An Introduction to Michael Novak's State-Based Faith
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Sep 15, 2007 at 08:48:42 PM EST
The Catholic Right, Thirty-seven In a Series

Over the next few weeks I will be examining the beliefs of Catholic neoconservative Michael Novak. Here is the introductory installment.

Many on the Religious Right accuse liberals of socialism and of seeking to use the power of the state to destroy individual liberty. And few do so more vociferously than Neoconservative Michael Novak. Yet the use of state power to limit the freedom of conscience is precisely what the American Enterprise Institute scholar seeks to do.

It is a clear-cut case of do as I say, not as I do.

Novak is a loud proponent of laissez-faire capitalism -- as well as his particular brand of Catholic orthodoxy. His 1982 book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism is often credited with shifting Vatican hostility from free market economics towards democratic socialism.

In The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism Novak, unlike many other neoconservatives, raves about the merits of liberal democracy, pluralism and individual liberty. He has sustained that view over time. In a a 2003 interview he said, for example:

On a different level, another point of originality was to recognize that a free system, a system of self government, needs to be three systems in one. You need a free economy, more free than anything in history, if you want to produce the abundance that makes people love the country, gives full exercise to their talents and abilities, and rewards their enterprise.

Second you need a free polity that can set up the institutions of government, so that people's rights are respected and their abilities to organize themselves are not interfered with, so that they live most of their lives by their own self government, without turning to the state for everything. The ideal is to turn to the State for as little as is necessary. That's what self government means; it's not government by the State over the people, but people acting for themselves, and turning to the State only when necessary.

Finally a free society needs a free cultural system: freedom of conscience and of churches, free practice of the arts, the free exercise of science, and the free exercise of religion. So, the whole range in which humans explore the human spirit (and that's what culture means) must be free. The various aspects of the human spirit, our hearts and our minds, whether in the arts or sciences or conscience; all these have to be free.

Sounds reasonable. But it turns out that the former radical of the left turned radical of the right means something completely different.

For example, Novak gives lip service to keeping church and state separate.  However, his underlying desire is clearly to make neo-orthodox Catholic morality the standard even for non-Catholics. His views on embryonic stem cell research as well as abortion illustrate this point perfectly well. To do this, he brings inaccurate uses of moral relativism into the mix. He never really explains his view of pluralism while narrowly defining "liberty" as "the freedom to do what one ought to do." Such a definition is common among the neo-orthodox of the Catholic Right.

Again, consider this exchange during an interview:

Q: How does liberty in the moral-cultural sphere affect political and economic liberty?_

NOVAK: It is the soul that animates the other two. When the virtues proper to moral liberty weaken, so does the vitality of economic and political liberty. The cardinal virtues of honesty, courage, practical realism and self-control -- temperance -- are indispensable in democracy and a dynamic, creative economy._By moral liberty I mean the right to do what one ought to do, not what one pleases. The other animals can only obey their instincts. Humans have a right and a duty to discern among their instincts the way of reason, the law of God, and to exercise self-government in following that law down the pathways of liberty.(emphasis added)

The question then must be, 'What does Novak mean by "the law of God"?' He doesn't say, but perhaps we can get a clue from his close colleague, and this 1993 comment by fellow neoconservative Catholic Richard John Neuhaus:

Finally, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism must be viewed in the light of the earlier project of the late John Courtney Murray. Sometimes Father Murray seemed to be whimsical about it, but at other times he was dead earnest in suggesting that a day might come when the proponents of the founding and defining Protestant tradition of the American experiment may, for complex reasons, tire of the experiment or turn against it. Then, said Murray, it might be up to Catholics to provide a moral and theological rationale for the constitutional order of a free society. That time may have come. And of course it is not up to Catholics alone. But Michael Novak's most recent book demonstrates that he, for one, is not shying away from the charge given all of us by Father Murray. (emphasis added)

Rest assured, when Neuhaus states "And of course it is not up to Catholics alone" he isn't talking about mainline Protestants but ultra-conservative Evangelicals.

This is a far cry from Thomas Jefferson who described rights enumerating from liberty as "No one has a right to obstruct another exercising his faculties innocently for the relief of sensibilities made a part of his nature."(i)  Clearly Jefferson -as well as many of the founders-had a more expansive view of freedom than Novak.

But it is socialism that serves as the bogeyman for Novak. Part of his method is to deride socialism it by comparing it to a very utopian vision form of capitalism. He claims governments that practice any form of socialism -- whether in authoritarian fashion such as in Cuba or democratically as in Western Europe -- deny creative liberty to its citizens. He believes that collective power is authoritarian by nature and that it retards creativity. Top down controls on wealth creators, in essence, destroy freedom.  His view is is not uncommon on the Religious Right.

