In Memoriam: Michael Novak

COMMENTARY: Michael Novak’s focus on the centrality of Christlike love was of one piece with all the political and economic words he had written over six decades.

Michael Novak speaks at a Washington Foreign Press Center Briefing in 2004.
Michael Novak speaks at a Washington Foreign Press Center Briefing in 2004. (photo: Public Domain/ Source: Foreign Press Center, U.S. Department of State)

Before he died the morning of Feb. 17, Michael Novak was heard to say, repeatedly, to everyone who came to say goodbye, “God loves you, and you must love one another — that is all that matters.”

I saw him for about an hour the previous evening: He was at peace and ready to meet God (and deceased loved ones, especially his wife, Karen). He had accepted going into hospice care, at home, where he was really taken care of, quite lovingly, by his sister Mary Ann and children Jana and Rich.

Most people only know Michael from his enormous literary output. I once heard him tell a student in Europe, quite matter-of-factly — not boasting — that the way you become a writer is to work hard at your first million words, which helps establish your voice. Hard work is always good advice, of course. But it came in the context of an annual summer seminar we’d both been running in the Slovak Republic, where he urged on students his idea of Caritapolis, a city of Charity, and insisted we sing at every Mass the hymn Ubi Caritas et Amor (“Where There Is Charity and Love, There Is God”).

It may seem odd, but his focus on the centrality of love was of one piece with all the political and economic words he had written over six decades as a Catholic and public intellectual. Though I’d known Michael since the early 1980s, I only recently caught up with his autobiography, Writing From Left to Right, which explained to me things I had never known about him. Primary among those was that his move politically from liberal to conservative (that’s the meaning of the title) was mostly driven by what he came to believe really worked in helping people, especially the poor. While liberal colleagues talked, sincerely, about helping people, more conservative ideas had shown themselves to be better, in real terms, for individuals, families, nations and the world as a whole.

A lot of people misunderstood that about him. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, probably his most important book, was not simply a partisan argument for American-style politics and market-based economics. It was his attempt to show how liberty in the political and economic sphere, guided, of course, by a strong legal and moral cultural system, could produce benefits — along with many problems, of course, as always happens in a fallen world — that no other set of institutions has shown itself capable.

That was also the motive behind another key book Will It Liberate?, his examination of liberation theology. Like Pope John Paul II, a personal friend, Michael was a close student of Marxism and Marxist states. Some of the Marxist ideas that found their way into almost all Latin-American liberation theology sounded good, as simple ideas often do. It was his contention, though, that people — especially workers and the poor — did demonstrably better, not universally well, but better, in free societies than in ones that used the heavy hand of the state to direct economics and politics.

No good deed goes unpunished, and Michael was attacked for these conclusions by his former allies as tantamount to advocating what they call in Europe “savage capitalism.” But he was also attacked by some of his more natural allies in the Church and among cultural conservatives for similar reasons: Capitalism — a term invented by Marxists but that Michael insisted on appropriating and tried to redefine as the system of the caput, the head, and therefore man’s rational faculties — seemed to do too much “creative destruction” and too little conserving.

He was not entirely dismissive of such complaints. Rather, he thought that the “moral cultural system” of free societies needed to do a better job in informing politics and economics with humane perspectives. And in this he thought of himself as an heir of both Adam Smith (whom people forget was first a moral philosopher and only later an economist) and the whole Tradition of modern Catholic social teaching that began with the warnings about socialism in Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on capital and labor, Rerum Novarum.

Indeed, he thought that the old virtues — the cardinal virtues and many others that we have inherited from different Western traditions — crucial as they are, need to be further amplified with notions like entrepreneurship, enterprise and creativity (in both the artistic and the practical spheres).

The older virtues were fine, but coming as they almost exclusively did from philosophers and clerics, had somewhat neglected the very real demands of economic and political life.

Michael was a brilliant student from his early days, and he made rapid progress from local Catholic schools in Pennsylvania to Notre Dame, the seminary in Rome, Harvard and Stanford. His education enabled him to absorb an astounding amount of philosophy and theology, which stayed with him and showed itself in all sorts of situations. But even as a young professor, he was always engaged with worldly questions, as well.

In his early liberal days, he was a close collaborator, speechwriter and idea-generator for Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy and Sargent Shriver — all Catholics in the public square.

It was a time when Catholic Democrats were proponents of social programs, but always with an eye on what they would do in real terms for families and workers, not the autonomous, radically individual beings we now think make up America. The way that Democrats went from those honorable, if sometimes mistaken, commitments to the party of abortion, gays and moral indulgence also pointed him in new directions and to discoveries about how older American virtues might be important to current questions.

He was also highly active at the international level, but there, too, he remained faithful to some older Democratic tendencies, even as he served Republican leaders.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan and his foreign policy adviser Jeane Kirkpatrick — both former Democrats — convinced him to become the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. They didn’t want just another diplomat or negotiator. Kirkpatrick, who also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Reagan, told him, “We need you to put forth our theory of human rights and democracy. I’ve heard you do it many times. You’re the right one.” Reagan said during a brief meeting: “Nearly all Americans came to this country to protect human rights. So this country can never turn away from human rights. Condone no human-rights abuse. None.”

His notions of human rights closely followed the thinking of Jacques Maritain, perhaps the greatest and most influential Thomist philosopher of modern times.

This realignment of allegiances did not come without cost. Michael was especially savaged by old liberal colleagues. He said to me once, without any bitterness, that though I myself had gotten a fair share of criticism from certain quarters, I didn’t have the added viciousness from people who thought of me as a traitor, as some liberals thought him. One of the surprising things about his approach to such people is that, much as they attacked him, he kept inviting them to be part of the conversation.

While he occupied a chair at the American Enterprise Institute, he would constantly invite people of liberal views to conferences. It was during several of these that I first met figures like Father Brian Hehir (the bishops’ letter on nuclear weapons), and even Archbishop Rembert Weakland (the letter on the economy). Though he was courteous to the other side, the generosity was not often returned.

But Michael was not all work and no play. If you want to appreciate another whole side of the man, take a look at his book The Joy of Sports. At a baseball game, he was like a 10-year-old. Super Bowl parties at his home were a treat.

And on top of all these other interests, Michael had an interest and deep insight into the arts. Though we read it independently and probably 25 years apart, we shared a passion for one of the most breathtaking books of the 20th century, Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, which explores as nothing else the link between the soul and the beautiful. His wife Karen was a gifted and deep painter — and he attracted composers, poets and artists. In fact, in the last year, Michael brought together a bunch of us to create a new organization: the American Academy of Catholic Thinkers and Artists (AACTA). There will be public news of this soon.

He did so much in so many fields and will be missed by so many. But those of us who knew him will never forget what he essentially meant to us: Ubi Caritas et Amor, Deus Ibi Est.


Robert Royal, Ph.D., is the founder and president

of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington

and editor in chief of The Catholic Thing website.