In the Winter 2014 issue of "City Journal" Ethics and Public Policy Center Distinguished Senior Fellow George Weigel surveys the work of Michael Novak, whose “intellectual achievement is both singularly American and singularly Catholic.”
Published by George Weigel in the Ethics and Public Policy Center's City Journal on February 5, 2014
In the fall of 1970, when I was a college sophomore, the first article assigned in one of my courses was titled “What Is Theology’s Standpoint?” The author argued that a “standpoint” was “a set of experiences, images, presuppositions, expectations, and operations (of inquiring and deciding),” by which human beings made sense of themselves and their relationship to the world. Late-twentieth-century theology, he continued, should operate from an “open standpoint,” engaging the human experience in full. Reading that article was my first encounter with the mind and spirit of Michael Novak. More than four decades later, it strikes me that the gist of the article nicely captures the range of Novak’s achievement, as well as suggesting its distinctive intellectual and cultural location.
Back then, in theological circles, a fad existed for titling articles and books “Toward a Theology of” this, that, or the other thing (a fad once neatly parodied by my Toronto colleague Margaret O’Rourke Boyle, in “Toward a Theology of Garbage”). Indeed, the “toward” bug infected Novak on one occasion, when he christened an extended essay “Toward a Theology of the Corporation.” But that was, I’m sure, a literary venial sin. For Novak’s entire intellectual enterprise has never needed that faux rhetorical booster “toward.” As he showed me in his 1968 Theology Today essay on theology’s “standpoint,” authentic Catholic intellectual life, and especially Catholic theology, is always “toward”: Catholic intellectual life consciously engages the fullness of human experience, which Catholic thinkers “read” through the prism of revelation and reason, both of which, they maintain, cast the light of truth on human affairs. This conviction—that reflection on the things of the City of God can illuminate the paradoxes, tragedies, conundrums, and possibilities of the City of Man—stands at the center of Michael Novak’s thought.
And that is why, in more than a half-century of scholarship, journalism, and public service, Novak has applied his philosophical and theological skills to virtually every consequential aspect of the human condition. He has not followed a preset itinerary but has deliberately charted previously unexplored territories and terrain. That choice—to break out of conventional patterns of thought and become one’s own intellectual GPS—has not always made for an easy life.
Some did not appreciate having their disciplines and practices examined through lenses ground by theological reason; in fact, some of those whose turf Novak surveyed regard the very notion of “theological reason” as oxymoronic. Explorers make mistakes, and Novak would be the first to admit that what once seemed an interesting track to follow eventually turned into a blind alley, or that the account he gave of this or that form of human activity was incomplete. One of the most impressive aspects of Novak’s intellectual personality has been his openness to criticism and his willingness to say, when necessary, “you were right and I was wrong”—a confession that comes harder to intellectuals than to most.
Like others who, in the standard political categories, made the pilgrimage from left to right, Novak has been pilloried as a traitor to his class. The truth is that he had the courage to face facts and hold fast to his deepest convictions about human dignity and human freedom, rather than adjust those convictions to the shifting fashions of political correctness. Like virtually everyone who enters the public arena with ideas that challenge the regnant wisdom, Novak must have wished, from time to time, for a better class of enemies. Unlike some of those enemies, he has maintained a commitment to charity, candor, and respect.
It has not been easy being an intellectual trailblazer, this past half-century; perhaps it never is. Still, it’s worth noting en passant how nasty intellectual exchange—or what passes for it—often is, these days. Late in his life, which was built around debate and controversy, almost always conducted with robust good humor, G. K. Chesterton regretted that his friend Hilaire Belloc’s controversies were always so “sundering.” That had something to do with Belloc’s bulldog demeanor. But in our own time, controversy over ideas has become inexorably “sundering” because of the secular-messianic streak that dominates late-modern and postmodern intellectual life, especially at the sometimes-bloody crossroads where ideas meet public policy. Those who challenge the shibboleths of the politically correct academy aren’t merely mistaken; they are wicked and must be shunned. That this cast of mind has seriously eroded American public life has become all too clear in, for example, recent Supreme Court dicta that dismiss those who defend traditional moral norms from postmodern Gnosticism as irrational bigots. Similar shunning dynamics, rooted in the same belief that history’s ratchet only works in one direction, have too often made intra-Catholic controversy an unpleasant arena in recent decades.
