by Arthur C Brooks
"Like many thinkers of his generation, Novak intellectually matriculated as a progressive but graduated to conservatism. The first reason was his observation that the Democratic party of the 1970s was softening on Communism; then over social issues such as abortion and the family; and finally over support of the American free-enterprise system. He ultimately defined himself as a neoconservative alongside AEI colleagues such as Irving Kristol. But while Kristol defined a neoconservative as a liberal who has been mugged by reality, Novak preferred the definition “a progressive with three teenage children.”
My own ideological migration from left to right matched Novak’s. Although at the time I had never met the great man, his work was especially helpful to me as a young Catholic. In the 1990s, I was struggling to ascertain how my religion fit with the conviction that capitalism was the superior economic system, at a time when much of the Church hierarchy appeared to be asserting the opposite. Was my ideology at odds with my faith?
Novak answered my question. In the early 1980s, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops developed a pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All,” that promoted unvarnished liberal economic policies under the banner of Catholic social teaching. Novak led a lay group of Catholic leaders with expertise in economics and business that published an alternative take, “Toward the Future: Catholic Social Thought and the U.S. Economy.” While respectfully confirming the Church’s teaching authority regarding faith and morals, Novak and colleagues confidently asserted lay competence in practical questions of economics and policy. And this expertise, they argued persuasively, showed that free enterprise was integral to achieving the Church’s goals of promoting the dignity of the individual, affirming the social nature of humanity, and asserting the need to solve problems at the lowest possible level of governance. Novak’s words were mother’s milk to me at that pivotal moment in my life."
I am very saddened to hear of the death of Catholic thinker Michael Novak. When I studied Liberation Theology as part of my Theology degree, I was very encouraged by his critique of that movement and his defence of capitalism.
Novak certainly did a splendid job of showing the virtue of the capitalism system in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. That book was not, of course, perfect. Novak failed to offer any account of poverty in capitalist system and showed no sign of supporting a welfare state, which is foundational to a fair and just society.