Michael Novak's Passing

The recent death of Michael Novak, whose Catholic identity began as a liberal and became neo-conservative, recalls the uprising of the Catholic right that took aim at two of the most Vatican II inspired developments of the latter 20th century. One was the U.S. Bishops' pastoral letter on the American economy. The other was Latin American based liberation theology.

Novak was among the best known of the laity who publicly attacked the bishops' letter which decried the extent of the nation's poverty. Stressing human dignity as the central focus of Catholic social teaching, the called for reshaping of spending to reduce income gaps, support for unions and working conditions and improvement social services to enhance human potential. From his visible position at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Novak joined William Simon, the former Treasury Secretary under Richard Nixon, in spearheading a rebuttal under the banner of the Lay Committee. It's blistering rebuke of the pastoral letter was preemptive, issued a week before the pastoral itself appeared in public.

In sum, the letter indicted the pastoral for relying too much on bad economics. Novak and Simon saw too much socialistic thinking in it, reflecting distrusted European ideas, and argued that alleviation of economic ills the bishops desired depended on a rigorous pursuit of capitalism. To the Lay Committee, the bishops had slighted capitalism as wealth generation.

It's impossible to know how much damage the Novak-Simon critique did, but the dynamics indicated an unusual reverse of Catholic teaching. Prominent Catholic lay people were rising up and, in effect, scolding bishops for encroaching on "their" territory. It was a measure of how strongly embedded Catholics had become in the country. In effect, the Lay Committee was impugning the bishops right to speak on a subject that they, as lay "experts," belonged to them. They were telling the bishops they were poorly informed and incompetent to deal adequately with the fiscal side of things which had its own autonomy.

The issue for me, then and now, was precisely the relationship between theology and practice. Had economics earned the right to claim independence from religious consideration -- had Christians so accepted the system of capitalism as a logical extension of the gospel that any questioning of it was unthinkable on a pragmatic basis? Maybe so. A well known church historian argues that with rare exceptions the churches gave up trying to formulate any serious approaches to the question of what economic arrangements best served the common good. Capitalist assumptions had simply been absorbed as part of Christian teaching, ordained by the Almighty.

So it was not so surprising that the Lay Committee played a card that at one time might have thought to be uppity. What was troublesome so far as I was concerned was that the lay critics of the letter never in any substantial way tried to reconcile the biblical and theological reasons the bishops had doubted aspects of capitalism in their letter. The Lay Committee apparently felt no need to respond to the bishops' looking at free enterprise, and identifying its flaws, through Christians lenses. For the disgruntled laity, capitalism had proven its worth and they didn't need to examine it as Catholics.

Likewise, Michael Novak's participation in Vatican-inspired assaults on liberation theology were aimed at creating a counter-narrative among influential Catholics. The movement, fueled by a handful of leading South American theologian including Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff, envisioned a renewed Catholicism that arose from the need of the masses to be freed from various oppressions (including those fostered by the church) that had long plagued them. It took root in Bible teaching, local communities of believers and social/political analysis to help guide their path to justice. To map that path, they admittedly borrowed concepts advanced by Marx but rejected identity as Marxists and denounced use of violence. They were using available tools to examine traditional culture, they said.

That distinction was denied by the alarmists who saw liberation theology as alien to Catholicism by relying on an corrupting ideology. Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, took the lead, eventually firing off two major warnings and denunciations of liberation theology as hopelessly Marxist. Among Ratzinger's backers as Michael Novak who campaigned vigorously against the perceived dangers in the fledgling movement and in the process rallied powerful conservative support against it. His most formidable weapon was a book titled "Will It Liberate" and among his other effective efforts was a 1984 attack on the movement in the New York Times magazine. 

At every turn, Novak employed a keen mind and stout resolve to shake many of liberal Catholicism's basic assumptions. I believe he sought to be an insider's outsider and to a degree succeeded. The loyal opposition role sometimes melded almost entirely into a secular world, however. In his assault on liberation theology, for example, the perspective he most often took was as an observer from a tower of abstractions rather than from amidst the people caught in the throes of the struggle for survival and dignity. In other words, the viewpoint often didn't seem located within Catholicism or the realities of the thousands of base communities.

Like all Catholics, he was free to take his positions based on any assumptions he finds agreeable. But he also strived to remain a "Catholic" public thinker and that implies looking at social, political and economic crises through the church's understanding, whatever that leads to. It seemed, rather, that in terms of Jesus' admonition against trying to serve two masters, Novak in his public intellectual life had made an obvious choice.






Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here