But readers beware! What Novak is up to, is deploying the straw-man of Socialism to attack the liberal economic polices of Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal and its  modern progeny (as will be discussed in more detail in a future post.)  Novak sees any state action designed to correct unmerited inequalities as a restraint upon liberty in general. As Catholic Worker advocates Mark and Louise Zwick noted of Novak and his cohorts, "Somehow, neoconservatives say, anyone who suggests other nuances in capitalism, for the benefit of the poor and the weak, is a socialist or Communist."

Now while I share much of Brother Novak's enthusiasm of capitalism (I am a liberal after all) I still recognize that laissez-faire capitalism leaves power vacuums that are quickly occupied by economic power that tends to become arbitrary - if not balanced by a sturdy government. Quite similarly, if certain faiths can hijack our government to serve as its enforcement arm, that too is a recipe for arbitrary power.

When Novak praises liberalism, it is a Potemkin village version. He comes not to praise liberalism but to bury it. Consider this 2003 screed:

The second pretense is that the Left consists mainly of intellectuals, activists, and others who are not particularly rich, so that when liberals speak of "the rich" they may speak of them as "others," as in (with venom in the voice) "tax cuts for the rich!" As it happens, the political campaigns of the Left depend far more on high earners and big givers than the campaigns of the right. Being on the left has deeper cultural than economic roots.

Meanwhile, middle-class liberals disproportionately control the administration of government programs and private philanthropies, again spending the money of others, and not infrequently adding to the increased dependency of those they mean to be helping.

While Novak's views are clear enough on their own, consider too the company he keeps -- such as his close associates George Weigel and Rev. Richard John Neuhaus. Both men are bent on recasting American society as one based squarely upon neo-orthodox Catholic notions of morality.  (And all three are involved in the Institute on Religion and Democracy's attack on the liberal social justice witness of the mainline Protestant churches.)

Novak is a hyper-libertarian when it comes to money but leans towards collective state power on individual morality. And yet there is something profoundly hypocritical about complaining about any state -role in economics while advocating state directed and enforced neo-orthodox Catholic morality. When it comes to business it's "laissez-faire", but individuals including (maybe especially) non-Catholics should be coerced into Novak's neo-Catholic orthodoxy by the long arm of the law.

Novak and those of similar view have it backwards: The freedom of conscience affects no one but the individual whereas reckless economics is capable of causing immeasurable collateral damage to the common good.

(i) Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816.

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank L. Cocozzelli :
Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight   Part Nine  Part Ten   Part Eleven   Part Twelve   Part Thirteen   Part Fourteen   Second Intermezzo   Part Sixteen   Part Seventeen   Part Eighteen   Part Eighteen   Part Nineteen   Part Twenty   Part Twenty-one   Part Twenty-two   Part Twenty-three   Part Twenty-four   Part Twenty-five   Part Twenty-six   Part Twenty-seven   Part Twenty-eight   Part Twenty-nine   Part Thirty   Part Thirty-one   Part Thirty-two   Part Thirty-three   Part Thirty-four   Part Thirty-five    Part Thirty-six

Historian Garry Wills has cited Michael Novak, along with Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel as the heart and soul of the Catholic Right. Wills is dead-on correct. Novak is one of leading neoconservative voices. Clearly, he needs to be refuted.

Over the next few weeks I will exlpore  Novak and explain the many fallacies of his economic and political beliefs.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Sep 15, 2007 at 08:54:41 PM EST


Great column-you express it exactly as it is. Novak in some respects reminds me of David  Horowitz and Richard Neuhaus. All were leftists in their youth, and turned to the right without letting go of their pipe dream of turning the world into what they thought it should be. In David Horowitz's case, his contempt for democracy remained intact, while Novak and Neuhaus seem to think we should jettison democracy to impose their visions of Catholic morality and orthodoxy on the rest of American society.

I know your work primarily focuses on exposing the Catholic Right, but I wonder if you would want to discuss Garry Wills as an antidote to the world according to the Catholic Right. It is very frustrating to me to see the likes of Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Bill Donohue touted as "official Catholic spokesmen" along with the efforts of the current Pope and the hierarchy to return to the 1950s.

My committed Catholic mother recently commented to me that the hierarchy does not realize they aren't living in an age in which the priest was the most educated person in the village, and the Catholic laity is educated and aware. In doing so, she was saying something that I've thought for a long time.


by khughes1963 on Sat Sep 15, 2007 at 10:17:23 PM EST

That is being planned, touching upon not only the works of Garry Wills, but also that of Angela Bonavoglia, James Carroll and Thomas Cahill.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Sep 16, 2007 at 09:09:26 AM EST

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