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).


Michael Novak's Moral Compass

Published by Mark Michalski on September 4, 2014 in Real Clear Religion



When Michael Novak was writing The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, I was fortunate to have worked as his assistant. I still remember very vividly, when Michael would emphasize the need to think clearly. He liked to put a twist on Jacques Maritain's famous dictum: "you must distinguish in order to discern."


Michael's magnum opus was published in 1982 and quickly became a bestseller, and quite distinguished.


When he worked for political candidates, Michael coined some great phrases, or sound bites, such as: "enlightened self-interest" and "New Frontier." Working on an ethos of a modern, democratic capitalism, he has not only refined the concept, but he recognized the critical role of the entrepreneur, the concepts of risk and reward, ethics and trust (he claimed: "bad people would make bad capitalists").


He introduced first the positive notion of "enlightened self-interest, in contrast to that of Adam Smith's sheer or brute "self-interest." Also, reading all of Pope John Paul II's ideas contributed immensely to the final shape of his grand book. Novak always sought diversity of views and opinions. During his three decade-long tenure at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), he started monthly discussions on current socio-economic, cultural, and philosophical issues. He invited leading experts in their field. He liked to have an agora -- or a market place -- for new ideas that brought about great debates. These discussions provided fertile ground for his creative writing.


His most recent book, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative is more than an honest memoir -- it is a story of transformation. Michael journeyed from a radical left-wing socialist in the 1960s to an architect of neoconservative movement of the 1980s. Some might compare his biography to Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain for its insights and spiritual values. In his vivid and splendid narrative, Novak takes hold of a turbulent economic and spiritual era in the United States in which Novak explores the complex events of the 20th century -- forging into the new third millennium. "At eighty, I look back over the events I have witnessed," Novak writes, "and I revisit the lessons I learned the hard way. Events and facts forced me to change my mind about ideas with which my education imbued me."


With great honesty, humor, and humility Michael Novak shares his fascinating stories of a long and active life. Novak's passion, gentle joy and zest for life is impressive. His biography proclaims that we all could and should discover in this life something deeper and divine, something wonderful, even in daily, ordinary events -- only after we become fully engaged in it.


Michael Novak has been a theologian, philanthropist, and activist throughout his long life. But, ultimately, he has remained a great writer, teacher, theologian, and philosopher. Through his experiences, his humble beginnings and sensitive, poetic soul, he describes and explains the socio-economic, political and cultural marvels of our contemporary world. He taught at America's best universities (Harvard, Stanford), worked for some of the most respected politicians (Kennedys, Reagan) and became close friends with the most charismatic leaders (Thatcher, John Paul II). He represented the country at Geneva and Bern peace negotiations with the Soviet Union, working on his guiding passions -- fighting poverty and advocating for human rights -- through writing on virtues of market economy and enlightened democratic capitalism. In his eloquent and enthusiastic memoir, one cannot help but see a man of powerful mind, moral courage, and strong convictions well worth adopting and emulating for a good life.


"My dream was to write about the philosophy, the theology of American culture -- and not because it was American, but because there was something different here and unique," Novak writes. "It belonged to the whole human race, but we were pioneering it."


Michael Novak entered academic life after 12 years of preparing for the priesthood. He left the seminary just months before his scheduled ordination. He moved to the more radical political left while teaching at Stanford University, where he was voted "the most influential professor." He came to Robert Kennedy's attention during his 1968 run for the presidency, and worked on Kennedy's campaign. "I loved working for the Kennedys, even though I didn't appreciate at the time the Kennedys' personal life. No one said anything in those days."


He left Stanford for a new Experimental College of the State University of New York on Long Island. It was there, among "some real whacko students and some real whacko faculty" that his political right turn began. "I was radical, but they were destructive," he explained. "I supported very strongly the War on Poverty," he said, "and then it just went belly up. Crime went up 600 percent. Marriages fell apart at unprecedented rates. Marriages didn't even form. And I thought, 'This is crazy I can't keep supporting that.' So I became more conservative."


Through intense debates, experience and study, he came to adopt conservative economics. After studying the "Austrian School" of economics (Friedrich von Hayek, J.A. Schumpeter, and C. Menger), he perceived that a free-growth economy benefited not only the entrepreneurs, but the general population. In the 1970s and '80s, he became a strong supply-sider and Ronald Reagan supporter. "It just seemed to me that the 'preferential option for the poor' was just a disguised way of saying more government funds to give to the poor and keep them dependent. Keep them like on a plantation. Keep them like Animal Farm."


