In memoriam: Michael Novak

When I think of Michael Novak, two images spring to mind, both of his face. The first is his smile, an infectious countenance that flashed when his mind had led him to a conclusion that might be hard to accept, but, what else could he do? His mind was open and could therefore be led to a different conclusion, which is what happened to his outlook regarding political economy. Without shifting focus from his Catholic concerns for the poor, and for human flourishing, he came to believe that capitalism served those values better than socialism did. Consequently, it was the more moral system. I’m sure that was a great surprise to him, as it was to many of his fellow travelers. I imagine that he smiled at the irony.

The other was the pensive look on his face as he worked through a problem. His mind was so deep, its store of erudition and understanding so sweeping, that it was a pleasure to hear him speak aloud. His observations were often a revelation to me. He commented, for instance, that the history of America was one draped in the language of individuality, but steeped in the practice of community. In an ancestor’s diary, he’d read praises of rugged individualism and freedom. But, behind these encomiums, the diary was filled with anecdotes of barn raisings, community dinners, farming and tending livestock with others, attending church services and ceremonies, common defense and caring for sick neighbors. The language was individualistic, but the lived experience was communal. That was the American reality. The seriousness of his face underscored the point as if to challenge: “Any questions?”

I first encountered Michael’s seminal tome, “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” (Madison Books, $20.95), in a political economy seminar while earning my Ph.D. I read it along with texts from Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Max Weber and others. Michael’s work was my first formal encounter with the idea that political liberty could not survive in a vacuum without economic liberty and cultural-moral liberty. American politics was only one-third of a fuller, symbiotic system in which it was sustained — democratic capitalism — one part each of democratic politics, liberal economics and a pluralistic cultural-moral system.

Regarding the latter, I recall being initially uncomfortable with his simile of a public altar where each person could adore his or her own personal godlet. This seemed like a great leap backward from St. Paul’s appeal at the Acropolis, where he noted that the Greeks had erected an altar to the unknown god. They worshipped in ignorance the one, true God that Paul had come to teach them about. Michael appeared to resuscitate that desolate tablet, and counseled the erection of society’s culture around it.

A decade later, I was honored to receive from the Acton Institute an award bearing Michael’s name: the Novak Award (2003). In the intervening time span, I had come to appreciate the genius of his proposal from both a Catholic and an American perspective. Michael believed in religion and liberty as essential elements of an authentic human ecology because God had invited free men into relationship. Of course, we might decline the invitation. But only through freedom could we accept it, choosing well, choosing the good and ultimately choosing God. If the Almighty considered the risk worth taking in creation, so should we in the construction of society.

Nevertheless, Michael didn’t doubt that only a certain type of morality would conduce to flourishing persons and societies. He knew that the cultural-moral sphere must be nourished by intermediate institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. He understood that economic growth, the engine that makes democratic politics possible, needed support from a personal core of common indispensable morality and a reasonable degree of personal goodness, decency and compassion. In brief, he knew that the cultural-moral sphere of democratic capitalism must produce people with moral virtues or the other spheres would fail.

Fast-forwarding another decade, it was my privilege to attend his weekly seminar on human ecology at The Catholic University of America last fall. Primarily, I was happy to spend so much time with him, as he was wonderful company and fun to question. He took us on something akin to an intellectual safari as he prepared a book, ranging broadly while drawing upon scores of other books he’d written. He believed it was imperative for an authentic moral ecology to wrestle with the idea of God, but that not every god would get us there. His observations throughout were characteristically thought-provoking. A random sampling: Regarding liberty: religious believers can produce a theoretical basis that protects atheists and secularists, but they cannot produce one that protects us. Regarding NFL players: they protest America’s oppression of minorities, yet where would they get the notion that minorities should not be oppressed if not from America? Certainly not from Europe, Africa or Asia. Regarding truth: We all have some; none has all. Regarding Islam’s place in a moral ecology: It must live with more pluralism than it has theory for. Regarding markets: Their dynamism from invention, technology and creativity has cost us Gemeinshcaft, or family-like community, but has produced more Gesellschaften, or temporary communities.

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Michael was a man with two mothers in addition to the one that birthed him. The first was Holy Mother Church. He’d studied in seminary as a young man, though he did not become a priest, and was first and foremost a philosophical theologian. The second was Lady Liberty. He was an American through and through, of immigrant stock from Western Pennsylvania.

He was a sweet man, a romantic in the cast of Dante in the Vita Nuova, someone in love with womanhood, embodied nowhere more perfectly than in his beloved wife, Karen, who preceded him into the eternal kingdom. He missed her sorely and spoke of longing to be with her again. I suspect that he saw a bit of “Beatrice” in every woman, beholding their perfections in a chivalrous, hand-kissing way. He was, somehow, from a different age. Now, he is in eternity. I am happy for him, though sad for myself. I mourn his passing and miss seeing his face.

Dr. Maximilian B. Torres is a Centesimus Annus Della Ratta Family Foundation Endowed Professor at the Tim and Steph Busch School of Business and Economics at the The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.