Constant defender of freedom and human dignity Novak: his spiritual journey towards freedom


Rocío Albert es profesora de Economía, Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

Rocío Albert is profesor of Economics in Universidad Complutense de Madrid.
Of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation.


On February 17 the light of one of the most important American intellectuals and theologian from the 20th century, Michael Novak, stopped shining. He leaves us a very significant legacy, because of the extension of his writings as well as for the variety of it. His work is prolific and quite original; his writings go from ecclesiology, the virtues of capitalism, the ethics of business, passing from eschatology to nuclear dissuasion, not to mention one of his passions captured in one of his books, about the virtues of sport.

Novak’s intellectual lineage was like him, very original and very American at the same time. He came from a Slovak working class family of immigrants in Pennsylvania and he trained as Catholic seminarian during his youth. That led him to be a man on the left during his first years, at the same time he positioned himself in a strong opposition to the Vietnam War, becoming a strong advocate of the civil rights. Throughout his life he was evolving towards more conservative ideas, as he explains in his book Writing from Left to Right: Writing My Journey from Liberal to Conservative (2013). In this work Novak exposed that while the advocates of the left-wing ideas considered that the existence of a big benefactor State was the way to help people by making them “subjects”, the more conservative ideas had shown themselves better  in terms of prosperity for the individuals (especially for the poorest ones), the families, the nations and the whole world. In fact, in the early 80s, Michael Novak became the most original forefront of the conservative.

In his prolific work, one of his most important books was The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), in which he weaves a clever network between theology and economy, diving in this field of research in which other important authors such as Max Weber or Juan de Mariana had worked. In this work he defends capitalism as the economic system which can best defeat poverty, raise innovation and foster creativity to obtain the assets that provide spiritual and material satisfaction. In this work there’s a great influence of the thought of Adam Smith, but differently from Smith, who considered that moral was at mercy of the historical dynamics of the moral systems, Novak presents a more static view of morals determined by religion. He comes to the conclusion that capitalism results from the indivisible conjunction between a (democratic) political system, a (liberal) economic one and a (Christian) cultural one. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism is not simply a book in defense of the market-based economy but, as Novak himself pointed out in diverse occasions, an attempt to show how freedom in the political and economic sphere, led by a strong legal and moral cultural system, can produce more benefits for the individuals than no other institution can do.

We have to stress that the publication of this book aided to the pacific end of the Cold War, since its translation and distribution on the other side of the Berlin Wall enlightened many lectors to understand the spiritual impoverishment of communism and the theological richness of capitalism. Likewise, it served as lighthouse for consolidated leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, who affirmed that Novak had managed to “put in a new and striking language what she had always thought about individuals and communities”, thanks to his description of capitalism as a moral and social system, apart from an economic system.

Novak elaborated and extended his relation between capitalism and Catholicism in several subsequent books, especially The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1993). In them he argued that the most powerful underlying forces of capitalism weren’t abnegation and discipline, as Max Weber said, but the social dimensions of the free economy and the freedom of action of creativity, both of them rooted in the Catholic ethic.

It should be emphasized that his studies on Theology in the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and Harvard, and his years in the seminar of the Congregation of Holy Cross in Notre Dame, made him a much respected analyst of Catholic issues. He was even consulted by two of the Supreme Pontiffs, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and he covered in a journalistic way the events of the Second Vatican Council, depicting his thought on the new Church. Furthermore, due to his admirable academic contributions in defense of the values of freedom, he received numerous distinctions, amongst them the Templeton Prize in the United States in 1994, granted by his exceptional contribution to the affirmation of the spiritual dimension of the existence. Throughout his life he was a constant advocate of human dignity and freedom. Michael Novak has left us to go and rest with his loved ones, but his wonderful work, which will enlighten the way and the pursuit of freedom, will always accompany us.

#Freedom #Novak