Changing slowly from left to right, Novak points out how he came to see the essential truths of life -- fighting poverty, advocating for human rights -- as better served by an enlightened capitalism and by democratic politics than any alternative social order, especially a heavy hand of the state-run enterprise. His conversion cost him some friends, who remained on the Left.


Novak: "I witnessed with my own eyes the almost immediate results of the switch from Carter's economic policies to Reaganomics. Entrepreneurship not only expanded dramatically, it boomed. Reagan's incentive tax with business friendly regulatory regime gave rise to numerous small businesses, with employment soaring. The favorable climate suddenly propelled both creative innovations with the emergence of new, high technologies." Novak's influence and recognition rose as well. So much so that, although his impressive writing continued, and he took yet on another career, that of a diplomat, an ambassador, negotiating with Russians on behalf of President Reagan, and later also for President Clinton.


Writing as if to a very close friend, Michael Novak shows how Providence placed him in the middle of many crucial events of his time: a month in wartime Vietnam, the student riots of the 1960s, the Reagan revolution, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Bill Clinton's welfare reform, and the struggles for human rights in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also spent fascinating times, with inspiring leaders like Sargent Shriver, Bobby Kennedy, George McGovern, Jack Kemp, Václav Havel, President Reagan, Lady Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II, who helped shape -- and reshape -- his political views.


Yet through it all, as Novak's sharply etched memoir shows, his focus on helping the poor and defending universal human rights remained constant. He gradually came to see building small businesses and free democracies as the only realistic way to build free societies. Without economic growth from the bottom up, democracies are not stable. Without protections for liberties of conscience and economic creativity, democracies will fail. Free societies need three liberties in one: economic liberty, political liberty, and liberty of spirit.


"The only way the poor will be lifted out of poverty is if they can start businesses that bring economic growth to the bottom," Novak argues. But culture, he writes, is more important than either politics or even economics. Culture, more than the hot-button issues of the day, is what touches every heart and stirs every soul. Especially in its moral and ethical dimensions, culture is what animates the decisions of many people. After all, is not the Creed but a profound cultural statement?


Novak invites readers to see life as it is and can only be seen after years of contemplation, reflection, and long cumulative experience. He invites us to examine life, to see the world anew, and share his delight in aging, with the wonders of growing in wisdom and accepting life's good and bad moments.


He concludes the book by describing the role he played in helping clarify certain points in the Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Centesimus Annus. "When it comes to life the critical thing," G.K. Chesterton said, "is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude." Michael's story of his fascinating journey of life -- epitomizes this Chestertonian attitude of gratitude and wonderment.


Perhaps this is why Michael Novak's writing is so wonderful. Throughout this warm, witty memoir, he comes across as the happy human being, a magnanimous man interested in truth. Searching for the best in people, acknowledging it without regard to political affiliation -- and he teaches us do the same.


Michael Novak's journey from left to right can help us find our own moral compass in an increasingly complex, global world.



Mark M. Michalski, PhD lectures on international marketing at the Catholic University of America and management and business ethics at the University of Maryland University College.


Caritapolis: A New Global Vision for Catholic Social Thought

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

Also available at the Witherspoon Institute's Public Discourse.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 The Need for a New Global Vision: Caritapolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world is very far from that place yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Four Milestones in the Direction of Caritapolis

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

The Economics of Liberation Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A ‘Liberal’ and Catholic Proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Is Capitalism Compatible With Christian Values?

Michael Novak participated in a recent online discussion in which the New York Times - Room for Debate asked: “Has contemporary American capitalism become incompatible with Christian values?”

Most Moral of a Bad Lot of Economic Systems

Published by Michael Novak on June 26, 2014 in the New York Times

In answering the question, much depends on what you mean by capitalism. I like the definition offered by Pope John Paul II: "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 ... circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality.''

No other has so quickly lifted the world out of poverty, grasped the need for freedom and creativity, and valued sacrifice for the future.

With a polity and a culture that honor and promote the creativity and flourishing of humankind, capitalism is the most moral of a bad lot of economic systems known to humans.

First, no other system has so quickly and so globally lifted the poor out of poverty. If you look at a chart of population and income since the beginning of the Christian era, the line of growth is nearly flat for 18 centuries, and then with the introduction of invention and discovery it shoots upward.

Second, no other system has so deeply grasped that the cause of the wealth of nations is, as John Paul II said, “the possession of know-how, technology and skill,” “disciplined and creative human work and, as an essential part of that work, initiative and entrepreneurial ability.”

