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

Economic tyranny trumps religious liberty

Published by Michael Novak in the Washington Examiner on November 10, 2014 I learned from trips behind the Iron Curtain from 1974 to 1991 that economic tyranny can hamstring religious liberty and render it captive. When communist governments owned or controlled all supplies of newsprint, for example, they gained power over the religious press. Any unwanted articles (pre-censored by state authorities) could be deprived by “shortages” so offending reports would appear as blank columns in the press.

If there is no private property, there is also no independent leg to stand on in speaking for one’s conscience — and not only one’s individual conscience. Besides the conscience of one limited individual, there is the social effectiveness or participation in the free conscience of a living and vital community.

Thus in the United States in the 1950s it was the hard-earned authority of black churches and church leaders who gave birth to the civil rights movement and gave social power to parchment words such as “liberty and equality.”

In Poland and elsewhere, religious communities had inspired and led the nations for hundreds of years. In such places, people were not imprisoned solely in their own individual power, which was little. Sometimes they acted through institutions and associations of their own choosing. Solidarity in Poland, for example, or People Against Violence in Slovakia.

Sometimes they acted through associations and institutions they had been born into, and long been become grateful for. They knew by family history the many ways in which these institutions had nourished, taught, and trained them in the habits of conscience, self-government, and personal responsibility. These institutions had for centuries stood outside the passing follies of the age, and had been the people’s source of independence from the self-centered, decadent, and at times even thuggish “wisdom” of their particular generation.

Religious liberty is not as essential as breathing for social and institutional actors, however. It is also essential for each individual, one at a time, especially so in the Christian tradition. For one cannot simply be born into a Christian community. At a certain point in time, all people, reflecting on their vocation to choose their own destiny, must decide in the depths of conscience which communities to live and die within.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison both argued plainly (in Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom in Virginia and in Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments) that, although the creator of the universe did not have to do so, He made the human mind free.

Further, that it is self-evident that to any human who recognizes the relation of creator to creature, the latter has a duty of gratitude to the former. And, moreover, not simply a duty of gratitude, but even a duty of worship. For the distance between creature and creator is so vast that all honesty compels us to recognize it and pay due homage.

Both Madison and Jefferson then argued that no one else can show this gratitude or pay this honest homage but each of us, person by person. That duty is inalienable, first, because no one else has the power to exercise that duty for any one of us. That duty is further inalienable because it is a duty owed to the creator, and beyond the power of any state or civil society, or any other body (even one’s own family) to interfere with it.

In this sense, the first of all human rights, it has long been recognized, is religious liberty. For rights are founded in our duties — in this case duties to our creator, in whose fulfillment no one else dares interfere — and these rights are endowed in us by our creator.

Such rights cannot be left as mere “parchment barriers” (Madison’s phrase). The Soviet Union and its sister communist nations wished devoutly to treat them so. They freely signed agreements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Helsinki Accords, but with no intention of upholding them in respect of religion and conscience.

As Madison also recognized, rights become rights not by mere words but by becoming embodied in community convictions and associations active in their defense. Convictions and associations incarnated into the thick habits of an entire people — and, in due time, in all the people of the Earth.

To sum up, actions and convictions gain power and permanence in the real world only where the capacities for free economic action are well protected. For religion does not live in conscience alone but in its capacities to act in the world, and to work for the coming of the good, the true, the beautiful, and the self-sacrificing assistance to others to transform this real, concrete Earth of ours.

So to act, it must have the wherewithal secured above all by certain economic rights: among them, the ownership and use of private property, the right of association, the right to personal economic initiative, and the right to create new sources of wealth and well-being. It is the last of these rights that transformed the thousands of years of an agrarian economy into an economy in which new practicable ideas became more valuable than land. And also creative of greater wealth than the long-impoverished world had ever before imagined. Enough wealth to end absolute poverty on this entire planet, and within the next 30 years.

Michael Novak won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994. In 1981-82 he was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and in 1985 to the Bern Round of the Helsinki Accords.

October 7: The Feast of Our Lady of Victory How the 1571 Battle of Lepanto saved Europe.

Published by Michael Novak at National Review Online on October 7, 2014  

For those who know little history, today’s battle with ISIS in the Middle East may seem new and unprecedented. It is not.

In a.d. 622, Mohammed set out from Medina to conquer the whole Christian world for Allah by force of arms. Within a hundred years, his successors had occupied and pillaged every Christian capital of the Middle East, from Antioch through North Africa (home of Saint Augustine) and Spain. All that remained outside Allah’s reign was the northern arc from Southern France to Constantinople.

What we are seeing in 2014 has a history of more than 1,300 years — a very bloody, terror-ridden history. Except that today the struggle is far, far more secular than religious — a war over political institutions and systems of law, with almost no public argument over religious doctrine.


Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–78), describes how tall Islamic minarets could have been seen in Oxford before his birth, and the accents in its markets would have been Arabic: “The interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.”

Gibbon was writing about the decisive battle of Poitiers in a.d. 732, when at last a Christian leader, Charles Martel (“Charles the Hammer”), drove back the Muslims from their high-water mark in Western Europe with such force that they went reeling backwards into Spain. From there, it took Spain another 750 years — until 1492 — to drive Islamic armies back into North Africa, whence they had invaded. Even so, the Islamic terror bombers who just a few years ago killed more than a hundred commuters in Madrid did so (they announced) to avenge the Spanish “Reconquista” of 1492. For Islam, to lose a territory once Muslim is to incur a religious obligation to wrest it back.

It had been a marvel in 732 that just over 100 years earlier, Mohammed had launched his army from Medina, to conquer in rapid-fire succession so many of the most glorious capital cities of Christianity — Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Hippo, Tunis, Carthage, and then all of Spain. More amazingly still, Muslims very quickly went farther into the Far East than Alexander the Great ever had.

Even today, in the eyes of political Islamists, the expansion of Islam is far from finished. The dynamic obligation at the heart of their Islam is to conquer the world for Allah, and to incorporate it all into the great Islamic Umma. Only then will the world be at peace. Submission to Allah is the reason the world was created.

For more than a thousand years after 622, southern Europe had to give active military resistance to the “Saracens” (as the Islamists came to be known in the West). For 600 of those thousand years, a huge sea war ensued for control of the Mediterranean, but war by land was not called off. The Turks who took over the Arab world expanded their empire in all four directions on the map. For more than a century they made attempt after attempt to take down the largest and richest of the Christian capitals, Constantinople, whose walls they finally breached in 1453. There followed great plunder, huge fires of destruction, the desecration of Christian basilicas and churches, murder, and torture. Thousands of Christian men, women, and children were marched off toward slavery in the East.

A long line of great warrior sultans sponsored Turkish advances in shipbuilding, gunnery, military organization, and training. By the mid 1550s they had slowly conceived of a long-term offensive, a pincers movement first by sea and then by land, to conquer the whole northern shore of the Mediterranean. Their ultimate aim was to take all Italy; then all Europe.

First, in 1565, they launched a massive sea attack on the crossroads of the Mediterranean, the strategically placed island of Malta. They were repelled after an epic siege (which in itself is one of history’s great stories). A later northern pincers movement by land was aimed at an attack up through the Balkans, for the conquest of Budapest, and then in a northeast arc into Slovakia and Poland. In this way, the Muslim forces would essentially encircle Italy from the north. The capture of Vienna — and thus the cutting off of Italy, for easy conquest — was the prize most sought.

Because by 1540 the Reformation had begun separating the Christian nations of the north from Rome, the sultans soon recognized that the Christian world would no longer fight as one. The next hundred years or so would be the most fruitful time since 632 to fulfill the destiny of Islam in Europe.

At last, Don Juan of Austria, the younger brother of the king of Spain, an illegitimate son, stood erect and summoned allies to repel the much-anticipated Muslim advance. He aimed at leading a large fleet to go after the new Muslim fleet preemptively, before they could depart from their home seas.

  1. The Preliminary Battles of Malta and Famagusta: 1565 and 1571

Each new caliph of the Islamic empire was expected to expand the existing Muslim territories, in order to fulfill Islam’s mission and gain for the leader the necessary popularity and legitimacy. So it was that in the pleasant springtime of 1571, an entire Muslim fleet under Ali Pasha was ordered by the sultan to seek out and destroy Christian dominance of the Mediterranean Sea, all the way up to Venice.  During the summer, Ali Pasha raided fort after fort along the Adriatic shore, picked up thousands of hostages as slaves, and sent at least a small squadron to blockade for two or three days the approaches to St. Mark’s Square in Venice, not least to plant a seed of terror about worse things to come.

Meanwhile, another large Muslim force soon conquered Cyprus, inflicting ritual cruelties on the defeated population of Nicosia, setting fire to churches, beheading the older women, and marching all younger Christians of both sexes into slavery. The Muslim armies then headed north for the fortress of Famagusta, the last Venetian stronghold on the island, the “extended arm” of the trading posts and protective forts of the Venetian navy in the entire eastern Mediterranean. An army of 100,000 opened the siege, against a force of 15,000 behind the walls.

