The legacy of Michael Novak (1933-2017), a man of Tradition

It is for his appraisal of the free market economy that the late Michael Novak is, and will probably continue to be, most known, praised, and pilloried.

Michael Novak, who died Feb. 17 at age 83, is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS files)

In his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman’s first “note” or “test” of genuine doctrinal development, as opposed to false development or “corruption,” is the preservation of the type of the thing being developed. Newman begins with the biological analogy of “physical growth” wherein the “adult animal has the same make, as it had on its birth; young birds do not grow into fishes, nor does the child degenerate into the brute, wild or domestic, of which he is by inheritance lord.”i He then proceeds to give a number of other examples of such preservation of the type of a thing amidst large change, including notions of political or religious office, national character, and political and religious groups. Upon the death of the American philosopher, theologian, and social theorist Michael Novak this past February, I was reminded of Newman’s description of continuity through change as seen in the form of a larger-than-life public figure:

On the other hand, a popular leader may go through a variety of professions, he may court parties and break with them, he may contradict himself in words, and undo his own measures, yet there may be a steady fulfillment of certain objects, or adherence to certain plain doctrines, which gives a unity to his career, and impresses on beholders an image of directness and large consistency which shows a fidelity to his type from first to last.ii

Novak—one-time seminarian and later married father of three, one-time Democratic activist and later supporter and political appointee of Republican politicians, one-time figure of the Catholic left and later assailed “neoconservative” or “theoconservative” Catholic, one-time dissident of Humanae Vitae and later defender of it, opponent of the Vietnam War and later defender of the Iraq War—matched Newman’s description to a “T.” I would say that “T” was for Tradition. It has been said of one contemporary political activist who traveled from one side of the aisle to another that, whether he was on the left or the right, he was always a Stalinist. Concerning Michael Novak, whether he was on the left or the right, he was always a man of Tradition—trying to see, as did Newman, how it is that ancient verities, philosophical and theological, could be brought to life in new situations so that as many humans as possible would flourish. It is no wonder that in Novak’s 1985 Confession of a Catholic, Newman is a constant presence.iii

Of Slovak Catholic heritage, Novak was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on September 9, 1933. He entered seminary formation at the age of 14 at Notre Dame with the Congregation of the Holy Cross (CSC) order, eventually receiving a BA from Stonehill College in 1956 and an STB from Rome’s Gregorian University in 1958. After having doubts about his vocation, Novak transferred to Catholic University of America. In 1960, on the verge of ordination after 12 years of formation, Novak left the Holy Cross Order, moved to New York, and began work on a novel before entering a graduate program in philosophy of religion at Harvard University. He left after finishing an MA to pursue a writing career.

In 1962, his novel, The Tiber Was Silver, about a seminarian in Rome in the 1950s struggling with vocational issues and a changing world, was published. In 1963, Novak married Karen Laub, an artist from Iowa who was teaching art at Carleton College in Minnesota. In 1963 and 1964, Novak traveled to Rome to cover the Second Vatican Council as a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, Time, and other publications. The Open Church, his account of the second session of the Council, was published in 1964. It and The Experience of Marriage (1964), a collection of essays he edited, both reflected an openness to change in Church teaching—the latter on the topic of contraception—that he would later rethink in parts.iv In that same year, his younger brother Richard, who had followed him into the Holy Cross order and had become a priest, was killed doing missionary work in Bangladesh.

While in Rome, Novak had developed a strong relationship with the Presbyterian theologian Robert McAfee Brown. Brown helped secure a teaching position for Novak at Stanford University, where he taught from 1965 to 1968. During this time, Novak was extremely active as a writer. His 1965 Belief and Unbelief was an attempt to defend the “intelligent subjectivity” of the person in the matter of God’s existence. (He would return to these themes in his 1967 A Time to Build, his 2008 book No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Unbelievers, and in a more popular vein in his 1998 Tell Me Why, a book written as a series of exchanges with his daughter Jana Novak). A month spent in Vietnam caused him to rethink early support for the war and become a co-writer in 1967, with Brown and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of Vietnam: Crisis of Conscienceand a signer of the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest Pledge,” which made a promise to stop paying taxes until the Vietnam War was ended.

