The Fourth Birth of Freedom: 1776, 1861, 1981,...

Remarks at Ave Maria Gala America: Near Its End or a New Beginning?

Delivered by Michael Novak at the Ave Maria Law School Gala and published by The Catholic Thing on Saturday, December 6 2014  

Editor’s Note: These remarks were presented by the author at the Gala Dinner for the Ave Maria Law School in Naples Florida honoring philanthropist Tom Monaghan on December 5. – Robert Royal

In France, when people want to get something done they turn to the State; in Great Britain, to the aristocracy. In the United States, we turn to each other.

To put up schoolhouses all across this land, we used to gather for square dances and auctions (see Oklahoma!), for clambakes and raffles, for bake sales, quilt sales, and (at least we Catholics) – bingo. Tonight we take part in one of the oldest and most solemn of all American public liturgies: A fundraiser! Better than relying on the State is to build what we cherish most by ourselves.

I am deeply, deeply honored to be here to contribute to the Thomas Monaghan Scholarship Fund and the annual auction. For years I used to praise Tom as “my favorite billionaire saint.” Then Ave Maria School of Law – and the University even more – bit into Tom pretty hard. Now I praise him as my favorite “former billionaire saint.”

Why does Mr. Monaghan give so much? He knows the fragility of freedom and of faith. Freedom can be lost in a single generation. Only one generation has to give up on America’s founding laws, switch off the lights, and walk out the door. And then it’s gone, this noble experiment.

I think Tom asked himself: Does this century mark America’s last? Is this nation a short-term meteor that has blazed across the heavens, and is now exhausted? Or rather, is our present fog a transient time of trial, those hours cold and dark, bombs bursting in air, ramparts red-gleaming? Are we nearing our end, or at a new beginning?

Tom Monaghan, who began life as an orphan, and was made a man by the U.S. Marines, knew instantly what he would choose. He chose to make these years a new beginning – for his faith and for his country. And he started with the law. As Blackstone put it, right at the top of his book, the Law of Moses became through Jesus Christ (taking it to the Gentiles) the font and spring of constitutional government among all peoples: “Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws. . . .[N]o human laws should be suffered to contradict these.”

The founders of the United States held that there can be no republic without liberty, and no liberty without morality; and – for most people – no morality without God. Modern lawyers may no longer hold this. But our founders did. George Washington did:

In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens [he spoke of religion and morality]. . . . Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths?

And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Given the horrors of the century just passed, who would wish to bet our republic’s continuance on a people who have no inner policemen, no inner conscience?

Where nearly all citizens live by inner policemen, official police forces can be small. Among peoples without inner policemen, no number of policemen on the street will suffice.

Mr. Monaghan expected original intellectual contributions from the Ave Maria School of Law. Did not Tocqueville hint that Catholics would one day become the best articulators of the inner principles of American law? Mr. Monaghan gave us a command: Advance the intellectual inheritance that Catholic faith brings to law. Some of that inheritance includes:


A global institution. The first global institution in human history was the Catholic Church. “Go teach all nations.” Not just one people, nor race, nor tribe, but all humans everywhere. “Catholic” is a more ancient term that “global.”

  • International law. Outside the United Nations building in New York City stands the statue of Francisco de Vitoria, O.P., founder of modern international law.
  • Universal human rights. As Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon has shown in her splendid study of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both Catholic and Jewish thinkers led the way in inventing a new universal language for human rights, including the family and other institutions more vital than the State.
  • Natural rights. The earliest writings about natural rights in the American hemisphere did not spring from Hobbes, Locke, Hooker or Jefferson, Madison, or Marshall, but rather from Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566). Some men are by nature slavish and deserve to be slaves, Aristotle had written. As brilliantly told in Lewis Hanke’s Aristotle and the American Indians, Friar Bartolomé could no longer accept that.
  • How even inequality serves equality. Tocqueville marveled at the delicious irony that Catholic societies even under feudalism, aristocracy, and inequalities of status, dramatized the equality of all humans more vividly than its rivals. The king knelt at the same communion rail as his serfs. The Almighty and Infinite God was not impressed by the wealth or station of any human being, no matter how great in their own eyes. Before God, all humans are as dust. Or embraced warmly and equally as daughters and sons, through the sacrifice of Christ.
  • The primacy of civil society. Closer to our own time, Jacques Maritain’s Man and the State clarified the primacy of civil society over the state in new language, which had earlier proved crucial in persuading some nations to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because it protected primary, smaller institutions from the State.
  • The first law of democracy: association. Tocqueville wrote that the first law of democracy is the principle of association. He noted that the Catholic traditions of the Middle Ages went beyond the mere individual, through a multitude of sodalities, fraternities, guilds, and associations. Of necessity, this habit of association was reborn in America, where society was formed small-scale first: from associations of neighbors helping each other, to villages, then to townships, then to states, and only after 150 years to a Union of States, the United Americans aren’t great as individuals; most of our lives have been spent in building communities, from the ground up.
  • From individual to person. Catholic thought also gave rise to the crucial distinction between the individual and the person. This particular yellow pencil [pulls from pocket], our family dog, “Hollow,” the beech tree in our back yard – those are individuals. Persons have far more capacities and responsibilities than individuals, and the higher dignity of choosing their own destiny. Regarding their past, persons can reflect on it, and choose to change their ways. Regarding their future, persons face a dizzying multitude of open paths, and must by themselves choose the one dearest to them. We do not gain dignity from being individuals, but from being persons capable of reflection and choice. Animals do not build republics. Only humans do, from reflection and choice.
  • Where “liberty, fraternity, and equality” come from. The German atheist Jürgen Habermas had the honesty and guts to admit publicly (in debate with Cardinal Ratzinger), that these battle-cries of the Enlightenment, “Liberty! Fraternity! Equality!” derive from Jewish and Christian principles. No pagan thinker held to them. Certainly not to fraternity, and not to the other two, either.
  • What is liberty? Liberty is not the freedom to act as one pleases – that is the freedom only of animals. Human liberty is the freedom to act as one ought to act. Animals know no ought. Human consciences do.
  • A self-evident DUTY grounds the right to religious liberty. As Jefferson and Madison both demonstrate, it is self-evident that a duty of gratitude is owed by any conscious creature to her Creator. Both Madison and Jefferson trace religious liberty to this primordial duty. The duty of a creature to her Creator is so deep no one else dares to interfere with it. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Religious Liberty also grounds religious liberty in this duty.