Under the energetic generalship of the elderly General Marcantonio Bragadino, the small band of defenders held out for week after week, despite receiving more than 180,000 incoming cannonballs. The defenders ran so short of food that in the end they were eating cats, until finally they consumed their last one. The Muslim general was outraged by the length of the siege, which had already cost him 80,000 of his best men even though Famagusta’s fate was sealed from the first days. Yet there were still long days, and sometimes nights, of hard hand-to-hand fighting just outside the walls. Muslim losses kept getting fully replenished by sea, and the Muslim forces grew stronger as the Christians got down to their last six barrels of gunpowder, with only four hundred men still able to fight.

On August 1, General Bragadino finally accepted surrender terms, which guaranteed safe passage of all his men to sail home to Venice, and safety to all citizens of the walled city. He walked with the full scarlet regalia of his office out from the walls and down to the tent of Alfa Mustafa, the victorious commander. There the two leaders conversed. Then something went wrong, and Mustafa grew visibly angry and called for his men to behead the full complement of 350 survivors who had laid down their arms to march out with Bragadino. All 350 bleeding heads were piled up just outside Mustafa’s tent.

Mustafa then ordered Bragadino’s ears and nose chopped off, and forced the man to go down on all fours wearing a dog’s collar around his neck, to the jibes, mockery, and horror of the onlookers. Bags of earth were strapped over Bragadino’s back and he was made to carry them to the walls of the fortification, and to kiss the earth each time he passed Mustafa. As the old man grew fainter from the loss of blood from his head, he was tied to a chair, put in a rope harness and hoisted up to the highest mast in the fleet, so that all survivors of the city might see his humiliation. Then Bragadino’s chair was dropped in free fall into the water and brought out again. The tortured Venetian was led in ropes to the town square and stripped. At a stone column (which still stands today), Bragadino’s hands were tied outstretched over his head, and an executioner stepped forward with sharp knives to carefully remove his skin, keeping it whole. Before the carver had reached Bragadino’s waist, the man was dead. His full skin was then stuffed with straw, once again raised up to the highest mast, and sailed around to various ports as a trophy of victory, and finally taken back to Istanbul for permanent exhibition.

Meanwhile, Don Juan had put the Christian fleet of some 200 vessels on course toward Lepanto, where Ali Pasha was refitting his vessels in the safe protection of an impregnable harbor. When a fast corsair dispatched from Famagusta arrived to deliver the tale of the dishonors visited on General Bragadino and his 350 surviving soldiers, the blood of the Venetians boiled. They now allowed no question of turning back. They were determined to avenge the horrors suffered by their comrades in arms.

The young Don Juan was buoyed by this new resolve. Now he would be able to keep the vow he had made to Pope Pius V, to seek out and destroy the threatening enemy. The young admiral — he was 22 when he became commander of this fleet — felt confident in his battle plan. He had taken care to have his whole fleet rehearse their roles in the quiet seas of the Adriatic just before turning toward Lepanto.

Don Juan and many of his men spent much of the night before the battle of October 7 in prayer. The fate of their civilization, they knew, depended on their good fortune on the morrow. The uncertainties of the changing winds and choppy seas, and the speed of the two onrushing lines of ships rapidly closing on each other, would create unpredictable havoc. The odds against the Christians in ships were something like 350 ships to 250. But the Christians had a secret weapon.

  1. The Greatest Sea Battle in History: Lepanto, October 1571

For more than three years, Pope Pius V had labored mightily to sound alarms about the deadly Muslim buildup in the shipyards of Istanbul. The sultan had been stung by the surprising defeat of his overwhelming invasion force in Malta in 1565. The savagery of Muslim attacks on the coastal villages of Italy, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Greece was ratcheted upwards. Three or four Muslim galleys would offload hundreds of marines, who would sweep through a village, tie all its healthy men together for shipment out to become galley slaves, march away many of its women and young boys and girls for shipment to Eastern harems, and then gather all the elderly into the village church, where the helpless victims would be beheaded, and sometimes cut up into little pieces, to strike terror into other villages. The Muslims believed that future victims would lose heart and swiftly surrender when Muslim raiders arrived. Over three centuries, the number of European captives kidnapped from villages and beaches by these pirates climbed into the hundreds of thousands.

The reason for this kidnapping was that the naval appetite for fresh backs and muscles was insatiable. Most galley slaves lived little more than five years. They were chained to hard benches in the burning Mediterranean sun, slippery in their own excrement, urine, and intermittent vomiting, often never lying down to sleep. The dark vision that troubled the pope during the late 1560s was of even more horrible calamities to befall the whole Christian world, bit by bit. But unity in Europe was hard to find, and even more scarce was the will to fight for survival.

Having seen Muslim ferocity firsthand, however, the Venetian public was determined to contribute a fleet to the task. Their support was crucial, for Venice was in those days the shipbuilding and gunnery capital of the world, producers (for a profit) of the most innovative, most versatile, stoutest, and most seaworthy armed vessels in the world. The best sea captains of Venice were the most eager to avenge their friends and fellow citizens.

For years, Venice had preferred peace with the Muslim East, in order to carry on their lucrative international trade. Now there was a cause that took precedence over the traditions of commerce. Genoa, too, contributed a fleet under their famous but now elderly Admiral Andrea Doria, these days a less-bold warrior despite the glory of his earlier exploits. The Knights of Malta, the premier sea warriors of the time, offered their small but highly skilled fleet in support of the pope’s appeal and agreed to work cooperatively with Don Juan.

Don Juan, whom his contemporaries described as a modest and humble man, characteristically set aside his own ego for the sake of the cause that engaged him. He pledged to the armada a large contingent supplied by Spain and Portugal. By the end of September 1571, eager to get their job done before winter turned the seas choppy and unfit for battle, the four distinct parts of the Christian fleet sailed past Italy, hugging the coasts, sending teams of observers to land to pick up the latest intelligence on the Muslim force. Finally, they learned that an enormous Muslim fleet, nearly 100 ships larger than their own, was sailing near to land toward the Gulf of Lepanto. No more talking, Don Juan told his leading admirals; now, “Battle.”

Keeping the Knights of Malta in reserve just a short distance behind the main battle line, Don Juan assigned the impassioned Venetians the important left flank, with its leftmost ships close to the shoreline. He himself commanded a hundred vessels at the center. In plain sight was his capital ship, the Real, its banners of leadership visible to all. To the right flank he assigned the venerable Andrea Doria and the Genoese fleet. The plan was to hold his ships in as long and straight a line as seamanship in a besetting wind would allow, while heading directly for the Muslim line.

At his front, however, Don Juan placed a nasty surprise for Ali Pasha. Six new, taller, sturdier ships packed with cannons (especially in the bow) and heavily laden with lead and shot placed themselves a mile forward of the Christian line. They looked flat on top, like merchant ships. No one had ever seen such ships before. They lacked a bow rising up skywards, the one necessary weapon for vicious ramming. For the purpose of these new galleasses, as they were called, was not to ram oncoming ships but to blast them with an array of cannons. Their shot could carry a mile with great accuracy. When the galleasses turned sideways, they could blast with even more cannons, designed for shorter ranges, often aiming their cannon just at the waterline of their foes. They had the power to sink a smaller, lighter, faster Muslim galley with a single burst.

At first, the two fleets spotted each other on the horizon as single masts. Then they were visible in small numbers, and only as the two fleets closed to about two miles of each other could any one of the 200,000 sailors, marines, and janissaries on board catch a glimpse of the lines and dispositions of the fleets. The Muslims preferred to attack in a crescent rather than a straight line, but the winds at their back and tricky tides from the shoreline to their north forced them to straighten up their lines. Those who gazed on the massive array of ships and sails were filled with awe. One of those to be wounded in this battle, the great author Miguel de Cervantes, later wrote of “the most noble and memorable event that past centuries have seen.” Just over six hundred ships in two amazingly orderly lines, each stretching three miles from end to end, silently bore down on one another as the distance between them closed. A sense of destiny weighed upon all who watched and waited.

The huge green battle flag of Allah — his name embroidered on it in Arabic some 29,800 times — marked out the tall capital ship Sultana, on which the fearsome young admiral Ali Pasha held command. Pasha was puzzled by the six more or less flat barges out in front of the Christian lines. His own armed soldiers were reliant mostly on clouds of arrows. His sailors had mastered the arts of ramming, and of disgorging massive boarding parties onto the enemy’s slippery decks, then beating down their defenders by a sort of fierce land warfare out on the open sea. In those days, sea warfare was like land warfare, only carried out on open decks side-by-side instead of in open fields. Ship was lashed to ship, sometimes a dozen together. Hand-to-hand combat was the key.

