I was in Michael Novak’s home, but he wasn’t there. It was October 2009, and I was with his brother Ben. We had traveled from State College to Washington, DC for a conference the was starting the next day and we were house sitting that night while Michael was away for something.
What does a house reveal about its inhabitants? The Novak home revealed a lot to me, even in just one night’s stay. It was already being prepared for sale. Michael’s wife Karen had died not long ago. It felt drenched in all the vibrant energy of a whole family. Michael’s sister Mary Ann had been there earlier and had left a crock pot of her lamb stew in the kitchen. (Ben and I had a taste, and I think my memory of that day will be bound up with my experience of that stew forever, it was such a culinary revelation to my young palate.) It was a humble, beautiful, comfortable place. The sort of home that felt like a sanctuary. I remember Michael’s expansive first floor office and library, just piles after piles and books all over. The whole place felt like it was an inspiration for Norman Rockwell’s America. I had just turned 22 and I was trying to consciously absorb everything I could about what seemed to make for a good life. Michael’s home was an obvious example to me, and the next morning when Ben and I left for our conference I snapped this photo:
But it would be almost two years before I met Michael. He and Ben had moved in together in a bungalow in Ave Maria, Florida. It made sense: despite a ten year age difference, both brothers were getting older and I think both were grateful for the companionship. (They had never really lived with each other before; by the time Ben was old enough to really remember anything, Michael had already left Johnstown for seminary. This was also a way for them to get to know each other.) Visiting Michael and Ben in Ave Maria was memorable, and their warmth and friendship brought me back to that special Catholic town again and again. All told I think I’ve stayed with them there cumulatively something like eight months over the past five years. Their hospitality has been rightly legendary there.
So while my first encounter with Michael had been as something of an interloper in Washington with his brother, it was in Ave Maria that I got to know him.
“Ambassador Novak,” especially in the first years of my visits when Ave Maria was still very small and tight knit, functioned as a sort of model citizen for that growing experiment in Catholic community. The honorific came from his service to President Reagan as human rights diplomat, and his reputation as a philosopher and intellectual had led to his appointment as the first of Ave Maria’s trustees. R.R. Reno very compactly explains Michael’s most brilliant achievement:
During the Cold War, conservative intellectuals defended the American Way of Life. That way included capitalism, which was contrasted with the command-and-control economy of communism. But there remained a suspicion that socialism—if implemented in a humane way—was the morally superior approach. What Michael did in his most famous book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, was to describe the moral contributions a free economy makes to a healthy society.
If Marx had made the moral case for communism, Michael Novak had made the first thoroughly moral case for capitalism—and one that influenced world opinion at the right time. These achievements led to his Templeton Prize and his Awakening from Nihilism address. George Weigel provides greater context for Michael Novak’s thought and its impact in his 2014 City Journal article “American and Catholic: Michael Novak’s Achievement“:
Catholic intellectual life consciously engages the fullness of human experience, which Catholic thinkers “read” through the prism of revelation and reason, both of which, they maintain, cast the light of truth on human affairs. This conviction—that reflection on the things of the City of God can illuminate the paradoxes, tragedies, conundrums, and possibilities of the City of Man—stands at the center of Michael Novak’s thought. …
It is not within my competence to make judgments about Novak’s account of economic life; others are better equipped to determine what he got right and what has been left incomplete in his philosophical and theological analysis of markets, free enterprise, the system of democratic capitalism, and the vocation of business. But however those judgments wind up, it’s clear that Novak, with singular dedication and real effect in the evolution of Catholic social doctrine, introduced a new temper to Catholic thinking about economic life. We can describe that new temper as an empirical sensibility that never descends into empiricism.
Novak’s account of economics begins, not with abstractions, but with keen observations of what is, which, in turn, lead to a disciplined reflection on how what is ought to be understood, casting light on moral truths and responsibilities in the process. Or, as his friend Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian social thinker, has put it, Novak’s seminal thinking about economic life raised an important question, little explored previously in Catholic social thought—or indeed in any other religiously informed social thought: Might “laws” exist in economic life analogous to the moral laws that a disciplined reflection on human moral action can discern? Is there, in other words, a deep structure to economic life that helps explain why some economies “work,” whether those economies are lodged in medieval Benedictine monasteries or in modern business enterprises? And does that deep structure reflect truths about the human person and human relationships that we can recognize by a careful, empirically informed reasoning that is attentive to the truths about the human condition that we learn from biblical religion?
