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Obituary: Michael Novak

Obituary: Michael Novak

March 15th, 2017

By Paul Adams – Professor Emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii, HSC advisory board member and longstanding friend of Michael Novak

Michael Novak was a member of Human Security Centre’s advisory board. His death on February 17 gave rise to an extraordinary outpouring of eulogies and tributes. His achievement was profound in its depth and wide in its scope and influence. The only theologian to have made Sports Illustrated’s top one hundred sports books of all time with his The Joy of Sports, he wrote – over the course of a lifetime of more than 45 books on:

– the spiritual life of atheists and believers (No One Sees God);

– the principles, philosophy, and religion of George Washington and the American Founders;

– the sociology of America’s Unmeltable Ethnics, among whom he grew up;

– Catholic Social Teaching (CST), on which he had an important influence via his friend Pope John Paul II in his encyclical, Centesimus Annus (some even suspected him, wrongly, he assured me, of writing it, as well as novels, poems, a memoir, and other works.

His seminal book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, was highly influential and, it is no exaggeration to say, changed history. It was translated and published in samizdat form throughout Eastern Europe by dissidents and circulated and discussed in small groups under repressive Communist regimes. Novak too played an important intellectual role in the post-Communist world of Eastern Europe, consulting with leaders like Vaclav Havel and founding or participating in several institutes and seminars. He was a friend of Thatcher and Reagan, of many public intellectuals and leaders.  He also became a friend and mentor of countless students and young people at the very outset of their careers (as well as of this septuagenarian at the very end of his). He was twice US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission, where he did valiant battle almost alone against the corruption and bias of that organization.

Several themes stand out across this lifetime of service. One is that he took religious ideas and their universal impact seriously, seeing that no perspective on the ordinary activities of human beings – whether in the realm of foreign policy, economics, politics, or culture – could be adequate if it bracketed them out of consideration. He saw the indivisibility of rightly ordered liberty, of the interconnections and interdependence of economic, political, and cultural freedom (including freedom of speech and press as well as religious liberty). He offered many thousands, not least in Eastern Europe, an alternative vision to the Communist East and social-democratic West, both spiritually impoverished and crudely materialistic.

CST and the concept of “social justice” had been widely appropriated by the Left in a way that emphasized material equality and redistribution by the state. Interpreters and teachers of CST along these lines conveniently ignored Pope Leo XIII’s emphasis on the family, civil society, and private property. As Novak pointed out, Leo also denunced – in the founding document of modern CST, no less – egalitarianism and socialism in all its forms as worse for working people than the disease it sought to cure. Novak sought to restore the authentic Catholic tradition that put the human person as creative, resourceful, social being made in the image of the Creator God at the heart of our understanding of economics and politics. This in opposition both to individualistic tendencies to reduce man to an autonomous, unencumbered economic agent on one hand, and to collectivist tendencies that sought to expand state power and weaken the scope for individual initiative and freedom on the other. Novak emphasized a both/and approach, neither individualist nor collectivist (like Pius XI, he saw these as two sides of the same coin). He looked both to the creativity and initiative of individuals, families, their associations and communities and to the state to supplement or substitute for those efforts when and to the extent necessary. This is the principle of subsidiarity that, rightly understood, lies at the heart of CST.

There was a Christian realism at the heart of Novak’s approach to every subject. It saw, in the words of Charles Péguy, that “the sinner is at the very heart of Christianity.” He often quoted his Slovak father’s saying that, “everything human, given enough time, will go bad.” His call for a sharper sense of sin was a rejection of utopianism in all its forms, in economics, politics, and not least, foreign policy. The American Founders, he saw, had this same realism and built into their new system checks and balances to prevent the concentration of power in too few hands or in one branch of government. The French and Russian revolutionaries, on the other hand, set aside tradition and the wisdom of generations, so that an enlightened elite could start again from scratch and concentrate power in its own hands for the benefit of the masses whose interests it claimed to represent. They were intrinsically tyrannical and elitist. Denying the nature of the human person, they displayed the authoritarianism beneath the surface of every utopian, the illiberalism of liberals who seek to impose a new state orthodoxy on the masses whom they hold in contempt. (He was eulogized by one writer as the “philosopher of the ‘deplorables’.”)

In this spirit, Novak saw pacifism and reflexive anti-interventionism on Left and Right as resting on a false reading of our flawed human nature, one that allowed evil to triumph in the world. Virtue signaling (not a term I ever heard him use) and a sense of moral superiority were no substitute for being prepared and willing, where necessary, to intervene forcefully to confront the grave evil of genocidal tyrants. Appeasement and withdrawal are less likely to result in peace than to create a vacuum that more aggressive opponents will quickly fill. He rejected the all too common and crude moral equivalency argument that opposed intervention because “we” (British, Americans, Christians, et al.) had also done bad things in our past.

On a personal note, I came to know Michael as a neighbor, friend, colleague, and parishioner when I retired to the same small new Catholic college town in Ave Maria, Florida where he was an active founder and benefactor. I had come to know his writings on social justice, which he defined not as a state of affairs corresponding to the latest platform of a political party, but as a virtue, a sub-virtue of the cardinal virtue of justice, but social in a double sense. It brought people together and did so with a view to furthering the common good in ways that could not be achieved by individual effort alone.

I conceived the idea of collecting his various occasional writings on social justice into a book of his essays. It turned into what became our joint work, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is. He warmly embraced the project and we spent the next three years working on it as it expanded to contain a substantial rethinking and rewriting of his part and the inclusion and expansion, at his insistence, of a section of my own. It was an example of his extraordinary energy – he seemed always to be working on several projects, whether theoretical in nature, or novels or poems – even to the very end of his life. It exemplified, too, his kindness and generosity, as well as his wit and humility (he would joke when complimented on the latter that he was known for his humility throughout the world). He was the personification of the virtue of social justice, joining with others, encouraging, facilitating, leading, to found and develop many initiatives, such as (but not only) the Acton Institute, First Things, Crisis magazine, the Tertio Millennio Institute (Poland), the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the Free Society Seminar (Slovakia), and Ave Maria University. He was a model of the principled, creative entrepreneurship he extolled in his writings. And a dear friend, generous, kind, loving, and an inspiration to countless people who learned from his work and his example. Rest in peace, Michael.


In the name of the Human Security Centre we wish to extend our deepest sympathy to the family of Michael Novak.

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