There is no point here in giving the whole narrative of the battle. Suffice it to say that in the center, the volleys from the galleasses out in front destroyed one Muslim vessel after another. Masts snapped, the oars of the galleys were shattered, and huge holes opened up the thin wooden sides of the galleys to the boiling sea. The Muslim ships that were not sunk were easily boarded by the Christian ships coming alongside, built a little higher, and amply supplied not only with boarding nets but, even more important, with ranks of the old-style predecessors to rifles — arquebuses — directing point-blank rifle balls into the unarmored flesh of Muslim archers. It is true that in a few cases whole clouds of Muslim arrows felled many in the Christian ships, including the great Venetian commander Agostino Barbarigo, who was shot in the eye. But most of the Christian warriors wore the latest in body armor, which often repelled wooden arrows harmlessly. Nonetheless, at least one Christian ship was later found aimlessly afloat, with every single man dead or wounded.

At the last, the two capital ships Real and Sultana clashed head-on, and Don Juan led the final boarding party which in its ferocity drove Ali Pasha to the aft poop, where he soon fell with a bullet in his eye. The Muslim admiral’s head was cut off and borne aloft on a pike to be mounted on the bow of the Real. The seas around were filled with cloaks, caps, struggling bodies, the vast wooden wreckage of battle, and, floating in the churning water, large splotches of red blood.

On the Christian left, the Venetians attacked with almost blind rage and broke the line of the Muslim right with relative ease. They were aided by a revolt of the galley slaves on board a number of Muslim vessels, who in the explosions on board had their chains broken, and poured up on deck swinging their chains to left and right. So great was the Venetian fury that even after the battle, many of its sailors spent hours using their pikes to kill Muslim sailors and soldiers struggling in the sea. They tried to excuse their bloodlust by saying that they never wished to see those men sailing against the West again.

In four hours the battle was over. More than 40,000 men had died, and thousands more were wounded, more than in any other battle in history, more even than at Salamis or, in years to come, at the Somme. Never again did the Muslim fleet pose a grave danger to Europe from the south, although of course Muslim fleets kept busy expanding their bases on the African coast, harassing Western ships and territories across the Mediterranean.

Technology, especially that pioneered by Venice and by oceangoing Portugal and Spain, had made the decisive difference. As Victor Davis Hanson writes, it was to capitalism that the victory was owed, for it was open markets that spurred competition to keep improving gunnery and ships, and it was the great merchant and commercial cities that built these new technologies. After Lepanto, the arts of gunnery replaced the arts of the bow and arrow, however deadly for many centuries those weapons had proved to be. Ships were made stouter, taller, and more able to carry heavy armaments — and new methods had to be sought to replace locomotion by galley slaves.

As news of the great victory of October 7 reached shore, church bells rang all over the cities and countryside of Europe. For months, Pius V had urged Catholics to say the daily rosary on behalf of the morale and good fortune of the Christian forces and, above all, for a successful outcome to the highly risky preemptive strike against the Turkish fleets. Thereafter, he declared that October 7 would be celebrated as the Feast of “Mary, Queen of Victory.” A later Pope added the title “Queen of the Most Holy Rosary” in honor of the laity’s favorite form of prayer. All over the Italian peninsula, great paintings were commissioned — whole galleries were dedicated — to honor the classic scenes of that epic battle. The air of Europe that October tasted of liberties preserved. The record of the celebrations lives on in glorious paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, and many others.

  1. The Northern Pincers and the Siege of Vienna, September 1683

Of necessity, our consideration of the Battle of Vienna must be briefer than our attention to Lepanto. But many of the same forces were at play as before, only this time by land, not by sea. The Protestant nations regarded the expanding Ottoman Empire as a Catholic problem. Few Catholic nations took the Muslim threat as seriously as it deserved. The French, in particular, had become used to buying off the Turks with trade and commerce, rather than resisting them in war. The French even preferred the defeat of their most dreaded rivals, the German-speaking Austrians. The nation Germany did not yet exist, only a number of smaller political units — Brandenburg, Saxony, Bavaria, and others, some Protestant and some Catholic. The Muslim overland advance through the underbelly of Europe seemed not only relentless but mostly unopposed.

The sultan of all Islam, Mehmet IV, spent his days in his unrivaled harems and on his huge hunting territories, some of them as large as nation-states. Thousands of mostly Slavic serfs were required to service his hunting party, in part by driving deer and other game animals his way. To uphold his obligations to Islamic expansion, however, Mehmet stirred himself to choose Kara Mustafa to be general of all his forces in the final conquest of Hungary, Slovakia, and the south of Poland — the greatest of all ventures on which the sultan’s historical reputation would rest. The sultan directly warned Mustafa not to try to take Vienna, for doing so would arouse the West to retribution. He gave Mustafa the long green cord of the Prophet to wear around his neck, both to signal the importance of his commission and to warn him that failure meant that he must be hanged — must even hang himself.

For the drive northward, Kara Mustafa sent messengers throughout Anatolia, through Greater Syria, and out to the scores of Muslim nations from Morocco to India. He marched northwards with an ever-increasing army of more than 300,000, many on horseback as cavalry to spread terror in advance of his main forces, other scores of thousands in his supply trains. This huge army took some five months to occupy Budapest, rest, and then push on northwards. They swatted resistance away like flies, and sometimes bypassed walled cities that refused instant surrender, planning to deal with them later with special severity.

By July 7, they were in sight of Vienna, which in those days was a walled and heavily fortified city, well designed by its military engineers to lay down fields of fire by which each strong point could assist its neighbors. Compared with the city today, Vienna within its walls was a small city, and yet large enough in those terrorized days to shelter refugees from nearby villages who hurriedly sought safety. Over the next weeks the sultan’s armies kept tightening the ring they had established on all sides of Vienna. Both Mustafa with his green cord around his neck and General Lubomirski, the leader of the Viennese defense, now knew that they were fighting to the death.

Meanwhile, the Turks launched massive engineering works, including many honeycombed tunnels, beginning long distances away and burrowing underneath strong points and vulnerable walls that ground troops might breach. These veteran and highly skilled sappers — the best in the world — dug all the way underground to the wide moats at the base of the walls, and still farther underground to the very center of Vienna. Beginning in mid August, without any warning, huge explosions tore gaping holes in one strong point after another, and sometimes beneath homes in the very center of the city. The 20,000 or so warriors within the city fought with great determination and intelligence to drive back the screaming, bloodthirsty men who were storming through the breaches, while all around them Viennese civilians rushed to make repairs to the breaches in the walls. The Christians also sallied forth themselves, often at night, to drive far into the Turkish lines to blow up engineering devices and stockpiles of gunpowder.

Relentlessly, the Turks kept heaving up small mountains of earth and sand just outside the walls, from which fire might constantly be poured down into the doomed city. With every Muslim attack, fewer and fewer Christian soldiers were left to repel them. In late August, supplies of meat ran out, and the population was reduced to eating horses and stray dogs. A very strict rationing of water became necessary. The elderly began to die off from starvation.

Meanwhile, the Christian relief forces were belatedly and all too slowly advancing from the north in four separate columns, from Catholic Germany and from Poland, to lift the siege. For nearly 40 miles around the beleaguered city, Muslims had ravaged the land and sent refugees fleeing by foot in all directions. From captured Muslim cavalrymen and foot soldiers, as well as fleeing Christians, the Germans and the Poles picked up enough intelligence to learn that their best chances lay to the southwest, through the Vienna Wood. It would be hugely difficult terrain for cavalry, and also for quick forced marches by the infantry. But one other factor spoke for that line of attack: The supply trains and Mustafa’s luxurious tents, with their splendid harems and rich treasury, were also located on the south side of Vienna. The approaching Christian generals met together to go over the plan of attack, and then rapidly set off to their southwest, far enough from the city to advance undetected.

At intervals, back in Vienna, Mustafa had messages in German tied to dozens of rocks, which he had his catapults shoot over the city walls. One such message read:

Surrender now and you will be saved. Open your gates, turn your churches over to us and lay down your arms, and no one will be killed. If you resist the will of Allah, your leaders, all of them, will be slain. Able men and women will be sold into slavery. You will be allowed no rights of worship, and your mighty walls will be thrown down. Fight and you die!  Surrender and you live!

For more than 400 years, hundreds of Christian villages and cities had received such messages. The duplicity and primitive brutality of Muslim conquerors were well known to hundreds of thousands of Christian families, through the fate of relatives in other overrun communities. Nevertheless, sometimes terror overwhelmed them and they surrendered. At Vienna, behind fearless and determined leaders, they chose to die fighting rather than to surrender. So the issue inside Vienna became whether food and gunpowder would give out before the long-promised army of relief would arrive. Dauntless messengers slipping in and out of Vienna kept hope at least flickering. The commander in Vienna promised he could hold out until September 1. The advancing army of relief replied that they would need almost two weeks more than that. Only gritted-teeth determination could bridge the gap in time.