Third, no other system has so depended both on law – to set clear rules and to protect and guide liberty – and on moral virtues, a concrete vision of how to improve the common good by discovery and invention. It requires the willingness to make sacrifices for gains only future generations will see, to persist through many setbacks and to surrender many pleasures in exchange for disciplined, self-adapting work.

Fourth, in the two centuries since the birth of capitalism the average life expectancy has risen from 26 to 67. Earth is teeming with human life as never before. In 1800, there were fewer than one billion humans on the planet; today there are over seven billion. In at least that sense, capitalism has vastly expanded the domain of life.

Pope Francis decries an “economy of exclusion.” Similarly, John Paul II emphasized the moral obligation to include every woman and man in “the circle of development.” To include all of the forgotten people of Latin America (let alone Africa and Asia), some 20 million new small businesses need to be formed, each employing three to six workers at decent wages. In many jurisdictions this would mean changing laws, to allow new small businesses to be registered at minimal cost and without the need to pay bribes to officials. It would also mean building new organizations to specialize in micro-loans for small businesses – and also in providing practical advice so that new businesses more easily succeed.

Nearly the whole world is much in favor of this inclusion. No one should be excluded from the global circle of development.

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St. Michael the Archangel High School Graduation Address

On Being and Staying Catholic in the Modern World

Delivered by Michael Novak on June 7, 2014 at St. Michael the Archangel High School (Fredericksburg, VA).


I love being here at this school. I love what you are trying to do.

I am moved by the faith of your parents, and the generosity of your families, and the self-sacrifices of your teachers, grade by grade, room by room.

Your Awards Ceremony last night blew me away. I would love to have this whole class in one of my courses at Ave Maria University. You are bright, you are gutsy, you have such high spirits – in fact your cheerleaders won the state championship this year. The first All-State honors for this six-year-old school. (There will be many more.) You really are Warriors. And you are prayerful. And serious.

We are trying to do something similar at Ave Maria University, where I teach. So I have a feel for the hopes of all who have built this blessed school – how they want to take you deeper, and higher than you were, when you walked through these doors the first time. How they want you to grow in the love of God. How they want that Love to bring out from deep inside you all the potential that God implanted in you when He decided to make you, to fulfill the special vocation He has had for you before Time was. This school wants you to be every bit as great as God has made you to be. Down to every last fiber of your being.

Now a period of huge decisions hits you in the face. First, what to do after high school – work? a career? enlist in the Marines? go to college? But then, which college? You also face the choice of committing yourself to a spouse, your lifetime-best-friend, over the next few years. It is a wonderful time in life. But it sure hits hard, and fast.

And another big choice: You must make your adult commitment either to become a lifelong Catholic, on your own, or to leave that faith behind. That is a perfectly normal choice. Every human being must make it. More on that in a moment.

First, let me tell you a story. Once, I was given an honorary degree by a well-known Catholic university, and the class valedictorian said the most important thing his class had learned in its four years of university education is that everything is relative.

I could hear hundreds of parental hearts sink. Why did they spend scores of thousands of dollars on this smart lad’s Catholic education, when they could have had him come out a relativist at the much cheaper state university? One thing I assure you. They did not want him to break from his faith. They love their faith too much. May I tell you one secret? There is no fear greater in the hearts of the last two generations of Catholic parents than that the invisible gas of relativism, of unbelief, will seep into the minds of their children, and steal from them what we parents consider the most precious inheritance we can pass on.

May I pry into your personal affairs, dear graduates? Does each of you know for how many decades your own family has passed on the faith from generation to generation, even, for how many centuries? Are you going to be the one who breaks the link?

The iffy thing about the Catholic faith is this: that it must be chosen afresh in every generation. It cannot be inherited. It must be chosen. You yourself must choose it freely. Or you – you by yourself – may reject it. We parents may have broken hearts about your choice. But we know the rules of the game. Christian faith must be inalienably personal. It must be personally chosen. The root of all the world’s freedoms comes from that one. As the great historian of Liberty, Lord Acton of Cambridge University, concluded: “The history of liberty is coincident with the history of Christianity.”

St. Michael’s has respected that liberty. Acts of personal liberty are beautiful works, as radiant as the best days of June. It is a privilege to be with you, educated in this most personal of all liberties.

Still, I bet that most of you are not Christians, not yet. There are two immense dangers in becoming a Christian. First, they put people like us in prison, make fun of us, taunt us, and kill us. A young woman in Sudan has been sentenced to 100 lashes, to be administered this coming week, or the next. Why? Because she has married a Christian, and had their child baptized Christian. She has been given a chance to renounce Christianity before the court and has refused. Therefore, after she has been whipped 100 times, she must be killed. She has blasphemed Allah, turned away from Allah.

