How Michael Novak changed my life, and yours

Acton Institute

In the late 1970s I underwent two conversions: the first was reading myself out of the left wing politics in which I had been active. The second, not unrelated, was to return to the practice of the Catholic faith.

I say these transformations were related because I found that the more I saw the basis of a free society was predicated on free human action in the economy, the more I found myself thinking about the nature of the human person, his transcendence, and his dignity, and hence my return to the faith of my youth.

{mosads}By the time I was preparing to enter seminary in the early 1980s, I sought to deepen my understanding of Christian social teaching and what I largely intuited was a connection to what I had come to know about economics. There was at the time scant material available to make such a synthesis.


It was exhilarating to discover the seminal work of Michael Novak, “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.” Novak’s 1982 powerful apologia for the free society introduced me to a man who had undergone a similar political pilgrimage to my own a generation earlier.

The book was peppered with Novak’s familiarity with the works of Friedrich Hayek and other free-market champions. Five years later, Novak published “Will It Liberate? Questions About Liberation Theology” (full disclosure: I edited it for Paulist Press), which is the definitive response to the scourge that emanated from South America in the late 1960s and early 1970s and infected seminaries and Catholic colleges throughout the Western world for the too many years.

The impact “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” had upon me prompted me to write Novak telling him of my admiration and letting him know that I would be studying that fall at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he lived. My letter was greeted warmly, and we eventually developed a friendship that latest more than 30 years. And anyone who came to know Novak would come to know the artist Karen Laub Novak, his late wife.

Some of my most memorable conversations took place over what would become effectively known as the Salon Novak: dinner parties that Karen and I would orchestrate where we witnessed Clare Boothe Luce contending with Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett on the meaning of virtue; Irving Kristol, the godfather of neo-conservatism, and his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb, the historian and Victorian scholar, recount their own intellectual journeys from socialism; and became acquainted with Charles Krauthammer, Bob and Mary Ellen Bork, and Charles Murray. I would arrive at the Novak home after class as Karen was setting the table and arranging flowers, and would assemble my family’s traditional antipasto, which Michael insisted was the best in the District.

These gathering were a great augmentation to my classes. Those wide-ranging debates on economics and politics, art and literature and just about everything in between, modeled an open and informed discussion prompted by intellectual curiosity and civility—sadly lacking in the present public discourse.

The participants did not always agree with one another, but they certainly enjoyed each other’s company. Those evenings were like a graduate seminar featuring some of the finest minds in the country at the time, and in many ways formed a kind of proto-Acton Institute and served as a good model for its eventual founding.

In fact, Acton has an annual award named after him, The Novak Award, which is awarded every year to an outstanding scholar working at the intersection of theology, philosophy and free market economics. Sixteen such awards have been bestowed since 2001.

Like so many others, I find myself deeply indebted to Michael Novak for a number of things: for being a great example of how to be a public intellectual engaging in what our mutual friend Bill Buckley once called “the controversial arts;” for the artistry of a well-made Manhattan; for deepening my understanding of human beings as more than individuals, but as human persons; for the joy of seeing the abiding love of his wife and family and his habit of intellectual generosity.

The close of the traditional Requim Mass chants these lines I pray for my friend’s perpetual repose:

May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city, Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest.

Rev. Robert Sirico, author of “Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy,” is president of the Acton Institute. Follow him on Twitter @robertsirico.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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