Johnstown - a city with a will We have faced the worst nature can throw at us but refuse to give up

  Published by Michael Novak for The Tribune-Democrat onMay 25, 2014

In my amateur studies of the flood during these past many years, one of the episodes that most surprised me was the beauty of the day before, May 30, and the lively Memorial Day celebration, with hundreds of visitors in town, including the regional convention of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

There were four or five marching bands in the parade, besides a sizable detachment of veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic who fought in the Civil War, which had ended only 24 years before.

The marching bands were splendidly outfitted and ethnically arrayed: Two bands in scarlet piping on black representing Austria, the AOH band in green, Hussars in brilliant red, the highstepping blue-clad Hornerstown Drum Corps.  Behind them all came marching girls in white and red holding aloft a banner that read:


Alongside the banner, girls in identical outfits held American flags with 38 stars, last of all came girls in the same uniform, dipping a red, a white, and a blue flag rhythmically with every other step.

It was a great day, with plenty of meats and mustards, and tables of pickles and potato salads of many kinds, and an abundance of ethnic cookies and sweets. And, of course, lemonades and beers.

The U.S. government weather service had predicted a resumption of the record-high April-May rains of that year during the evening hours of May 30. Sure enough, that’s how the lovely, fresh Memorial Day of 1889 ended. Joyfully, but brought down to earth by the serious and unrelenting rain that came in after dark.

A variety show from New York City had arrived in town to conclude the Memorial Day evening celebration, and went on as scheduled. But when the full house exited, the water was ankle high in the street, and even an inch or more on the sidewalk. Many good shoes were ruined that night, many others held aloft with one hand while long skirts were lifted with the other.

By morning, the lower streets already were awash in water that kept inching upwards. From much experience in prior years, homes in Johnstown were typically built a couple of feet above street level to accommodate the almost annual overflows of the Little Conemaugh and the Stonycreek.

There was talk of formidably high waters beginning to slide over the top of the South Fork Dam 14 miles up narrow canyons, about 400 feet above the Johnstown basin. But this talk arrived almost every year with the heavy rains of spring. Most paid little attention at all.

Besides carrying some of the lighter valuables from the first floor to the second, few did anything to prepare for the worst.

A funeral scheduled for May 31 at St. John Gualbert Cathedral had to be canceled in the last hour, even though the coffin of the deceased elderly woman had been brought to the church in the early morning hours, before the waters suddenly rose prohibitively high.

Then, suddenly, at 4:07 in the afternoon a loud roar and an ominous and sulfurous mist crashed down the valley of the Little Conemaugh and at somewhere between 30 and 40 feet high a hugely tumbling wall of water burst upon the whole city on the valley floor. In minutes, hundreds died, 99 families simply vanished, and within a few hours more than 2,200 were dead.

And yet, strangely enough, the tough people of this valley did not despair or go weak-kneed.  They set to work. By noon the next day, strong survivors had elected a leader to oversee the recovery, and all available men and women set to work.

The devastation of all wooden homes and shops was total. Even some brick buildings could not withstand the power of the immense weight of water – 20 million tons of it. Some 1,500 buildings were destroyed. A smattering of the strongest structures still stood erect above the piles and piles of smoldering debris. Even train engines had been thrown about like toys and lay, visibly now, on top of the inert rubble.

Even before the flood, Johnstowners knew how to work. Work is the middle name of Johnstowners. (Even when they are unemployed, many Johnstown men continue to work, rebuilding their homes, and helping out relatives.) Virtually all have family memories of really severe hardships in their lives. Intense loyalties to their families and their faith have served them well in their various cultural traditions for hundreds of years. All of them have suffered much in suffering abroad or in this country.

Many had seen everything they knew taken away from them before. Nearly all of them, at some point in their lives, had to leave behind family and lands of birth overseas. As I like to put this, “the experience of nothingness” – everything pulled out from under our lives – has been familiar to Johnstowners for generations. The experience of nothingness is at times overpoweringly strong. But even stronger in this valley is the will to live, to live nobly, to build, to love, to serve.

Johnstown, as the polka has it, is a city with a will. It is a city with the will to live, to come back, to rebuild, to hold together. It is a kind of “resurrection city.”  It has all but been demolished, extinguished, buried. And then it has come back. Again and again.

The “Johnstown Girls” – and the “Johnstown Guys” – are of a special sort, and we silently salute each other in any part of the world in which we happen to be.


Michael Novak is an author, theologian and philosopher who is a native of Johnstown. He is a distinguished visiting professor at Ave Maria University in Florida, after 32 years in the chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He was the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize, bestowed on him in Buckingham Palace, and was on three occasions U.S. ambassador under Ronald Reagan. Novak has written numerous influential books on economics, philosophy, and theology. His masterpiece, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, was republished underground in Poland in 1984, and in Czechoslovakia, Germany, China, Hungary, Bangladesh, Korea, and many times in Latin America. For his work, he has received many international awards.








Tim McDonnell Honored with Laub-Novak Award

PHOTO: Michael Novak is pictured with Dr. McDonnell and his wife, Maria.   (photo by Katie Miller)  

Ave Maria University music department chair Timothy McDonnell was praised by fellow students and by noted author Michael Novak Wednesday night as he was presented with the third Laub-Novak award for excellence in teaching in the humanities.