But enough about the difficulties that Michael Novak has faced over a half-century of intellectual exploration. What about his singular achievement?
It is not within my competence to make judgments about Novak’s account of economic life; others are better equipped to determine what he got right and what has been left incomplete in his philosophical and theological analysis of markets, free enterprise, the system of democratic capitalism, and the vocation of business. But however those judgments wind up, it’s clear that Novak, with singular dedication and real effect in the evolution of Catholic social doctrine, introduced a new temper to Catholic thinking about economic life. We can describe that new temper as an empirical sensibility that never descends into empiricism.
Novak’s account of economics begins, not with abstractions, but with keen observations of what is, which, in turn, lead to a disciplined reflection on how what is ought to be understood, casting light on moral truths and responsibilities in the process. Or, as his friend Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian social thinker, has put it, Novak’s seminal thinking about economic life raised an important question, little explored previously in Catholic social thought—or indeed in any other religiously informed social thought: Might “laws” exist in economic life analogous to the moral laws that a disciplined reflection on human moral action can discern? Is there, in other words, a deep structure to economic life that helps explain why some economies “work,” whether those economies are lodged in medieval Benedictine monasteries or in modern business enterprises? And does that deep structure reflect truths about the human person and human relationships that we can recognize by a careful, empirically informed reasoning that is attentive to the truths about the human condition that we learn from biblical religion?
From its inception with Pope Leo XIII in the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, modern Catholic social doctrine, for all its insights, had a somewhat abstract, top-down quality. Thus, the strikingly empirical character of Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II’s seminal 1991 encyclical on the free and virtuous society in its political, economic, and cultural dimensions, marked a significant development in the Church’s evolving social thought. The basic principles of that tradition remained in place, but they now found themselves filled out by a far more attentive reading of the realities of late-modern political and economic life—including the one that Novak powerfully described at the outset of his groundbreaking 1982 book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism: “Of all the systems of political economy which have shaped our history, none has so revolutionized ordinary expectations of human life—lengthened the life span, made the elimination of poverty and famine imaginable, enlarged the range of human choice—as democratic capitalism.” Recognizing the truth (and limits) of that insight, Centesimus Annus developed Catholic social doctrine’s “standpoint” to include the possibilities of empowerment latent in free economies, clearly reflecting Novak’s influence. If Catholic social doctrine continues to unfold along the trajectory of Centesimus Annus, it will continue to bear the imprint of Novak’s thought.
The impact of Novak’s writing on Catholicism and economic life wasn’t just felt in Rome. A samizdat translation of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism circulated in poorly printed and tattered editions among the leaders of Solidarity in Soviet-controlled Poland, helping to shape the post-Communist future of that country. The Polish government recently acknowledged Novak’s contribution to a free Poland by awarding him the Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Merit, one of the nation’s highest honors. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism had a similar influence across the Tatra Mountains, in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Novak’s thinking on economics and his critique of Marxist-influenced “liberation theologies” also helped turn the tide against an influential movement that threatened to reduce the Church in Latin America to a political agent advancing a totalitarian agenda. At the same time, his creative extension of Catholic social doctrine helped Latin American scholars, clergy, and political leaders think beyond the authoritarianism and mercantilism that had often characterized Catholic public cultures south of the Rio Grande.
Finally, it’s important to note the influence of Novak’s economic thought on an entire generation of younger thinkers, on American officeholders of all religious persuasions and none, on religious leaders of various denominations, and on business leaders and entrepreneurs throughout the world. By demonstrating how empirical rigor about the realities of economic life could be married to core principles of Catholic social doctrine and to a profoundly biblical anthropology, Novak has helped open up once-unimaginable conversations.
In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II described the free and virtuous society as composed of three interlocking parts: a democratic political community, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture. At the same time, he stressed the crucial importance of that third sector, culture, in disciplining and tempering the energies unleashed by freedom, so that they contributed to genuine human flourishing. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism anticipated this tripartite portrait of the free and virtuous society. As Novak argued, “democracy . . . and the . . . market . . . require a special moral-cultural base. Without certain moral and cultural presuppositions about the nature of individuals and their communities, about liberty and sin, about the changeability of history, about work and savings, about self-restraint and mutual cooperation, neither democracy nor capitalism can be made to work.” Over the past several decades, Novak has furthered this insight into the priority of culture in his reflections on civil society and on the importance of religious conviction to the formation of civil society in the thinking of the American Founders.
