and complexity of his thought.

I see that these criticisms pained Novak, and I hear even now, not anger, but a pleading tone in his responses to his interlocutors. I suspect that he took those barbs as an invitation to refine his arguments, which would explain why he was so persuasive and prolific. May this be the very purgation that now prepares him for the eternal embrace of the God he loved and desired to serve. RIP.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More