Michael Novak, noted theologian, philosopher and author, dies at 83

Michael Novak, who died Feb. 17 at age 83, is pictured in an undated photo. Novak was a groundbreaking author, philosopher and theologian. Since last August he had been a faculty member at The Catholic University of America's Tim and Steph Busch School of Business and Economics in Washington. (CNS files)

Washington — Michael Novak, a Catholic philosopher, theologian and author who was highly regarded for his religious scholarship and intellectual independence, died Feb. 17 at his home in Washington. He was 83.

His daughter Jana Novak told The Washington Post the cause of death was complications from colon cancer. No funeral arrangements were announced.

Since last August, Novak had been a faculty member of The Catholic University of America's Tim and Steph Busch School of Business and Economics in Washington. He joined the business school's Arthur and Carlyse Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship last year as a distinguished visiting fellow.

He taught special topics in management and gave a series of lectures on campus on the topic of human ecology.

Novak studied at Catholic University in 1958 and 1959 and had lectured at the university several times prior to last year's appointment. John Garvey, the university's president, remembered him as "a man of great intellectual honesty."

"Unlike some scholars, Michael Novak made it a point to reflect on new and different topics, always with a fresh and dynamic perspective," Garvey said in a statement. "We are immensely grateful that he could end his academic life as he began it, as a member of our community."

Andreas Widmer, the Arthur and Carlyse Ciocca Center's director, recalled Novak as a mentor and described him as the "founding father" of the discussion about the intersection of faith and economic activity.

"My colleagues and I have been touched by his kindness and humility. He was quick to encourage others and was generous with his time," Widmer commented. "You would never have known from working with him that this was a man who had counseled popes and changed the course of history. It meant so much to me this past year to have Michael, who has long been a mentor and friend, beside me as a colleague at Catholic University."

Upon his appointment to Catholic University of America as a visiting fellow, Novak commented on the university's commitment to promote Catholic social doctrine as a means to human flourishing. "If, as a teacher you want to reach the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, many of whom are poor, where better to be?"

In 2006, Novak and his wife, Karen Laub-Novak, established two scholarship funds to support philosophy graduate students, one in his name for students working on the intersection of philosophy and religion or public policy and one in her name for students interested in the philosophy of beauty.

His wife, a professional artist and illustrator, died of cancer in August 2009.

The author of more than 50 books who was highly regarded for his religious scholarship and intellectual independence, Novak shared his insights into the spiritual foundations of economic and political systems and the moral ideals of democratic capitalism in syndicated columns and innumerable lectures, articles and commentaries.

Novak wrote on topics as varied as capitalism, human rights, labor union history, sports, peace, families and the role of churches in a pluralistic world. His books have been translated into every major Western language, as well as Bengali, Korean, Chinese and Japanese.

He considered his greatest honor to be that St. John Paul II called him a friend, as did Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan.

Novak, whose 1982 book "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism" changed the public conversation about the benefits of capitalism, was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994. He also served as ambassador to the U.N. Commission (now Commissioner) on Human Rights in 1981 and 1982.

In an interview with Catholic News Service after he won the Templeton Prize, he said he saw a failure in the checks and balances of government, with its major flaw being "the interests of politicians in offering goodies and their lack of interest in seeing that they're paid for.''

To counteract that, he said, the church needs to push its "well-developed theory of civil society'' independent of the state — "the family, educational systems, labor unions, associations of many kinds.''

During his varied career, he moved from left to right on the political spectrum. Early in his career, he questioned Catholic teaching on birth control. During the Second Vatican Council, he wrote "The Open Church," which took a liberal look at the council. He also covered the council for National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal and Time magazine.

In 1982, as a neoconservative, he founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny and was its editor-in-chief. For many years, starting in 1978, Novak was a resident scholar in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

He taught at the University of Notre Dame as well as at Harvard, Stanford, Syracuse and Ave Maria universities and was awarded 27 honorary degrees, including one from Catholic University in 2015.

In his name, the Acton Institute, a Michigan-based think tank, created the Novak Award, which honors outstanding scholarly research concerning the relationship between religion, economic freedom, and the free and virtuous society.

Besides daughter Jana, Novak is survived by son Richard and daughter Tanya and four grandchildren.

A Note from NCR editor, Dennis Coday:

From its first issue in October 1964 through the 1980s, Michael Novak wrote regularly for NCR, contributing opinion pieces, reportage and book reviews. His contributions began to wane from the early '80s on, but in NCR’s early days, Novak was a regular NCR columnist and the paper continued to carry his column when it was syndicated by Catholic News Service. His last contribution to NCR was made in 2009, a remembrance of his intellectual brother, Fr. Richard Neuhaus.  

Novak's last column for Catholic News Service was dated Sept. 6, 1976; in it, he took NCR and Commonweal, a national lay-owned Catholic magazine published out of New York, to task. "To my mind, the failure of the National Catholic Reporter and Commonweal to provide leadership in this decade is the saddest failure of all," he wrote.

NCR’s editors at that time invited Novak "to describe the leadership needed and how NCR and Commonweal could supply it." Novak responded with a 2,000-word essay which NCR printed in its Oct. 8, 1976, issue. A summary of his advice:

"The first action of national leadership, then, would be for the National Catholic Reporter, The Commonweal and other liberal Catholic publications to become an accurate mirror of the nation’s 13 million Eastern European Catholics, 10 million Italian Catholics and 12 to 15 million Hispanic Catholics, etc. Indeed, such publications might more accurately mirror the concerns of "the Mayor Daley Irish." ... The scope of liberal Catholicism should be as broad as that of the Catholic people."

"... There is a tendency among educated Catholics, as among educated Jews, to drift quietly away from their communities. ... This phenomenon among Catholics ought also be studied and criticized."

"... Catholic voters are among the most alienated in the country. ... Neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party has been dealing deeply and comprehensively with the problems of many of our Catholic people. This is especially true in many of the working-class neighborhoods and in the inner ring of suburbs. ..."

" ... What is the point of being Catholic in America? Has it no special meaning and responsibilities? It is time we appropriated our own history ... We are not Jews. We are not Southern Baptists. We are not Brahmins. We are not Quakers. We have our own responsibilities, our own special role in the common culture of all Americans."


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