Illustrious Catholic Scholar Michael Novak Dies at 83

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After battling with cancer, Michael Novak, renowned American scholar and defender of the free-market economy and religious liberty, died on Friday at the age of 83.

The list of Novak’s accomplishments is long and varied. Hailing from the cultural left in the 1960s, Novak gradually came to see liberalism as morally and intellectually bankrupt, a journey he recounted in a winsome memoir titled Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative.

A Catholic theologian, Novak wrote more than 50 books on a broad range of topics during his prolific career, including the groundbreaking 1982 work The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in which Novak made a moral case for the free market system. He also defended the idea of business as a vocation, an idea he revisited in greater depth in his 1996 book, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life.

Novak was the first theologian to make an in-depth moral, cultural, and political case for the market economy in a systematic way, garnering him enduring opprobrium from the religious and secular left.

“Democratic capitalism,” Novak wrote, is “neither the Kingdom of God nor without sin. 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.”

As many theologians were promoting liberation theology as a remedy for economic and social problems in Latin America, Novak rejected the idea of embracing socialism as a solution to for poverty-stricken peoples, well before the public collapse of socialism in 1989.

In her own memoir titled The Downing Street Years, Margaret Thatcher praised Novak’s “new and striking language” and “important insights,” and added that his writing on the morality of political economy “provided the intellectual basis for my approach to those great questions brought together in political parlance as ‘the quality of life.’”

Under Ronald Reagan, Novak worked as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights as well as providing eleven years of service on the boards of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

In 1978, Novak began work as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., where he served as director of social and political studies. In 1983, he was named the George Frederick Jewett Chair in religion and public policy and remained there until his retirement from the post in 2009.

As Catholic League president Bill Donohue noted, “Michael Novak was more than a brilliant and dedicated Catholic, his range of scholarship was astounding.”

“Theologian, sociologist, economist, political scientist — he was all of these and more,” Donahue said.

This author feels a particular debt of gratitude for more than 20 years of friendship and collaboration with Michael Novak, who was always insightful, gracious, loyal and true.

In his 2008 book No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Novak made the argument that the line of belief and unbelief “is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us.”

He has now entered the realm where belief gives way to vision, doubts to certainty and pain and sorrow to eternal joy.

Requiesce in pace, Michael.

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