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An Honor Well Deserved: Michael Novak

It is sometimes said that capitalism lacks poets. In twenty-five books and a career of lecturing and teaching all over the world, Michael Novak, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, had devoted much of his life to poetically explaining the crucial role of private initiative in public life. In doing so, he has roused the moral imaginations of scholars around the world.

His service in defense of freedom has now been duly recognized. Mr. Novak has joined the pantheon of recipients of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, a list which includes Mother Teresa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Billy Graham and Charles Colson. Novak is a most deserving honoree–for his work has been remarkably influential in Christian social teaching on economics.

In 1991, when the papal encyclical Centesimus Annus appeared, it became clear the Mr. Novak’s work had captured the attention of Pope John Paul II. Centesimus placed the world’s largest religion firmly in the capitalist camp by elucidating the moral foundations of the market economy and repudiating the notion of a third way between capitalism and socialism.

Anyone familiar with Mr. Novak’s books–particularly The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, and Free Persons and the Common God–could see his insights in the dramatic encyclical. Novak’s tireless efforts to reconcile faith and economic liberty had born fruit in his own Catholic tradition.

Though he is probably best known in political circles, it is the religious nature of Mr. Novak’s scholarship that is most profound. As a young man, he took a leave of absence from his graduate studies at Harvard to cover the Second Vatican Council for the National Catholic Reporter, the Catholic weekly. His moral imagination and captivating skill as a stylist won him admirers all over the world.

Mr. Novak’s analysis of classical liberalism following his observation of failed socialist economies during his travels went far beyond explaining the superiority of the market as an economic system. He also realized that democratic capitalism is supported by moral and religious principles that encourage entrepreneurial activity.

Yet he knew that the moral defense of capitalism could not be left to the economists, and so set out to vigorously defend the market as a just institution. To this end he published The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in 1982, making the case that the market reinforces the virtues of traditional faith: charity, honesty, diligence, and humility.

In 1984 The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism was translated and illegally published in then-Communist Poland. When the publishers asked Novak, what kind of remuneration was required, his answer was simple: a copy of the edition for his own library, and that a second copy be placed in the hands of the Polish pope.

Mr. Novak has observed that a capitalist revolution is still needed in Latin American. As he pointed out, capitalism is often misconstrued there, often understood to mean the existing system: a state-directed economy in which a privileged few are protected from competition. Mr. Novak’s work is tremendously popular in Latin America (as it was in Eastern Europe prior to the revolutions of 1989), and it has done a great deal to discredit socialistic liberation theology–even among its once true-believers.

When Mother Teresa received the first Templeton Prize in 1973 her work with Calcutta’s poor was little known. We can only hope that this honor will bring the world’s attention to Michael Novak’s work on behalf of the free enterprise system, the strongest force for liberation the world has ever known. It has been a privilege to know him as a friend and colleague.