The last eighty years have seen by far the bloodiest years for Christians, the most ruthless persecution, in the history of the Church. Nazism and Communism recently carried out the deaths of millions of Christians and Jews, often in most horrible ways. In Nigeria today, young Christian girls are being kidnapped by the hundreds for sale as slaves. Throughout Pakistan, bombs are set off in Christian churches, men with machine guns swing church doors open and mow down everyone in sight. Long, long lines of Christian refugees are being driven out of their homelands with nothing of their own but their strength of soul.

Don’t you dare think that the persecution of Christians will never come to America. Oh, for a long time it will not be that severe. First you will be called names. Then, when you voice your public beliefs, you will be punished for what you say. “You are on the wrong side of history,” they will say. “You are a bigot.” The things you believe must not be said, ever, in an enlightened era. A priest here and a nun there will be banished when they preach the gospel on controversial matters – unless they confess the opinions of secularists.

In sum, one reason not to be a Christian today is that it may bring bad things on your head if you actually believe what Catholics have always believed, and then say so, even at a dinner party with fellow workers whom you had thought of as friends. Try it and see.

A second powerful reason is that television, Hollywood, and music-makers intend with all their lures to entice you into a way of love and sex that is not only not Christian, but positively destructive of those who fall into it. The media do not report the damage.

In France seventy years ago (as we remind ourselves this weekend), and on Iwo Jima and Okinawa and Tarawa, our grandparents did not fight bitter and bloody wars for liberty, only so that we could live like pigs. Most of the world looks at how we live, in our films and television shows and during our Super Bowl halftimes (in the whole world, the largest television audiences of all time), and says in disgust that we are decadent. Vladimir Putin said that just last week.

Well, you personally can live however you wish. But think through the consequences. For yourself. For the world of your friends and families. For the whole of American society.

Look. The only reason you should choose your Christian faith, and become more thoughtful and serious about it, is because you judge it to be true. Because you hold firmly that its vision of who you are, and how great you are called to become, is more true to your experience than anything else you know. Christian faith speaks truth, not doubletalk. None of this: “I’m all right, you’re all right. It’s all good.”

When you examine your conscience, you know exactly where you have sometimes done things you know you should not have done. And other times when you deliberately did not do what you know you should have done. You know from experience, and I know from my experience, that Christian faith begins with the sinner – you, me. Original sin (the fact that every human being ever born sometimes sins) is one doctrine that no one needs to take on faith. All we need is to look coolly at some of our own past behavior.

Where would this country be, if it had not been constituted by Christians? For Christians know from experience, their own experience first of all, that no man should be trusted with too much power. Every power must be limited by checks and balances. Why? Because every man sometimes falls. Our Constitution is not written for saints. It is written for us, as from our bitter experience we know ourselves. There is no use for building a Republic for saints. There are not enough saints to fill a Republic. And the few there are, are difficult to live with.

Don’t you think experience shows Christianity is right about this fact of human life, the way even those people trying so hard to be good sometimes fall? Christian faith is just straight about things. No pretending we are better than we are.

As a great Protestant thinker once put it: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Another truth on which Jewish and Christian life is based is this: God made us all, every one of us, to suffer. Even the good people, like Job, suffer. In fact, the Lord directly tells us, looking right into our eyes, what to expect from Him: “Those He loves, He makes to suffer.” Look at His Son, the Suffering Servant Who best shows us what the inner life of God is.

Why does God do this? Why does He make the good suffer? I remember the sweetest person in our family, a cousin with a difficult husband and darling children, who quite young was stricken with cancer, and for months and months wasted away in front of our eyes. She was as thin as a child when at last she was released from her pain. Very little left of her.

Are there any families in this assembly that have not experienced pain in the family like this? Any?

My own dear, dear wife died in that way, over a period of four years. It was almost unendurable for her to have her life end so, so many dreams not yet accomplished, so much painting and sculpting she had planned to get done. Now those hopes were sliding away from her. She never complained, not once. But at her side it was extremely hard to watch.

Our God, the Jewish and Christian God, is not a “nice” God. He treats us like adults. He expects us to be brave, and to go on loving others even under the lash of great pain. He set the example Himself. He told us that each of us, too, would have to take up our own cross, and die with Him. He didn’t beat around the bush. He told us exactly what to expect.

That’s one thing I really love about the Catholic faith. It talks straight. It does not sugar-coat.It offers us Christ on the cross right up front, right up on our school walls, right at the highest point of our steeples. As if to say quite quietly: “Look, dear ones, this is what the Christian life is like.”