One thing the Muslim armies were not trained to do, as the Christian armies of that time were, was to fight on two fronts — against the city ahead and against any oncoming forces that might arrive to break the siege. For this, Kara Mustafa relied on his mobile cavalry, some 20,000 Tatars from the Asian steppes in camp about 20 miles south of Vienna. Because of the density of the Vienna Wood to the southwest of the city, this was the one region that the cavalry could cover only lightly. Still, if even small bands of mounted Tatars had infiltrated the hills and valleys of the Wood, no Christian soldiers could have made it through the narrow passes. Unaccountably, Mustafa forbade the Tatar leader to launch an attack on the Wood.

King Sobieski of Poland had drawn the privilege of advancing on the right flank, through the heart of the Vienna Wood. His army’s double-time march through the Wood was arduous, by narrow valleys and slow but deep summer streams. Late on September 11, just as his men were making their initial contact with the Turkish outposts, and the final battle began to be joined, the king formed a resolution to attack on the morrow as swiftly and with as much surprise as possible, to overwhelm Mustafa’s bodyguard of cavalry and rush on with force as close to the supply trains as he could, and to conclude the matter on the next day. In the rough terrain where his troops broke out from the Wood on September 12, Sobieski held his famed hussars back. They were his best, his ultimate, weapon.

For hours all day long, left, center, and right flanks of the Christian army advanced far more steadily than expected, although the hand-to-hand fighting was furious, and the Turkish lines were yielding only a yard at a time. The last 400 yards took an immense effort, but the Christian forces reached open ground with less than an hour of daylight left. This is when Sobieski made a huge gamble and boldly released his much-feared hussars. These famous horsemen wore special caps with strips of leather flying behind them in the wind, lined with feathers, and the wind whistled through the leather with an eerie tone. As they charged across the open land the low, melancholy wail of the wind through their feathers frightened the Arabian horses — and their Turkish riders, too.

The sheer speed and force of the Polish hussars was too great and too surprising to be resisted. Mustafa escaped, but his tents and treasury were captured (one of his green velvet tents sits now in the Czartoryskis Museum in Krakow). The Muslim lines nearby broke, and their men began looting Mustafa’s rich supply wagons and pleasure tents on their panicky flight southward. The entire Muslim ring surrounding the city melted away, back whence it had come.

Mustafa, slowed by a bad wound to his eye, was rushed southward by his remaining bodyguards. From the first moments of crushing defeat he began plotting his reports to the sultan, shifting the blame onto one of his subordinates. Yet as the Christians pursued the once-great Muslim army down through Hungary, retaking one city after another from Muslim control, and in effect laying the groundwork for the future Austro-Hungarian Empire, the sultan’s anger against Mustafa finally exploded. Mustafa recognized what must happen. He was hanged on December 25, 1683, by the green cord that he had worn round his neck, little more than three months after he had imagined he had Vienna in his grasp.

* * *

Thus, once again, this time by land, the Muslims had attempted to fulfill the Prophet’s command to spread Islam to all corners of the world decisively, with force. The sultans had long had the advantage of an enormous standing army ready for all seasons, swiftly added to when larger ambitions demanded. This time, however, the siege-lifting battle outside the walls of Vienna marked the high-water mark of Muslim power. After September 11–12, 1683, that power kept receding, on into modern times.

Still, it should surprise no one that the date chosen to bring the new resurgence of modern Muslim ambition to the whole world’s attention was also September 11, 318 years after 1683. The announcement came in the vivid orange bursts of blossoming flame and dark black smoke from the two tallest towers of the West’s financial capital. Muslim memory runs very deep, and so does the Muslim imperative to conquer the world for Allah, not just by force of arms but by conversion to Islam. The West has always refused to give this long and deeply rooted Muslim threat against the West’s own soul the sustained attention it requires.

Nonetheless, four centuries after Lepanto, three centuries after Vienna, today in most of the capitals of once-Christian Europe, there are more Muslims attending services in mosques on Fridays than Christians at worship on Sundays. In some ways, the pluralism of the West is a blessing, even an advantage to the West — and yet its profoundest historical weakness lies in its own divided spirit. The ultimate issue between Islam and the West is not military force; it is the depth of intellect and engagement. In matters of the spirit, we seem always to become tongue-tied, as if lacking in spirited confidence. We do not insist on presenting better arguments in recognition of the inalienable rights to human liberty that our totalitarian opponents deny. Mere secular force will not do, since the fundamental battle is spiritual. Thus, the same movie seems to be played over and over.

That is the historical record, it seems, at least in regard to October 7, 1571, and September 11–12, 1683, after Lepanto, and after Vienna.

— Michael Novak is the author of Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative. This article is a revised and updated version of an essay originally published in Culture and Civilization, Volume 1, edited by Irving Louis Horowitz (Transaction, 2009).


Commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood

Johnstown, the City with a Will

Historic floods and new challenges can’t keep this survivor down.

Published By Michael Novak at National Review Online on May 26, 2014.


Editor’s note: Author Michael Novak, a native of Johnstown, Pa., will present this keynote address at the 125th-anniversary commemoration of the Johnstown Flood on May 31.

Right to the point: I love this city.

I am very grateful to it. Johnstown breeds a certain kind of people.

Kathleen George, magnificent Johnstowner herself, captures that character in her brilliant new novel, The Johnstown Girls, an extraordinary tale of the flood we commemorate today. And of the turmoil it left behind in so many thousands of lives — but also of the virtues it brought out in many beautiful lives. And of virtues this city continues to bring out. In my own terse summary, here is how Ms. George defines the character of Johnstown people:

Work. Work. Work. Persistence. Love. Sacrifice. Do not ever be surprised at how painful life is. Never, never panic. Hold steady. . . . And: “We still have a chance —THROW that ‘Hail Mary’! Fling it as far as you can.”

For me, at least, Kathleen George nails it. That’s who we are.

Focus your memory now. On May 31, 1889, at seven minutes after four in the afternoon, an enormous roar burst out from Conemaugh Valley up there, just ahead of a 40-foot wall of water that kept tumbling over itself to crush this valley. Within moments it smacked down right here on the spot where we meet today.

In minutes, 2,000 Johnstowners lost their lives. Then came the long hours of more dying, often in the dark, alone.

Next morning, all around where we now sit, lay rubble and acrid smoke from lumber smoldering from the fire that had raged on top of the water the night before. All around lay smashed-up wooden planks as far as eye could see. Not more than a dozen buildings stood erect in this entire basin, surrounded by these hills we see all around us.

*    *    *

More civilians died here in this valley on that May 31st than in any other domestic disaster in American history — except September 11, 2001. More than 90 entire families were wiped out. More than 700 of the dead could not be identified. They lie above us now in Grandview Cemetery, under neat white rows of nameless tombstones.

By 1889, the telegraph had been invented and put into worldwide use. Picture cameras, too. The Johnstown Flood was the whole world’s first internationally shared media event. It was also the first big assignment for Clara Barton’s newly founded Red Cross — the decisive Clara Barton, the undeterrable Clara Barton. She made herself a pain in the arse to a lot of people here, to help save this city. Sometimes that’s what it takes. Johnstowners know that. We’ve each been a pain in the arse, when that’s what it takes.

Just across the way in one of the few standing buildings in the flood’s main path, hundreds of frightened people had huddled for safety during the long night of the flood, angry waters surging against the building all night. Next morning, surviving leaders of Johnstown made their way to the edge of the flood zone to meet there to establish an emergency government, make strategic assignments, divide up responsibilities — and then rush straight to work. Self-government in a sea of disaster. Overnight.

*    *    *

Just the day before the flood, there had been a huge celebration of Memorial Day. Five sprightly bands dressed in brilliant, diversely colored uniforms marched happily and noisily down Main Street. Dogs yapped, and children clapped and cheered. Behind the bands stomped veterans of the Civil War in Union blue. Just 24 years before, that bloodiest of wars had finally ended. Lads who had served at 22 were now 46 and not yet — not yet — too paunchy for their mothballed uniforms.

A baseball game had been played between the boys of Johnstown and a visiting team from Pittsburgh. The Pittsburghers won again, drat it. The smells of long-barbecuing meats wafted through the air — and mustard, and sliced onions. There were lettuce, carrots stored in the dark cellar over the winter, five different kinds of potato salad. Fresh-baked apple pies.

That night, just as the two-month rain had begun to fall again, a variety show from New York, with its gaudy girls and mustachioed men, performed on the indoor stage on Washington Street. Many in the audience, on exiting hours later, held aloft their shoes or lifted high their skirts to avoid the several inches of water already running down the street.

All night the rain continued. Since April 1, according to the National Weather Service, 52 inches had already fallen on Cambria County. The soil on the hills surrounding Johnstown could not hold a drop more. Yet during the night of May 30th and most of the 31st, seven more inches dropped from the skies in sheets. By daylight on the 31st, some streets were under three feet of water. Then later that afternoon, at 4:07 p.m., there thundered an unforgettable roar. A foul and odorous mist swept across the valley, blowing chill above the gigantic walls of water tumbling over themselves to crush this low and humble town, under wave after wave.

