Michael Novak: Acclaim, Disdain and a Big Prize Follow His Pen from Left to Right; One-Time Critic of U.S. Capitalism Now a Fixture on Circuit to Assure the Rich

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, January 13, 1995 | Go to article overview

Michael Novak: Acclaim, Disdain and a Big Prize Follow His Pen from Left to Right; One-Time Critic of U.S. Capitalism Now a Fixture on Circuit to Assure the Rich


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


"Who are the capitalists?" the cheerful driver asked the half-dozen or so people in the Holiday Inn airport van. Several hands went up. He squinted at them. "OK, leave your bags in the van when you check in and I'll take you to your rooms. We've got 19 acres here; don't want you getting lost."

One more contingent was being delivered to the "Capitalism and Compassion" seminar, brainchild of the 2-year-old Institution for World Capitalism. That group, founded by a grant from the late billionaire grocer J.E. Davis, is attached to Jacksonville University in Florida, a private school founded by local businessmen in the 1930s.

For the 30 seminarians, students and professors from mainly minor Protestant institutions in the South and Midwest, the draw for this October gathering was a Catholic: Michael Novak. Novak was present to give a news conference and deliver two addresses and to accept this year's IWC International Prize (last year, Milton Friedman received it) of a medal struck from Statue of Liberty copper, plus $50,000. The difficulty in presenting to Novak such a fine sum was that it pales in comparison with the $1 million Novak received for the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion earlier this year.

In 30 years Novak, author of 25 books, has glided across the political spectrum from a 1960s bead-wearing Stanford hippie professor to a 1990s preeminent theologian for capitalism. His conversion and defense of his conversion has fascinated even some of those who do not share his convictions.

Not all, however, had come to Jacksonville to praise Novak. Some had come to question him, including a young Disciples of Christ seminarian, Roger Burns-Watson, also in the van. The initial invitation to the seminar led with a Novak quote: "I have tried to work out my theology of economics with the poor. If I had one wish to express, it would be that the poor of the world benefit by democratic capitalism."

The invitation described the Oct. 12-14 program as an "interactive seminar for the religious community to promote a greater understanding of the role of democratic capitalism in improving the human condition."

In that evening's welcome, Mark Perry, IWC's policy and research director, explained that throughout the year IWC was bringing in people from the former Soviet republics, Poland and central Europe on scholarships to Jacksonville University to introduce them to democratic capitalism. Like the seminar attendees, they would be shown "the compassionate side of capitalism," a capitalism that many people criticize as oppressive.

"There is a great misconception about profits and capitalism as a force in the public interest," said Perry. He contrasted the treatment people receive when they walk into a Wal-Mart or Target store -- where an employee greets them: "Welcome. How can I help you?" -- with the treatment someone receives at the hands of, say, Department of Motor Vehicle bureaucrats.

"Mr. Davis didn't oppress anyone," said Perry, he just invited them to shop at his Winn-Dixie supermarkets. IWC, he said, was Davis' response to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the opening of central Europe and the former Soviet republics to capitalism.

As for oppression, "People were more afraid of the IRS than of J.E. Davis or Sam Walton (Wal-Mart founder)," Perry said. All of which led Perry to criticize government involvement in everyday life, such as welfare, which should be handed over to the private sector because it "can do it better and cheaper."

The libertarian mood set, the group adjourned. Later that evening, reached by telephone in his room at the nearby Omni Hotel, Novak was asked whether he was interested in being interviewed by NCR. He declined.

Michael John Novak Jr. was born in Johnstown, Pa., on Sept. 9, 1933, grandson of Slovak immigrants and the oldest of five children. In 1947, at 14, he entered the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He left 12 years later, just months before ordination. …

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