To present a fully developed Christian philosophy of law is the impulsion given to Ave Maria School of Law by Tom Monaghan. Now is the time, this is the place, to push forward that great work, as no other law school has done before. The duty to achieve greatness has been thrust upon this School. And just at a time when our floundering nation needs it desperately. And the Catholic faith, as well.

I want to conclude tonight with the story of Dr. Joseph Warren, the physician who delivered the babies of Abigail Adams and many other mothers. Dr. Warren stood with the Minutemen at Lexington, even took a bullet through his hair. Two months later, just commissioned a Major General in the Continental Army, he learned that 1,500 patriots had crept up Bunker Hill at night and silently erected earthen walls.

At daylight, battalions of Redcoats put all of Charlestown to the torch, and tongues of flame from 500 houses, businesses, and churches leapt into the sky. Breathless, Abigail Adams watched from a distant hillside, and heard the warships thunder shot and shell on Bunker Hill for five long hours. As they did so, Doctor Warren – now Major General Warren – was galloping to Boston and when he arrived took a position in the lowest ranks on Bunker Hill.

The American irregulars proved their discipline that day. Twice they broke the forward march of 3,500 British troops, with fire so withering they blew away as many as 70 to 90 percent of the foremost companies of Redcoats, who lost that day more than 1,000 dead. Then the ammunition of the Americans ran out.

While the bulk of the Continental Army retreated, the last units stayed in their trenches to hold off the British hand-to-hand. That is where Major General Joseph Warren was last seen fighting, as a close-range bullet felled him. The British officers had him decapitated and bore his head to General Gage.

As Tom Monaghan has recognized, freedom is always the most precarious regime. Even a single generation can throw it all away. Every generation must decide. And what holds for America holds also for the Catholic faith. When the Lord returns, will he find on earth even a single person who is still faithful to Him?

Like Tom Monaghan, Joseph Warren told the men of Massachusetts:

Our country is in danger now, but not to be despaired of. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rest the happiness and the liberty of millions not yet born. Act worthy of yourselves.

Let us go now, with generous hearts, into the auction – to support the high mission of this blessed School. And in honor of – Thomas Monaghan.


Ave Maria Gala 2014 image2 Ave Maria Gala 2014 image1

Caritapolis: A New Global Vision for Catholic Social Thought

Remarks delivered by Michael Novak at Acton University on June 19, 2014 in Grand Rapids, MI

Also available at the Witherspoon Institute's Public Discourse.


What would it profit the human race, if we were to achieve a higher level of political liberty and economic liberty than ever before, only to live like pigs, enslaved to our desires, without reflection and deliberation? That is, what if the human race were to use its newfound liberties merely to live by the appetites of the lower animals? It is not only our political and economic systems which must be worthy of our human nature, but also our habits of moral living.

For most of the last six or seven generations, human beings have been preoccupied with two questions: one political, one economic.

The POLITICAL question was, Which political system is better for poor people and ordinary people, authoritarian power (for Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler, straight-out dictatorship) – or democracy? The horrors of the vast Communist Gulag Archipeligo and the Nazi death camps – Dachau, Auschwitz, and a score of others – convincingly settled this question. In 1900, there were only ten democracies on the planet; in 1974 there were only thirty-five; and by 2013 there were 120. By unimaginable suffering, nearly the whole human race has learned the superiority of republican government (with checks and balances against the tyrannical tendencies of majoritarian democracy) over Fascism, Nazism, and Communism, the three progenitors of the new totalitarianism of the twentieth century.

The ECONOMIC question was, Which economic system is better for poor people and ordinary people? Painful experiments from around the world settled this question in favor of the mind-centered system, rooted in invention, discovery, and enterprise in new ventures; in other words, capitalism. There the accomplishment of one medical miracle after another: the dramatic extension of lifespans and dramatic drops in infant mortality; the quadrupling (and more) of the earth’s productive capacity; and the advancement of the virtues connected with personal responsibility and personal initiative – all these – all these provided very powerful evidence of the superiority of capitalism to socialism. Gorbachev once reported that the socialist economy of the Soviet Union had declined to “fourth-world” status. As Leo XIII predicted, Socialism failed. It would prove not only evil, he wrote, but futile. And he proved to be correct. But the main point is this.

What has been largely neglected during these many generations is a third and more important question, What is the moral ecology under which the dignity and solidarity of all the peoples of the world can best thrive?

What do we mean by “moral ecology”? Here is the best definition I have encountered: “the sum of all those conditions – ideas, narratives, institutions, symbol systems, prevailing opinions and practices, and local dispensers of shame and praise – that teach us the habits necessary for human flourishing, and support us in their practice.”

Thus, “moral ecology” – by analogy with environmental ecology – means those exclusively human ideas and institutions that guide human conduct toward the good and the beautiful, and that are the true signs of human flourishing. Humans do not live by bread alone. And doing whatever one desires does not human liberty make. Dogs, cats, tigers and all the other animals can do that much. What they cannot do is live by reflection and choice.

Human beings are called to higher aspirations. Even in the context of political liberty, the personal possession of wealth – if such wealth does not lead to full human flourishing – is merely empty, and quite often self-destructive. Full human flourishing means striving toward beauty, nobility of soul, purity of heart, and great moral deeds. But how can the whole world together flourish in that way?  If there is to be peace and amity on earth, there needs to be a new global vision that all cultures can strive for.


 The Need for a New Global Vision: Caritapolis

            Caritapolis, the City of Caritas. That is in effect how St. Augustine defined The City of God. For that City is infused with, and lives by, the unique love that is the ball of fire in the belly of God, His own inner life, which He has willingly infused into those human beings who freely accept it. By contrast, the City of Man is ruled by the disordered passions and interests of humans, who do not choose to be God’s friends.