Here, too, Novak helped break new ground. By the 1970s, political science (when it hadn’t decomposed into a subdiscipline of statistics) tended toward a functionalist view of democracy, in which the only relevant actors were the individual and the state; biblical religion was deemed to play a marginal role (at best) in the ongoing making of America. Novak’s writings on ethnicity, first given ample expression in 1972’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, were an important reclamation of the cultural richness of American society and a reminder that deep-running currents of memory and community still shaped the American body politic. Moreover, Novak’s various commentaries on Alexis de Tocqueville were reminders that (as Tocqueville and his fellow Frenchman, Jacques Maritain, both understood) the associational instinct—the building of those free associations that John Paul II described in Centesimus Annus as embodiments of the “subjectivity of society”—was a crucial component in making the United States a home of freedom, even as the withering of that instinct in other democracies presaged the deterioration of their political cultures.
As for the Founding, Novak’s work challenged the prevailing Whig historiography, in which religious conviction (of a Deist sort) was at best a minor factor in the making of America. The Founders’ and Framers’ religious convictions, Novak proposed, were far more complex, something that any serious assessment of the cultural landscape of the Founding had to take into account, as he and his daughter Jana did in Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country. That 2006 book, along with Novak’s earlier On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding, not only helped redress a historiographic mistake; those books also proved useful in combating efforts to create in contemporary America what Richard John Neuhaus dubbed the “naked public square”—a public arena shorn not only of religious dogma but also of religiously grounded moral conviction.
In recent decades, the traditional theological subdiscipline of apologetics has made many Catholic intellectuals uncomfortable. Apologetics seem to imply polemics, and polemics weren’t deemed congruent with the spirit of the post–Vatican II Church, misconstrued as the Church of Nice. So just as the ambient Western culture turned toxic and hostile to Christianity, Catholicism’s apologetic muscles slackened, the truths of the biblical tradition (including essential truths about the human person on which free societies rest) were often left defenseless, and the wider culture increasingly assumed that what wasn’t defended was, in fact, indefensible.
In this challenging situation, Novak was one of the leaders in crafting a new Catholic apologetics, in books such as Confession of a Catholic and Tell Me Why, another volume coauthored with Jana Novak. Confession of a Catholic anticipated, and Tell Me Why embodied, what John Paul II meant when he taught, in the 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, that “[t]he Church proposes; she imposes nothing.” Unlike older forms of apologetics, which tended to bludgeon the reader into submission through hammer blows of unassailable deductions, Novak’s apologetic method was far more discursive—it was, to use an often ill-used word in its proper sense, dialogical. It invited the reader into a serious conversation without ever getting lost in self-seriousness. And it began from a premise composed in equal parts of humility and wonder. As Novak wrote in an essay-commentary on his beloved Dante, love, which is the Christian image of God, “is no simple thing. It is not what we might at first think it is. We spend a lifetime being instructed in its secrets. It is shallow enough for ants to walk safely across, deep enough for elephants to drown in. Saints of great soul endure many torments being enflamed by it. . . . Yet God wished to show what he is made of, to let us look behind the veil at the Love that moves the sun and all the stars, and to draw us into acts of caritas.”
Novak brought to the task of explaining the Church’s teachings an acute sense of the challenges that late-modern and postmodern culture pose to Christian faith and Christian truth-claims. Young people growing up in a culture that assaults Christian sensibilities and that tacitly (or not so tacitly) mocks Christian convictions and symbols, could not be convinced, he knew, by logic alone—any more than Jesus had drawn disciples by logic alone. Clear convictions weren’t enough; patience, tact, and an ability to hear questions in such a way that the apologist can provide the appropriate answer—not just the correct answer—were all necessary. Novak had those skills, as his being voted most effective teacher at two major universities on several occasions demonstrated. And so Novak was one of the pioneers of a new apologetics that sought to invite young minds and hearts into the adventure of belief: to “ascend the mountain and fly with the dove,” to use the images he adopted for the title of his early invitation to religious studies; to experience the sacred and understand that such an encounter enlarged, rather than diminished, human freedom.
