Michael Novak Synthesizes Catholicism and Capitalism

  • Religion
  • 1978

Michael Novak wrote a Vietnam protest book, worked for Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, George McGovern, and Sargent Shriver, nearly became a priest, and launched a new program for the Rockefeller Foundation supporting scholarship in the humanities. Then in 1976 he published, in Harper’s Magazine, an early story worrying over the deterioration of the family. Thus began a theological journey from left to right (Novak later defined a conservative as “a progressive with three teenage children”) that ultimately had national and international political consequences.

In 1978 Novak became a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, where he was supported year after year by the John M. Olin Foundation—in what subsequent AEI president Christopher DeMuth called “a pretty high-risk investment, a brilliant bet. At that time almost everybody, including its defenders, viewed capitalism as useful for fueling progress and high levels of material welfare, but essentially amoral and selfish at its root. Nobody did more to uncover the ethical attributes of the free-market system than Michael Novak, and he did this entirely on year-to-year philanthropic support.” In 1982, Novak’s book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism injected a new moral and spiritual dimension into our understanding of economics. The work was widely translated, and helped inspire rebellion against Marxist economics in Latin America and behind the Berlin Wall.

In 1983, Novak led a group of 100 influential Catholics through new thinking on the morality of nuclear weapons, and their publication of a lengthy letter bolstered the move toward missile defense. Novak made the case for moral pressure on the Soviet Union based on human-rights concerns, and he was eventually appointed as a human-rights ambassador of the U.S. government. In more than 45 books and other voluminous writing, he applied religious principles and moral arguments to scores of other public controversies: welfare reform, environmental conservation, liberation theology, and arms control. His analysis of the linkages between economic freedom and moral and political freedom influenced Pope John Paul II’s important encyclical on economics, Centesimus Annus, which defended private property rights and voluntary associations, and refuted state socialism.