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Michael Novak dead at age 83. Theologian shaped Church and state in late 20th century

US State Department
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Author of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism had rightward shift after 1960s

Michael Novak, a philosopher, theologian, historian and diplomat, has died at the age of 83 after battling cancer.

“As many of you may have heard by now, dad, aka Michael Novak, died peacefully early this morning from complications from colon cancer, at his apartment in DC surrounded by family,” Novak’s daughter Jana Miller posted on Facebook Friday.

Novak, who published more than 45 books over a career that spanned almost six decades, looked back on that career in his 2013 work Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, a memoir of the development of his political and economic thought. His scholarship in religion won him the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994, and his subject matter has included capitalism and socialism, human rights, faith, labor union history, sports, ethnicity, peace, liberty and justice, the American presidency, families, welfare reform, television, and the role of the churches in a pluralistic world.

The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, published in 1982 and perhaps his best known work, was distributed by underground presses behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s. One reviewer said of the book, which asserts that capitalism is “a necessary but not sufficient” condition for democracy, that it “may prove one of those rare books that actually changes the way things are.”

Indeed, Novak’s writings have not only reflected on 20th-century history, they have also impacted the decisions taken by many players on the world stage. Former prime minister of Great Britain Margaret Thatcher wrote in her 1993 book The Downing Street Years that Novak’s writing on the morality of political economy “provided the intellectual basis for my approach to those great questions brought together in political parlance as ‘the quality of life.’”

As a biographical write up on his website notes:

Behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, the dissidents of Charter 77 and Civic Forum used The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and The Experience of Nothingness (1970) in their clandestine study groups. In El Salvador, former president Alfredo Cristiani once noted that after hearing Novak lecture in San Salvador and reading Novak’s work, he committed himself to running for the presidency of that war-torn land, in order to work for a just peace. In Chile and Argentina, proponents of democracy from right to left—including, often, Christian Socialists—turned to Novak’s writings on democracy and free markets for guidance. So it was also among democrats in South Korea in the early 1980s. In Poland in 1984, a great debate raged within Solidarnosc over whether to risk the underground publication of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. In a very close vote, supporters triumphed. Many today look back upon that vote as a watershed in the movement away from socialism and toward a new ideal.

A descendent of Slovak immigrants, Novak was born in 1933 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a steel town in the middle of coal country. The oldest of five children, he entered seminary at the age of 14. After graduating summa cum laude from Stonehill College, Novak was sent by his religious superiors in the Congregation of Holy Cross to the Gregorian University in Rome, where he earned a Bachelor of Theology degree. But he was uncertain of a vocation to the priesthood and transferred to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

A younger brother followed him in religious study, eventually becoming a priest in the same religious congregation. While on missionary work in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1964, Father Richard Novak, C.S.C., was murdered during a Hindu-Muslim riot.

In January 1960, after 12 years in the seminary and within months of being ordained, Novak left the Congregation of Holy Cross, moving to New York City to work on a novel, before being accepted to Harvard on a graduate fellowship that autumn. In 1963 he married Karen Ruth Laub, an art instructor at Carleton College in Minnesota. Mrs. Laub-Novak died in 2009. The Novaks had three children and four grandchildren.

Novak traveled to Rome in 1963 and 1964 to cover the Second Vatican Council for various publications, including Time, and in the process wrote a report on the second session, The Open Church (1964). Resisting the “God Is Dead” school, he developed a philosophical method of self-knowledge, which he called “intelligent subjectivity,” as a way of deciding between atheism and theism in Belief and Unbelief (1965). After initial support for American involvement in the war in Vietnam, Novak spent a month there in 1967 and soon became a resister, co-writing Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience with Robert McAfee Brown and Rabbi Abraham Heschel. He helped liberal Democratic presidential contenders Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in 1968, and ended up working for George McGovern in 1972. He served as speechwriter for McGovern’s running mate, Sargent Shriver, during the final months of the 1972 presidential campaign.