"Dr. McDonnell may be the single best ambassador of the university, taking his artists to the Naples Philharmonic and the schools and churches of the larger Naples community," said Mr. Novak in presenting the award named for his late wife, the artist Karen Laub-Novak. "His insistence on excellence is obvious to all who are thrilled by the many musical events presented throughout the year. How can we thank him enough for helping to make Ave Maria a home for beauty, a place in which artistic expression, creativity, and mastery thrive" (pictured, Dr. McDonnell at right with his wife, Maria, and Mr. Novak - photo by Katie Miller)

Dr. McDonnell's accomplishments directing the Ave Maria University chorus was cited by Myra Daniels as a major factor in her decision to help raise money for a new performing arts center on the AMU campus.

As with the previous Laub-Novak award presentations, tributes from current and former students were read and the gathering was treated to performances from some of them.

"On the whole, Dr. McDonnell's contribution to the life of AMU is, frankly, immeasurable," wrote one student, "but for me his gifts to the community were those evenings of festivity, liturgy, reverence, and sheer beauty. It was the beauty of the many facets of what Ave Maria University strives to be, unified in a single moment that turned and unfolded time- a terrible and wonderful thing to behold which each time left me moved, chastised, and consoled."

The Laub-Novak award is a private initiative of Mr. Novak's family foundation. The award began this year, with the first presentation to AMU literature professor Michael Raiger and the second to Travis Curtright, AMU's director of Humanities and Liberal Studies and the creator of the popular Shakespeare in Performance course.

For another look at Dr. McDonnel, see Ave Herald Editor Patricia Sette's November, 2012, column in the Naples Daily News Collier Citizen.


Published in The Ave Herald on May 8, 2014

Michael Novak Recalls the Good-Humoured John XXIII and the Polish Pontiff Who Called Him a Friend

Tells ZENIT Why Joint Canonization Made Sense

Published by Deborah Castellano Lubov at (Vatican City) on April 27, 2014.


Michael Novak, former ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, theologian, and author of some 30 books, including "The Open Church" and "Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative" spoke with ZENIT in Rome days before this weekend's canonization. 

An eyewitness to Vatican II, who was both given one of the last wedding blessings by John XXIII and who was publicly called a friend by John Paul II, Novak shared with ZENIT his thoughts about the two popes and the canonization.


ZENIT: What is the reason behind having a joint canonization? It's said that Poles are unhappy with JPII being canonized on the same day as John XXIII.

Novak: The linking of the popes makes better sense of them both, than one by one.

At the end of John XXIII's time as pope, his work was left very undone. Some were even speculating about a Vatican III. Once Benedict XVI was asked: "What's the full meaning of Vatican II?" He responded: "We won't know, as the fruits of the council take time to develop."

This is very true and is evidenced by the fact that no other country or great organization has had a re-enactment of the council, in the sense that they took the initiative to reinvent themselves. We cannot name another institution that is or has effectively done this in the same way that the Catholic Church did through Vatican II.

The questions raised by the decisions reached by the decrees were incredibly far reaching and forward looking. It's true that 50 years were needed to come to a common understanding of what happened.


ZENIT: Many say the joint canonization could be seen as a sign of continuity between the Popes and the council. Could you explain your view on this?

Novak: Yes, as I said in my book "The Open Church," John XXIII 'opened the windows of the Church' when he announced there would be a Second Vatican Council. He knew better than to consult with the Roman Curia, which had been described in this way: "Popes come and go, but the Curia lives forever." He just announced the Church needed this council and will be having it, whether the Curia liked it or not.

Vatican II was a tremendous event which advanced the Council of Trent. It announced a new era of the Church which, after John Paul II, Benedict XVI was about to build on in a very scholarly way and Francis would build on in a very populist way.


ZENIT: In what ways did John Paul II himself carry out the fruits of the council?

Novak: John Paul II took the initiatives of John XXIII and 'rounded them out,' completing them and making them international. By 'rounded out,' I mean he did something unimaginable in the way he carried out the council's decrees. No one had any idea what he was thinking.

If someone would have predicted that the wall would come down, they would have locked him up. This is a testament to Wojtyla who, effectively did the impossible, in crumbling communism, in a roughly 11 year time frame.

He changed the contours of the world, traveling, more than any pope ever had. He showed the Church structure is not a pyramid, it's concentric rings, which were visible during his travels, at which he would be on an altar surrounded by bishops of the region and hemisphere. John Paul introduced this to the world.


ZENIT: Tell us about the "The Open Church." With your personal account of being present at Vatican II, could you give some insight to the persons who would like to know more about John XXIII?

Novak: John XXIII was so wonderful. He was known as the smiling pope. He was very easy-going, kind, warm, and friendly. He enjoyed a good joke and laughed often. He had that personal touch that people see in and love about Pope Francis today. He was not all puffed up about himself.


ZENIT: Can you please give an example of this humorous and playful side of the Italian pontiff?

Novak: Yes, once, when walking with a journalist in the Vatican gardens, he was asked whether he knew how many people worked at the Vatican. He joked saying, "about half."


ZENIT: How else were John XXIII and Pope Francis similar?

Novak: They were both pastors of the Church. They possessed that warmth. They fall into the category of someone with whom you would like to have a coffee or cigar with.

