After a battle with cancer, Ambassador Michael Novak passed away this morning, February 17, at home, surrounded by his family. He was 83. During his last months, we at the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America were blessed to have him as a colleague.
Novak was author or editor of some fifty books. His illustrious career began during Vatican II and he was busy almost to the day of his death. He was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994, twenty-seven honorary degrees not only in the US, but in Europe and Latin America, and served as U.S. Ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1981-82. From 1978 until 2009, he was the George Frederick Jewett Chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.
I am one of many people whose lives and careers were changed by his groundbreaking scholarship. I remember the exact moment I discovered his work, in 1992. I was Presbyterian at the time (my family and I would enter the Catholic Church in 2009), and was attending Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. Very little Catholic theology found its way into the curriculum, but faculty made an exception for liberation theology. I thus found myself reading Gustavo Gutierrez’s book A Theology of Liberation — yet again — for a class on social ethics.
As a college freshman in the 1980s, I had been attracted to the idea of Christian socialism. By my senior year, though, I had read enough economics to know that socialism was a terrible idea. But I hadn’t yet gotten clear in my mind how to reconcile Christian theology with what is often called capitalism. (Reading Ayn Rand hadn’t helped.)
The Berlin Wall now lay in rubble, and the luster of Marxism had faded entirely. Having to read heterodox theology suffused with Marxist categories was more than a little frustrating. I guessed that there might be a Catholic theologian somewhere who had written a critique of liberation theology. So I went the library, found the relevant section, and discovered a book called Will It Liberate? It was a collection of essays by a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute named Michael Novak. I consumed it in one night, and realized that my professor was clearly ignorant of the most basic problems with liberation theology — such as its use of the dubious “dependency theory,” which claimed that the Latin American south was poor because north was rich. (Even Gustavo Gutierrez eventually admitted the idea was wrong.)
I went to class the next morning, loaded for bear. When I raised some of the arguments I’d learned from Novak the night before, my professor — an expert on liberation theology — simply stared at me, blinked, and moved on. It was at that moment that I realized that the movement which he favored was a flimsy house of cards.
The next weekend, my wife and I went to the local store (this was pre-Amazon), where I found a copy of Novak’s celebrated book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Here was a nuanced and serious integration of the best insights from economics and political theory situated within a robust Christian orthodoxy. I read the book so many times that most of text ended up highlighted.
I eventually learned that Novak had started out in the 1960s very much on the left, but because of his openness to the evidence of history, he had slowly shifted until he became an advocate not only for theological orthodoxy, but for political and economic freedom. This experience allowed him to understand progressive ideas from the inside, and made his analysis all the more trenchant.
I learned only later that the book had been translated and smuggled by underground publishers into countries behind the Iron Curtain, and exerted a positive influence on the Polish Solidarity movement — which sparked the events that shredded the Iron Curtain.
It is widely believed that the book influenced St. Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, written after the collapse of Soviet Communism, and surely one of the most economically astute pieces of writing by any pope.
It was not until 2006 that I met Michael Novak in person when I worked at the Acton Institute, and then later when at the American Enterprise Institute. I visited him at AEI shortly after his beloved wife, Karen, had passed away. He was retiring and donating many of his books to his undergraduate alma mater. He seemed to think his career was winding down, but the Lord had more in store for him. He continued to write and lecture, first as a visiting professor at Ave Maria University and then at Catholic University. His most recent book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, was published in 2015, and he was busy at work on another one when he was diagnosed with cancer.
For decades, Novak worked to integrate the perennial principles of Catholic social teaching with an economic vision grounded in evidence rather than wishful thinking. It is impossible to summarize all his insights, so I will mention the one that has most shaped my own thinking: the role of the human person in the economy. It is a strange fact that economists who study enterprise very often ignore real entrepreneurs. But if each of us really is a unique creature formed in the image of the Creator, don’t you think that would have some economic implications? Indeed, the implications are broad enough that some of us have spent a career exploring them. We owe a profound debt of gratitude to Michael Novak for setting us on this neglected, crucial road of inquiry.
He is survived by his brother Benjamin Novak, his sister Mary Ann Novak, his son Richard, his two daughters, Tanya and Jana, and his grandchildren.
Michael Novak, Requiescat in pace.
• For more on Michael Novak, see his official biography.