Michael Novak, Catholic Scholar Who Championed Capitalism, Dies at 83
Michael Novak, a Roman Catholic social philosopher who abandoned the liberal politics he espoused in the 1960s to make the theological and moral case for capitalism in a series of widely discussed books, died on Friday at his home in Washington. He was 83.
The cause was colon cancer, said Elise Italiano, a spokeswoman for the Catholic University of America, where he was a professor.
Mr. Novak, a former seminarian, emerged in the early 1960s as one of Catholicism’s brightest liberal lights. His journalistic essays, collected in “A New Generation: American and Catholic” (1964), and his reporting from the Second Vatican Council, in “The Open Church: Vatican II, Act II” (1964), reflected his reform-minded view of the church and his eagerness to see it address young Catholics like himself with a faith that was, as he put it, “empirical, pragmatic, realistic and Christian.”
While teaching at Stanford University, he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and argued for “a revolution in the quality of life.”
In “A Theology for Radical Politics” (1969), he set forth a series of propositions designed to “rearrange the power bases of American democracy, both democratically and politically, so that changes can come rapidly and effectively.”
By the mid-1970s, like many of the former liberals who formed the core of the neoconservative movement, he had become disillusioned with campus politics. He was unhappy with the continuing changes generated by the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II. He was gripped, he said in a talk at the University of Notre Dame in 1998, 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.”
In “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” (1982) he mounted a defense of capitalism as a morally superior system based on liberty, individual worth and Judeo-Christian principles. It was, he insisted, the only economic system capable of lifting the poor from misery and of encouraging moral growth. Samuel McCracken, in Commentary magazine, called the book “a stunning achievement” and “perhaps the first serious attempt to construct a theology of capitalism.”
Mr. Novak elaborated and extended this argument in several books, notably “The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1993). It argued that capitalism’s most powerful underlying forces were not self-denial and discipline, as Max Weber had maintained in his classic 1905 work “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” but the “social dimensions of the free economy” and the free play of creativity — both rooted, as Mr. Novak saw it, in Catholic ethics.
“Capitalism forms morally better people than socialism does,” Mr. Novak said in a 2007 interview with Crisis, a magazine he and the scholar Ralph McInerny founded in 1982. “Capitalism teaches people to show initiative and imagination, to work cooperatively in teams, to love and to cherish the law; what is more, it forces persons not only to rely on themselves and their own moral qualities, but also to recognize those moral qualities in others and to cooperate with others freely.”
His ideas found a receptive ear among free-market devotees and conservative politicians around the world, as well as Eastern European leaders emerging from the former Soviet empire, like Lech Walesa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia.
Among his most fervent admirers was Margaret Thatcher, former British prime minister. Mr. Novak, she wrote in “The Downing Street Years,” “put into new and striking language what I had always believed about individuals and communities.” His description of capitalism as a moral and social system as well as an economic one, she wrote, “provided the intellectual basis for my approach to those great questions brought together in political parlance as ‘the quality of life.’”
Michael John Novak Jr. was born on Sept. 9, 1933, in Johnstown, Pa., the grandson of Slovak immigrants and the oldest of five children. His father was an insurance salesman. His mother, the former Irene Sakmar, was a stenographer before becoming a homemaker after marriage.
He grew up in Indiana, Pa., and McKeesport before entering the preparatory seminary at the University of Notre Dame at 14. He pursued his path to the priesthood at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and English literature in 1956, and at Gregorian University in Rome, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1958. While in Rome, he began writing for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal and the Jesuit weekly America.
It was not long before he entertained doubts about entering the priesthood. His superiors urged him to return to the United States before making any decision, and he studied for a time at Catholic University in Washington. “After 18 months of great darkness but also inner peace, I became certain that I should not be a priest,” he told the audience at Notre Dame in 1998.
He moved to Manhattan and wrote a novel, “The Tiber Was Silver” (1961), about a seminarian in Rome afflicted by religious doubts, and he then accepted a graduate fellowship at Harvard, earning a master’s degree in philosophy in 1966.
While there he married Karen Laub, a painter and printmaker, who died in 2009. Survivors include their children, Richard, Tanya and Jana; and four grandchildren.
In 1965 he accepted an assistant professorship in the humanities at Stanford. In “Belief and Unbelief: A Philosophy of Self-Knowledge” (1965), the essay collection “A Time to Build” (1967) and “A Theology for Radical Politics,” he tried to make a place for Catholicism in a post-religious age.
“I was convinced that a good Christian, even a good humanist, had to be on the left and probably couldn’t be a friend of business,” he told Crisis in 2010. “Business was merely buying and selling, mere hucksterism, after all.”
After becoming an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, an experimental school, he began writing on broader social and political issues. He plunged into electoral politics, writing speeches and position papers for Eugene McCarthy, Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern.
While traveling across the country in 1970 with Sargent Shriver, who was trying to drum up support for Democratic candidates, Mr. Novak tuned into the concerns of traditionally Democratic working-class voters who were becoming alienated from elites. His observations led to “The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: Politics and Culture in the Seventies” (1972), an attack on the assimilationist model of American society, which he saw as hostile to working-class Catholics like himself.
He examined American politics as a civic religion in “Choosing Our King: Powerful Symbols in Presidential Politics” (1974) and found a spiritual dimension in athletic competition in “The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit” (1976).
His rightward drift, chronicled in “Confession of a Catholic” (1983) and, more temperately, in “Writing From Left to Right: My Journey From Liberal to Conservative” (2013), led him to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that became his base of operations after 1978. While a scholar at the institute, he continued to generate a seemingly endless stream of articles and books.
As the Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared an episcopal letter on nuclear policy in the early 1980s, he argued for the importance of maintaining a credible deterrent threat in “Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age.”
“Will It Liberate?: Questions About Liberation Theology” (1986) countered a leftist interpretation of Catholicism popular in Latin America, and “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers” (2008) took aim at outspoken atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
In 1994, he received the million-dollar Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion for “insights into the spiritual foundations of economic and political systems.” In his acceptance speech, he paid tribute to the modern thinkers who discovered the practical principles of a free society: “Free in its polity, free in its economy, and free in the realm of conscience and inquiry.”