John XXIII had "opened the windows of the Church" with Vatican II and brought an "aggiornamento," meaning it brought the Church to today. Yet, he was aware, like how Francis is, that sometimes there are 'winds.' Not everything that comes in through the open window is good. There are noxious fumes. Likewise, not everything of today is good.


ZENIT: What aspect of John XXIII and John Paul II's relationship is important to this canonization?

Novak: The council that John XXIII proposed brought the Church together and nailed down clear, positive statements of faith built around prayers of the Church. This allowed for the evangelization, which John Paul II brought to fruition.


(April 27, 2014) © Innovative Media Inc.




For Catholics, The Vocation Of Business Is The Main Hope For The World's Poor

Published by on March 4, 2014 [EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Novak delivered this address at the Catholic University of America on January 14, on the first anniversary of the university’s School of Business and Economics.]

The Catholic University of America is a sacred place to me. I loved reading of the lay initiatives in its beginnings, and the brilliant papers presented at a founding conference during the first year of its existence. I studied here for two terms in 1958 and 1959 – and had the privilege of studying under Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, Robert Trisco, Paulist Father Gene Burke, the legendary Monsignor Joseph Fenton and the well-known Redemptorist, Father Francis J. Connell. And I have come back here to give more than one series of lectures that later became books.

Today, though, is a special day. We are here marking the first anniversary of CUA’s School of Business and Economics, and business is the most strategically central vocation in the whole field of social justice.

Pope Francis, in his Evangelii gaudium, wrote: “Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.”

The business vocation is the main hope of the 1 billion human beings around the world still locked in poverty.

The business vocation is the main support of the multitude of institutions of civil society – the main support of private universities, cancer clinics, soup kitchens, symphonies, hospitals for the poor, sports activities both in neighborhoods and in major cities, service organizations such as Lions Clubs, the Rotary, Kiwanis, the Elks, the support of religious activities without number. Without business corporations, there would be no great power standing between associations of citizens and the Leviathan of the administrative state. Without business, there would be only a very weak private sector indeed.

Today, though, I want to begin with a simpler theme. An evangelical theme.

Think about this for a moment.

What was the vocation that from all eternity the Lord God Creator chose for his only son, born of humankind? The Lord God Creator called the Christ, the Redeemer, to shoulder the vocation of small business: a creative vocation, a vocation of humble service to nearly every human household.

When he was the age of most of you in this room, then, Jesus was helping run a small business. There on a hillside in Nazareth, he found the freedom to be creative, to measure exactly, and to make beautiful wood-pieces. Here he was able to serve others, even to please them by the quality of his work. Here he helped his family earn its own way. Creativity, exactitude, quality, beauty, service to others, independence – this was the substance of his daily life. In preparation for all that was to come.

Like Christ, each of you, too, has been given a calling. “Before Time was, the Lord knew thee by name and called you.” The problem now is to recognize your calling, and do what you have been made to do. But how does a young woman recognize her own calling? How does a twenty-something guy learn what he was made to do?

Listen to your own heart. Ask three questions: What are your abilities, in their full range of upward possibilities and their limitations? Which activities do you most enjoy? What would you love to be doing your whole lifetime? These are three signs of what God made you to do, fitted you to do.

But there is a catch. Many others may want the same things you do. To prove that you are reading correctly what God wants you to do, you must have worked really hard, and prepared yourself even better than they. And you need a Providence who has seen to it that circumstances are in favorable array – so that you are in the right place at the right time, and make the right moves when the chance comes. God helps those who help themselves – and, still, he must open the opportunity to those who do help themselves. We need lots of prayers for his guidance, and his blessings on our behalf.

No one promised that life would be a rose garden

Life is not a rose garden. No one promised that. We must earn our way by the sweat of our brow. We are told that this is a vale of tears – much disappointment, much sorrow in it. So in seeking to answer your own call, you must pray constantly for light and for the best preparation you can undertake. The deeper you dig the foundations in your youth, the higher you can build the future.

But why choose business as a vocation? Business is perhaps the most common vocation of Christians around the world. And it is desperately needed. After the human race was born naked and poor, for millennia there were no industries, settled farms, cities, established businesses in which to seek employment and earn a modest income. Two centuries ago, there were fewer than 1 billion human beings in the entire human population. Nearly all of them were poor, and in France, one of the more developed nations, most were called les misérables.

Today, there are just over 7 billion people on earth. Since World War II, enormous strides have been taken in liberating billions of them from dire poverty. But there are still just over 1 billion humans living at primitive levels of income, under $2 per day, $700 per year. Almost all are unemployed or underemployed. Their only real hope of getting out of poverty is the launching of about 200 million small businesses. Without jobs, how can the poor raise their income?

Capitalism is lifting the world out of poverty

But where will all these 200 million small businesses come from?

Until recently, the poorest regions of the world were Asia, Africa, and some parts of Latin America. Since 1980, however, China and India have been transforming their economies from socialist to capitalist, have raised more than a half billion persons out of poverty, and prodded them into a steady upward movement of income and (for them) striking prosperity. Thus, Asia has jumped ahead of Africa in economic advancement, and now Africa is the poorest region in the world. In these areas, large swathes of the planet are not yet favorable to large industries or corporations. In such regions, the only hope of full employment lies in the formation of small businesses. Indeed, in such regions (and in many others) the best annual measure of economic progress is the rate of new business formations.