Pope Paul VI and later popes preferred the expression the “civilization of love.” That expression, too, is apt, since even the pagan sage Cicero deemed friendship the cohesive inner bond that suffuses cities with life. Between the deeper, richer Christian view and the secular view, in other words, there is an analogue. There is a secular way of coming near to the idea of Caritapolis.

What exactly does Caritas mean? Where we in English usually try to make do with one love, the ancients and later sages distinguished among nine different loves. All are related. Each ascends, as it were, upward. All spring from God’s own inner love.

The first, most general name for love, which points to a felt attraction, a pull, is Amor. L’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle (“The love that moves the sun and all the stars)”, as Dante put it.) Then comes Affection, as when one hugs a child, or a spouse, in a gesture of being moved by the sight of them. Third is Eros, the source of “romantic love” – that drive, sometimes almost like a madness, that tends to override all reflection and deliberation – and which is almost entirely distinctive of the experience of the West (C.S. Lewis, Denis de Rougemont). Since its demands are so romantic --"happily ever after" --and not down-to-earth, the happiest outcome of romantic love is death as in such classic tales of romance as Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, and thousands of other Western tales of love.

Fourth comes Philia, the kind of love that expresses kinship or some similar closeness, as when one speaks of Philadelphia, the love of brothers, or philosophy, the love of wisdom, or philanthropy, the love of humankind. The root here is Greek, but it also appears in the Latin names for filius and filia (son and daughter), or filial.

Much stronger, fifth, is Dilectio, in which you can see the root electio, to choose, as when by reflection and deliberation one selects one other to commit oneself to. One has a special love for one’s family, but one does not choose it. Dilectio is the love for your lifetime of your one beloved, your lover, your spouse. It is the love of The Song of Songs.

Sixth comes the most central of all loves, Amicitia, friendship, that happy love in which the one to whom you want to commit yourself also chooses commitment to you. This can be as spouses, or even as “best friends,” or as a fellow soldier, one’s “brother” for whom one is ready to die. If you have ever felt unrequited love – you love another, who does not have the same love in turn for you – you know how sweet the free gift of friendship from another can be.

Seventh comes Dostoevsky’s central love, “humble charity,” all those smiles or gestures or small acts of kindness that show that one respects another’s personhood and degree of goodness – a humble acting out of “peace on earth,” and goodwill and outward-goingness. Dostoevsky describes humble charity as throbbing like light along a translucent filament circling the earth, binding humankind together, warming all souls on earth. Inside this filament, he writes, it takes but fifteen minutes for a kind deed in one humble place to circle the planet, intensifying as it were the luminosity of humble Caritas in all places.

Eighth is Agape, that deepest insight into the inner life of the Creator and Father, shown in the willingness of the Son to endure the insults, lashes, and grinding pain of carrying the cross, and three hours nailed to that wood, until He could no longer hold himself upright but collapsed downward, to die of suffocation. He did this for others. For us.

And how He did it shows us that the essence of our existence, and the inner existence of God, is suffering love. Quite directly, the Lord tells us that we must also suffer – take up our cross, follow Him, die to ourselves. This is how God made the world. To be like God, to be close to God, is to love even in suffering.

Thus, in showing us all this, God shows that He too plays by the same rules. He too submits in his Son to die the death of suffering love, surrounded by insults, held in contempt, scorned. In short, all this is God explaining to us: “My children this is what Caritas is. You will all live through it. Embrace it. Let Me pass this Caritas through you, continuing to show it to all humans, and to live now through you. If you will allow Me.”

Now, this is where Catholic social, political, and economic thought begin. In Caritas – in giving us a symbol and moving narrative of what a Civilization of Love is, what the Caritapolis of the future is to be like: Love until death for one another. One human family of brothers and sisters, willing to give their lives for each other.

The world is very far from that place yet.

Yet packed into this story are four important propositions. First, all human creatures form one family, each made in the image of God, each a unique image of God. Thus, “Go teach all nations” sends us far beyond boundaries of family, nation, language, race, or religion. It signifies a global, a universal, a catholic community (one that is worldwide, concrete, visible, as well as in in its deepest part invisible).

Second, this community is not yet. It is real, in its fallenness and failures, it is concrete and can be seen with one’s eyes. Yet there is also an inner war going on, in soul after soul in the invisible filament that girdles the earth, an intensely fought battle for the enduring commitment of each to each other, and thus to God. A battle between good and evil or, more exactly, between the living God and the not-god, between friendship with God and the turning away from God. This battle in the inalienble freedom of each soul is the ground of the Christian idea of progress. This epic battle is unending. It gives history its shape and its meaning. It distinguishes progress from decline.

Third, God offers friendship, but it must be freely accepted or freely rejected. If friendship is to burn like a fire, freedom is its oxygen. As the Society of Friends put it: “If friendship, then liberty.” The Liberty Bell rings out that God does not want the coerced friendship of slaves. The deepest root of the idea of liberty lies here, in the freedom of free women and free men before God, as both Madison and Jefferson grasped. (Madison in his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments [1785], Jefferson in his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom [1786].)

Fourth, our Creator and Redeemer is a straight-talker, not a deceiver. He does not promise us a rose garden. He promises us the cross. He sees that all the inner beauty of freedom and suffering love flares out only when we see the burnt out ember “fall, gall itself, gash gold-vermillion.” Only in dying to their earlier life do all beauty, all bravery, all heroism, all true love “gash gold-vermillion.” That is the way the world was made. Therefore, beware of merely romantic love, beware of false promises, beware of utopias. Keep your eye on the points of suffering at the heart of things. Watch for concrete results, not sweet talk. Caritas is a teacher of realism, not soft-headedness; of fact, not sentiment; of suffering love, not illusory bliss. To think in a utopian way is a sin against Caritapolis.