From its inception with Pope Leo XIII in the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, modern Catholic social doctrine, for all its insights, had a somewhat abstract, top-down quality. Thus, the strikingly empirical character of Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II’s seminal 1991 encyclical on the free and virtuous society in its political, economic, and cultural dimensions, marked a significant development in the Church’s evolving social thought. The basic principles of that tradition remained in place, but they now found themselves filled out by a far more attentive reading of the realities of late-modern political and economic life—including the one that Novak powerfully described at the outset of his groundbreaking 1982 book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism: “Of all the systems of political economy which have shaped our history, none has so revolutionized ordinary expectations of human life—lengthened the life span, made the elimination of poverty and famine imaginable, enlarged the range of human choice—as democratic capitalism.” Recognizing the truth (and limits) of that insight, Centesimus Annus developed Catholic social doctrine’s “standpoint” to include the possibilities of empowerment latent in free economies, clearly reflecting Novak’s influence. If Catholic social doctrine continues to unfold along the trajectory of Centesimus Annus, it will continue to bear the imprint of Novak’s thought.
The impact of Novak’s writing on Catholicism and economic life wasn’t just felt in Rome. A samizdat translation of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism circulated in poorly printed and tattered editions among the leaders of Solidarity in Soviet-controlled Poland, helping to shape the post-Communist future of that country. The Polish government recently acknowledged Novak’s contribution to a free Poland by awarding him the Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Merit, one of the nation’s highest honors. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism had a similar influence across the Tatra Mountains, in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Novak’s thinking on economics and his critique of Marxist-influenced “liberation theologies” also helped turn the tide against an influential movement that threatened to reduce the Church in Latin America to a political agent advancing a totalitarian agenda. At the same time, his creative extension of Catholic social doctrine helped Latin American scholars, clergy, and political leaders think beyond the authoritarianism and mercantilism that had often characterized Catholic public cultures south of the Rio Grande.
Finally, it’s important to note the influence of Novak’s economic thought on an entire generation of younger thinkers, on American officeholders of all religious persuasions and none, on religious leaders of various denominations, and on business leaders and entrepreneurs throughout the world. By demonstrating how empirical rigor about the realities of economic life could be married to core principles of Catholic social doctrine and to a profoundly biblical anthropology, Novak has helped open up once-unimaginable conversations.
In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II described the free and virtuous society as composed of three interlocking parts: a democratic political community, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture. At the same time, he stressed the crucial importance of that third sector, culture, in disciplining and tempering the energies unleashed by freedom, so that they contributed to genuine human flourishing. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism anticipated this tripartite portrait of the free and virtuous society. As Novak argued, “democracy . . . and the . . . market . . . require a special moral-cultural base. Without certain moral and cultural presuppositions about the nature of individuals and their communities, about liberty and sin, about the changeability of history, about work and savings, about self-restraint and mutual cooperation, neither democracy nor capitalism can be made to work.”
I remember Michael as a philosopher of the humane and the practical; it was his interest in the human person that enlivened his economic, philosophical, and theological thinking, and it was his interest in the human person that I think made his economic vision in particular so rooted and so invigorating. I think that’s captured somewhat when he wrote that democratic capitalism was meant for “neither the Kingdom of God nor [a world] 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.”
So Michael had spent a great deal of his adult life defending a distinctly Christian understanding of human life from an American perspective. But in Ave Maria he was interested in shoring up the foundations of Catholic culture in the most practical way possible—by living in community and sharing himself with others. I had the benefit of meeting Michael as a friend of Ben, his brother. In time I had the chance to collaborate with him in assembling the letters of his martyred brother, Fr. Richard Novak, CSC. My friendship with Michael developed over scattered time together in Ave Maria and in Lewis, Delaware. In the spirit of scattered remembrance, here are some of what flickers in my memory:
First, more than anything else, Michael’s work ethic in his late 70s and early 80s was greater than I’d seen from anyone else his age. A humbling thing to be outworked by someone roughly 50 years older. I remember his routine of an end-of-the-day Manhattan, and conversation that flowed afterwards at the Queen Mary Pub or simply in the living room or lanai. The visitors, from trustees to faculty to students to townspeople to whomever, felt nearly constant. There was always someone to see, to speak with, to be present with, to talk and think and smile with together. “The Ambassador,” to Ave residents.