Even in developed nations, most jobs are found in small business. In Italy, over 80 percent of the working population works in small businesses. In the U.S., the proportion is just about 50 percent, but some 65 percent of new employment is in small businesses.

During the great economic expansion of 1981-1989, the U.S. added to its economy the equivalent of the whole economic activity of West Germany at that time. Sixteen million new jobs were created in the U.S., the vast number of them in small businesses. Startups peaked as new businesses came into being at a rate of 13 percent (as a portion of all businesses) – an all-time high. Much the same happened under Clinton in 1993-2001, but even better – 23 million new jobs were created.

In the creation of small businesses, four factors are necessary. First, ease and low cost of incorporation; second, access to inexpensive credit; third, institutions of instruction and technical help (such as the system of local credit unions in the U.S.), and the steady assistance of the extension services of the A&M universities; and, fourth, throughout the population habits of creativity, enterprise, and skills such as bookkeeping and the organization of work. Economic development is propelled, as John Paul II said, by know-how, technology, and skill (Centesimus Annus 32). Therein, perhaps, lie the greatest entry-points for Americans and others who wish to help poor nations by proffering assistance in economic development from the bottom up.

In this regard, no one knows more about the ways to prod economic development in the poorest regions of the world than your own Professor Andreas Widmer, who has vast experience in this area, and has set in motion institutions to accomplish this work.

But let me add some humble examples of my own. In Rwanda, a layman from Slovakia spent the better part of two years helping villagers in very poor areas organizing projects to develop the local region’s water supplies, and bring in money and volunteers for building new schools.

In Bangladesh, an American company donated cell phones that missionary priests could distribute to remote villages, and by which the rice-growers there could pinpoint the best local markets for selling their rice from week to week. Local villagers would pay small amounts to use the phones, so that the cost of the phones could be returned, and new phones made available for people elsewhere.

In Panama some years ago, Archbishop McGrath received a substantial grant from a family in Switzerland to open a rotating fund from which poor villages could borrow money. In one village such a loan was used to purchase a truck that was used to carry produce, fresh flowers, and other goods down into Panama City, and to return with other goods. Nearly all families in the village benefited by increased trade and higher incomes. The money paid back to the lender was then lent to other villages in need.

In Rio de Janeiro, an enterprising woman in one of the poorest favelas acquired a small stove, on which she kept heated a kettle of porridge, and an oven in which she baked fresh bread. The families in the neighborhood were desperately poor, and this simple provision of nourishing porridge and good bread raised their standard of living significantly. Neighbors paid small sums for these foods, which the enterprising woman used to buy new food supplies for the morrow. A small group of Americans pitched in and bought her much larger ovens, multiplying her work. A church group in America later arranged for a pharmacist from their parish to spend some months in that favela to set up a small pharmacy and to make contacts in the U.S. for fresh supplies. He also helped train bright and reliable women in the neighborhood to keep the pharmacy going.

The point of giving assistance to women and men of enterprise in poor regions may be solidarity with those in need. But the point of new businesses is to create new wealth in these poor environments. Increased local economic activity helps each new business grow. A business enterprise is not a lonesome cowboy. It is part of a social organism necessarily networking with many other players. Business enterprises are necessarily social; they need investors, workers, customers, suppliers, marketplaces. In this way markets are one of the most fundamental of all social institutions, even more universal than political bodies.

Markets of necessity must be law-abiding, and dependent on at least minimal levels of moral trustworthiness. Even nomads need markets. The ancient and medieval thinkers recognized the centrality of city-states and other political bodies. Aristotle gave prominence to the economic activities of households, but had much less to say about markets as an international network, with its own practical principles analogous to, but not the same as, those of politics. A full discussion of economics, including much more than markets alone, awaited more recent centuries.

Further, we must keep reminding ourselves that the point of assisting entrepreneurs to open new businesses is to generate a culture of entrepreneurship and new wealth. The point is to stimulate scores of thousands of women and men. In some countries, women take better to entrepreneurship than men. For economic growth it is necessary to stimulate scores of thousands of women and men to look around their countries to assess economic needs. What small manufactures, businesses, and services need to be created to improve the lives of their fellow citizens? Then they must begin creating such businesses. Are there enough pharmacies spread throughout the population? Are there medical clinics? Are there hospitals? All these can be developed as thriving businesses, since their need is universal. One can imagine building, even in poor countries, a chain of pharmacies, such as a modest version of Walgreen’s, or of LifePoint Hospitals. Similarly, a business model for improving education is often far more successful than state-run systems.

Everybody in the poorest regions needs tables and chairs, lamps, dinner plates, cutlery, bath towels, a whole range of goods that improve home living. Most of these can be supplied by small, local manufacturers. Trucking companies are needed. Specialized workers in nearly all fields need to be trained. There is a whole world of economic activity to be built. It is the role of entrepreneurs to bring to these vast possibilities down-to-earth imagination and practical experience in producing success. There are fortunes to be made in the poor regions of the world, whose worth can be used for ever more investment, donations to cultural institutions, and help for many different branches of civil society, including local groups.

