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How Michael Novak reshaped the relationship between faith and public life

Posted February 23

A prominent Catholic thinker and social critic died this month, inspiring reflections on how he forever altered the relationship between religion and government.

Michael Novak, 83, who died Feb. 17 due to complications from colon cancer, is most famous for his writings on morality and economics, but his impact on religious scholars is much broader, spanning debates about foreign policy, secularism and even sports.

"Michael was the leading public intellectual of his generation," said Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence and politics at Princeton University. "I learned an enormous amount from his work and from the questions he raised."

Throughout his career, as he shifted from pursuing the priesthood to becoming a professor and from liberalism to conservative thought, Novak sought to move beyond simple assumptions and to build an understanding of deep and complex issues.

"I never met a person who was more concerned with the truth and less concerned with whether he won or lost an argument," George said.

In 1994, Novak was awarded the Templeton Prize for his efforts to highlight the spiritual underpinnings of modern American life. At the ceremony in his honor, he spoke on the value that religious citizens bring to their community and the importance of encouraging moral action.

"Freedom needs clean and healthful habits, sound families, common decencies and the unafraid respect of one human for another. Freedom needs entire rainforests of little acts of virtue, tangled loyalties, fierce loves, undying commitments," he said.

Novak will be remembered for his powerful advocacy for public expressions of faith at the highest levels of government, said Richard Williams, director of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, noting that his work should matter to all believers, not just Catholics.

"He was able to demonstrate the importance of fundamental tenets of Christian faith to public life, private life, government and economic systems," he said.

Faith in the market

Novak was born on Sept. 9, 1933, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to a devout Catholic family. Around age 14, he began his quest to become a priest, but gave up that dream in his early twenties after struggling to reconcile his desires for travel and creative pursuits with a professional religious life, The Washington Post reported.

However, he remained deeply connected to Catholicism, gaining fame in 1964 when he published his thoughts on the Second Vatican Council, a conference held to modernize the church's ancient traditions.

He shared "his eagerness to see (the church) address young Catholics like himself with a faith that was, as he put it, 'empirical, pragmatic, realistic and Christian,'" The New York Times reported.

In the late 1960s, after graduating with a master's degree in religion from Harvard University, Novak began his teaching career, while also embracing opportunities to pursue political interests.

"He taught at schools including Stanford University, the State University of New York and Syracuse University and did political work for Democrats," The Washington Post reported.

Over the next decade, Novak continued to be outspoken on issues like immigration, contraception and war, but he gradually shifted politically from left to right, accepting a position at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, in 1978.

Four years later, he published his most famous book, "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism," articulating how religious groups benefit from capitalism and vice versa.

It "represented the first effort by a theologian to offer an in-depth moral, cultural and political analysis of, and case for, the market economy in a systematic way," wrote Samuel Gregg, the research director at the Acton Institute, in a reflection on Novak's life and work.

Novak celebrated capitalism's ability to pull people out of poverty and to encourage cooperation. He articulated its religious undertones at a time when few had attempted to bring religion into economic debates.

"At the time when Michael began his work on economic matters, the defense of the market economy was mainly a defense based on the efficiency of the market. He defended the market based on morality, calling it necessary to do justice to the creative potential of men and women," George said.

Novak continued to write about the economy over the course of his career, while also taking on a variety of other roles, including chief U.S. delegate to the U.N. Human Rights Commission and adviser to the pope.

"There have been very few people who had that breadth of ability and training," Williams said.

Novak had admirers around the world, from government leaders to grassroots organizations.

"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," Catholic News Service reported.

Most notably, he showed that deep personal faith was compatible with deep political engagement, George Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told The Washington Post.

He "brought serious religious thought to Washington in a way that it had not been present before," Weigel said.

Broader impact

In addition to writing on a variety of topics, Novak formed relationships with members of many religious groups, Williams said. He enabled partnerships between people of faith, who often share a desire to integrate morality with public policy.

"His work was right at that intersection where religion becomes publicly relevant," Williams said.

However, Novak did have some enemies. He was criticized by those who felt he was too soft on capitalism and too hard on liberation theology, a school of thought growing out of poor, Catholic communities in Latin America.

"I think Michael very much wanted to build understanding, although when he moved from the left to the right, it caused a lot of resentment from his old allies," George said. "He had a rare combination of virtues — gentleness and courage — and it hurt him that he wasn't able to build all the bridges he wanted to build."

George, Williams and others who worked with and learned from Novak over the past 50 years believe his legacy will continue to evolve and grow in the years to come. People may rediscover his early books and apply them to contemporary debates, such as discussions over the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

"As his bestselling Belief and Unbelief illustrates, Novak engaged seriously with those people of good will who struggle to believe that there is a God," Gregg wrote.

Novak may have received the most attention from fellow scholars than everyday Americans, but his writings hold lessons for anyone who cares about religion's role in American society, Williams said.

"If these issues matter to you, Michael Novak is the best gateway," he said.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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