*    *    *

For a month after the flood, Johnstown was a grim, grim place. Carpenters and plumbers worked everywhere. First, to build coffins as fast as possible (hundreds more were shipped in from out of town), and then to put up new shelters, and to get a few shops functioning again, and urgently to reconstruct a sewage system. In some of the larger buildings in every area of town, bodies had been laid out in rows for possible identification. Fortunately, the first days of June were very cool, helping to slow the spread of disease from the corpses of the dead — humans and animals — that lay inert for days and days, some washed downstream miles and miles.

Johnstown survived. Only to go down again in 1936, and (unbelievably) in 1977. And in both cases to haul itself up again, and then again. In time, the city went on to host some 400 future major-league baseball players as young men under 21, competing in the annual tournament of the All-American Amateur Baseball Association, played out on the Johnstown area’s nine lovely baseball diamonds. And then to build the War Memorial with its own professional hockey arena, where Slap Shot was put on film.

Sports helped bring us back.

So did the churches. And truth be told, the bars and taverns. In 1888, there were a surprising 27 churches in tiny downtown Johnstown, and almost certainly as many taverns. A hard-drinking and a hard-praying Johnstown, you might say. And you would be right.

One of the Marines putting up the flag on Iwo Jima grew up in Johnstown. From this area, Windber to be exact, came Johnny Weissmuller, the first and greatest Tarzan. Then one of the first of Pittsburgher Gene Kelly’s dance studios. And then All-Pro Jack Ham at linebacker. And Leroy Leslie, All-American basketballer at Notre Dame, chosen for the national team that played all comers that summer, from home and overseas. And . . .

And an awful lot of very pretty girls (including my mom!).

We came back. We always came back. And we even had a polka written to celebrate us, “Johnstown Polka.” And the line I always liked best was, “The city with a will.”

Believe us, world, will counts! Will always counts a lot! Lower your head, work, persist, sacrifice, love. Will always counts a lot! And so this little iron city sets its face into the wind once again. City of iron. The city where iron first turned to steel.

*    *    *

The colonel of the Minute Men at Lexington in 1775 said to the men of Massachusetts one month earlier: “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, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”

One hundred twenty-five years ago, noble bravery and steady nerve were also shown in Johnstown, Pa. Now our future is again in danger. But this is Resurrection City.

Let me be honest. We face a destructive undertow of illegal drugs here, weakening the will of some. We face far more unemployment than there needs to be: 7.5 percent. Almost 5,000 individuals who want to work. But consider the talents in this valley. Consider the determination in our heritage. This unnecessary unemployment cannot last. It will not last. We will ignite enterprise. As we have done before.

Our city is in danger now, but not to be despaired of. On us the living rests the future of this city — this amazing city. We must act worthy of ourselves.


Johnstown native Michael Novak’s most recent book is his memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative.



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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








Agreeing with Pope Francis

The exhortation looks very different read through the lens of Argentine experience.

Published by Michael Novak in National Review on December 7, 2013

Reading the new exhortation by Pope Francis after the wildly misleading presentations of it by the Guardian and Reuters (both from the left side of the U.K. press), and reading it with an American ear for language, I was at first amazed at how partisan and empirically unfounded were five or six of its sentences.

But reading the exhortation in full in its English translation, and reading it through the eyes of a professor-bishop-pope who grew up in Argentina, I began to have more sympathy for the phrases used by Pope Francis.

For one thing, I have closely studied the early writings of Pope John Paul II, which grew out of long experience of an oppressive Communist regime that pretended to be wholly devoted to “equality,” yet enforced total control over polity, economy, and culture by a thorough and cruel state. From 1940 (under the Nazi/Soviet occupation) until 1978 (when he moved to the Vatican), Karol Wojtyla had virtually no experience of a capitalist economy and a democratic/republican polity. To come to understand the concepts behind that sort of political economy, he had to listen closely and learn a quite different vocabulary.

The early experiences of these two popes were very different. So, having spent not a little time lecturing in Argentina and in Chile since the late 1970s, I read the entire exhortation with an ear for echoes of daily economic and political life in Argentina.

In my visits to Argentina, I observed a far sharper divide between the upper middle class and the poor than any I had experienced in America. In Argentina I saw very few paths by which the poor could rise out of poverty. In the U.S., many of those who are now rich or middle class had come to America (or their parents had) dirt poor, many of us not speaking English, with minimal schooling, and with mainly menial skills. But before us lay many paths upward. As Peru’s Hernando de Soto stresses, the U.S. had the rule of law and clear property rights, on which one could safely build over generations.

Virtually all my acquaintances while I was growing up had experienced early poverty. Our grandfathers were garment workers, steelworkers, store clerks, gardeners, handymen, blue-collar workers of all sorts, without social insurance, Medicaid, food stamps, housing allowances, or the like. But they labored and somehow were able to send their children to colleges and universities. Now their children are doctors, lawyers, professors, editors, and owners of small businesses all over the country.

In his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith compared the economic history of Latin America with that of North America. He noted that in Latin America there were still many institutions of feudal Europe — large landholders, plantations, plantation workers. In North America, only the southern United States was something like that.

Throughout Latin America, for almost two centuries at the time Smith wrote, many economic powers and permissions were doled out by government officials in far-off Spain or Portugal. In the Dominican Republic, for example, a farmer who wanted to build a small iron foundry had to wait months or years until a decision came back from Spain. Trading with pirates was easier. In the English-speaking colonies of North America, however, a farmer could just build his foundry without asking anybody. And even after the various Latin American countries achieved independence, habits of state direction were still entrenched, as if by immemorial habit.

Besides, experience in the Anglosphere had led to a distrust of monarchs and their courts, and later of barons and dukes and the aristocracy as a whole, since these people could not be counted on either to see or to serve the common good. By contrast, the opposite habit of mind had grown throughout the Latin world. There, officials of the state were regularly entrusted with minding the common good, despite a long record of official betrayals of duty, outbreaks of tyranny, and the use of economic resources to enrich successive leaders of the state. In Latin America, the pluralistic private sector was mistrusted, but not the state.

By contrast, in the U.S., under a government strictly limited by law, there grew up almost universal property ownership by individuals (except under the evil institution of slavery, America’s primal sin), a large swath of small enterprises, and a huge base of prospering small farms. Smith described the creation of wealth in North America as welling up from below, from the prosperity at the bottom, where frugal habits led to wise investments in railroads, canals, and other large business corporations.

Less than 70 years after Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, a son of the frontier farm country of central Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, spoke eloquently about the evidences of global trade visible in homes across the prairie — tobacco, cotton, spices, whiskey, sugar, tea, glassware, silverware. He attributed this enprospering trade to the daring of American seamen (as Tocqueville also did).

Lincoln also wrote about the patent-and-copyright clause of the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed to inventors the right to the monetary fruit of their inventions. Lincoln thought this small clause one of the six greatest contributions to liberty in the history of the world. He thought it critical to liberating human beings everywhere from misery and tyranny.

That single clause — the only time the term “right” is used within the body of the Constitution — launched a wholly new economic model for the world, based not on land (as it had been for thousands of years) but on creative ideas, inventions, and discoveries, which greatly speeded up a cascade of new improvements and new products to enrich the lives of ordinary citizens. The more people these improvements helped, the higher the inventors’ royalties. By serving others, they reaped rewards. These rewards furthered the common good.

The Polish pope, John Paul II, recognized this huge social change in Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year, 1991), of which paragraph 32 opens: “In our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is no less important than land: the possession of know-how, knowledge, and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.” The rest of this paragraph is concise in its penetration of the causes of wealth and the role of human persons and associations in the virtue of worldwide solidarity, of which globalization is the outward expression.

Pope John Paul II quickly recognized that today “the decisive factor [in production] is increasingly man himself, that is, his knowledge, especially his scientific knowledge, his capacity for interrelated and compact organization, as well as his ability to perceive the needs of others and to satisfy them.” (See the whole of paragraph 32 here.)

Then in paragraph 42, John Paul II defined his ideal capitalism, succinctly, as that economic system springing from creativity, under the rule of law, and “the core of which is ethical and religious.” In his first social encyclical ten years earlier, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work, 1981), directly rejecting orthodox Marxist language about labor, the pope had already begun to project “creation theology” as a replacement for “liberation theology.” A bit later, he reached the concept of “human capital.” Step by step, he thought his way to his own vision of the economy best suited to the human person — not perfectly so, in this vale of tears, but better than any rival, Communist or traditional. John Paul II set it forth as “the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress.” (See the whole of paragraph 42 here.)

*     *     *

As the 20th century began, Argentina was ranked among the top 15 industrial nations, and more and more of its wealth was springing from modern inventions rather than farmland. Then a destructive form of political economy, just then spreading like a disease from Europe — a populist fascism with tight government control over the economy — dramatically slowed Argentina’s economic and political progress. Instability in the rule of law undermined economic creativity. Inflation blew to impossible heights. (I brought home from Argentina in the early 1980s a note for a million Argentine pesos that had declined in worth to two American pennies.)