In 1968, Novak left Stanford to become dean of State University of New York’s Old Westbury campus, a new “experimental” school from 1969–1972. It was during this time that Novak’s political radicalism was at its height. A Theology for Radical Politics (1969) made arguments in favor of the New Left student movement. Even here, however, Novak’s radicalism had a degree of consistency, as the book was a warning that simply changing social institutions was no substitute for building up human beings in their spiritual side. 1970 saw The Experience of Nothingness, a new book more directly critical of the New Left’s utopian views and the radical rootlessness they were creating in their followers. Novak’s political activism was similarly as far left as it would go, as he worked for Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy in 1968. In 1972, he became the speechwriter for George McGovern’s running mate, Sargent Shriver.

In the mid-seventies, Novak worked to develop the humanities program for the Rockefeller Foundation, but during this time steadily moved away from the left in politics and religion (his 2013 memoir was titled Writing from Left to Right: My Journey From Liberal to Conservative) and gained the Neoconservative label that would follow him for the rest of his life. His 1972 Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics was the beginning of this change. Over three decades later Novak described the book as his “declaration of independence from the cultural left,” noting that:

I was still writing as a man of the Left, certainly a man of the anticapitalist Left. But I was, in truth, departing from left-wing orthodoxy in singling out cultural issues, rather than economic issues, as the primary neuralgic point in American (and not only American) life. I was defending—no, calling into political and cultural self-consciousness, and trying to inspire—those whom the elites liked to picture as paunchy fascists in undershirts, bigoted and unwashed. I was repelled by “the bigotry of the intellectuals” and the unworthy prejudices of the cultural Left. At a time when intellectuals were celebrating the “liberation” of the swinging singles, I thought they ought to be stressing the importance of family, even the psychological differences between “family people” and those who find the unencumbered self a more fundamental reality. They ought to admire the latent strengths of traditional values and ethnic neighborhoods (even ethnic suburbs). To say the least, these ideas were premature. At the time, they were regarded as reactionary.v

A 1976 Harper’s cover story, “The Family out of Favor,” would continue this emphasis on the family and not the individual as a source of strength in the midst of the “Me Decade.” Novak’s declaration of independence was yielding a new profile for the hitherto left-wing intellectual.

After accepting a position as University Professor and Ledden-Watson Distinguished Professor of Religionat Syracuse University in 1976, Novak left the academy for a position as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., where he would remain for over thirty years, for most of them, holding the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Policy Studies. It was during these decades that Novak did his most important and lasting work in thinking through public policy and economics in a new way. In response to the American Catholic Bishops’ 1983 “The Challenge of Peace,” a pastoral letter on nuclear weapons, Novak drafted “Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age,” which would fill virtually an entire issue of National Review and be signed by over 100 Catholic scholars and writers. It argued that the bishops’ emphasis on the morality of the weaponry ought instead to be focused on the morality of the countries possessing them, and that American policy ought to be focused more on strategic defense than on offensive deterrence. This predated President Reagan’s turn to a strategic defense initiative (or “Star Wars”). Novak also drafted The New Consensus on Welfare, a 1987 report of the Working Seminar on Family and American Welfare Policy, a joint venture between AEI and Marquette University, which identified the problems in lower-class America as having more to do with dependence than poverty strictly speaking. Widely hailed by scholars on both sides of the spectrum, the report is credited with paving the way for the 1998 Welfare Reform Act signed by President Clinton. The importance of the document and the approach is still evident thirty years later in American policy.

But it is for his appraisal of the free market economy that Novak is, and will probably continue to be, most known, praised, and pilloried. His 1982 The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism was revolutionary not only within the context of the former member of the “anticapitalist left” but also within the context of the American and worldwide Catholic Church. Opponents of Novak within the Church from the democratic socialist and outright Marxist left as well as more traditional theologians called his views libertarian or individualist or reductionistic, but Novak’s views were not really about economics or markets pure and simple. One chapter is entitled, significantly, “Not by Free Enterprise Alone.” In his introduction to the book, he explained that by “democratic capitalism” he was referring to “three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all.” Catholics who tended to the left and those who thought of themselves as “third way” advocates both objected to the importance of markets, the focus on individual rights, and the cultural sphere limned by Novak, though for different reasons. Novak was explicit that in the “moral-cultural sphere” he was thinking of a “system which is pluralistic and, in the largest sense, liberal.”vi Left-leaning Catholics abhorred his liberalism, while self-described traditionalists were offended by his thought of a pluralistic culture.

