Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Michael Novak, Catholic and Capitalist Philosopher, Dies at 83

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Michael Novak, Catholic and Capitalist Philosopher, Dies at 83

Article excerpt

Michael Novak, a Catholic philosopher who helped carve a space for religion in modern politics, diplomacy and economics, arguing that capitalism is the economic system most likely to achieve the spiritual goods of defeating poverty and encouraging human creativity, died Friday at his home in Washington. He was 83. The cause was complications from colon cancer, said his daughter Jana Novak.

Novak, who spent his formative years in the seminary, was widely recognized as one of the most influential Catholic theologians of his generation. He was the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize, which honors makers of an "exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension and is accompanied by a monetary award exceeding that of the Nobel Prize.

In a measure of Novak's influence within the Catholic Church, he was received and consulted by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. 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.

Novak was among several scholars who "brought serious religious thought to Washington in a way that it had not been present before, George Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow at the D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, said in an interview.

He credited Novak with demonstrating to an "audience of insiders a "way of thinking that was not merely statistical or ideological but was perhaps more deeply reflective of enduring human questions and problems.

Novak wrote a shelf full of books on topics ranging from nuclear weapons to atheism to social justice to sports. But he was best known for his economic writings, particularly the book "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982).

"Democratic capitalism, he wrote, 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.

Novak's book found resonance around the world. It was illegally distributed in Poland, where the Solidarity movement helped defeat communism. His writings were credited with influencing Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who became the first president of Czechoslovakia after communism, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain.

In affairs across the Atlantic, Novak was a forceful critic of liberation theology as it was espoused in Latin America, where many adherents argued that the church should provide economic deliverance for the poor through leftist political ideologies.

Critics of Novak charged that he overlooked the severe inequalities often wrought by capitalism: "Michael Novak preaches capitalism's virtues to Christians, Arthur Jones, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, once wrote. "The breakthrough will come when he simultaneously preaches Christian virtues to his capitalist backers.

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.

In the sphere of international affairs, Novak tussled with church leaders over Catholic teaching on "just war. He regarded the nuclear deterrent as a moral means of prevailing over the Soviet Union in the Cold War and defeating what Weigel said they and like-minded thinkers considered communism's "defective and "downgraded view of the human person.

It was under President Ronald Reagan that Novak served on the U.N.'s human rights body. Communism, Weigel said, explaining his and Novak's position, "denied that the human person was made in the image and likeness of God, and it's that image in us that is the root, we would argue, of the human dignity from which spring human rights.

In the cultural arena, Novak wrote frankly of "radical feminism, gay liberation, utopian socialism and geopolitical neutralism and "the cheaply radical young graduates of . …

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