No account of Novak’s accomplishment would be complete without an acknowledgment of at least one aspect of his variegated and extensive public service. When President Ronald Reagan sent Novak to lead the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1981, American diplomacy was floundering. The Carter administration had adopted the language of “human rights,” introduced into the U.S. foreign policy debate by men such as Henry M. Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the mid-1970s, but evacuated of any serious content by Carter, in part because of his conviction that America must transcend its “inordinate fear of Communism.” Novak helped fill that content vacuum with an understanding of human rights drawn from Catholic social doctrine and the American experience, and he used that understanding to pummel the Soviet Union, its allies and its apologists, in what we now know was the beginning of the last act of the Cold War.
No help was forthcoming on this front from the State Department, at least at the beginning, as Novak recounts in his new memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative. Novak and his able colleague, Richard Schifter, were on their own, in bureaucratic terms. But they were not on their own conceptually because Novak and others who had begun their public lives on the left had, during their political journey, thought through the ideas that enabled them to become effective defenders of the rights of Solidarity, Charter 77, the Lithuanian Committee for the Defense of Believers’ Rights, and the rest of that noble galaxy of Central and Eastern European democratic activists looking to the U.S. for support.
In making the case for freedom, Novak and his colleagues at the UN Human Rights Commission demonstrated to one of the American government’s most thoroughly secularized sectors—the Foreign Service—and to the often religiously tone-deaf foreign policy establishment that philosophy and theology had things to say to, and in, diplomacy. The revolution of conscience that eventually swept Central and Eastern Europe, depositing European Communism into the dustbin of history, was inspired and led by John Paul II. But he was not alone in that great work, and Novak, diplomat, helped bring the pope’s human-rights revolution to bear, with effect, in that most unlikely venue, the UN.
And then there is the world of sports, which, for Michael Novak, is a fit subject for philosophical and theological reflection.
I must confess to some queasiness about Novak’s orthodoxy here. In the spring of 1985, Novak and I walked together into old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore for one of the first games of the new baseball season. Memorial Stadium was an old brick horseshoe, and you accessed the seating bowl by walking up concrete ramps; one of those interior ramps afforded a brief glimpse of the great greensward of the outfield beneath the overhanging mezzanine section, and though Memorial Stadium is no more, that constricted view, with its promise of summer to come, remains one of my favorite visual memories. As we inhaled the sweet scents of freshly mowed outfield grass, we heard the unmistakable crack of ash on horsehide as a batting-practice ball was propelled into the right-field bleachers. “Greatest sound in sports,” I said. “Except for ‘swish,’ ” Novak replied.
That lapse into Naismithian heresy aside, Novak’s thinking and writing about sports have helped us appreciate our games as something other than vehicles for marketing team accessories—an ever-present danger in today’s professional and collegiate sports environment. Who but Novak would, or could, get away with describing the National Football League as “the liturgy of the Bureaucratic State,” as he did in his mid-1970s The Joy of Sports? (That fine book’s title was ruined by an editor’s priggish sense of propriety; Novak wanted to call it Balls.) Who but Novak could describe baseball as a signal of transcendence, what with the game’s lack of clock time and the theoretically infinite extent of the foul lines? And who else but Novak would see in baseball’s distinctive combination of individualism ordered to team achievement (or, if you prefer, the pastime’s unique embodiment of personal freedom and responsibility, ordered to the common good) a unique metaphor for what he once called the American “communitarian individual”—and a lesson for the world?
I have watched a lot of games in a lot of sports with a lot of people, but I have never been with anyone who enjoyed sports more than Michael Novak—which, in his case, I’m sure, is not a psychological quirk but a matter of deep Christian conviction about homo ludens and the relationship of our games to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb described in Revelation 21. From that ample theological standpoint whereby he surveys the human scene, being a fan for Novak also means being confirmed in one’s convictions that the human story is, in the final analysis, a divine comedy, not a meaningless tragedy.
Novak’s life and thought have been shaped by his love for his Slovak roots and, more generally, for the Slavic understanding of history (which, he once explained, is why great quarterbacks who pull the game out in the last minute always seem to come from Slavic backgrounds in western Pennsylvania: “It’s the fourth quarter, you’re down by 20; what’s new?”). But while he is, in a sense, one of his own unmeltable ethnics, Novak is also an American, whose profound patriotism is informed by an equally profound love for the Catholic Church. That much is, I think, obvious to those who know him.
What may not be so obvious, or at least seems to me rather unremarked, is that Novak’s intellectual achievement is both singularly American and singularly Catholic. It is impossible to imagine a Michael Novak and his achievement anywhere else. And it is just as impossible to imagine that accomplishment as anything other than a Catholic one. Catholic intellectual life has a distinctive texture in the United States. In the best of American Catholic thought, we find a combination of the empirical and the abstract, practical reason and theoretical reason, that exists, frankly, nowhere else in the world Church. Novak has exemplified that distinctively American expression of the famous Catholic “both/and” in a unique way for over half a century. I don’t know many other Catholic intellectuals in modern times who’ve been able to range so freely and with such command across such a broad intellectual landscape. That achievement speaks not only to Novak’s singular talents but also to the freedom granted by that wonderful American invention, the freestanding scholarly research institute or think tank—in his case, the American Enterprise Institute, where he was a resident scholar for three decades, until his 2009 retirement.
Perhaps most strikingly of all, Michael Novak has stretched the Catholic Church’s self-understanding—and the wider culture’s understanding of the Catholic Church—as a layman: a layman faithful to the Church’s teaching and committed to free inquiry of the sort that lay Catholics can best undertake. When the United States bishops undertook in the mid-1980s to write a national pastoral letter on economic life, Novak took the lead in organizing a Lay Letter on the economy. Some found this cheeky; others were openly hostile. Novak saw it as an opportunity to bring distinctive lay experiences and gifts to bear for the benefit of Church leaders in the exercise of their teaching office. The “Lay Letter” was not an attempt to challenge the bishops’ authority; rather, it sought to strengthen that authority through a truly open and free conversation about Catholic faith and economic life. That, too, could happen only in the U.S.
Men and women of many different religious convictions as well as those with no religious convictions will be arguing about Novak’s works for decades, perhaps even centuries, to come. But as that debate continues, something else should be remembered about Novak’s accomplishment at a personal level.
Because of Novak’s work, men and women in commerce, as well as entrepreneurs throughout the world, have come to think of the distinct exercise of their creativity as a vocation, not just a job; so, I believe, have some athletes. Because of Novak’s work, countless students have come to understand that religious experience is a field as worthy of study as algebra or zoology. Because of Novak’s work, those who bear the burden of responsibility for the common good, at the highest levels of national government, have been reminded of the importance of moral reason and moral commitment in the affairs of state. Because of Novak’s work, Catholicism in America and elsewhere has learned a new grammar and a new vocabulary for meeting the challenges of aggressive secularism and for making the Catholic Church’s proposal in a winsome and compelling way. Because of Novak’s work, Catholic social thought has become much more capacious, and participation in the Catholic, ecumenical, and interreligious conversations about moral truth and public life (in its economic and political aspects) has been broadened.
And because of Novak’s work, all Americans—indeed, all free peoples—have been reminded of what is most basic to freedom’s contemporary discontents. As Novak put it in his 1994 Templeton Prize Lecture: “It is a constant struggle to maintain free societies in any of their three parts, economic, political, or cultural. Of these three, the cultural struggle, long neglected, is the one on whose outcome the fate of free societies in the 21st century will most depend. We will have to learn, once again, how to think about such matters, and how to argue about them publicly, with civility, and also with the moral seriousness of those who know that the survival of liberty depends upon the outcome. The free society is moral, or not at all.”
At the end of Chaim Potok’s beautiful novel The Chosen, Reb Saunders, the Hasidic sage who has acceded to his elder son Danny’s desire to become a healer in the world rather than a congregational rabbi, makes an act of faith in his son’s future—his son will be a tzaddik, a wise and compassionate man, a moral beacon, for the world. “And the world needs a tzaddik,” the aged refugee from Russian pogroms testifies. Given the depth and breadth of his ongoing conversation with Jewish thinkers, it is no stretch of the boundaries of interreligious propriety to suggest that the achievement of Michael Novak, this singularly American Catholic achievement, has been the achievement of a tzaddik for the world.
George Weigel is the author, most recently, of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church and Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (coauthored with Elizabeth Lev and Stephen Weigel).