Novak disclaimed the idea that democratic capitalism was either “the Kingdom of God” or “without sin,” yet claimed in a Churchillian vein that “all other known systems of political economy are worse.”vii The remainder of the book was an attempt to examine the beliefs at the root of the structures of democratic capitalist polities (and he included, among others, Japan and the then West Germany as examples of such polities), to see what was passing for the socialist idea in his day in order to better see democratic capitalism’s strengths and weaknesses, and to begin a theological approach to it. While he had as a young man been won over by the understanding of European Catholic intellectuals such as “Lamennais, de Maistre, Chesterton, Belloc, Scheler, Marcel, and many others” who lined up Protestant philosophy and political economy on the side of “individualism, utilitarianism, pragmatism” over against Catholic “personalism, community, ‘solidarism,’” he had come to think that such contrasts were overdrawn.viii

An intellectual outsider, when he began to look at the democratic capitalist arrangements through a new lens, he was struck not by their radically individualist nature, but their truly personal nature. While many defenses of free markets had emphasized the harnessing of greed and selfishness, Novak thought the real driving force behind such a system was the risk-taking of moral agents trying to meet human needs and desires while also achieving success for themselves. In order to meet these needs and desires, there was not only a sound legal-political structure needed to keep order, but a great deal of cooperation on the parts of economic actors even as many would find themselves competing with each other. And such a system relied on thinking about the mediating institutions beginning, but not ending, with the family, that make a complex liberal, pluralistic culture survive and indeed thrive. In his later The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Novak discovered a further dimension of the system that not only made it run but gave dignity to those in it, namely the creativity that is at the heart of the system.ix Many critics give Novak credit for Pope St. John Paul II’s emphases on the free economy in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus.

While the democratic-capitalist system certainly had defects, “Alone among the systems known to humankind, democratic capitalism has tried to preserve the sphere of the person inviolable. It glories in divergence, dissent, and singularity. It has done so by inventing a set of practical principles, embodied in institutions, and jealously guarded by rival interests each of considerable power, by which social cooperation may be achieved, without prior agreement on metaphysical, philosophical, or religious presuppositions.”x This practical pluralism is, he thought, just right: “Too low a system for angels, it seems not to be too high for humans as they are. It stretches them a little.”xi

What many have objected to in Novak’s thought is precisely the lowliness of the moral-cultural sphere of democratic capitalism in that it “is, in principle, uncommitted to any one vision of a social order.” Yet the role of religion was, though public and not merely private, nevertheless “neither in command nor at the center.” The “totalistic” impulse should be resisted by religions and they should be forced to compete in the marketplace of ideas, a system under which they will inevitably be “strengthened in some respects, weakened in others.”xii

While many thought the crux of the argument was the power of a market economy to deliver the goods, Novak no longer thought that this was in doubt. Market-based economies did deliver the goods. The question was whether the three systems in play could deliver the good life, or would the lack of transcendent order in such polities only create what the historian Brad Gregory calls “the goods life,” a life of unceasing consumerist striving that eventually cedes liberty to large corporations and leaves empty souls.xiii Novak and those who sided with him for years have been attacked directly by theologians such as David Schindler and indirectly by historians such as Gregory and political theorists such as Patrick Deneen, who think the lack of a unitary transcendent vision for social order a weakness and indeed an ideology in which the specifics of American religious culture and the letter of its political and legal culture cannot survive or resist.xiv

This argument about the place of religion and the necessities of a specified vision of social order will not be solved soon. While Pope Francis’s words about markets and economics have often seemingly run contrary to Novak’s vision, his own approach to pluralism bears striking affinities to Novak’s. In a December 2016 interview with La Croix, Francis said that

