By Jesse Russell
Originally published on January 15, 2019 on The American Spectator
iOn March 17, 2016, National Review published an open letter titled “An Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics,”urging Catholics to take a stand against the immensely popular Republican candidate whose upcoming nomination, the letter affirmed, risked destroying the conservative, prolife, and civil center of the Republican Party. Princeton law professor Robert P. George and Catholic journalist George Weigel affixed their name to the bottom of the piece; in addition, Professor George and Weigel’s John Hancock were joined by a veritable “Who’s Who” of Catholics who had traditionally identified as “neo” or moderate social conservatives. One name that was conspicuously absent from the list of signatories was Michael Novak, a man who was, in many ways, the grandfather of Catholic neoconservatism and who had stood shoulder to shoulder with the other four principal Catholic neocons or “theocons,” which included Weigel and Professor George as well as the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Even more interestingly, the flagship of Catholic neoconservatism, First Things, published an article the day after President Trump’s election from Novak titled “Silver Linings for Never Trumpers”in which the seasoned GOP figure seemed modestly to distance himself from the Catholic “Never Trumpers” and expressed palpable relief in tandem with the saner half of America that Hillary Clinton would spend the winter of her life in a rocking chair in upstate New York and not at the helm of the Oval Office.
Novak followed “Silver Linings for Never Trumpers” with a surprisingly fierce article in support of “the Don” in National Review titled “What on Earth Happened on November 8?” In the piece, one of the most strongly populist articles to appear in NR in decades, Novak taunts the left or “progressives,” boldly celebrating the triumph of the working class over the obnoxious and effete coastal elite that had hedged their bets on Madame Clinton.
Upon first glance Novak’s modest support of Donald Trump seems completely uncharacteristic of a theologian who had earned his fame and fortune advocating for the mainstream GOP policies that Trump had promised to dismantle upon accession to the presidency. Michael Novak’s most famous work The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982) has served as the Bible of Catholic and even conservative Protestant theological justifications for the free trade policies that President Trump has promised to put an end to. President Trump has also repeatedly denounced the foreign interventionist policies of President Bush while Novak, on the other hand, had risked a great deal of credibility clashing with the popular Pope John Paul II over the moral legitimacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
However, when we take a long view of Michael Novak’s life and work, we see a much richer and more diverse portrait of the Catholic theologian than simply the war hawk and capitalist apologist, which his critics on both the right and the left characterize him as. Although having been reminded of Novak’s political sea change in his 2013 autobiography Writing From Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, American Catholics often forgot that much of Michael Novak’s early life was spent as a man of the left. He worked as a progressive Catholic journalist for Commonweal, America, the National Catholic Reporter as well as even Time magazine (Novak and his wife Karen were friends with Clare Boothe Luce, the Catholic wife of Time’s founder, Henry Luce), and his first major nonfiction work was The Open Church (1964), a collection of essays on the Second Vatican Council that provided a major catalyst for progressive interpretation of the council — some have even suggested that Novak was the first to coin the term “The Spirit of Vatican II” in the pages of Time. Novak would go on to aid Democratic national candidates such as Sargent Shriver and Robert Kennedy, serving as a progressive voice for what was still in the late 1960s, the working class Catholic Party. Perhaps even more ironically, Novak, who later would become one of the most important Catholic theological proponents for American military intervention, began his political career as a vociferous Vietnam War protester who added his Catholic voice to Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience (1967), with Robert McAfee Brown and Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel.
Yet, Novak would famously abandon the Democrats over economic, social, and foreign policy issues, penning “A Closet Capitalist Confesses” for the Washington Post in 1976. Novak’s conversion to capitalism earned him a job at the American Enterprise Institute in 1977 and even the opportunity to serve (twice) as one of the Reagan administration’s representatives to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, where the newly hawkish Catholic Slovak-American would clash with Soviet representatives on foreign policy.
However, throughout the intellectual and moral vicissitudes of his life and career, Novak never forgot his roots as a Catholic Slav born in sooty Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and, while his thoughts are open to (even, at times, strong) criticism, the best of Novak’s writing on economics was geared toward providing the world with the opportunity for the economic prosperity that so many American Catholics in the 20th century were able to achieve.