In this spirit of realism, there is a bitter, stunning reality coming down on us today. Very soon now, in our own era, we will have to begin dealing in earnest with the fact that a small but significant portion of Muslims who interpret Islam in an extremely violent way, are working with all their power to drive all other faiths from their own lands and, some boast, from the face of the earth. The vast majority of Muslims, it appears, are appalled at the violence of this small minority, and contemptuous of its claim that it alone represents true Islam. Still, as these violent ones grow in international strength – and this is what seems to be happening – those who do not want to be subdued by them will most likely have to go to war against them. These fierce antagonists do not appeal to argument, only to raw power. They do not appeal to life, but to death. They do not appeal to natural rights, only to total submission. We must realistically understand what it is we are facing. Caritapolis does not lift us into a pretty world of starry-eyed fantasy. It seems to strike every generation with an awakening blow, some horror of its own to subdue.

Obviously, most of the world is not Christian, not even Western, so a term like Caritapolis is not native to the major part of humankind. More exactly, about one-third of the citizens of earth (just over 2 billion, and growing more rapidly than any other group) is now Christian, and the other two-thirds live under non-Christian paradigms and narratives. Therefore, even though we think that Caritapolis is the most fruitful paradigm for picturing the direction in which humanity will best thrive, we need to focus on intermediate steps that are less specific and more open to universal acceptance.


Four Milestones in the Direction of Caritapolis

            To my mind, there are four intermediate steps toward Caritapolis of highest importance. At the moment these four are not too far from universal esteem, at least among significant peoples in all lands. I call these the virtues on which future world progress hinges, that is, the FOUR CARDINAL VIRTUES [Latin, cardo = hinge] OF MORAL ECOLOGY. These four virtues are cultural humility, the regulative idea of truth, the dignity of the human person, and solidarity.

1. By cultural humility I mean a proper sense of one’s own fallibility, past sins, limits, and characteristic faults. (To see one’s own faults and limits, and those of one’s culture, is not necessarily to hold that all cultures are equal, or to embrace cultural relativism. It is consistent with holding all cultures to the same, or at least analogous, standards.) Any nation, people, or culture lacking this humility before these standards will awaken enormous resentment – and resistance – from other cultures.


2. The regulative idea of truth.  If we do not agree that some things are true and others false, that some actions are just and others unjust, then we doom ourselves to relativism, or even worse, nihilism. By that door, the thugs, those willing to use the most awful violence, enter the nation, set the rules, concentrate all power in their own hands, and rule with ruthlessness. And if we do not agree that the difference between truth and falsehood, and between justice and injustice, is to be decided by evidence (not the desires of the thugs) as to what is real and what is good – then we have no protections against tyranny and torture.

Proponents of relativism in the West are, therefore, playing with fire, since regimes built solely on relativism, without any possibility of appealing to evidence and fair judgment, dwell under the wild desires of stark, naked power. In the Kingdom of Relativism, where truth no longer exists and only power matters, the thugs most willing to use brute power move into positions of leadership, and the finer spirits, concerned about such niceties as evidence and argument, are driven first into exile, and eventually to prison. Against false imprisonment these cannot shout, “Injustice!” For to this claim the thugs reply, “That’s just your opinion.” And one cannot say, “These charges are false!” For there is no longer any such thing as “true” or “false.” It is now power, power alone, that speaks.

But why do we speak of truth as a “regulative ideal”?  Because we need to emphasize that no one “possesses” the truth. We must each come closer and closer to approximating it, to getting it right, and getting it clear, making necessary distinctions. And because we each work under rules that equally regulate all of us, we need rules of evidence and methods of determining which are those rules. To come closer to establishing these for all of us, we need each other. We need to converse and to argue, to refute false claims – often through the pain of undeniable experience. That is why, in our era, vast human suffering often points to the truth by a via negativa: “This fiery cauldron cannot be the way to go. Try a better way.” That is how both Nazi and Communist claims were refuted, not by words merely, but by bitter experience. That is how the extreme violence and deliberate cruelty of the minority of Islamists within a more humane Islam are rapidly losing their moral standing as friends of humanity. See how rebellion against them builds.

No one culture “possesses” the truth. Each struggles to get closer to it. Civilized peoples do this by conversation and reasoned argument. Barbarian civilizations club others into submission. Sometimes justice demands that the barbarians be stopped from clubbing the weak around them. Civilized peoples must defend the rules of civilization. And they must prevail. If they do not, the whole human race slides that much deeper back into barbarism.


3. The dignity of the human person. More and more cultures (but not all) are recognizing that human beings are worthy of esteem and honor, and are of primary importance. Through television and other media, more and more individuals around the world catch a glimpse of the higher standard of dignity under which other humans are living today. More and more they are demanding that a greater dignity be paid them, too, in their home countries. As Thomas Aquinas noted, the human person is the most beautiful creature in all creation, the one that most closely images the Creator. That is a major reason why human beings must be treated as ends, not merely means (Immanuel Kant). Today’s realities bring many of the oppressed of the world to a new “Awakening” [ein Aufklarung] to that truth.


4. Solidarity. As human beings, and also whole cultures mature, they see that they are not alone in the world. One cultural world impinges on another as never before, and the whole Noösphere, as Teilhard de Chardin put it, the whole inner empire of human consciousness, becomes more interactive, and seeks to drive humans upward, aspiring higher. What begins to emerge is a virtue of solidarity, the habit by which more and more individuals come to see that they share a world in common with many others who are quite “other.” But the aspirations of one part of the world begin to be known (and sometimes imitated) by other parts of the world. The rights and dignity achieved by human beings in some countries strike the hearts of many in other countries, who begin to confront their own political leaders and to insist on these rights for themselves.

In a sense, solidarity is the internal dimension of globalization. It is the change in the minds and souls, and maybe even the sympathies, induced by humans sharing concrete images of others that they had never before imagined.

Recall for a moment four economic definitions of globalization: a dramatic drop in transportation and communications costs; a single global interchange of ideas and goods connected by the Internet, satellites, cell phones, and television; a geometric increase in “foreign direct investment”; and international cross-border trade.

Beyond these, and even deeper, the interior dimension of globalization is a change in the way individuals experience themselves, and the way they think about others. For example, some persons of enterprise now think not only of supplying goods to their local markets, but also of how they can serve a global market. This is a new dimension of self-awareness. Along with this, the highly visible suffering and pain of other peoples awakens sympathy in faraway places, and the glaring tortures and little tyrannies practiced by some local leaders raise resentment and resistance, rather than passive submission, which was often the response in the past.

