What a dear, sweet, brilliant, wonderful man! Michael Novak, born in 1933, died on February 18, 2017, and I miss his presence in the world so much already.
He was such a fascinating figure, an adaptable mind with firm principles that put him on many different political sides over the course of a long career. But I think if you look carefully, you find a common thread in all his work: the desire to champion the dignity and freedom of the human person. And by that, I mean every person.
Looking at the sweep of his life, you don’t find that commitment consistently on either the Right or the Left, which is what accounts for his changing political alliances. He is widely thought to be a member of the New Left who later became a Neoconservative, with the implication that it was wholly he who changed. Actually this tale is overwrought and his principles are more fixed than is usually supposed.
When I was younger and sitting in his living room, I asked him about his early book, The Open Church, published in 1964. I asked whether the commitment to freedom found in that book – mostly surrounding the issues of religious freedom – might have been the foundation of his later commitment to economic freedom, so that perhaps he hadn’t changed his mind as much as people say.
I continue to believe that he became more libertarian than even he knew.He thought about it and said, “There is something to that. I like to think I’ve grown intellectually over the years but I’ve never had the sense that I somehow changed fundamentally. Why don’t you write on this?”
I never did write on this. Most of my writings on his work have been argumentative essays telling him that his commitment to liberty was not nearly consistent enough, that he should have gone further with his suspicion of authority and become a full libertarian. He was always kind to me in these debates. I continue to believe that he became more libertarian than even he knew.
So let me sketch out the essay that he wanted me to write, while leaving it to someone else to do the hard work of proving my contention.
In the Beginning, There Was Catholicism
Michael Novak was a theologian above all else, and his early years were spent on one side of a great divide that existed within Catholicism in the early 1960s. There were two sides, neither of which exist today in the form they once did, so you have to imagine the history.
There were defenders of the old order dating back to the High Middle Ages: a powerful but remote Church, liturgy in Latin, suspicious of modernity, doubtful of freedom itself, wedded to unchanging forms. They were called “conservatives,” but they were better described as Tridentine Catholics for their devotion to the Council of Trent (which the last, most-recent Council did nothing to change or adapt).
Novak was firmly on the side of the liberals, mainly due to his attachment to the idea of religious liberty.The other side believed in religious liberty, openness, liturgical renewal, and a desire to embrace modernity and the idea of human progress – an extension of a movement that had actually begun around the 1890s. All of that sounds like an unmitigated good, but because this was the 60s, and all which that entailed, part of the mix also included a measure of heterodoxy, statist politics, and even revolutionary impulses that wanted to, as they say, throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Novak was firmly on the side of the liberals, mainly due to his attachment to the idea of religious liberty, which had been a controversy in the Church for more than a century. He was certain that people should be free to believe and free to practice the faith of their choice, because this was a human right. He believed that the Church should uphold this right, even if it meant making Catholicism itself a matter of choice rather than coercion. Like Lord Acton, he firmly rejected “the temporal power of the sword,” making his views anathema to the conservatives. There was even a movement to silence him in these years.
The Second Vatican Council did embrace religious liberty with its famous document Dignitis Humanae. Novak was the major influence. It was a beautiful moment for him, and for religious faith in general. It was long overdue as well.
After the Council
Unfortunately, this victory inspired an arrogance and imperiousness in them which in turn unleashed forces within Catholicism that no one could later control. It was a perfect storm of cultural change and liturgical and moral upheaval – having nothing to do with religious liberty. Seminaries emptied, monasteries fell apart, and the faithful in the pews themselves were deeply rattled by wild events that reached down to the parish level itself.
All of this happened over the course of the 10 years following the Council, and Novak joined the voices that were crying foul, suggesting that what had begun as liberalization had been transmogrified into something else entirely. It had become destructive. This set Novak out on a quest to discover the proper place and limits of the idea of human freedom, as an extension of his early classically liberal commitments.
The book shocked his old friends. He seemed to have betrayed them.In 1982, he published his great work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. It was his total break from the anti-capitalism of the Left – an ideology he had never embraced, but now we were watching the new dawn of economic consciousness. He came to realize – and here is the crucial point – that economic freedom was an extension of religious freedom, an application of the human right to associate, create, invent, own, and generally enjoy liberty.
The book shocked his old friends. He seemed to have betrayed them. In his view, the betrayal ran the other way: to be a liberal means to embrace liberty with confidence and not just in one area of life. After all, when we are talking about economics, we are talking about a gigantic swath of life itself. We are talking about the use of the mind in a material context that can mean the difference between a good and bad life, a thriving population or grinding poverty, the God-given right to creativity or a system that smothers that gift. In short, he had become a consistent liberal in the classical sense.
In this context, he began to celebrate entrepreneurship as an aspect of human creativity, and business itself as a kind of vocation not unlike other callings in life. He celebrated the moral significance of productivity and wealth as an essential feature of the good life. He championed the free economy against the planned society.
His writings were so powerful on this topic that he came to influence Church teaching itself under the pontificate of John Paul II. In these years, he wrote what became my favorite book of his and, actually, one of my favorite books of all time: Free Persons and the Common Good (1988). He relies fundamentally on an idea advanced by Ludwig von Mises in his 1927 book Liberalism. Mises said that liberalism is the only social theory that pushes for the common good, as opposed to the good of only one or two sectors of society. Novak ran with that idea and beautifully integrated individualism with communitarianism, giving us a principled defense of liberty as the best system for universal prosperity and peace. For me, with this book, Novak achieved his intellectual height.
One and Many
Freedom builds in institutions that incentivize community peace through trade and commerce.Other notable contributions followed. In the 1990s, we saw the first flash of the view that there is a clash of civilizations in the world, that the West was fundamentally opposed to cultural leanings of other parts of the world, and that liberty as we know it belongs only to one group. Novak saw the danger of this way of thinking and responded with a very inspiring work: Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations is Not Inevitable (2004).
It’s fascinating to compare this book with his 1972 work Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, which championed cultural charisms of particular people and their contribution to the diversity of any thriving society. Novak’s universalism, then, is not about imposing one way on everyone. It is about the universal right to and desire for freedom itself, which is, as he sees it, an extension of the nature of the human person. How can a single society be the home of such diversity? Freedom builds in institutions that incentivize community peace through trade and commerce, while also permitting groups to develop their own cultures.
In this, he stood solidly for classical liberalism and against the rise of warfare sociology on the Left and the Right. His humane outlook, infused with Christian love and rigorous scholarship, will stand the test of time. He leaves an amazing literary legacy with us. As for my outlook of his intellectual biography, I hope there will be many more writings and commentaries on his life and influence. His voice made a difference in the world in exactly the way he hoped it would, at the beginning and at the end.