Think what a great vocation it would be to place oneself in solidarity with the poor of the world by setting up networks of assistance to small business formations in this or that poor country or region, in order to help lift its peoples from unemployment and its resulting poverty. Such poor persons need small amounts of start-up money, technical and practical support, instruction in many bookkeeping or other business skills, and links to the wider world. What a great work a new generation of young Americans could produce, speeding up the move of the last billion human beings to break free from poverty.

In the real world, to get a vast movement of economic development underway, financial incentives are an important practical incentive. A few may work for purely charitable reasons. But for great number of economic activists, financial rewards better ignite the fire of motivation. An almost universal economic activism adds so much to the common good of poor societies, that it seems just and fitting to reward those who take the necessary risks and commit themselves to working extra-long hours. It is no wrong thing for people everywhere to work for the financial betterment of their own households, neighborhoods, and countries.

Breaking the chains of poverty in the United States

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty is now 50 years old, and the 80-some different government programs which constitute it have spent more than $20 trillion (adjusted for inflation) since the 1960s. Today, however, the percentage of the poor (about 16 percent) remains almost the same as in Johnson’s day, and the raw number of the poor (more than 50 million people) is even greater because of the growth of our population. Of course, the ranks of the poor in America are increased every year by the million or more legal immigrants who come here (not to mention the illegals).

If the nation simply gave every person in America enough money to get out of the statistical ranks of the poor, it would cost a lot less than the $20 trillion we have already paid. Our current programs are not only not achieving their goals, but also spending money far in excess of the amount needed to eliminate poverty. That could be done much more cheaply simply by giving money directly to bring everybody above the poverty line. Worse than that, our current programs are also doing a great deal of harm, encouraging millions of citizens to fall into something worse than poverty, notably, habits of dependency and irresponsibility for their own well-being.

In addition, government programs for the poor have contributed to an immense tide of births out of wedlock and the non-formation of families. The fastest growing segment of the poor in America consists in unmarried women and the children they have borne out of wedlock, often by more than one man. Whatever you think of the morality of such behavior, the social costs for the children are both measurable and immense.

From the point of view of the business community, the main attack on poverty must come from the creation of some 16 million new jobs. Why? Because today 11 million Americans are unemployed, and another 5 million or so have dropped out of the labor force all together. Moreover, a few million more find fewer hours of work than they need.

Therefore, in America too, we need to create at least 5 million new small businesses to bring all Americans who want to work into full-time employment.

Poor people cannot get out of poverty if they do not have full-time work at a wage that, with at least two workers combined, carries them together above the poverty line.

During the last six years, the formation of new small businesses has drastically slowed. This, despite the fact that a vast pool of capital waiting to be invested. A few million young people want to start businesses, but have found economic conditions for starting a business much too unfavorable. The very activity even seems looked down upon.

Meanwhile, many people oriented toward state programs do not grasp the fact that in order to have more employees, we must have many more employers. We must encourage the “high spirits” of entrepreneurs who will, despite the risks, plunge into the founding of new businesses.

There is really no other way to move people out of poverty than business opportunity. A sound politics would give great practical priority to that task.

The important thing is to call to the attention of those who enter business the great social role they are playing in building up a free society, conscious of it or not. They are not working only for themselves. They are raising the material and moral condition of the whole society. It is important for Christians, especially, to take responsibility for the whole of the world’s population, and to make their own personal contribution to raising the level of all.

A practical conclusion: All of you, each of you – Go out and start new businesses. You will greatly benefit the common good. And it is wise for a society to promote handsome rewards for those who do benefit the common good so fundamentally and so richly. The point of such rewards is not selfish. It is, rather, to draw millions of others into launching the full 300 million new small businesses, that the 1 billion remaining poor persons on earth need, if they are to have any chance at all of escaping from poverty.

If you want more of something, reward it. If you want less, punish it. That’s only good common sense.

Building up the strengths of civil society

If it is the main task of the vocation of business to break the chains of poverty, its second great contribution is to build up the strengths of civil society. By “civil society” we mean all those institutions outside the state whose members address a full range of social problems at every level of human activity from the neighborhood to the national and international. New businesses achieve this crucial goal from a point of view independent of the state, and in immediate touch with the multiple purposes of a pluralistic society. The business community is the main source of financial contributions to these vital social institutions.

Indeed, when we say “social justice” we must be clear that “social” refers first to natural associations such as the family and to voluntary associations of individuals for the full range of human social purposes, and only secondarily to the state.

A free society desperately needs large business corporations as a bulwark against the state. Otherwise citizens would stand naked and alone against that vast power and propaganda monopoly. To escape total dependence on the state, to have financial resources for the institutions of civil society, a free society needs a powerful check on the self-aggrandizements of the state. It needs not only independent funds but a source of well-tested public leadership and civic imagination that is much larger and more generous in its point of view than that of the state. All these energies of civil society prevent the state from becoming omnivorous in its appetites and narrowly secular in its point of view.

Without an enterprising, risk-taking, imaginative, creative community of businesses large and small – but especially small – it is impossible to look forward to new job creation. Impossible to imagine the survival of a free society. It is even harder to imagine a society that has dramatically broken the chains of poverty for every woman and man in its midst.

In short, to end as we began, new businesses are at the strategic center of the work for social justice in our time.

 Michael Novak, a philosopher, theologian, and author, is the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.


