Michael Novak: Catholic, American Patriot, and Lover of Liberty
by Samuel Gregg
The life and work of Michael Novak was a witness to Christian faith and the promise of America.
When news came of the death of the theologian and philosopher Michael Novak, the loss was felt in a particularly sharp way by those of us who knew him personally. Like many people of all ages, I was fortunate enough to benefit from his many kindnesses. Countless others can testify to the numerous ways in which his ideas shaped their thinking about questions of faith and liberty, especially their role in shaping his beloved United States of America.
To know Novak was to know a man who was also proud of and close to his roots in the peasantry of that other country that loomed so large in his life: Slovakia. He often spoke with regret of not knowing how to speak the language of his ancestors. The Novaks—Stephen and Johanna Kaschak Novak—and the Sakmars—Ben and Anna Timchak Sakmar—did not come across each other until they arrived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The families had lived near each other in Slovakia, but it was America that brought them together.
After Slovakia’s liberation from Communist oppression in 1989 and its eventual emergence as a sovereign nation in 1993, Novak invested time, energy, and resources in helping that country and its people understand the true meaning of freedom. In this regard, Novak believed that the American experiment in ordered liberty had much to teach the land that his forebears had left in search of freedom and opportunity.
Novak’s American patriotism was not mere parochial nationalism. He never disparaged other countries or cultures. This disposition owed much to the Catholic faith in which he was raised by his parents and to which he adhered all his life. His deep knowledge of the history and intellectual riches of the Church—especially some of the twentieth century’s great Catholic minds—always leavened his belief that Catholics, other Christians, and Jews had much to learn from distinctly American contributions to economic, cultural, and political thought.
Indeed, Novak met and knew people like Henri de Lubac, S.J., (perhaps the twentieth century’s most important Catholic theologian) as a consequence of being present at the Second Vatican Council and writing the book that first brought him to widespread public attention. The Open Church introduced English-speaking audiences to many of the different personalities and ideas shaping the Council’s deliberations.
While it’s fair to say that Novak was on the side of those urging the Church to be more appreciative of modernity, he avoided the cartoonish good-guy “progressives” versus bad-guy “conservatives” dichotomy that increasingly characterized most journalists’ coverage of the Council and its aftermath. This, I suspect, made his post-conciliar journey from what might be called liberal Catholicism toward a dynamic Catholic orthodoxy a much easier journey.
Perhaps it had something to do with his Slavic roots and knowledge of the unhappy history of Central and Eastern Europe for most of the twentieth century, but Novak was very conscious of the reality of sin and human fallibility. That is one reason why he emerged in the late 1970s as a strong advocate of free market economies. Leaving aside the demonstrable failures of command economies and the evident crumbling of European social-democratic experiments, Novak appreciated Adam Smith’s insights into how people made economic choices, and thought it was unwise to ignore such truths about the human condition. Smith features prominently in Novak’s 1982 masterpiece, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, a book that represented the first effort by a theologian to offer an in-depth moral, cultural, and political analysis of, and casefor, the market economy in a systematic way.
This, however, wasn’t the only reason why Novak urged believers to take capitalism more seriously. Leaving aside the ways in which American capitalism had liberated millions from poverty, Novak also insisted that market economies took human agency and creativity far more seriously than did other economic systems.
Novak was not an apologist for the abuses and injustices that can always be found in free economies. No one who has read his book on the 1897 massacre of unarmed coal miners in Lattimer, Pennsylvania, could believe that he was. Novak also maintained that markets needed to operate in the context of a culture that took virtue seriously and a political system that limited government power and encouraged participation in public affairs.
Nevertheless, Novak did think that Jews and Christians of his generation had tended to ignore the real moral and material fruit realized through entrepreneurship, business, and free exchange. America, Novak believed, was where the best of this system had been realized on a mass scale. That was one reason, he occasionally said, why people wanted to migrate to America rather than to China or Pakistan.
Any survey of the corpus of Novak’s numerous writings, however, makes it clear that his intellectual interests went far beyond the realm of political economy. Sound economics, he thought, was important, but very far from being all-important. The topics covered by Novak throughout his long life ranged from liberation theology to the morality of nuclear deterrence, the religious elements of sports, and the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan’s concept of insight, to name just a few.
My personal favorites were his writings about the American Founding, particularly the book Washington’s God, coauthored with his daughter, Jana. Unlike any other book on Washington—whom Novak always called “General Washington”—the two Novaks brought the understated religious sensibilities of the Father of His Country alive in ways that I had not hitherto experienced.
For in the end, Novak was always wrestling with distinctly religious questions. As his bestselling Belief and Unbelief illustrates, Novak engaged seriously with those people of good will who struggle to believe that there is a God, let alone the God who is Truth and Love revealed in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. That in turn led Novak to ponder why human beings, made asimago Dei, were capable of such great evil and profound good. And if there was any figure who made the word “saint” real to Novak, it was unquestionably his fellow Slav, Saint John Paul II.
The great pope’s indispensable contribution to the defeat of Marxism and Leninism in Central and Eastern Europe and the former USSR always struck Novak as proof positive of the workings of Divine Providence. Yet there was also much about Karol Wojtyla as a man and a Christian that left a deep impression on Novak. The last chapter of one of Novak’s last books, Writing from Left to Right, entitled “The Pope Who Called Me Friend,” provides many insights into his relationship with Wojtyla. Not only did Novak bring out the Polish pope’s human side; he also underscored Wojtyla’s characteristic mixture of great intelligence and genuine humility. To see the saint-pope pray, Novak once told me, was to see persona Christi.
Like all of us, Novak had his critics, most of whom objected to his economic views. Yet while he always defended his positions, Novak never dispensed himself from the obligations of Christian love.
When I was putting together a festschrift to honor his many scholarly achievements, I came across some truly uncharitable remarks made about Novak in the memoirs of a well-known, now very aged European theologian. I told Novak that, in my view, the theologian’s comments verged on the libelous. His response was to shrug his shoulders, smile, and say that we needed to pray for all priests. It was one of those teaching moments to which numerous others who have benefited from close collaboration with Novak can also attest.
Much more could be said about the life and work of Michael Novak. That includes his public service, his acquaintances with figures such as Tom Hayden, Ronald Reagan, Sargent Shriver, and Bobby Kennedy, and, perhaps above all, his great love for his grandchildren, his three children, and especially his late wife Karen Laub-Novak. After Karen passed away in 2009, I initially thought that some of the light had gone out of his eyes. I soon realized, however, that Novak firmly held, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, to the “hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will” (CCC 1821).
I too have the firm hope and confident expectation that Michael is now reunited with Karen and that together they will live an eternal life with Christ.
Réquiem ætérnam dona eis, Dómine,
et lux perpétua lúceat eis.
Requiéscant in pace.
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute.