Capitalism, the Legacy of Michael Novak, and the Opportunity for a More United Front

While the classical liberals want to maintain our Christian heritage through free markets, autonomy, and democracy and the populists want to maintain our Christian heritage through anti-globalization efforts rooted in social cohesion and social order; both sides aren’t so irreconcilably different that they cannot work together to save America.

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Alexis de Tocqueville and Michael Novak at the Heritage Foundation

Aspirations to socialism and social democracy appear to be gaining traction in much of America, especially among young Americans. People are often fuzzy about what they mean by terms like “socialism.” Sometimes it seems to be a type of aspirational outlook. On other occasions, it involves specific policy-proposals. In yet other instances, it’s some combination of both. The effect is often to make socialism a harder target to critique.

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Michael Novak Awarded Prestigious Lincoln Literary Award

On September 12, 2016, Michael Novak was awarded the prestigious Abraham Lincoln Literary Award by the Union League Club of New York City. The Lincoln Literary award, which was established in 1977 and last bestowed in 2007, is given to “outstanding American authors” – past recipients have included John Updike, Neil Simon, Tom Clancy, Garrison Keillor, Tom Wolfe, Michael Crichton, Stephen E. Ambrose, and James Michener, among many other illustrious writers.

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Diplomat, author Novak's next work to feature Johnstown, 1889 flood (with Video)

The Johnstown native is working on a fictional book that is, in part, set against the backdrop of the May 31, 1889 flood. It tells the story of a young Slovak immigrant – a character based on his grandfather – who lived in the area at the time of the disaster. The plot then moves forward to the character's granddaughter working as a reporter in Europe, covering the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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TBT: Lady Margaret Thatcher Credits Michael Novak

TBT: Lady Margaret Thatcher Credits Michael Novak

The Victorian Lady

Margaret Thatcher's virtues.

ICYMI: Kasich discusses Michael Novak on Hannity Show

Presidential Candidate and Governor of Ohio John Kasich appeared on the FoxNews "Hannity" show on April 11, 2016. During the discussion, Kasich highlighted Michael Novak:

KASICH: No, no, no. But people say that. Look, redistribution of wealth is just dead wrong. The free enterprise system works. But the quote -- a great Catholic theologian, Michael Novak, a free enterprise system that's not underlaid by a decent set of values is bankrupt. That's not liberal.  That's common sense. It's conservative and it's right!

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Catholicism, Capitalism, and Caritas: The Continuing Legacy of Michael Novak

Catholicism, Capitalism, and Caritas: The Continuing Legacy of Michael Novak

Published by Nathaniel Peters at Public Discourse (The Witherspoon Institute) on June 2, 2015


In a time of intense debate about global capitalism and the power of economic elites, Michael Novak’s work is essential reading for those who seek to work for free and virtuous societies. Novak’s life is also a lesson in charity.

The current issue of First Things captures the paradox of contemporary capitalism. In “The Power Elite,” Patrick Deneen describes how the fight over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act was won by corporate activism and interests. This is so, he argues, because

Today’s corporate ideology has a strong affinity with the lifestyles of those who are defined by mobility, ethical flexibility, liberalism (whether economic or social), a consumerist mentality in which choice is paramount, and a “progressive” outlook in which rapid change and “creative destruction” are the only certainties.

Corporations use their power to effect the changes they want, which all too frequently benefit elites at the expense of working-class Americans, socially and economically.

A few pages later in the same issue, Michael Novak describes free markets as engines of creativity, solidarity, and poverty reduction. “Free markets are dynamic and creative,” he explains, “because they are open to the dynamism and creativity intrinsic to our humanity.” Competition among corporations leads to better products, available to more people. Aiding entrepreneurship and making it easier to enter the market are essential for allowing the “bottom billion” to improve their lot. Novak argues, as he has for thirty years, that the best solution for poverty is still democratic capitalism: “a system of natural liberty, incorporating both political liberty and economic liberty” and founded on a prior “moral and cultural system, constituted by civic institutions and well-ordered personal habits.” Today, however, that system is changing fast, endangering the families and social organizations that help society flourish.

In Deneen’s mind, capitalism undermines society. In Novak’s, the right kind of capitalism is an important component of a free society, but by no means the only one. Those who seek to maintain the benefits of free markets without undermining the moral foundation on which society rests should review the basics of Michael Novak’s work. An American and Catholic Life: Essays Dedicated to Michael Novak is a good place to start. The essays in this recent festschrift capture the important moments of Novak’s life and touch on many of the themes of his work, which ranges from philosophy to sports to religion and the American founders. Novak’s most significant intellectual contributions examine the way in which theology shows us what makes a society free and virtuous. In particular, they offer insight into three main topics: economics, civil society, and charity.

Catholicism and Capitalism

Novak’s economic positions are some of his most controversial, perhaps because they touch on an unfortunate division within American Catholicism. It’s common to argue that both sides of this divide pick and choose what teachings to accept: progressive Catholics dissent from the teachings about sexuality and the human person, while conservative Catholics dissent from teachings about the economy. In this vein, some criticize Michael Novak as a shill for capitalism, accusing him of distorting Catholic social teaching to baptize big business.

But this argument betrays a deep ignorance of Novak’s writing. At the heart of his thought on economics lies one question: What gets people out of poverty? Or, in a more academic articulation, what economic systems are most conducive to allowing people to exercise their human dignity, realize their God-given capacities, and provide for themselves and their families? When many people think of capitalism, they imagine factory owners exploiting workers. Novak sees a woman with a micro-loan who can now start a business to support her family, or a community of immigrants who have arrived in America—like Novak’s own Slovak ancestors—who through hard work in their local community can build better lives for themselves and those around them.

What leads to the flourishing of such communities? A planned economy restricted by regulation, or a more open economy that permits failure and rewards success? Novak’s conclusion, developed at great length in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and other works, is that free economies are best equipped to do so. Novak’s vision inspired those working for liberation from communism, in particular. It explained why the ideology of their government ran contrary to human nature and proposed what a more humane social structure might be.

But that was thirty years ago. What of today? Certainly, we must remember that business can be a real calling; offering good products to customers and providing jobs for workers in a manner consonant with Christian principles are important tasks. But where Novak argued against forms of socialism, we must argue against corrosive forms of capitalism. In particular, we must fight the crony capitalism that ties those who police the market closely to its most powerful actors. A free market helps small businesses and micro-loans, but also allows for large and exploitative corporations. We should help the former and limit the latter. Advocating a free economy does not mean being mindlessly pro-business or anti-regulation. Rather, it means returning to core truths about the nature of the human spirit and the dignity of work and thinking about how these can best be promoted for the least among us.

As part of that, Samuel Gregg reminds us, we must remember Novak’s admonition that a free economy and constitutional democracy require “a culture that underscored the reality of moral truth and that held up, as the founders did, virtue and human flourishing as the goal of freedom.” Liberty allows economic actors to exercise and cultivate virtue.

Family and Civil Society

For Novak, economic liberty is not an absolute goal, but an important component in a society that allows its members to grow and flourish. As Samuel Gregg puts it, Novak argues that a free and virtuous society has “three legs: a free economy, a virtuous citizenry, and a political system grounded in accountability and responsibility.” By that standard, Gregg points out, the US is not looking good:

We have not so much a free economy as we have managerial, in some cases crony, capitalism; we have a citizenry that largely does not see or want to know about the happiness found in freely choosing to live in the truth; and we have a political system in which accountability and responsibility are increasingly voided and avoided.

Where are we to look for a solution? One possibility is to focus on large-scale solutions: government programs implemented at a distance to bring about greater material welfare. Historically, the results of those efforts have been a great lesson in unintended consequences. Instead of raising the American underclass out of its plight, they further entrenched it there. Figures such as Novak recognize that this was because poverty is not only about material wealth but about moral and social wealth. Communities don’t just need economic assistance. They need to cultivate values that will allow them to flourish. Any economic assistance that hurts the cultivation and transmission of such values will do much more harm than good.

This leads Novak and other figures to focus on civil society or the “mediating structures” that exist between the person and the state. These include churches, businesses, charities, unions or guilds, and non-profits such as the Boy Scouts. But the mediating structure in which values are first cultivated and transmitted is the family. Brian Anderson captures the core of Novak’s argument:

As Novak argues, it is in the families and communities of civil society that the moral life takes form and people learn about duties and personal responsibility, not just rights and self-interest and entitlement. . . . it is primarily in the family that we become self-governing—self-policing—citizens.

In other words, the family is the fundamental unit of society. It must be protected and strengthened by other parts of society so that it can help individuals and society as a whole to flourish.

Civil society has an enormous potential to build networks of growth from the ground up. It does not exist to serve the state; on the contrary, Novak argues, the state exists to serve it. Furthermore, the family is not only a place where moral capital is accrued, but also where financial capital begins. Many get their first jobs from parents, uncles and aunts, and members of their churches. Those who are serious about helping the poor need to take account of the moral ecology required for human flourishing and the structures that maintain it.

Divine, Cosmic, and Personal Charity

One other theme stands out in An American and Catholic Life: charity. In her essay, Elizabeth Shaw describes charity as not only the “pure and perfectly gratuitous love of God” but also, in Novak’s words, our “partial, fitful, hesitant, and imperfect” participation in that love.

The application of charity to the social order is what Novak calls the caritopolis, the civilization of love. A civilization of love recognizes that material things, the state, civil society, and the free market can be good in their own rights, but not absolute goods. Rather, they should be ordered to help members of society attain their highest good: union with God, who is love itself and the source of all that exists.

The caritopolis is not sentimental but realistic, especially about the failings of the human beings who comprise it. As Shaw puts it, “the Civilization of Love takes the best, most proactive approach to the fallen human condition, and indeed it exists precisely to confront and correct these shortcomings.” It also recognizes that human beings are social creatures. Respect for the dignity of the human person and the indispensability of human solidarity help form the foundation of a just and loving society.

Although the characteristics of caritopolis are universal, each society will manifest them in its own ways. Novak emphasizes “the right of societies to maintain their own unique character, the integrity of their own culture, and the historical source of their own spiritual unity.” This right must be balanced by a “cultural humility,” which recognizes that no culture possesses the truth completely but all stand under the judgment of truth. That in turn requires an understanding that the truth exists, that it can be attained, and that it can make demands on those who find it.

Where We Go from Here

In a sense, Novak and his vision of the caritopolis won their first big argument. Liberal democracy and the free economy triumphed in the Cold War. But the ground for the debates in which Novak engaged has shifted. We now wonder how to maintain a free economy, robust civil society, and the subjectivity of society in the face of the consumerism and cronyism that plague global capitalism. Samuel Gregg and others have sought to address these questions by building on Novak’s arguments. But Patrick Deneen, David Schindler, and others have argued that there are deeper problems with Novak’s thought, in particular his argument that the liberal philosophy undergirding the American founding can be reconciled with Catholicism.

In the afterward to An American and Catholic Life, Novak offers a rejoinder to these critics. He argues that certain liberal institutions are among the goods of the American founding, including “trial by jury; religious freedom; the separation of governmental powers; the division as well as the interdependence of the three great systems of a free society, the political system, the economic system, and the moral-cultural system; freedom of the press . . . .” But, he continues, “liberalism as a philosophy is unable to account for these institutions, is peculiarly vulnerable to relativism and authoritarianism, and is chiefly responsible for undermining the liberal institutions that we cherish.” Schindler and Deneen join many secular liberals when they think that liberal philosophy can explain the American founding. Instead, Novak thinks that “our philosophy lags behind our living.” Instead of condemning America to its root, we should conserve its best institutions by joining them to the non-liberal theological and philosophical principles by which we have lived.