Michael smallA great story of bravery is being written across the face of history in our time, in these very days, among 50 million people whose vision and dreams and admiration for bravery we share. When I think how brave the people of Ukraine are right now, particularly the students there whom I know, and some professors, some bishops, some journalists, I can hardly bear how much they are suffering. There are so many uncertainties. Their lives are in danger.

Oh, I wish Ronald Reagan were here to speak for liberty. To speak for them. I remember how he told us to keep the people of Poland in our hearts – and light candles in our windows in a sign of communion with them – in the worst days of the militant crackdown under martial law early in the 1980s.

It sorrows me that the great distance gained for freedom in the years that followed is now being surrendered. A regime of dishonesty, lies, and thuggery is arising in that neighborhood again.

Today, Ukraine is at a tipping point. It had been leaning toward the West. Now Putin is bribing, threatening, and pulling it toward the East, into Russia’s embrace.  All that was gained for liberty during the past 25 years is in danger.

Pray for Ukraine. Light candles of hope and solidarity in your hearts. If you can, show those with lights all across the land.

American and Catholic

 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).













John Armstrong Blog Series on "Writing from Left to Right"


 One of the most fascinating and engaging political stories that I have read in years is the recently published book, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative (Image: New York, 2013). This unique memoir is written by Roman Catholic scholar Michael Novak. I found Novak’s memoir so deeply interesting, for both Christian and personal reasons, that I decided to write several blogs on the ideas of Novak, a foremost intellectual among serious social thinkers over the last four decades.  -- John Armstrong, ACT3 Network


 January 27, 2014

January 28, 2014

 January 29, 2014

Interview with Catholic Book Blogger

Catholic Book Blogger  Interview with Michael Novak

Published by Pete Socks at on January 5, 2014

PETE: In your latest book Writing from Left to Right you detail your personal experiences with some of the most important people and events in the past few decades. What thoughts came to mind as you wrote this book and pondered this?

MICHAEL NOVAK: My daughter Jana, the writer, urged me some years back, as my 80th birthday lay not too far ahead, that I should begin writing down a lot of the things that only I knew, about the episodes and adventures of my life. She even promised me that she would finish what I left unfinished, should a stroke or something stop me. She wisely advised me not to do any re-writing at first, just push steadily forward, so that what she wouldn’t otherwise know would be in her hands. This encouragement made the big job seem doable. I guess I got nearly 700 double-spaced pages done, the ending in sight, when I began serious re-writing. My first drafts always seem good to me as I saved them in the computer at night. But in daylight they look just awful. They need a lot of re-arranging and polishing, and above all cutting and tightening. I have had so many unexpected and exciting twists in my life that I began really to enjoy re-living them. Such wonderful, good people called me to meet them.

PETE: You have written many books but this is your first personal memoir. Why now?

MICHAEL NOVAK: I was almost 80 when I started work on it – well, 75ish. I have never promised myself another year to live. I have always thought I would die younger than 60 (maybe that’s why I wrote so fast and so much in my career, trying to get it all in before the buzzer). Besides, for old men reminiscing is a sweet, sweet pastime.

In volume I, as I call it, my editor wisely suggested I concentrate on the political and economic learning curve of my life, as more understandable and “objective” than my more personal and familial and religious story. Thus, I had to do a tremendous amount of cutting – more than a couple of hundred pages – to get volume I down to its current size. Some of my favorite parts – about my parents, my twelve years studying to become a priest of Holy Cross, meeting Karen and finding her the joy and axis of my life, our children and their sufferings and triumphs, my battles to engage the Catholic faith in public intellectual life, while making myself a radioactive nuisance to those “social justice” Catholics who (I thought) missed the great story of Catholic social and economic history – namely, how in America one of the poorest of Catholic bodies in the world, penniless immigrants (the “wretched refuse of the earth”) became in less than eighty years one of the most affluent and faithful.

PETE: What do you hope readers of your book Writing from Left to Right take away from it?

MICHAEL NOVAK: Maybe some will enjoy re-living the intellectual struggles of the last fifty years. Maybe others will enjoy discovering how many battles were won in the years since 1939 – and also how many things are now worse than then. The adventure of the Catholic faith in history is always tumultuous, and fraught with defeats and victories during the same historical period.

PETE: I would like to focus a bit on your experience at Vatican II. For those who have not read your book yet, you were there for the second session and your book The Open Church developed from it. How pivotal do you feel Vatican II was for the Church and do you feel the full effects of it have been seen or is there still more to come?

MICHAEL NOVAK: I was also at Vatican II for the Preparatory Session in its early part, and for the first weeks of the Third Session, while Karen stayed on for the full Third Session, working on her six etchings expressing visually each movement of T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” (At Ave Maria University in 2013, we had a reading of each stanza, with a brief commentary on each and then on Karen’s visual interpretation of it – a lovely event.)

We found the Second Session the most important, the spine of the whole. Karen enjoyed the whole experience as much as I did, the intensity of it, the triumph of the thing. The concentrated arguments, the bursts of news, the delays and the breakthroughs, the new things and the old. Much of this is expressed in my week-by-week account, The Open Church. Some other vivid detail and additional perspective fifty years later are offered in Writing from Left to Right. There will be more, from a more personal side, in volume II of WLR, if there is one.

