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Sep 9 - Michael Novak, Theology of Capital

Michael Novak would become the author of more than forty books on the philosophy and theology of culture, and was most famous for the 1982 publication The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. He was born today in 1933 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Developing a theology of Capitalism, he challenged Max Weber's idea of the Protestant Work Ethic.

He wrote “Democratic capitalism 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.”


It would prove to be a very influential book, finding resonance around the world as Communism was creaking and seven years later would be the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was illegally distributed in Poland, where the Solidarity movement helped defeat communism. His writings were credited with influencing Václav Havel, the dissident playwright who became the first president of Czechoslovakia after communism, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain- Thatcher’s memoirs noted that Novak “provided the intellectual basis for my approach to those great questions brought together in political parlance as ‘the quality of life.'”. His books were also used by the nascent democratic movements of South Korea, Chile, Argentina, the Philippines, Venezuela and others in the 1980s.

Novak acknowledged that “Judaism and Christianity do not require democratic capitalism.” but, he continued, “it is only that without it they would be poorer and less free.” arguing that capitalism was the economic system most likely to achieve the spiritual goods of defeating poverty and encouraging human creativity. Commentary magazine, called the book “a stunning achievement” and “perhaps the first serious attempt to construct a theology of capitalism.” In a subsequent book Novak would take issue with Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic. Novak’s critics however thought that he overlooked the severe inequalities often wrought by capitalism. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism It also marked the maturation of his political thought which has started off on the liberal left but had slowly drifted to the centre right. He had been gripped, he would later say in a talk at the University of Notre Dame in 1998, by “a powerful intellectual conviction that the left was wrong about virtually every big issue of our time: the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese regime, economics, welfare, race, and moral questions such as abortion, amnesty, acid and the sexual revolution.”

He was born as the grandson of Slovak immigrants and the oldest of five children. His father was an insurance salesman and his mother, was a stenographer. He felt a calling to the priesthood studying at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1958. Starting to doubt his vocation he returned to America and studied for a time at Catholic University in Washington. He would later say that after 18 months of great darkness but also inner peace, he became certain that I should not be a priest and moved to Manhattan and wrote a novel, “The Tiber Was Silver” about a seminarian in Rome afflicted by religious doubts, and he then accepted a graduate fellowship at Harvard, earning a master’s degree in philosophy in 1966. While teaching at Stanford University, he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and argued for “a revolution in the quality of life.” However, he had become disillusioned with campus politics and was unhappy with the continuing changes generated by Vatican II. While traveling across the country in 1970 trying to drum up support for Democratic candidates, Mr. Novak tuned into the concerns of traditionally Democratic working-class voters who were becoming alienated from elites and was angry at the marginalization of working-class Eastern European and other ethnic groups by the elite, largely Protestant establishment.

He extended his argument of Liberal Capitalism with a subsequent book “The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” which argued that capitalism’s most powerful underlying forces were not self-denial and discipline, as Max Weber had posited in his famous 1905 book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Novak shifted away from the echoes of puritanism in Weber’ and focused on the “social dimensions of the free economy” and the free play of creativity — both rooted, as Mr. Novak saw it, in Catholic ethics. “Capitalism forms morally better people than socialism does,” Capitalism teaches people to show initiative and imagination, to work cooperatively in teams, to love and to cherish the law; what is more, it forces persons not only to rely on themselves and their own moral qualities, but also to recognize those moral qualities in others and to cooperate with others freely.”

Novak was consulter by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and was very critical of Liberation Theology (pod of Aug 28 ). When John Paul II wrote the encyclical Centesimus Annus in 1991, definingthe free society as a three-fold system–political, economic, and moral–many observers detected the influence of Novak’s writings. He was at times a professor, a columnist, chief U.S. delegate to the U.N. Human Rights Commission and, for several decades, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank in Washington. He also served as United States Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and led the US delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1986.

One of his later books was written with his daughter Jana, Mr. Novak wrote “Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter’s Questions About God” (1998). Where he articulated his idea of what God is — and is not. “He is not ‘the Big Guy upstairs,’ nor the loud booming voice that Hollywood films affect for God. . . . There are hosts of bogus pictures for God: the Watchmaker beyond the skies, the puppeteer of history,” he wrote. “If you wish to find him, watch for him in quiet and humility — perhaps among the poor and broken things of earth. “There are people,” he continued, “who looked into the eyes of the most abandoned of the poor and saw infinite treasure there, treasure without price, and there found God dwelling.”

Ten years later he also drew praise for the openness with which he approached religious dialogue, such as in his book “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers” (2008). “The line of belief and unbelief,” he wrote, “is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us.” He was very critical of the ‘New Atheism’ of Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins. Saying that all three pretend that atheists “question everything” and “submit to relentless, almost tedious, self-criticism.” But pointed out in their books there is not a shred of evidence that their authors have ever had any doubts whatever about the rightness of their own atheism. Self-questioning about their own scholarly indifference to their subject; about the horrific brutalities committed in the name of “scientific atheism” during the 20th century; about the restless and mercurial dissatisfactions in atheist and secular movements during the past hundred years.

In 1995 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which included a million-dollar purse awarded at Buckingham Palace. In receiving it his statement read “I have tried to work out my theology of economics with the poor in the forefront of my attention–first of all, the poverty of my own family in its beginnings and in central Europe today, but even more urgently the awful and unnecessary poverty of Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere. Thus, if I had one wish to express on the occasion of this year’s Templeton Prize, it would be that the poor of the world benefit by it, through having attention focused on the systemic issue: Which sort of system of political economy is more likely to raise the poor out of poverty, liberate them from disease, and protect their dignity as agents free to exercise their own personal economic initiative and other creative talents?”


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