Over three generations, very little of the nation’s natural wealth and opportunity for social advancement has overflowed into the upraised buckets of the poor. Upward mobility from the bottom up was (and is) infrequent. Today, the lot of Argentina’s poor is still static. The poor receive little personal instruction in turning to independent creativity and initiative, and few laws, lending institutions, and other practical arrangements support them in moving upward. Human energies are drained by dependency on state benefits. The visible result has been a largely static society, with little opportunity for the poor to rise out of poverty. A great inner humiliation comes over the poor as they see their lack of personal achievement and their dependency. If this is what Pope Francis was painfully visualizing as he wrote this exhortation, it is exactly what the eyes of many other observers have seen.

The single word “capitalism” has a number of very different meanings, based on very different experiences. In many Latin countries, today’s corporate leaders are often the grandsons of the great landholders of the past. Some of these are men of vision, invention, and personal initiative who have built their own firms. Yet as of now most Americans cannot name a single household item invented by a Latin American.

True, in several new fields, creativity and invention are growing in Latin America. The Brazilian Embraer jets (used in the fleets of many U.S. carriers), for example, are highly useful originals. But still the economic system of Argentina and other Latin American countries is very like a static traditional market system, not yet capitalist in invention and enterprise.

*     *     *

Anyone commenting on the economic themes of Evangelii Gaudium should note at the outset that the pope insists this document is not a full expression of his views on political economy but only an expression of his pastoral heart. In paragraph 51 Francis writes:

It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality, but I do exhort all the communities to an “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times.” . . . In this Exhortation I claim only to consider briefly, and from a pastoral perspective, certain factors which can restrain or weaken the impulse of missionary renewal in the Church, either because they threaten the life and dignity of God’s people or because they affect those who are directly involved in the Church’s institutions and in her work of evangelization.

But about six of his swipes are so highly partisan and biased that they seem outside this pope’s normal tranquillity and generosity of spirit. Exactly these partisan phrases were naturally leapt upon by media outlets such as Reuters and the Guardian. Among these are “trickle-down theories,” “invisible hand,” “idolatry of money,” “inequality,” and trust in the state “charged with vigilance for the common good.”

Why is it then, asks Mary Anastasia O’Grady, one of the shrewdest observers of Latin America today, “that most of today’s desperate poor are concentrated in places where the state has gained an outsize role in the economy specifically on just such grounds”? Ever since Max Weber, Catholic social thought has been blamed for much of the poverty in many Catholic nations. Pope Francis inadvertently adds evidence for Weber’s thesis.

Truly, we would do well to have an economic historian set each of these highly inflammable and partisan charges in context, to explain what each meant to the author who originated them, as opposed to the partisan usage of today’s media. Allow me here to focus on the flaws in only one of the pope’s too-hasty claims: his careless mention of “trickle-down theories.” Actually, the fault here seems to have been exacerbated by a poor translation, as seen in the stark differences between the Vatican’s official English version and the pope’s original Spanish. The Spanish:

En este contexto, algunos todavía defienden las teorías del “derrame,” que suponen que todo crecimiento económico, favorecido por la libertad de mercado, logra provocar por sí mismo mayor equidad e inclusión social en el mundo.

Now compare the unfortunate English version:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.

Note first that “trickle-down” nowhere appears in the original Spanish, as it would have done if the pope had meant to invoke the battle-cry of the American Democrats against the American Republicans. Professional translators of Spanish say the correct translation of derrame is “spillover” or “overflow.” Instead, the English translation introduces both a sharply different meaning and a harsh new tone into this passage. Only those hostile to capitalism and Reagan’s successful reforms, and to the policies of Republicans in general after the downward mobility of the Carter years, use the derisive expression “trickle-down,” intended to caricature what actually happened under Reagan, namely, dramatic upward mobility. (See, for example, my article “The Rich, the Poor, & the Reagan Administration.”)

Those who emphasize capitalism’s successes in raising the poor out of poverty do not use that term. They see the defining classical movement of capitalist economies as upward for the poor: higher employment rates, higher wages, measurable outbursts of personal initiative and new enterprises, unparalleled opportunities for upward mobility among the poor, immigrants moving out of poverty in less than ten years, the working-class “proletariat” becoming solid members of the middle class who can afford to own their own homes and support the higher education of their children.

There is no empirical evidence, Evangelii Gaudium says, for trust in such economic outcomes. It is “instead a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” In Argentina and other static systems with no upward mobility, this comment might be understandable. In nations with generations of reliable upward mobility, it is not true at all.

The upward movement promoted by certain capitalist systems is the experience – not a “crude and naïve trust” — of a large majority of Americans. “Trickle-down” is not an apt description of what has happened here; rather, what has been experienced is wealth “welling up from below.” Exactly this is what continues to attract millions of immigrants into our economy.

In addition, the English translation of Evangelii Gaudium insists that there are people who believe that economic growth will inevitably produce greater justice and inclusiveness (equidad e inclusión sociál). But the Spanish text does not use a word that would be properly translated as “inevitably.” The more moderate (and accurate) expression used is por si mismo, or “by itself.” Unlike the English translation, the original Spanish gets it right: It takes a lot more than economic growth to make a system “equitable.” It takes the rule of law, the protection of natural rights, and the Jewish/Christian concern for the widow, the orphan, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned — in short, effective concern for all the vulnerable and needy.

Despite its glaring faults, especially in its entertainment sector — obscene and sexually explicit pop music, decadent images and themes in movies — the American system has been more “inclusive” of the poor than any other nation on earth.

*     *     *

Two things I especially value in Evangelii Gaudium. The whole of the cosmos, and the whole of human life, are upward-leaping flames from the inner life of the Creator, from caritas – that outward-moving, creative love that is God. As the erudite and brilliant Pope Benedict XVI showed in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, everything crucial to human life begins in God’s caritas. Think of this in your own life: Is not the love you have for your dear spouse, children, and close friends the most “divine” experience you know?

That is one reason why Catholic social thought begins in caritas. It is also why the poor are so close to the center of Christian concern — and Christian worship.

The second point I most value is the focus Evangelii Gaudium places on the main practical task of our generation: breaking the last round of chains of ancient poverty. In 1776, there were fewer than 1 billion people on earth. A vast majority of them were poor, and living under tyrannies. Just over two centuries later, there are more than 7 billion human beings. Rapid medical discoveries and inventions have helped to more than double the average lifespan, vastly reduce infant mortality, and provide relief for hundreds of diseases. Thanks to economic progress, six-sevenths of the greatly expanded human race have now broken free from poverty — over a billion people from 1950 to 1980, and another billion since 1980. There are another billion more still in chains. The Jewish, Christian, and humanist task is to break this remnant free.

Whatever one prays in worship on Sunday gets its truthfulness from what Christians actually do in their daily lives to help the poor. If one doesn’t come to the aid of the poor, one does not love God.

“No one has ever seen God,” St. John writes in his first Letter, “but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us” (1 Jn 4:12). And Jesus instructed, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).

An exhortation is not so much a teaching document laying out a careful argument — that is the task for an encyclical. Rather, it is more like a sermon, a somewhat informal occasion for the pope to set out his vision as a pastor, and to present it as an invitation to deeply felt piety and devotion. Pope Francis excels at such personal speech.

In the future, Francis will unfold his fuller arguments about the political economy that best helps the poor to move out of poverty. I can only imagine that consultations on the subject have already begun.

I hope the pope’s aides will begin with the experience-impelled conclusion, a bit reluctantly advanced, in the well-reasoned pathway of paragraph 42 of John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus:

Can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?

To this John Paul II answered, in effect, “Yes and no.” He went on:

The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy” or simply “free economy.” But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

The Marxist solution has failed, but the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world, especially the Third World, as does the reality of human alienation, especially in the more advanced countries. Against these phenomena the Church strongly raises her voice. Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty. The collapse of the Communist system in so many countries certainly removes an obstacle to facing these problems in an appropriate and realistic way, but it is not enough to bring about their solution. Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.

Although economic growth falls far short of being the only goal of free societies, its blessings in terms of education, medical improvements, the prospering of freedom of conscience, and the private financing of civic life and multiple philanthropies are not inessential to the common good.

Further, it is not market systems alone that produce upward mobility, economic progress for all, and wide economic opportunity. Argentina has always had a market economy. So, too, have almost all the peoples in human history. Jerusalem in the biblical period cherished private property (“Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods”), and it lived by a vital market (as the commercial interface of three continents). But for the 1,800 years after Christ, none of the world’s markets — nor the aggregate thereof — produced much economic development. The world’s economies remained relatively static, as they faced a merciless cycle of “fat” years followed by “lean” ones. Before the rise of capitalism, traditional market systems experienced famines and massive outbreaks of deadly diseases in nearly every generation.

Pope John Paul II came to see this historical reality. His insights are still in the treasury of Catholic social teaching, and naturally they will come to the attention of Pope Francis, who devotes a whole section of Evangelii Gaudium to the theme “Reality is more powerful than ideas.”

*     *     *

Finally, I would like to offer a bet: More human beings by far will move out of poverty by the methods of democracy and capitalism than by any other means.