There is one major often forgotten work in Michael Novak’s oeuvre that provides us with the key to understanding Novak’s divergence from his neoconservative allies in lending tacit support of the economic populist Donald Trump. Novak’s 1972 The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: Politics and Culture in the Seventies, released the same year as The Godfather, the movie that helped inaugurate the bitter reign of films about Catholic ethnic men struggling with the moral and socio-economic fallout of the 1960s cultural revolution. Audiences of all backgrounds were shocked by the violence of mostly Italian but also Slavic at least culturally Catholic American men in films such as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Raging Bull (1980) who found themselves adrift in the era of forced integration, divorce, drugs, and the trauma of the Vietnam War. Yet, the same degree of real life trauma was felt in the homes of Catholic ethics who increasingly felt betrayed by both the Church, which had gone wild after Vatican II, and the Democratic Party, which had abandoned Catholic voters for black nationalism, feminism, and the hippie movement.
Unlike his more sober conservative works, Michael Novak’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics is a cri de coeur from an ethnic Catholic revolutionary who had realized that the revolution in both America and the Church had gotten out of control and was, in fact, destroying both the country and Catholicism. Novak saw the proper response to this chaos as a return to the solidarity of the family and ethnic community for, as Novak himself wrote, “a politics based on family and neighborhood is far stronger socially and psychologically than a politics based on bureaucracy.”
The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics is a remarkably conservative work that argues for positive and collaborative ethnic self-assertion by ethnic Catholics as well as Jews and members of the black community in face of what Novak sees as stifling Anglo-American WASP culture.
While he may err in his excessive attack on WASP culture and its allegedly harmful effects on not only ethnic Catholic but also black and even Jewish communities, Novak is correct to see the deleterious effects of left-wing American individualism, consumerism, and moral degeneracy on ethnic families. In words that could appear in the contemporary Catholic press, Novak argues that even in the 1970s, “Liberal education tends to separate children from their parents, from their roots, from their history, in the cause of a universal and superior religion.” This religion, of course, is not Christianity but rather the politics of liberalism itself. Anticipating later comments by President Trump, Novak further laments that Catholic ethnics have also been forgotten by social planners and elites who make laws not for the common good, but create “laws that protect the interests of elites.”
Praising the large families of Italian and Polish American Catholics Novak notes that “the nuclear family is a recent invention,” and mom and dad need the support of grandma and grandpa as well as cousins and aunts and uncles. As part of his argument, Novak relates some horrifying tales (not uncommon in our own day) of elderly people abandoned in American cities by children and neighbors who have fled to the good life of the WASPy suburbs. A younger more liberal Novak’s solution to this blight of isolation is a return to the ethnic community in which the mottos are: “People first. Families first. Neighborhoods first.”
Calling for “a politics of smallness” rooted in ethnicity not race, in the Unmeltable Ethnics Novak also rightly reminds his readers that until the later 20th century in America, Celtic, Italian, and Slavic (not to mention Asian, Latino, and black) Catholics were not considered “white” and thus were never considered “real” Americans by many Protestants — this bit of advice should bear hearing among those (including some Catholics) today who argue for a “white” ethno state as if the rich tapestry of European ethnic identities could simply be bulldozed into one hegemonic bloc. What is more, as Novak wryly notes, those who screamed so loudly in the 1970s for integration and diversity among the elite were (and still are) nestled in ethnically homogenous communities and thus are comfortably able to ride what Michael Novak cleverly calls “a moral gravy train.”
Throughout the work, in opposition to prejudice and fetishizing of certain groups, Novak argues for real equal opportunity for all Americans. A truly humane Leftist, Novak correctly maintains, would agree that “both white and black must be helped together.” Anticipating President Trump’s “Americans are Dreamers too” speech, Michael Novak reasons that just as Martin Luther King had a dream so too is there a “correlative [Catholic] ethnic dream…”
Novak’s most important contribution to American Catholic thought in the Unmeltable Ethnics, which is desperately required in our age of identity politics, is the need for the healthy natural roots of the family and the ethnic community. It is, as Novak rightly notes, this positive ethnic self-assertion that can help “diminish the racial and other tensions” tearing the social fabric of America. For Novak Catholic ethnics must be “grateful that they were born among the people destiny placed them…,” for true racism springs from insecurity and fear, not from patriotic self-confidence.
It is this communal identity, rooted in a strong family, that is so desperately lacking in the lives of so many Americans today — whether Catholic ethnics or not. And it is this lack of an authentic community that causes so much of the anxiety and turmoil that produce the horrors of street fighting protests, school shooting, and selfie suicides that we see in the news now on a daily basis.
Catholics of good will on both the right and the left will continue to present deserved praise as well as legitimate criticism of the life and work of Michael Novak, who passed from this world in February of last year at the seasoned age of 83. However, Novak’s love of working class ethnic Catholic America from which the theologian sprang and to which he returned in spirit in the twilight of his life is a worthy lesson for us American Catholics who need both social and ethnic as well as theological roots now more than ever.