These four cardinal virtues – and perhaps there are others – are compatible with Caritapolis, but alone they are not sufficient to fulfill all its aspirations. Even so, in secular terms they would, if taken, constitute great steps forward in the direction of human flourishing.


            Similarly, we ourselves, in thinking of social justice, need to form a clear idea of what we would like the whole world to look like in twenty-five years, or fifty, or a hundred. From the Creator’s point of view, this is His world, and He intended that His Kingdom (the civilization of love) should come on earth as it is in heaven. While until the End of Time, we always live, as Reinhold Niebuhr taught us, in the realm of the “not yet,” still, it does help to think through a concrete vision of achievable worldwide steps toward the “city on a hill” – Caritapolis. We cannot promise ourselves success, but at least we see directions in which, however slowly, all cultures can move

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.

Democratic Capitalism

The prospering of free societies depends on certain moral and cultural practices.


Published in National Review Online on September 24, 2013.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is adapted from Mr. Novak’s remarks at this year’s Forum 2000 conference in Prague, September 15–18. Forum 2000 was founded in 1997 by Czech President Václav Havel, Japanese philanthropist Yohei Sasakawa, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel to consider the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Its focus is on democracy, human rights, tolerance, and the formation of civil societies.

For all its faults and limitations, “democratic capitalism” has one very attractive feature: It embraces many different kinds of capitalism and many different kinds of democracy. It is obvious that France is not the United States (Tocqueville recognized that in 1835). Sweden is not Italy. The United Kingdom is not South Korea. Japan is not Singapore. And so on.

When I wrote The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in 1982, there were many fewer political economies than there are today that could be described as democratic in their political part and capitalist in their economic part. Consider the “Asian Tigers” plus the Philippines and Bangladesh in Asia, several Latin American nations (led by Chile), several of the nations formerly under Soviet control in Eastern Europe, and the many others that have emerged since the early 1980s as capitalist, but not democratic.

Meanwhile, two principles help to define the meaning of “democratic capitalism.”

(1) The first is a principle formulated by the great sociologist Peter Berger in The Capitalist Revolution: Fifty Propositions about Prosperity, Equality, and Liberty (1986). Empirical observation clearly showed that capitalism is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the success of democracy. Berger recognized many examples of new capitalist economies that were beginning to raise up their poor, but that could not yet be called democracies. Chile under Pinochet was one such. The Philippines, Singapore, Spain, and several significant others on two or three different continents also became capitalist before becoming democratic. Nearly a dozen nations turned capitalist, especially India and China, to pull themselves out of the worst forms of poverty. But the polity of some of these was by no means democratic. The pattern seemed to be: Capitalism first, then after a time democracy.

(2) Further consideration yielded the following modifier: In the long run, democracy is a necessary condition for the success of capitalism. Two observations led to this modification. First, under dictatorships, economic decisions have often been reached without taking account of vital constituencies such as small businesses, sectors of manufacturing deeply affected by tariffs, and companies and technologies that depend on vital links to overseas partners. The economy from then on limped. Second, even successful capitalist nations such as Singapore have been plagued by problems of succession. There was no clear institutional path for securing legitimacy among the people, with its accompanying social stability. Among investors and future partners, institutional uncertainty often hurts nations badly.

THE CHINA MODEL Some observers have asked whether China’s political economy now serves as a better model for certain aspiring nations than democratic capitalism. As it is put, that question is an empirical one, to be settled by observable evidence.

As a matter of principle, however, the Chinese leadership is betting on the possibility of sustaining economic liberty without political liberties. It is currently willing to risk its future without the checks and balances built into a republican form of democracy. I judge that this project will not be successful. Once there are a sufficient number of successful entrepreneurs, they will see that in important respects they are smarter and larger in mental horizon than the party commissars. They will resent the errors made by apparatchiks. They will demand their own representation in national decisions — that is, representative government with its checks and balances. I may be wrong about this. Empirical experience will be decisive.

Yet, notwithstanding what happens in China, the sad fact is that almost everywhere in the world today, systems properly called capitalist and democratic are facing grave difficulties. Here the crucial principle to emphasize is that the concept of democratic capitalism is threefold. Democratic capitalism is a system of political economy constituted by three relatively independent systems: the free economy, the free polity (under limited government and the rule of law), and a free system of moral and cultural institutions. The third system includes scientific and artistic institutions, plus even more basic institutions such as families and churches. And it includes all the free associations and organizations of civil society. These are the very institutions that inculcate the public virtues necessary for an inventive and creative economy, and also for a virtuous, vigilant, properly checked, and limited polity.

In this respect, the history of the last hundred years seems to have been played out in three acts. The first act settled the question whether democracy or dictatorship better protects the human rights of individuals and peoples.

The second act settled the question of whether socialism or capitalism works better for the liberation of the poor from poverty. Once they turned from their separate versions of socialism (Fabian socialism and Communist socialism), India and China between them brought more than a half-billion people out of poverty in just 20 years.

The third act, in which we are now engaged, must answer this question: Which are the most favorable moral and cultural practices for the preservation of all three systems, the economic, the political, and the moral and cultural? Which institutions are successful in inculcating the virtues necessary to the survival and prospering of free societies? The fundamental question, then, is the moral question: What is the most practical moral ecology for the survival and prospering of free societies?

THE MODEL TO FOLLOW Is democratic capitalism still a model to follow? More than half the nations of the world are still trying, but the task is very demanding morally.

For instance, more than a hundred nations of the world have discovered by experience during the past 60 years that a dynamic economy is better for the poor — for hundreds of millions of the poor, as in China and India — than either of the alternatives. Those alternatives are traditional agrarian economies and socialist economies. And at the dynamic center of the best economy for the poor are habits of the heart and mind and, to give them steady support, new institutions.