One argument Karen and I used to justify our trip to Vatican II, just three months after our wedding, is that councils of the Church are held on average once every hundred years, and many of them have repercussions and transformative energies that last for centuries. We will be living with the energies from Vatican II for generations. Energies both good and flowing from “the smoke of Satan” (Paul VI).

PETE: In you impressive career you have had the opportunity to spend some time with a number of people that influenced the world as we know it. Of those, who most made an impact and why?

MICHAEL NOVAK: I love every one of those I worked with, from 1960 until the very end. I especially enjoyed meeting with Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy (a frequent guest at our home, and eloquent reciter by the hour of the lesser known odes of W.B. Yeats – it felt like listening to an after-dinner bard of long ago). Sargent Shriver was so deep a Catholic of faith and goodness that I often thought of him as one of those hidden saints unrecognized among us. George McGovern was also a really decent and brave man, an airman who faced immense dangers night after night over Germany in World War II. Bill Clinton seemed to me like the most talented “politico” of all American history, and jovial, and large-minded, even with all his faults and scandals.

But undoubtedly the three who affected me and changed me most importantly were that blessed threesome of the 20th century, Prime Minister Thatcher, President Reagan, and Pope John Paul II. I was very, very lucky to be asked to join them at significant points. In the memoir, those three get most attention, including the work on human rights that President Reagan assigned me. In the economics of joy, growth, opportunity, and the actual lifting of the poor, Jack Kemp and Steve Forbes brought me into many public policy “battles of ideas.”

PETE: This book covers your journey from liberal to conservative. Realizing multiple influences impacted your change in ideology, what were some of the greatest contributors to this?

MICHAEL NOVAK: The changes of direction by the political and cultural left from about 1968 on. The immense damage done to the family and young adults and children by the way the “War on Poverty” was carried out, especially in the moral and cultural sphere – even while great gains were made in reforms to help the elderly, who were much better off thirty years later than they had been in, say, 1960. The loss of will on the left to resist fighting for the advance of human rights and democracy in outlying vulnerable nations. I wanted to be loyal to John F. Kennedy’s “pay any price, bear any burden.” Many of my former companions started wilting away. They had some good reasons for doing this, while I thought (and think) that they were weakening just in the climactic moments.

I felt as if my Party, the Democratic Party, was pulling away from me, and going in new directions I didn’t always want to go. Suddenly, under Reagan some of my Republican friends seemed to become more internationalist, more eager fighters for human rights and democracy around the world, and much more practical about the economics of how actually to help the poor to rise, in dignity, self-worth, and working their way out of material indigence.

It seems odd, but I did think that the ground under my own feet stayed relatively constant, while the two political movements Left and Right virtually changed sides. By 2001, in the aftermath of the acts of terror on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the flight taken down by American resistance in the air over Pennsylvania, I felt again the spirit articulated so well by JFK. Year by year, my Democratic friends again wilted away. Good people all, but disappointing.

In fact, of course, I did learn a lot from year to year, and watched my old ways of thinking fail, met new ways that struck me as more correct than my old ones, and tried to follow the lessons of our public experience. And I deepened my mind in studies of poverty and welfare, and human rights abroad, and the ideas and religious principles behind the American founding.

PETE: In your career, how has your Catholic faith influenced you?

MICHAEL NOVAK: I began my studies for the priesthood at the age of 14, entering high school at the University of Notre Dame. From very early on I committed my life, in my own location, to “instaurare omnia in Christo,” as St Paul puts it. In my young mind I translated this as “to re-found all things in Christ,” to penetrate every profession and environment in this world with the yeast of the gospels. I prepared myself for twelve years for a priesthood of doing this. Then, after a very dark night of two years or more at the end, I came to see (and at last so did my spiritual director and religious superiors) that the Lord wished me to labor in the lay world. I felt a vocation to the missions – not overseas, but in the secular world around us. I felt called to work outside Catholic institutions, at the heart and center of American secular intellectual life, in the university and in journalism, and in study of foundational political and economic ideas. Naturally, all this was too big for me, and I failed a lot. None of it would have made any sense if I had not had that underlying commitment to the Lord – the Lord here and now, in this country, in the battles of my generation – or rather three generations, for we inherit the struggles of the preceding and find ourselves drawn into the rapidly coming fresh battles of the next.

PETE: Time for my signature ending question. This is a blog about books, what is on your bookshelf to read?

MICHAEL NOVAK: At 80, I find that I cannot read for as many hours as before. Still, books keep flowing into my home in a stream and I am quite weak-willed about ordering others online – in tune with all the main passion of my past. Right now, a re-reading of Bridehead Revisted. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, on the newly shifted class will dividing American society. A new collection of what appear to be brilliant and provocative chapters on Muslim perceptions of the Crusades, Sir Walter Scott’s Crusades and Other Fantasies by Ian Warraq. The superbly tender new biography of her two parents, one Jewish, one Catholic, during the agonies of the Holocaust, I Kiss Your Hands Many Times by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak.

Finally, since I am to teach a course on the philosophy of John Henry Newman next spring, I have a solid list of re-readings to do.