There’s Hollow, Michael and Ben’s beautiful wolfish doggy, hopping up on his bed and being pet. There’s his Karen’s canvased paintings hanging throughout the house, and little Christmas figurines in the kitchen. “Our father told us to think of every day as Christmas,” Ben explains.
There’s an old prayer card for Fr. Richard, long dead but alive in memory and prayed for in the family. There’s Ben and Michael, in their 70s and 80s, getting to know one another and enjoy each other. Michael’s asking about Joe Paterno, and speaking out about the injustice done to him in the media-driven rush to judgement over the crimes of those around him.
We’re in Lewes, and I’m picking him up after a night out at 1776 steakhouse. He and Ed Feulner are waiting outside as I arrive. He’s back in his third floor office the next morning, working with a view of Cape Henlopen and the departing Cape May ferry.
Face cast downward, sitting at the dinner table or in a side chair, his hand resting on his head—he had this whole “thinking” posture. It’s how I remember him most distinctly—in those long and impressive stretches he’d go without speaking until some point or decision sprung forth. There’s that mischievous smile.
I forget where I heard him described this way, but Michael could “stay full of piss and vinegar for the people who deserved it” in a fruitful way. I saw firsthand his ability to be exasperated by someone’s slowness in their work. But also gentle and thoughtful in encouraging a better approach or work ethic.
There’s Michael’s ability to think laterally that showed how he connected distant threads into coherence. There’s his literally becoming his brother Ben’s keeper in their later years. Ben and Michael are sitting together enjoying a digestif, recalling “mother and father” in a way that makes it clear they’re still alive at heart—“Mother was so proud of her French Provincial furniture, because in Johnstown that was a symbol of class even more than style.” And then there was memory of their father, who had graduated ninth grade and taught them principles of business. Their father, who had responded with such dignity to the death of Richard, his missionary son.
Michael and Ben are together, celebrating Michael’s 80th birthday at the Army-Navy Club in Washington with everyone from Clarence Thomas to Karl Rove in attendance. It was a beautiful night:
In remembering someone who was a part of your life, especially when doing it in a public or semi-public way, I think it’s natural to speak in anecdote. Great anecdotes tend to reveal those small moments where personalities are captured in their essence. Michael’s 80th birthday at the Army-Navy Club was a night of great anecdotes.
What did I learn from Michael? A bit of how to be a brother, a lot of how to work (just keep working), and some of how to gratefully and tactfully interact with those around you, especially those whom you’re seeking to influence. How to act, in broad ways—this was his sense of etiquette and propriety and discretion that probably made him a good diplomat, and that certainly made him stand apart as a man from another era.
What did Michael say about tradition? “Tradition lives because young people come along who catch its romance and add new glories to it.” What did he say about concrete things? “To know oneself is to disbelieve in utopia. To seek realism is to learn mercy.”
As much as Michael believed in Ave Maria as a chance to create an orthodox Catholic community, he recognized the limits of that vision in returning to Washington to teach at the Catholic University of America in what turned out to be the last year of his life. He had a knack for both anticipating and helping shape the future, and he explained his return to Washington this way:
Novak, who was interviewed recently by The Ave Herald, the news site of Ave Maria, says he will teach one class a week at CUA, “to baptize the idea” of the course and noted some of the issues he plans to explore with his students. “The 20th century was exhausting, fighting dictatorships and economic ideas like socialism. But we ignored the social and the cultural. If we lose those, we lose everything.”
In closing my poor man’s tribute to Michael, I want to quote something that Elizabeth Bruenig shared on Twitter when news broke of Michael’s death:
“I have a phone conversation with Michael Novak just about a month before he passed away. He said something I liked so much, I wrote it down: ‘A kind word not spoken takes something out of the fabric of what should’ve been.’ He said he had been thinking on this often lately.”
I have many “kinds words not spoken” that I have for Michael when I see him again. We think time passes too quickly in this life, but our frailty and weakness too often robs us of our agency to think, to speak, to act, and to love in the time we have. Michael lives on in my memory, urging me to make better use of the gift of this life. And wherever I gather with Catholic friends, I’ll carry Hilaire Belloc with me—one of Michael’s favorite benedictions, the sort of blessing that invites the experience of what it describes:
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine,
At least I’ve always found it so,