The particular habits of the dynamic economy are enterprise, invention, discovery, intelligent organization, and hard intellectual (and physical) work. The institutions that nourish such virtues include: the rule of law, private corporations (especially small ones, which create most of the jobs in the economy), open and competitive markets, rights of association, rights to an inexpensive and easy incorporation in law of new businesses, respect for private property, including patent and copyright laws to protect original ideas and compositions, and tax codes favorable to good habits that bear practical fruits.

These crucial points explain the reason why the dynamic economy that raises up the poor is called capitalism. Why? Because that word derives from the Latin caput (head), the seat of ideas and invention and discovery. Capitalism is the mind-centered system. It assists economic creativity at every turn. Under agrarian systems, wealth is counted by capita – heads of cattle, horses, sheep, goats. Under capitalist systems, it is counted by the royalties accruing from ownership in ideas, discoveries, inventions.

Notably, for example, capitalism depends on laws recognizing patents and copyrights for new inventions and works of the mind. These laws make works of the creative mind more valuable than land. Thus does the agrarian society pass into the capitalist society.

In sum, markets do not make capitalism. Private property does not make capitalism. Both of these features are as old as biblical times. They mark the traditional economy, the economy of stasis, in which the vast majority of the people are poor and have little or no way to better their condition. These are societies in which the poor have for centuries had little upward mobility.

Just as “capitalism” signifies the economic part of democratic capitalism, the word “democratic” signifies the political part. But that word “democratic” is easy to misuse. Often people mean by it “one man, one vote, one time” or, more mildly, unchecked “majority rule.” But that has often paved a highway to tyranny. As Tocqueville warned, a majority is easily seduced into a “new soft tyranny,” the tyranny of being taken care of by their masters, even if that means surrendering personal responsibility, initiative, and drive. Moreover, opponents can reason with an individual tyrant, but hardly ever with a mob.

There is a wiser meaning of “democracy,” which insists on a division of powers, interests, and factions; on the rule of law; on checks and balances; on other republican institutions such as voluntary associations and civil society; and on republican virtues that generate an alert and active citizenry. Such citizens use their own initiative to improve the common good in the areas nearest to them. This form of democracy is the opposite of a tyranny of the majority.

Within it, no one is allowed unchecked power. A system of divisions and separations is installed throughout the polity. Central power is further checked by habits of mutual restraint, peaceable negotiations, a spirit of compromise.

That last word, “compromise,” has two senses. In one sense, it means giving up on moral principle, each side taking what it can get away with. But that is a slightly disguised “rule by the strongest.” In the other sense, compromise means that each side holds fast to the moral principle it is pursuing. However, both parties agree on two guidelines for action. First, steady incremental progress is made by both sides toward a common goal. Second, neither side gets everything it wanted; each side gets some progress toward its own goal.

All sides retain respect for the others, and for the differences between them. All sides agree that, in practical decisions, the course of the future is unknown to any party. All sides also agree that the full consequences of actions are never foreseeable, with the result that each side is likely to be partly right, partly wrong. Genuine compromise means constantly renewed mutual respect, for the sake of incremental forward movement by all.

In a genuinely democratic polity, each of the parties must argue strenuously for its point of view, try to learn a little from the others, try hard to discern the point at which each side has won something, reach a compromise that each side can live with — and then put all harsh passions aside for the day, and go out and have a cup of coffee together. That’s a good day’s work!

*     *     *

What I have been trying to bring out in these brief remarks on the economy and the polity of democratic capitalism is the constitution of its third and most important part: its moral culture. For neither capitalism nor democracy can succeed without specific new virtues (virtues not often called upon in previous eras) and new sorts of institutions to support them. Thus, the moral-cultural system of democratic capitalism is more important, more fundamental, and deeper than its political system and its economic system.

Without certain virtues in the people, neither a capitalist economy nor a free polity will long endure. A free economy, for example, needs creativity, invention, self-sacrifice, and disciplined work. A free polity needs self-restraint. The first meaning of “self-government” is self-control — unless citizens can well govern their own lives individually, they cannot govern themselves as a polity. A free polity cannot long function unless there is intense cooperation among various parties. It must foster reasoned compromise, as against narrow-minded insistence on “my way or nothing.”

What is crucial about capitalism is the virtues that it inculcates and demands. What is crucial about democracy is the virtues that it inculcates and demands.

Briefly put, the third act in the history of democratic capitalism is the moral question: Granted that a people has gained economic liberty from poverty and political liberty from tyranny, what is the moral ecology necessary for its survival as a free people, its future improvement, and its prospering? A corrupt, lazy, dishonest, and decadent society cannot preserve human liberty. It will breed a nation of serfs and slaves, who do not want to carry the responsibilities of free persons, but want only to have others take care of their needs.

Rigorous reflection shows, therefore, that democratic capitalism is an exceedingly difficult model to live up to. Its costs in moral effort and moral training are formidable. That all nations fail at these preconditions in some respects is to be expected — free societies are made from poor clay such as us. But they must cultivate sufficient virtue among their people to survive and move ahead.

AN INVENTORY OF WORKING MODELS As to the question of how many different models for economic transition there now are in the world, note that compared with the years 1900, 1948, and 1980, we have today a far vaster field of empirical examples to consider. In 1900 there were not yet six democracies in the world. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by only 48 nations.

By 1990, the worldwide icepack that had held together the socialist nations was dissolving into dozens of new “transitional societies.” Now the Middle East is alive with issues of human life and liberty. It is indeed a good time to take a new inventory, and I wholly support that idea. Experience is surely the most reliable teacher.

So far, we have learned that the first Guiding Star of these transitions is to face the truth, and not to accept lies. The second Guiding Star is to lift the poor out of poverty, so that they might exercise the mighty talents implanted within them. The third Guiding Star is to use institutions of liberty to live worthily of our human dignity, to live nobly.

What a disgrace it would be if we gained our precious political and economic liberty through the blood, sacrifice, and agonizing pain of so many millions in the 20th century, only to live as on an Animal Farm — and to allow so many millions of others to languish under tyranny and torture.

To cultivate a worthy form of moral ecology — that is the challenge we leave to the next generation. That is the challenge Vaclav Havel bequeathed all generations.

Michael Novak’s most recent book is his memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative. He was a founding participant of Forum 2000 in 1997 and is still active on its leadership boards.