Why does our faith speak like that? Because that is the truth. We are made in God’s image, and when He sent His Son to show us what that ball of fire inside himself is like, that love which is His inner energy, He showed us His Son being beaten and cursed on the way of the cross, and then dying, out of love for us.

Jesus Christ showed us how a Christian loves, and how a Christian dies. “Not my will, Father, but Thine.” A Christian dies with love and forgiveness for others. That sort of love is an odd sort of love. It is a love above every known human form of love. It is God’s form of love.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies. Now no sensible woman or man even likes his enemies. But the Lord has His own reasons for emphasizing love. He made every single woman and man in his image. Even those who choose evil, those who wrong us, even slay us. Even those who spit in His face. God loves every creature He has made, even when they raise their arm against Him. He made them free. Their choice: They reject his friendship. Their hell is their isolation. Which they themselves have freely chosen.

Well, I meet a lot of people who hate everything I fight for. It doesn’t seem they like me much, either. In fact, some have moral contempt for me.

Because God said so, I believe that each of them is made in the image of God, and that God sees something in each of them that He loves. So I study all my critics carefully. Sometimes things they say actually help me, and I change course. Sometimes I can’t see a thing in them to love. So I take it on faith. Sometimes, I just don’t see what God loves in some of the people I meet. But, I figure, God doesn’t say I have to like them. He just says I have to “love” them, with His love and His insight into their worth. So I just leave it up to Him. I don’t see your image anywhere in him, Lord, so you just go ahead and love him for me. I think that is called an “infused” virtue. It doesn’t come from our own power.

But why on earth is the world made this way, not some nicer way, without evil persons, without some horribly evil outcomes? Without so much suffering? Without little girls sobbing in their beds all night? That’s what Ivan Karamazov asked.

I notice this in all literature and in all history: Heroines and the heroes suffer greatly. Often, to prove the height and depth of their humanity, they have to die.

Our lives are a little like a smoldering twig fallen down inside a fire. Sometimes the ember has to die, to give out one last brilliance, before going cold forever. As the priest-poet writes – the poet I love best – in our fireplace we watch “blue-bleak embers fall, gall themselves, gash gold-vermillion.” To show a very great beauty, to prove an overpowering love, to force up a goodness refined by fire as gold is fired, the hero, the saint, the lover cannot – cannot – “gash gold-vermillion” – except in suffering and death.

That is certainly the rule that God Himself follows, that He laid down for His own Son, that nearly every great love has proved. That is the only way the Lord Creator could see a way to teach us that the inner secret of all of creation, the way that creation “shows forth the glory of God,” is by suffering love, by death. In dying, beauty “gashes gold-vermillion.”

According to our Catholic faith, clasped tight, held onto down a thousand years, and taught to others by the way true lovers live, life’s deepest secret is to spread everywhere the news that God is Love, that all things that are, begin in love, and end in love. All things spring from God. All things end in God. And God is suffering love.

Not even abandonment, and emptiness, and painful death are what they seem to be. By God’s own love flaring out from within them, even desolation and death are transmuted into unspeakable beauty.

Dear, dear graduates, it is normal to think about abandoning this faith. For it must be free. It must be tested. No one else has been exempt from testing. Why should you be?

Last word: Think twice before abandoning this great teacher of reality, this faith of ours. It is trustworthy. It holds up against all hardships, all darknesses, all sufferings. Compared with it, everything else is cheap.

Therefore, no matter what anybody else in your family does, or how many around you turn away from God’s friendship, don’t you break the long line of faithful suffering servants in your family’s history. You will suffer for this faith. But keep the sap of life – the zest of love – going through you, so it can flow on to the next generation, and the next. On you depends the faith of thousands yet unborn.

God bless you very, very much! All the days of your life.

You are very lucky to have graduated from here.

Interview with Jerry Bowyer of Forbes

[audio] You can also listen HERE


Transcript part 1 "The Memoirs Of Michael Novak: How The Democratic Party Moved From 'Tough Center-Left' To 'Brie And Chablis' (3/17/14)

Transcript part 2: "'Never Envy The Rich': What Michael Novak Can Teach Thomas Piketty About Income Equality" (5/09/14)

Transcript part 3: "Former Kennedy Advisor Says Obama Reminiscent Of Nixon" (5/22/14)

Transcript part 4: "How Margaret Thatcher Put Sexist Socialist President Of France In His Place"  (6/09/14)

Transcript part 5: "Scholar Who Taught John Paul II To Appreciate Capitalism Worries About Pope Francis" (6/03/14)


Published at



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.