States must be secular. Confessional states end badly. That goes against the grain of History. I believe that a version of laicity accompanied by a solid law guaranteeing religious freedom offers a framework for going forward. We are all equal as sons (and daughters) of God and with our personal dignity. However, everyone must have the freedom to externalize his or her own faith. If a Muslim woman wishes to wear a veil, she must be able to do so. Similarly, if a Catholic wishes to wear a cross. People must be free to profess their faith at the heart of their own culture not merely at its margins.xv

Of course the difficulty with this, as Novak would be the first to note, is that difficult word “secular.” From the quotation, it is clear that Francis does not call for a secular society. Nor did Novak. Though he did not wish Christianity to command or be at the center, he was not unaware that democratic capitalism had certain theoretical prerequisites—“certain conceptions of history, nature, person, community, and limited state”—without which “the very notion of ‘human rights’ makes little sense.”xvi In a 2015 essay, Novak observed that the three-fold system which he championed “is a system born of Judaism and Christianity and is most congenial to them.”

Many of the inspirations of the threefold system of political economy derive from evangelical ­inspirations such as personal creativity, personal responsibility, freedom, the love for community through association and mutual ­cooperation, the aim of bettering the condition of every person on earth, the cultivation of the rule of law, respect for the natural rights of others, the preference for persuasion by reason rather than by coercion, and a powerful sense of sin. All these spring from the Bible. That is why capitalism—and societies free not only in their economic system but also in their polity and their culture—have arisen with less friction in areas where Jewish and Christian traditions are strong.xvii

Novak’s sense that his critics hadn’t really laid a glove on him was grounded in the fact that they didn’t really address his own understanding that the moral-cultural “inspirations” and values were at the heart of a democratic capitalist society. He had never thought that “free enterprise alone” or even free enterprise and a great legal and political system could sustain a society. The failures in democratic capitalist systems was due to an inattention to the “moral ecology” fostered in them, a moral ecology that had at its heart culture, the heart of which was the strength of family and religion. As a Catholic, Novak knew that the heart of all of this was divine love.

His last years he spent as a distinguished fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business. A recipient of dozens of honorary degrees, a former ambassador to the U. N. Commission on Human Rights, and the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for outstanding contributions to understanding religion, Novak was a dynamo of achievement. But after all of the awards and offices, the books and articles, the many turnings politically, philosophically, and theologically, he was always a man of tradition. And what he had to hand down he handed down to all those who visited him on the morning of February 17, 2017, before he died: “God loves you, and you must love one another—that is all that matters.”xviii

(This essay originally appeared in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, and is reprinted here with kind permission of the author.)


i John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine (6th edition) (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 171–72.

ii Ibid., 173.

iii Michael Novak, Confession of a Catholic (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1985).

iv See for instance “Reconsidering Vatican II,” Crisis, August 20, 2001.

v Michael Novak, “The Rise of Unmeltable Ethnics, Part I,” First Things web exclusive, August 31, 2006.

vi Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 14.

vii Ibid., 28

viii Ibid., 23.

ix Michael Novak, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: The Free Press, 1993), especially his epilogue, “The Creative Person.”

x Novak, Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, 65.

xi Ibid., 67.

xii Ibid., 69.

xiii See Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How A Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2012).

xiv See Patrick Deneen, “Unsustainable Liberalism” in the May 2012 issue of First Things.

xv Guillaume Goubet and Sébastien Maillard, “Christianity Not a Colonial Enterprise,” interview with Pope Francis by La Croix, December 26, 2016.

xvi Novak, Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, 67.

xvii Michael Novak, “The Future of Democratic Capitalism,” First Things, June 2015 issue.

xviii Robert Royal, “In Memoriam: Michael Novak,” National Catholic Register, February 18, 2017.

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About David Paul Deavel 34 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX, and Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. The paperback edition of Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, edited with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is now available in paperback.


  1. Novak and the rest of the neo-cons will be forever tainted by their water-carrying for the GOP and their advocacy of unrestrained US militarism and imperialism. They prostituted their theology to pander to the US military-industrial, hyper-capitalist machine.

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