However, our philosophy is conquering our living. The task now facing those who follow Novak is how to conserve and ground the goods of democratic capitalism in the face of undemocratic corporations, political parties, and slanderous internet commentators. The solution is not to blame free markets tout court. Rather, we should fight what undermines the moral ecology required for free societies, and free markets.

This will not be easy work. But the example of Novak’s life and the tenor in which he has engaged so many controversies provide another important lesson. Novak treats his intellectual opponents with a rare—and regularly unreciprocated—amount of charity, respect, and good humor. Throughout his debates in the public square, Michael Novak has lived out the charity, breadth of knowledge, and openness rooted in the truth that he preaches. We should do no less.

Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.


The Economics of Liberation Theology

Published by Carroll Ríos De Rodríguez at on July 23, 2014  

None of the prominent liberation theologians influential in Latin America had significant training in or exposure to the discipline of economics. This was odd given that their concern for the material well-being demanded at least some attempt to provide an economic explanation of underdevelopment and mass poverty. Instead of engaging in such economic reflection, many liberation theologians effectively married their theology to various renderings of what was then the fashionable dependency theory, which holds that that resources flow from a "periphery" of poor and underdeveloped states to a "core" of wealthy states, enriching the latter at the expense of the former.

In his 1991 book Will It Liberate?: Questions About Liberation Theology, theologian and philosopher Michael Novak devoted an entire chapter to painstakingly demonstrating the ties between dependency and liberationist thinking. One of the quotes he uses as evidence seems proof enough of the connection. According to the Brazilian theologian Hugo Assmann, liberation theology would make little sense “apart from the factual judgment that the poor of Latin America suffer not from simple poverty but from oppressive structures, linked to external forces of domination.”

Assmann and his peers were persuaded by Argentine economist Raul Prebisch’s insight that was central to dependency theory: that peripheral economies were at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the developed, industrialized center due to the unfavorable terms of international trade. On this basis, dependency theory maintained that governments should erect barriers to trade. These would reduce reliance on agricultural products and exports and lead to the emergence of a domestic industrial sector in underdeveloped countries. Other dependency theorists emphasized that the region’s status as dependent economies had even deeper structural and social causes. Therefore social transformations had to accompany state intervention and direction of markets. Here we should note that this sociological language was also more familiar to many Latin American priests and theologians than the more abstract jargon of formal economics, given that most such theologians were educated within a continental European university framework which often gave precedence to anthropological and sociological concerns.

Leading proponents of liberation theology were not simply looking to curb external domination or implement piecemeal types of reforms. They called for a more-or-less socialist revolution.  Indeed, as Novak demonstrates, theirs was not a lukewarm socialism or mild social democracy capable of coexisting with private property, markets, and democratic institutions. It was, to use Gutiérrez’s language, the radical doing-away with “private appropriation of the wealth created by human toil” and the abolition of the “culture of the oppressors.”

How did dependency theory with its socialist-like proposals to solve poverty and the Marxist influence on liberation theology fuse together? One often hears disclaimers to the fact that not all dependency and liberationist writings were Marxist. This is of course true. Novak himself argued that “liberation theology forms a tapestry much broader than its Marxist part and is woven of many colors.” It is worth stating that the work of carefully distinguishing between the various theoretical foundations suited to liberation theology, as Novak and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) did at the time, is not the same as trivializing the broader Marxist influences. There are some subtle differences between the Ratzinger-Novak caveat and other claims concerning the impact of Marxism. Some of these other assertions were that (1) classic Marxism had been revised or distilled by the seventies, (2) Marxism as an academic tool did not contradict Catholic dogma and doctrines, (3) the first Christian communities were proto-marxian, and (4) a “Christian socialism” that eschewed Marxist atheism and materialism was possible. In a scholarly analysis published in 1988, H. Mark Roelofs maintained that the differences between liberation theology and old-style Marxism could be explained in the following manner:

Liberation theology is not a Marxism in Christian disguise. It is the recovery of a biblical radicalism that has been harbored in the Judeo-Christian tradition virtually from its founding … Liberation theologians turn to modern Marxism chiefly to gain a comprehensive understanding of contemporary class conflict and poverty.