The empirical evidence from the swift upward thrust of the war-leveled economies of 1946–48 — those of Japan and Germany, but also those of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea, which turned to democracy and one form or another of capitalism — is overwhelming. But so also is the evidence from most of us in the United States, whose grandparents were “the wretched refuse” of the earth, yet now in a short time their families are counted among the most affluent people of the world. How was that possible? Through what system was that done, and what are its imitable secrets?

Those who wish to be practical and successful in breaking the remaining chains of poverty in the world might learn from what has worked until now, right before our eyes.

Michael Novak’s most recent book is his memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative.


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.





Novak and Weigel Discuss Iraq 2003 and Syria 2013

Two prominent Catholic supporters of military intervention a decade ago outline their stances on intervention, then and now.

Published by Joan Frawely Desmond in  "National Catholic Register" on September 19, 2013

WASHINGTON — When President Obama addressed the nation on Sept. 10 to explain his response to a reported chemical-weapons attack in Syria, he vowed not to repeat the mistakes made by his predecessor, George W. Bush, who has been vilified for approving the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which is still mired in political violence a decade afterwards.

Thus the president defended his new two-track Syria policy — which includes an agreement to place President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons under international control — and a backup plan for a “narrow” military strike to deter future use of chemical weapons as evidence of his prudent style of leadership. His remarks sought to tamp down public skepticism by insisting that the intelligence on Assad’s alleged sarin-gas attack was credible and that a modest mission, with no “boots on the ground,” would keep the U.S. out of another foreign war.

But the influential Catholics who once supported Bush’s policy a decade ago possess a different view of that fateful decision to invade Iraq.

Public intellectuals like George Weigel, who has written extensively on the moral and prudential principles guiding the conduct of war, still defend the broader mission of Bush’s policy in Iraq, while critiquing Obama’s present policy on Syria.


George Weigel

Ask Weigel if he has reconsidered his support for the Iraq invasion, and you will get a “No,” with qualifications.

“No, in the sense that I still think it was necessary to compel regime change in Iraq, and the invasion was the only way to do that,” Weigel told the Register.

“There were obviously a lot of things that could have been done better in securing the peace after the regime fell,” he acknowledged, in a reference to the Bush administration’s inadequate planning for both an ongoing jihadist threat and the costs of rebuilding a battered nation.

“But anyone who thinks that the world or the Middle East would be better in 2013 with Saddam Hussein in power in Baghdad, having re-ramped-up his WMD [weapons of mass destruction], is living in a fantasy world.”

Weigel supported Bush’s plan to disarm Iraq’s alleged stockpile of WMDs and secure a democratic peaceful system of government as worthy ends for military intervention, reflective of Washington’s unique role in world affairs.

“Right intention is a specification of a legitimate public authority's duty to do what is good, which in the case of war does not end with repelling evil but includes the duty to build the peace of tranquillitas ordinis, the peace of a just public order,” Weigel noted in a 2007 essay that celebrated U.S. efforts to secure democracy in Germany, Italy and Japan after the Second World War.

Given his belief that a proper evaluation of proposed military action should begin with the question (Will it “build the peace”?), Weigel was unlikely to be satisfied with the narrow scope of Obama’s policy for Syria.

In a Sept. 13 column posted on National Review Online, Weigel argued that “the refusal to define the appropriate end — a Syria (in whatever form) safe for its people, posing no threat to its neighbors and detached from the evil purposes of both the Iranian regime and various jihadists — has led to the absurd situation in which the goal of U.S. policy has been reduced to the defense of a ‘norm,’” a reference to Obama’s statement that Assad’s unlawful lethal sarin-gas attack had crossed a “red line.”


Michael Novak

Michael Novak, perhaps the most visible Catholic intellectual backing Bush’s policy of pre-emptive war, expressed similar concerns about Obama’s Syria policy, while defending Bush’s past effort to neutralize Hussein’s use of WMDs and effect democratic change in Iraq.

“I thought it would be inexcusable for an American president, knowing what was public knowledge [on Iraq’s WMD program], not to act to some degree,” Novak told the Register.

“I thought then that it was really important to turn the attention of Muslim youth, especially young males, away from destruction and toward using their own talents and building a more humanistic human-rights-supporting version of Islam.”

Turning to Syria, now in its third year of an entrenched civil war, Novak expressed a lack of confidence in Obama’s response to the political violence sparked by the Arab Spring uprisings.

“One hundred thousand people have been killed in Syria, and the rebels are much weakened,” said Novak, who said the president “missed the opportunity” to influence the direction of a popular uprising against the Assad regime.

He also noted Pope Francis’ outspoken opposition to U.S. military intervention in Syria and recalled Pope John Paul II’s passionate call for Washington to set aside its plans for a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“Different people have different roles. It was the role of Pope John Paul to be against the war, so it would not be turned into a religious war. The same is true today: [The Pope does not want the Syrian civil war] to turn into a Christian-Muslim war.”

In fact, in the weeks before the U.S. launched the Iraq invasion, Novak sought to influence the Holy See’s view of U.S. policy, traveling as a private citizen to the Vatican to give a public address at the invitation of the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Jim Nicholson.

In his Vatican address, Novak suggested that the post-9/11 world of “asymmetrical warfare” — the capacity of a terrorist group or a rogue nation to inflict grave harm on a more powerful enemy like the U.S. — required a flexible approach to the application of just-war criteria, a moral framework for evaluating the purpose and conduct of war.


Unfulfilled Objectives

In the years following the invasion, Catholics who once supported that decision have been candid about the failure of the Bush administration to fulfill the “noble” promise of regime change.

“Accelerating the transition to responsible and responsive government in the Arab Islamic world was the grand strategic idea that impelled the United States” to intervene in Iraq, Weigel wrote in a 2007 article in First Things.

“The implementation of that idea has been, in many respects, a failure thus far; but the idea itself was a noble one.”

In Weigel’s view, that mission was at least in keeping with the United States’ legacy as a defender of freedom across the globe, while Obama's sharply limited goal was unworthy of the nation's historic role.

At present, his opposition to Obama’s policy has prompted some of the president’s allies to raise questions about the motives of Catholic public intellectuals who backed Bush’s mission to take control of Hussein's reported WMDs but won’t lend their support to a plan designed to stop Assad’s alleged use of WMDs.

“The situation in Syria is not a potential threat to innocents, as was the case with Hussein in 2003. It is ongoing slaughter taking place before the eyes of the world,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

“Despite that slaughter, very few prominent Catholic conservatives support the Obama administration’s request for authorization to intervene,” Schneck, who is a former board member of Democrats for Life of America, told the Register.

“I’d like to think that’s because they have learned from Iraq about appropriate application of the Church’s just-war teachings. It would be sad if their interpretations merely changed with the occupancy of the Oval Office.”

The debate on Capitol Hill and among Catholic scholars will likely continue for many weeks and months to come. For the moment, as Washington awaits the outcome of the agreement to place Syria’s WMDs under international control, Weigel has suggested that lawmakers launch “a root-and-branch reconsideration of Syria policy, as to both ends and means.”

And while opinion polls have discouraged Congress from authorizing any military action that could embroil the U.S. in a widening regional conflict, Weigel believes that the nation cannot afford to retreat from the challenges that loom beyond its borders. Lawmakers, he said, must “remind the American people of some hard home truths: that isolationism … is both strategically dangerous and morally unworthy; that a great power cannot lead from behind.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.

Copyright © 2013 EWTN News, Inc. All rights reserved.


A Humble and Rousing Shakespeare at Ave Maria University

Published by Michael Novak in the Gyrene Gazette on June 11, 2013 Shakesspeare at AVeIt is too bad the people of Naples were not able to see the humblest (yet stunning) production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING staged in this area for some time. That was not Naples’ fault. It was the disadvantage of Ave Maria’s very recent founding.

Ave Maria University has no Theater Arts Building.  No stage. No drama department. Its production of MUCH ADO was performed for three weekends in April in a large classroom, its seating arranged in a pattern not unlike that of the Blackfriars Theater in Shakespeare’s time. The audience was close up, surrounding the play, part of the play.

This humble setting did not prevent the amazingly talented and energetic cast from presenting a belly-laughing, silence-inducing, and often unforgettably taut three hours of theater. Seldom has a crowd left a Shakespeare theater so exhilarated. (I speak as a veteran lover of some 200-plus performances, in London, New York, and Washington). Many viewers were still speaking of it days afterwards.

The young cast was tutored this semester in a special class by the professionally experienced Shakespeare director, Professor Travis Curtright ( Despite their youth, the cast gave precise attention to every detail, even their timing for breaths. Not despite but because of much repetition and care in advance, the whole cast were free by second natured to be their spontaneous selves

To be sure, one advantage twenty-somethings have over older professionals is that they are playing characters their own age, with the distinctively tender and fragile feelings, high excitements and crushing blows of that gloriously vulnerable time of life.