 Michael Novak received the 1994 Templeton Prize, an award that has also gone to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mother Teresa, and Charles Taylor. He has taught at Harvard and Stanford and has held academic chairs at Syracuse University and Notre Dame, and now holds the Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. You can learn more about him and his work at his website

Patheos Review of Writing from Left to Right

Writing from Left to Right : My Journey from Liberal to Conservative

Published at by Pete Socks on January 1, 2014  

Personal memoirs can be an engaging read if you have interest in a particular person. Some, however, do more than just tell you about the life of the writer. Sometimes they pull back the curtains on a particular period of time and relate details about historical events. Such is the case with Michael Novak’s latest book Writing from Left to Right : My Journey from Liberal to Conservative.

For those those unfamiliar with Michael Novak, he is an accomplished author of 45+ books as well as a journalist appearing in many notable magazines such as National Review. His career really took off with his book The Open Church, published in 1964 detailing the second session of Vatican II.

In Writing from Left to Right, Michael shares his experiences and thoughts on some of the major events that have occurred in the past 50+ years. The book on its surface is what the the title suggests, his personal story about his journey from liberal to conservative. Along the way Michael sheds some light on the people and events that caused him to switch his ideological views.

The book begins with the influence of his father, than moving on to his 12 years of study for the priesthood which he ultimately determined was not his calling and his time in Harvard. He discusses influences from his days there that would leave an impression on him forever. Gabriel Marcel taught him that “When someones ceases being just an “it” to you and appears, even for a moment, as a “thou”, someone already known to you in the slightest way, you have stepped from the realm of objects to the realm of persons.” Marcel among other influential persons at Harvard would plant the seeds for Michael’s future humanitarian efforts. Perhaps the greatest contribution Harvard made on his life was that is where he met his future wife, Karen.

Michael would next spend time at Vatican II from September to December 1963. While there, his work would result in the book The Open Church. He brings to light in Writing from Left to Right the struggle at Vatican II between the established “conservative” wing and the “progressive” wing. Essentially, as he puts it, the progressives were more traditionalist than the conservatives. Karol Wotyla and Joseph Ratzinger led this school of thought. It is telling that they would one day both become Pope. Another thing Michael points out is how humbling Vatican II was for bishops around the world. “We found it a bit comical to watch all these important bishops, princes of the Church in their own dioceses, used to being chauffeured in shiny black cars, now forced to climb in and out of crowded school buses with everybody else.”

A point he made about the early 60′s really struck me. As Vatican II progressed there was a general feeling of hope of a new era dawning for the Church. The same thought was going on in the United States with the presidency of John F. Kennedy. It was quite interesting how he managed to tie both these events together to illustrate not just a nation but a world that held great expectations for the period in time they were in.

At it’s heart this book is a political memoir. Michael moves on to talk about writing speeches for Eugene McCarthy, Sargent Shriver, George McGovern and Bobby Kennedy. Michael praises each as being a great man and his admiration for them all shines through.

By this time Michael was a professor at Stanford. The assassinations of JFK and RFK, and Martin Luther King are perhaps the most recollected events of the 60′s. Michael had a personal encounter with the the loss of Bobby Kennedy. He received an invitation from Kennedy, who at the time was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, to fly to Los Angeles to be with him as the California primary returns came in (ultimately he did not go) — the very night the candidate was fatally shot. “An awful summer. An awful year. An awful five years.” as Michael states.

Perhaps what most shifted Michael from left to right was the economic debates of the 1970′s. This is when he realized the spending of Keynesian liberalism was not working and he came forward publicly as a supporter of capitalism. What follows I paraphrase from the book:

“I first realized I was a capitalist when all my friends began publicly declaring that they were socialists. Night after night I tried to persuade myself of the coherence of their logic. Nothing worked. Practical discussions seemed beyond the point. Finally I realized that socialism is not a political proposal, not an economic plan. Socialism is the residue of Judeo-Christian faith, without religion. It is a belief in the goodness of the human race and paradise on earth. That’s when I discovered I believe in sin. I’m for capitalism, modified and made intelligent and public-spirited, because it makes the world free for sinners. It allows human beings to do pretty much what they will.”

I found the closing chapters of this book to be the most interesting but perhaps that it because I am of the generation raised in the late 70′s and early 80′s. These chapters are spent dwelling on what Michael Novak has the called “The Big Three”: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. You will read of Reagan’s appointment of Michael as the US Ambassador to the UN Commission of Human Rights. Admittedly Michael knew nothing of human rights law but it was a position he accepted and ultimately flourished at. As much as Michael has been influenced by those around him it must be said that he had just as much influence on them. From a story about his meeting with Margaret Thatcher: “She had turned from the hall to go back into her office. “Here, I want you to see this – it’s your book. All marked up.” She riffled through the book to show me underlinings and marginal notations on a great many pages. “I told you I was reading you. And I want you to believe it. There! You can see for yourself.”

Michael Novak has led quite a life. He has witnessed and played a part in many of the events of the past fifty years. His humbleness in all of this is one thing that shines through in every page of this book. It is also evident that his Catholic faith has played a major part in his role in everything he has done. This review only touches upon a few of the events and the people he discusses in these pages. I would encourage anyone interested at all in not only the political scene of recent years as well as those who have a desire to know more about events that have occurred in our lifetimes, to read this book.

I received a copy of the book for this review from Image Catholic Books. You can read more about the book at their website here.