The subjects treated in his writings have not been merely the theoretical, as is evident in his treatment of sport. Norman Mailer wrote of Novak’s The Joy of Sports: Endzones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit (1976 and revised in 1993), “If America is the real religion of Americans, then the sports arena is our true church, and Michael Novak has more to say about this, and says it better, than anyone else.”

In 1976 Harper’s published Novak’s “The Family out of Favor” as a cover story—years before the term “family values” became a political buzzword. Later, The New Consensus on Family and Welfare (1987) cited “dependency” rather than “poverty” as the deep social problem, and highlighted the crucial need to reverse welfare incentives that lead to out-of-wedlock births and their destructive social consequences. For this edited volume, Novak convened a diverse group of experts to hammer out points of agreement. Many believe that The New Consensus was the spark that moved serious welfare reform to the forefront. Its recommendation of a work requirement for those on welfare was controversial at the time but became a mainstream position and the centerpiece of the 1996 welfare reform legislation.

Novak taught at Harvard, Stanford, Syracuse, Notre Dame, and the State University of New York. Since 2010 Novak’s home base during the academic year was at Ave Maria University in southwest Florida. In 1978 Novak began work as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., where he was director of social and political studies. In 1983 he was named the George Frederick Jewett Chair in religion and public policy. Novak retired from the American Enterprise Institute in 2009. But his academic work made way at times for diplomatic endeavors.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan named Novak as ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. He also served for 11 years on the boards of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, as a member of the State Department monitoring panel for UNESCO, as a member of the Presidential Task Force of the Project for Economic Justice, as U.S. Ambassador to the Experts Meeting on Human Contacts of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe—an extension of the Helsinki Accord negotiations

As opposition to nuclear weapons swept the Western world in the early 1980s, Novak demurred, citing the need for fundamental change in Soviet politics as the only sure way to reduce the danger of nuclear war.

When Gorbachev introduced glasnost, Novak, then U.S. ambassador to the Helsinki process in Bern, urged Western leaders to embrace the first tentative moves to openness but to reject inadequate measures proposed by the Soviets.

When many theologians embraced liberation theology as the preferred political course for Latin America, Novak questioned the practical value of recommending socialism for poverty stricken peoples, long before the public collapse of socialism in 1989.

When most Catholic scholars were defending a “middle way” between capitalism and socialism, Novak’s work on the three systems of liberty—political, economic, and moral—was widely regarded to have influenced the argument of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus.

But his views also clashed with John Paul, when in 2003 he visited the Vatican to argue that an invasion of Iraq was justified. He met with senior Vatican officials and delivered a public lecture arguing that attacking Iraq now constitutes a just war, according to Catholic theology. Though President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, stressed that Novak was not an official representative of the US government, many saw his actions there as an effort to boost the administration’s plans to invade Iraq.

Four years later, former First Things editor Damon Linker took aim at Novak and others in his book Theocons. Novak was already recognized as a trailblazer in what came to be called the neoconservative movement. Linker cast the theologian, together with Father John Richard Neuhaus and George Weigel, as far-left 1960s radicals who became frustrated with the failures of that decade’s revolutionary goals and morphed into conservatives who worked to forge a strategic alliance between Evangelical Protestants and Catholics, injecting the language of faith into political life.

As late as last fall, Novak was still offering his opinion on politics in relationship to faith. In an interview with the Italian online journal Tempi, Novak said that while Donald J. Trump was not an ideal candidate for him, his Democratic opponent was a non-starter.

Referring to Hillary Clinton, Novak said, “As for me, I cannot vote for a candidate so favorable to abortion, to the secularist agenda in the moral sphere and such a ferocious adversary of religious freedom.”

“It is clear that Trump is not exactly the candidate by whom a Catholic would want to be represented,” he said. “But in politics you elect a president, not a saint, or a bishop or the pope.”

A funeral Mass will be offered in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, on Saturday, February 25. Viewing will be prior to Mass, in the Crypt Church as well, beginning at 1:30 pm.

 

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