 Some of the troupe played modern songs before the show and during intermission. They picked songs they found related to Much Ado.

VANESSA TOMPKINS – keep that name alive in your memory. One day soon, expect to see her in local, regional, then national opera (since childhood, opera has been her first love) or musical comedy (hear her sing “My Fair Lady”)   – or in an effortlessly romantic role on stage.

Earlier this year, Frank D’Ambrosio, who sang “the Phantom” in The Phantom of the Opera some two thousand times on Broadway, agreed to come back for a second year as main attraction of an Ave fund raiser because, he said, “I will have another chance to sing with Vanessa.”  And so he did, brilliantly. Many who had never heard Vanessa sing, said she more than hold her own, even slightly bested the wonderful D’Ambrosio as the richer talent of the two.

Vanessa’s special talent as an actress is that at each moment, the whole intensity of every scene comes slowly to her face. As Beatrice, she evinces the most painful grief at the “dying” of her dear, dear cousin Hero, who falls helpless under an utterly false accusation against her chastity. Then shortly thereafter, Beatrice lets  escape the most marvelously radiant love for Benedick, who had until then been her despised partner in brutal, disdainful banter. She immediately covers it over, and resumes her barbs. At the end, she leaps with unsuppressed joy into his arms.

It is wrong to single out Vanessa, for no heroine in theater can ever shine unless the whole cast around her lend their own depth of color and tiniest detail. I doubt if there has ever been a Dogberry, commander of the night watch, of so many sinewy bodily movements, innocently hilarious pronouncements, and laughter-producing moments as Peter Atkinson  (veteran of theater since his boyhood). Just to see him plunge his hands into his belt, palms outward, and walk with the oddest walk the stage ever saw made the audience laugh — even before his delightfully abundant malapropisms broke his lips.

Peter’s older brother Charles played in deliciously drawn-out voice, slinky movements, and bounding glee in evil done, the most villainous villain, Don John. The warrior with words – and pursuer of Beatrice– Benedick displayed an astonishingly humorous sense of male ego, conceit, and pleasure in his own prowess in all respects. The most noble nobleman Leonato, shattered father to Hero and uncle to Beatrice, played a role so fatherly, tender, and manly as to comfort the soul that something is right in the human world. At the monument for the ‘dead’ Hero, his sad voice also sang beautifully. And his wife Innogen’s taunt to the slanderer of her daughter, “Come here, boy-yy! I will whip-p you, boy-yy!” was exquisitely uttered.

And what shall be said about the wronged Hero (Sophie Pakaluk), whose maidenly face and girlish joy, as the play opens, turns soon into the most radiant face of love for her passionately appreciative fiancé, Count Claudio, returned as a young hero from the recent war. Before long, however, that haunting and innocent face turns ashen, utterly done-in. For at the very moment when the two lovers kneel at the altar for their betrothal, the self-misled Claudio lashes her with hideously false allegations.

Not often does one see the sheer radiance of a soul so innocent of mind and heart left defenseless and scorned even by her own father. Hero’s inwardly driven collapse into unconsciousness is one of the most gracefully executed faints I ever saw performed.

Shakesspeare at AVe2Then, too, one dare not overlook the superabundance of talent at Ave Maria, especially among the young women.  So rich is the female talent that a full second cast of the lead parts for women took its turn over the three weeks of performances. Each one of the second cast kept the joy of the play alive when her chance came, particularly Leslie Nagel, who played an entirely different Beatrice, to great and moving effect.

 Leslie Nagel plays Beatrice’s sharp tongue well in the Masquerade scene.

On this stage, no one lets the team down.  Prince Pedro has the quiet dignity, good humor and valor one expects in a Prince, taken in as he is by a deceitful pantomime. He thought he was seeing Hero with a lover at her window the night before the wedding. Later, the brave confession of full responsibility for that deceit by the servant who for a mere thousand ducats betrayed fair Hero to her death, brings a breath of nobility to his character. Moreover, just at the moment when all seemed bleakest, the good Friar by his quiet wisdom, peaceful manner, and clever reasoning set in motion the total vindication of Hero.

It was an evening to remember for a long time, a down-to-earth, unpretentious Shakespeare that seemed just as it must have seemed four hundred years ago at Blackfriars priory. It spared its audience hardly a moment without laughter, then black sorrow, and a joyously rousing conclusion.

It makes one cry that the whole city of Naples could not see this performance (although some local high schoolers did get a chance one evening, and may have been the best and most responsive audience of all).

Ave badly needs a theater worthy of its talent and joy.

More on the Meaning of Pope "Francis"

Why the Name Francis?

Published in the Huffington Post on March 14, 2013

The new Pope is already famous for two funny jabs.

Pope FrancisHis first was in introducing himself to the world for the first time (my paraphrase of the Italian). "The cardinals meet in Rome to choose a new pope. This time they went to the end of the world to find me. So here I am."

The next was at his final dinner with his colleagues at the conclave. It won him a huge outburst of laughter: "May God forgive you."

But why did he choose the name Francis? No pope ever has, despite the fact that Francis of Assisi (1180-1225) has been for eight centuries, all around the world, the most beloved saint of all. People say Francis is the most Christlike of all the saints in his simplicity, humility, and poverty - and visible joy in the world around him. He is famous for his "Canticle of the Sun," his joy in the singing of birds and the green of the trees, and the poor.

We know for sure that the new Pope will be, more than any in recent centuries, at least, identified with the poor. He certainly was as archbishop of Buenos Aires. There he took the bus to his office. He had a modest apartment to live in and cook for himself.

He refused to don all the traditional garments - the ermine vest, for instance - of a new pope, to come out to the world instead in a simple white cassock, with what appeared to be something like a wooden cross on a plain cord around his neck. On his first full day, the pope slipped out of the Vatican in a car to pray at a Roman church, a basilica (whose staff received a ten-minute warning of his arrival). No fuss, no fanfare. Then the car drove by the residence building for priests where he had been staying in Rome, to pick up his modest suitcases.

One almost expects him to wear Franciscan sandals as Pope. Well, not quite.

An American Cardinal who worked with him on an international commission of bishops said the world is about to be amazed at how brilliant this guy is. He has taught literature, psychology, and philosophy at the university level. We'll test that soon enough

The point of being a bishop isn't, of course, to be a bright academic - it is to preach Christ, and Christ crucified, that is, God's choice of the poor, the suffering, the needy (and even the neediness of rich persons, like St. Francis as a young man), as his friends, those He wanted to have around him.

For myself, I am not sure what Pope Francis will take to be the best road for helping the poor out of poverty. Just more government subsidies? The socialist model? The Chavez model in Venezuela? Cuba? Or the path taken by China and India, moving more than a half-billion of their poor out of poverty in the last thirty years, and heading toward one billion? It is reassuring that he was a steady and firm resister to "liberation theology," the theological argument for following the statist way. He aroused powerful enmity many of the most passionate Jesuit "public policy priests," who preferred organizing "people's churches" to achieve political-economic reforms of the statist sort.

It seems providential that just as Hugo Chavez died of cancer (poor man), the rhetorical and militarist leader of the leftist parties in eight or nine nations around him, a new champion of the poor has been raised up in Latin America, of a very different stripe.

It is also great to see, at last, a pope being chosen from "America" (as the church sees it, a whole hemisphere as one, not divided into North and South, and different from "the Old World"). For the first time in history, two North American cardinals (Dolan of New York, and O'Malley, the sandaled Franciscan of Boston) were being highly touted by the Italian press, and even promoted with much passion. America is moving front and center into the Church's vision.

-- Not everything American, of course; many around the world regard the television and entertainment culture of the United States as uncommonly ugly and disfiguring.

The point of the Catholic church around the world and in every age, as it was in pagan Rome in the beginning, is to be countercultural. You will not find the new pope thinking that because some American passions are new and "progressive" and "inevitable" in the minds of secular America, therefore, they represent the future. It is certain that any Catholic pope will see much in the air that belongs to a culture that is dying, as the Roman Empire died; indeed, as a "culture of death."

It is especially satisfying to see Latin cultures moved front and center in the church. Catholics in Latin America now number forty percent of all the 1.2 billion Catholics on earth. Add in the Latinos of North America, and the proportion nudges close to fifty percent. A Latino pope seems very fitting.

The major growth of the Catholic church is now in Asia and Africa. The "evangelizing" (missionary) part of the church is now where the action is. This new Pope, this Francis, is certain to continue doing what he did in Argentina: call upon Catholics to think again. Do they really want to be Catholics? If they do, they better study what is demanded of them. The most vital part of that is to live the good news that God loves this human race and invites it into his friendship.

The God of the gospels does not want friendship through coercion. He offers it to free choice. And if so, serious choice, requiring a serious change of life as it did of Francis of Assisi. We may not each be called to the form of life that St. Francis chose. But the Lord does have something serious for each of us to do, and it is to be found by each of us hidden in our own hearts.

Expect Pope Francis to call for this. If so, watch out world!

Read full article at The Huffington Post.