Michael Novak: Intellectual godfather to a generation of conservatives

Michael Novak passed away on Friday, February 17, at his home in Washington, D.C. AEI President Arthur Brooks penned the following remembrance of the great Catholic theologian and economist later that day. The article originally posted at the National Review

Next time your work is frustrating or unpleasant, reflect on these words: “Enjoying what we do is not always a feeling of enjoyment; it is sometimes the gritty resolution a man or woman shows in doing what must be done — perhaps with inner dread and yet without whimpering self-pity.” The author of this tough love is the great philosopher and policy expert Michael Novak, who died Friday at 83. Novak, a longtime scholar at the American Enterprise Institute until his retirement in 2010, was one of the most influential conservative scholars of the past 75 years. His work shaped an entire generation of intellectuals.

Novak’s own formation started with twelve years training for the Catholic priesthood. He left the seminary just a few months before ordination. But he never wavered in his Catholicism and put his priestly training to good use in a career-long apostolate for faith, family, and free enterprise.

Novak’s early intellectual accomplishments were in theology. His most influential work in the field was the 1965 masterpiece Belief and Unbelief: A Philosophy of Self-Knowledge. Reading it is a viscerally satisfying experience, as Novak challenges the bravery of believers. A belief in God “could be an empty illusion, even a crime against his own humanity,” Novak wrote. “He knows the stakes.” But the possibility of hopeless delusion is no excuse for the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” evasion we so often hear today. A person of honor must decide to believe and face the consequences if wrong. In Novak’s words, “He has no place in his heart for complacency or that sweet pseudo-religious ‘peace’ that sickens honest men.” In short: Religious belief is not for sissies.

Like many thinkers of his generation, Novak intellectually matriculated as a progressive but graduated to conservatism. The first reason was his observation that the Democratic party of the 1970s was softening on Communism; then over social issues such as abortion and the family; and finally over support of the American free-enterprise system. He ultimately defined himself as a neoconservative alongside AEI colleagues such as Irving Kristol. But while Kristol defined a neoconservative as a liberal who has been mugged by reality, Novak preferred the definition “a progressive with three teenage children.”

My own ideological migration from left to right matched Novak’s. Although at the time I had never met the great man, his work was especially helpful to me as a young Catholic. In the 1990s, I was struggling to ascertain how my religion fit with the conviction that capitalism was the superior economic system, at a time when much of the Church hierarchy appeared to be asserting the opposite. Was my ideology at odds with my faith?

Novak answered my question. In the early 1980s, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops developed a pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All,” that promoted unvarnished liberal economic policies under the banner of Catholic social teaching. Novak led a lay group of Catholic leaders with expertise in economics and business that published an alternative take, “Toward the Future: Catholic Social Thought and the U.S. Economy.” While respectfully confirming the Church’s teaching authority regarding faith and morals, Novak and colleagues confidently asserted lay competence in practical questions of economics and policy. And this expertise, they argued persuasively, showed that free enterprise was integral to achieving the Church’s goals of promoting the dignity of the individual, affirming the social nature of humanity, and asserting the need to solve problems at the lowest possible level of governance. Novak’s words were mother’s milk to me at that pivotal moment in my life.

Novak’s work as a policy analyst was just as consequential. Perhaps most notable was the 1987 volume he edited, The New Consensus on Family and Welfare, which argued that welfare dependency was a bigger problem for the American poor than poverty per se. This was a radical idea at the time, and it complemented the work of his AEI colleagues Charles Murray and Irving Kristol. Murray, Kristol, and Novak were intellectual godfathers of the welfare-reform efforts of the 1990s that pulled millions of Americans out of unemployment and poverty.

I came to relate to Novak in more ways than just ideological and religious. We both moved from Syracuse University (he taught religion; I taught public administration) to AEI, although he did so 30 years before me. When I joined AEI as its president, I found it nothing short of astonishing that I was a colleague of the counselor to presidents and popes, whose work had done so much to influence my thinking.

That influence was nowhere greater than in his belief that all economic arguments must have a moral basis in human dignity. This was definitively clear in what I believe is his greatest book of all, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which he published in 1982. “Democratic capitalism is neither the Kingdom of God nor without sin,” he wrote with characteristic toughness. “Yet all other known systems of political economy are worse. Such hope as we have for alleviating poverty and for removing oppressive tyranny — perhaps our last, best hope — lies in this much despised system.”

An AEI colleague once remarked that Michael Novak’s tough conservative brain was motivated entirely by a tender heart. It’s not a bad combination, and a legacy which I can only hope to imitate in my own career.

— Arthur C. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute.

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