In the face of such obvious equivocation – most notably, concerning whether it was possible to separate Marxist analysis from Marxism’s operating assumptions of atheism and materialism – Novak complained: “What no one clarifies is what is meant by ‘Marxist analysis.’” Novak went on to list seven elements in liberation theology that were present in much of the literature and decidedly Marxist in tone and content. These were (1) the effort of liberation theology seeks to create a new man and a new earth, (2) the espousal of a utopian sensibility, (3) the benign view of the state, (4) the failure to say anything about how wealth is created, (5) the advocacy of the abolition of private property, (6) the treatment of class struggle as a fact, and (7) the denouncement of capitalism. In Novak’s opinion, this worldview was not only theologically and morally wrong. It would result in Latin America paying a high economic and political price that would hurt the poor.

A ‘Liberal’ and Catholic Proposal

When he looked ahead to how Latin America ought to be transformed, Novak was categorical: “Liberation theology says that Latin America is capitalist and needs a socialist revolution. Latin America does need a revolution. But its present system is mercantilist and quasi-feudal, not capitalist, and the revolution it needs is both liberal and Catholic.”

The platform that Novak recommended for Latin America – democratic capitalism – was thoroughly described in his 1982 book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Novak went to significant lengths to explain that free markets, understood as spontaneous social institutions, were grounded on a substantive moral substructure. Humanity, he argued, could best achieve prosperity in an open environment, whereby the creative energies of millions of individuals were released from the base. According to Novak, markets also induce free and responsible participants to behave habitually with integrity and reliability; economic and social cooperation, for example, is preconditioned on the trust we can place in each other.

This line of thought was deployed by Novak for the intended audiences of Will It Liberate? Novak stressed, for example, that the market liberates us from poverty while democracy liberates us from tyranny and torture. In the format of a dialogue that he playfully calls a “catechism,” Novak established some of the liberation theologians’ biases against – and ignorance of – capitalism.

Capitalism, Novak insisted, is not morally bankrupt nor has it been improved on or superseded by the welfare state. Latin America, Novak went on to state, was still living in a “pre-capitalist, traditional system.” This meant that the market economy had not even been properly tested throughout the region. One cannot therefore say that capitalism has somehow failed. There is no reason, Novak added, why free markets should work only “up North.” Free markets did not benefit the rich to the detriment of the poor. Indeed, undue privileges now afforded some economic players in Latin America would not exist in a truly free market, and corruption would diminish.

The toughest objection of the liberation theologians addressed by Novak was what they perceived to be the Catholic Church’s alleged condemnation of capitalism. Was it not the case, the liberation theologians maintained, that economic liberalism led to moral permissiveness by making “money and wealth the measure of all things” and imposing an unyielding economic logic on life?

To such claims, Novak responded, “free markets are no more permissive than God himself, who sends his rain on the just and unjust alike.” The decline in moral standards and religiosity in the West, Novak stated, is not causally related to free markets. Indeed, he added, “the very foundations of the liberal society crack” when people abandon their faith in principles that antecede “any state or social order” and that “reside in man’s spiritual nature.”


This article is excerpted and adapted from "Michael Novak, Freedom, and Liberation Theology" by Carroll Ríos de Rodríguez in Theologian & Philosopher of Liberty – Essays of Evaluation & Criticism in Honor of Michael Novak, edited by Samuel Gregg (Acton Institute, 2014).