On Genuine Feminism: Phyllis McGinley, Jean Kerr, and Karen Laub-Novak

The following remarks were delivered by Michael Novak at the 2013 Genuine Feminine conference at Ave Maria University on Jan. 19. A slide presentation of Karen Laub-Novak's paintings, sculpture, and prints was delivered during Novak's remarks, available here.





For young women with high artistic (or other professional) ambitions, while also cherishing a husband with whom together to bring up rebellious, independent children (why not the best?), there are hardly any other professions more suitable than writing or painting or sculpture. These are professions in which it is normal to go through cycle after cycle of dry periods and down periods, and in which a certain amount of off-an-on reflection and times of gestation (fraught with other activities such as cleaning up the mess on the kitchen floor after the youngest children finish breakfast, lunch and dinner). Rare is the writer in this world who has time only for writing. Even those who do have all day always need a half hour or more to sharpen pencils, twenty minutes to arrange the desk, then more time to fuss with papers, and other sundry tasks necessary to protect her from having to face an empty sheet of paper. That is to say, the sheer terror of having to create out of nothingness…

As my own dear wife once wrote in a letter to her grad school dorm mate, “Loving a man is a full time job, painting is a full time job. But I am sure they can be done together. I know they can.” (I paraphrase). There was not a little dubiety in her tone.

Our brilliant leader of this conference, Sarah Pakaluk asked me to name a couple of models to prove that art and marriage go together. One I suggested was Phyllis McGinley, the down-to-earth poet so highly praised by W.H. Auden, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poems which, when I was young, seemed to be published everywhere – The New Yorker mainly, The New York Times, and dozens of magazines..

Another was Jean Kerr, author of four successfully produced plays including one with the longest run of any play until that time. And, above all, author of some of the wittiest short stories about home life and the writing life that you will ever read. I love Mrs Kerr’s tale of the questionnaire she was sent by the publicity department of her book publisher. Where it asked “Husband’s first name,” she filled in “Honey.” She noted that the credit card application for a lady’s clothing store had asked the same question – and she gave them the same answer: “Honey.” I hope they issued the card anyway.

By the age of seven, Jean was lucky enough to figure out her goal in life: To sleep late every morning. Luckily, her husband Walter Kerr was a top-ranked theater critic and they had many late evenings attending Openings, got home late – and Jean slept as late as she pleased.

A third model for the life of art and family love, Miss Pakaluk was wise enough to invite to be our luncheon speaker: Meghan Gurdon. Meghan is one of the wittiest writers in the country, and at the “cultural evenings” we used to have at AEI, she was the most sheerly delightful reader of all the female roles in P.J. Wodehouse stories. On another evening, she was the dreadfully attractive temptress in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. If you have not read such jewels as those aloud with friends, you are missing a feast for your wit.

Meghan also has one of the most impressive and coolest husbands – Hugo, Editor of a witty and scoop-making paper on Capitol Hill in Washington, The Hill – and she has been raising a sweet, sweet passel of children, led by the demure, pretty, brilliant Molly now in her second year at Oxford, and rambunctious Paris now in his senior year of high school, who is destined to steal a beautiful woman’s heart. … You have heard Meghan, and you know how wonderful she is.

Sarah also invited me to speak a little about my wife’s work. Karen Laub was brought up in a little town of 2000 named Cresco, Iowa. She loved Iowa with its vast skies high above the plain, its long silences, its comfortableness in a person’s being alone and ruminating and soaking things in. When I was lucky enough to meet Karen on a blind date on March 20, 1962, Karen was just finishing a one-year appointment as Instructor in Art at ‘the Harvard of the Middle West,’ Carleton College in Minnesota.

She had already been proposed to, but put acceptance off for a year, during which she wanted to test her talent against the best – and for her that meant Boston or New York. She had been a favorite student of Oskar Kokoshka, the German Expressionist in Salzburg, Austria, and of the famed master of print-making, Maurizio Lasansky at the University of Iowa. For that one year, she wanted nothing to do with men.

I had promised Karen on that first night that we would have dinner, and I would have her back to her hosts in ninety minutes. Somehow, that promised 90 minutes kept getting extended -- for nine and a half hours. During the first nine minutes I decided she was the girl I had been praying for, and I would marry her. But it took her a long, long year to admit to her mother in a letter, “I have finally run out of objective reasons for saying no to Michael.” A rousing, enthusiastic endorsement. Her letter continued with a short account of my virtues, and a substantial section on my weaknesses and faults. A painfully accurate section.

That was Karen, realist to the spinal core. She saw one fact about humans: We are each moving toward death. In living persons she could often see through to the death mask. Often, like Michelangelo, she would paint with the skin stripped away, so as to show the hidden muscle, bone, sinew, inners.

She told me in an early letter that that year she knew she could only paint simple things.. It was important to her to stay within her personal knowledge, to paint only what she knew – what no one else knew, what did not come from any book or any other person. She would stick to simple paintings of her friends who would pose for her, and of her favorite of all persons – her Grandmother Do-Do (Dorothy). Meanwhile, she kept learning other techniques, other methods, other styles. She worked to master every age in painting history, to learn from every school. And, gradually, her themes became more and more complex. She had once feared that when she learned enough techniques and methods, her soul might not have enough to say.

Not to worry.

On the slides you are seeing on the screen, you can watch her early work in her own simple style, then more or less Renaissance portraiture, her first works in French Impressionism and German Expressionism, and later what she learned from Michelangelo and Goya, from Caravaggio too. She often went back to the subject of her master’s degree thesis, William Blake.

Karen found that great and deep written works stirred her imagination most. She loved to discover images no one had embodied in paint or etching before. She thought of painting as an incarnation of movements of the soul. Putting them in physical paint, in brush strokes, in little mounds and ridges of paint. Giving them visible, bodily being. She often told me to ignore theme and composition for a moment, and look just at the drama in the individual strokes. In her lectures on art, she would often blow up an inch of painting surface to fill the whole screen, so that the eye could voyage on the vast region of two simple brush strokes. Karen loved detail.

