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The Death of a Modern-Day Theologian

Michael Novak and his wife Karen greeting Saint John Paul II

I have a quote that I want you to read and then tell me if you know who wrote it: “Enjoying what we do is not always a feeling of enjoyment; it is sometimes the gritty resolution a man or woman shows in doing what must be done — perhaps with inner dread and yet without whimpering self-pity.”

I like the phrase, “without whimpering self-pity.” It sounds much more dramatic and important than the phrase, “without feeling sorry for yourself.” I also like the phrase, “gritty resolution.” Was there anything that you did last week that you dreaded, but still did with gritty resolution and without whimpering self-pity?

Here’s another quote from the same man in which he articulated his idea of what God is — and is not:

He is not “the Big Guy upstairs,” nor the loud booming voice that Hollywood films affect for God. There are hosts of bogus pictures for God: the Watchmaker beyond the skies, the puppeteer of history. If you wish to find him, watch for him in quiet and humility — perhaps among the poor and broken things of earth. There are people who looked into the eyes of the most abandoned of the poor and saw infinite treasure there, treasure without price, and there found God dwelling.

The man I have been quoting is Michael Novak, a Catholic philosopher and theologian who died from cancer on February 17, 2017, at the age of 83. His wife of 46 years, the former Karen Laub, died in 2009.

Novak was the author of more than 50 books that addressed topics such as religion, economics, policy, politics, and sports. He was best known for his expertise in economics, which was on display in his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

He described “democratic capitalism” as “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 was critical of liberation theology, which has been promoted in Latin America by Catholic officials who have argued that the church should provide economic deliverance for the poor by using the political system to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor. The justification that has been used for the transfer of wealth relies, in part, on the “dependency theory,” which holds that the Latin American south is poor because the north is rich.

Novak was considered one of the most influential Catholic thinkers of his generation. He grew up in a Catholic home, and at the age of 14, he entered Holy Cross Seminary of the Congregation of Holy Cross at Notre Dame. He later received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and then continued his studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he received a bachelor of sacred theology degree.

Although it was his intention to become a priest, Novak dropped out of the seminary a few months before he was to be ordained. He later attended Harvard, where he received a graduate degree in history and philosophy of religion.

In an interview that Novak did in 2001, he said:

I have observed how often Great Awakenings actually occur in American life; it is never wise to bet against America. In this country, great changes (for ill as for good) occur swiftly.

When I was a young man, abortion was regarded as shameful, a great evil, a crime. After not more than a decade of public agitation on the part of a relatively small group, by about 1968, elite opinion shifted rapidly. After a massive public-relations campaign from most of the “better” classes, about half the American public (men especially) came to support abortion “rights.”

What had shortly before been a great WRONG became a moral good (or at least a permissible deed) and a human “RIGHT.” Abortion is not, of course, a right; no one can have a right to destroy another. But as Woody Allen says, “What the heart wants, the heart wants.” I saw evil become “good” in fewer than 20 years. A short time for so massively important a switch.

The point is, in America great changes can occur quickly, even in matters of the greatest moment. They can change quickly for the good, too.

The tides that run in the human soul are very deep and sometimes very strong, but only God knows the hours of their ebbing and their rising. “God bless America” — grace — may have far more to do with it than we know. You should fight as if victory is certain. If the issue does not go well, if all efforts fail — then proceed “with a firm reliance on divine Providence,” as our Declaration commends. Both approaches strengthen one’s courage to continue.

Novak’s book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism was translated into every major Western language, as well as various other languages such as Bengali, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. The book was illegally distributed in Poland during the 1970s and 1980s, and was one of the tools that was used by the Solidarity movement to help defeat communism. The book also found its way into Czechoslovakia and was credited with influencing Vaclav Havel, the man who became the first president of Czechoslovakia after communism.

Because of his influence, Novak met with and became friends with President Ronald Reagan, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Saint John Paul II.

Last year, in an introduction to the Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity, Novak wrote, “An economy without beauty, love, human rights, respect for one another, civic friendship, and strong families (the tutors of moral habits) is not likely to be loved, to be worthy of human persons, or to survive very long.”

Michael Novak died in his home, surrounded by his family. His sister Mary Ann Novak said that in the days leading up to his death, he kept repeating, “God loves you and you must love one another. That is all that matters. God bless you all.” His daughter, Jana Novak, said that he always told her, “Prepare every day as if you’re going to live forever, but live every day as if you’re going to die tomorrow.”

That’s good advice for all of us.

May he rest in peace.

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One Response to “The Death of a Modern-Day Theologian”

  1. Sister Roberta Houlihan, CSJ Says:

    Dear Georgette and Harry –
    What a beautiful tribute about Michael Novak! I’ve been off internet for over two days, and one of our Nurse’s supervisors was able to get me back on track – temporarily! It’s a weekend with a holiday on Monday, so the regular computer experts are off duty. We aren’t sure what’s wrong. I hope it will be fixed permanently soon.
    Love and prayers! Sister Roberta

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