Her greatest strengths were composition – almost effortless, it seemed – and color and chiaroscuro, shade and shadow. She loved bright, brilliant colors even though they were far harder to control than a paler palette. She took great risks with color, and reaped high rewards.

Many viewers find her work “dark,” and “gloomy.” In fact each of her works represents a victory of spirit, a struggling spirit, a dark wrestling against matter to find the beauty in it.

In her personal life, Karen suffered from a genetic pull toward depression. Often she was happy and light, but when the “black dog days” came (as Churchill called his own downward pull), it took her an immense effort to dig down into her own black nothingness in order to create. Creatio ex nihilo was her mode of being.

This is why Karen loved The Dark Night of the Soul, and St. John’s Apocalypse, and T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, and toward the end, the poetry of Rainier-Marie Rilke, especially his “Duino Elegies” featuring its huge angels, of whom one Elegy says (in Karen’s favorite line) “Every Angel is terrible.” Those works were executed in the last decade of her life.

You might possibly agree with me that Karen took religious feeling into new darknesses and depths, and that she created a wholly new artistic dimension, not of prettiness but of harsh reality. Of which her own untimely death is but one verification of her work’s authenticity.

With a Firm Reliance on Divine Providence

Remarks upon receiving the Barbara Olson Award at the 45th Annual American Spectator Bartley Gala, Delivered by Michael Novak on November 14, 2012


It is such an honor to receive an award named for an American heroine, and here, at a gala named for Robert Bartley – whose editorial pages taught this poor theologian his first lessons in job-creating economics.

It is an especially precious honor to receive this high Award in the name of Barbara Olson. Most of us here loved Barbara Olson. How could we not? Brave, bold, enterprising, beautiful, lively, smart, courageous to a fault, Barbara was the best of Americans.

She started life humbly, began a professional career performing in ballet – on stage in Houston, and in Los Angeles. Then she attacked the law and mastered it, moved to Washington and conquered it, and after regular appearances on cable television, she was on her way to crack the Maginot Line of leftish comedians – that morning she was flying out to California to do the Bill Maher show.

Tonight I remember Barbara’s courage when she learned her plane had been hijacked, for the purposes of mass murder. She immediately set to thinking how to attack that enemy too. Barbara fought back, and made this country – once more, in one more woman – “the land of the free … and the home of the brave.”

In Barbara’s honor, I would like to tell a brief story about Dr. Joseph Warren. I first heard it in Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural. Joseph Warren was the doctor who delivered the babies of Abigail and John Adams. He was a leader of the Minutemen at Lexington. He told his men, Our country is in peril now, but not to be despaired of. At Lexington a British bullet clipped off some hair right behind his ear. It did not fell him. His few men, abetted by their fellows hidden in the trees, sent the large British force back toward Boston carrying their wounded and their dead.

Not long after, Joseph Warren was commissioned a Major General in the Massachusetts militia. When he heard that a small band of Patriots had sneaked up Bunker Hill in the dark, and were silently fortifying the flank toward Boston, Warren rode as fast as he could to take a place in their ranks. Below, the British marched out toward Bunker Hill with 2200 men. Behind them burned the brown smoke and orange flames of Charlestown, where the British had already torched 500 homes. On a hillside to the South, Abigail Adams, hearing the booming guns, watched breathless as the awful battle lasted five long hours.

The American irregulars carried but limited shot per soldier, and that day they proved their discipline. With the accuracy of lifetime huntsmen they fired with individual aim, in concentrated bursts. Twice they broke the forward march of the British Regulars with fire so withering they blew away as many as 70 to 90 percent of the closest companies. The Redcoats lost that day more than a thousand dead and wounded. Then the ammunition of the Americans ran out.

While the bulk of the Massachusetts militia retreated Indian-like, the last units stayed in the trenches to delay the British hand-to-hand. That is where Major General Warren was last seen standing as a close-range bullet felled him.

Think about the next two years of fighting. Put yourself in the place of these badly equipped Americans. Perhaps fewer than a third in the colonies supported them, or were willing actually to fight for Independence. These few, these valorous few, faced scores of thousands well-trained Redcoats, supported by the guns of more than 350 British warships – the most disciplined army and most powerful navy in the world.

No wonder the framers of the Declaration of Independence placed their “firm Reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” If you have no army, and have no navy, you had better rely on Providence.

But why? What shred of reason had they for such trust? Did not the British pray to the same Providence? What right had the Americans to think the Lord Almighty favored their cause, favored them?

Here is how they reasoned. Many in our midst do not reason so today. But hear them out. At least hear them out. For our Founders, the logic was easy.

The reason that God created the universe, they believed, is so that somewhere in its vastness there would be at least one creature to whom God could offer his friendship. But if the good and gracious Lord meant us for His friendship, then He had to make us free. Friendship coerced is not friendship. If friendship, then liberty, William Penn wrote. That was the logic of placing America’s “firm Reliance in the protection of Divine Providence.” If the whole universe has been made for liberty, then at least in one place it must in time prevail. But liberty was made for all human beings, and thus the shots fired for liberty at Concord and Bunker Hill have been heard around the world. Our Founders often warned us: Freedom is the most precarious regime. Even a single generation can refuse to bear its costs and – just throw it away. Every generation must decide.

The American Spectator today is the Paul Revere of the Party of Liberty. We Americans do not want to be another European welfare state. Our appetite is not for security, or commandments from coercive czars. We want to live as free women, and free men. For that, there are costs.

So now it is plain why Dr. Joseph Warren – seeing the masses of British soldiers – could tell the Minutemen with whom he served in Massachusetts: Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rest the happiness and the liberty of millions not yet born. Act worthy of yourselves.

Joseph Warren, Barbara Olson, Divine Providence protect you still.

The Joy of Capitalism: An Evening with Michael Novak

Amid growing debates about the morality of free enterprise, Michael Novak of Ave Maria University spoke at AEI on Thursday evening to promote the virtues of democratic capitalism. Novak revealed how capitalism has served to alleviate poverty, promote economic growth and enable the conditions for a flourishing society. He also warned of the dangers of increasing trends toward statism and overregulation, which discourage small business creation.