Michael Novak, one of the most influential American theologians and philosophers of the 20th century passed away on 17 February. Novak, who served as an Ambassador under US President Ronald Reagan, and an adviser to two Popes, made his own small contribution to defeating the tyrannical communist systems of the Soviet bloc.
In a not uncommon story, Michael Novak started his professional life on the left of both the political and ecclesiastic establishments. During the 1970s he moved gradually to the right of the spectrum, having had a ring-side seat at the devastation wreaked on the family and US society by the radical liberalism that swept through the Church and culture from the 1960s onward. He recounts the transition in his book Writing from Left to Right.
Descending from Slovak immigrants, he was naturally affected by the plight of the peoples of central and eastern Europe, long suffering under the yoke of atheistic communism. A constant defender of true liberty, through his work he sought to draw attention to the inherent evils of the communist system, so alien to inherent human dignity, deriving from Man’s being created in the image and likeness of God.
The strong link between human dignity and the free market system is perhaps best described in his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. While no man-made system of political economy could ever be perfect, it was clear that the combination of democracy and free markets was by far the best we had come up with, both in terms of generating wealth and so alleviating poverty; but, more fundamentally, because it respected Man’s God-given freedoms.
In this respect, his writings influenced political leaders in the 1980s, in particular Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who, together with Pope John Paul II, worked with determination to bring down the evil empire of atheistic communism, so inimical to human dignity and freedom. President Reagan appointed him as Ambassador to the UN Human Rights body where he presciently predicted the dangers of the emerging radical rights-based culture. All human rights must be rooted in an authentic human anthropology, that recognises Man’s created nature and fallen state.
In 1994 he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion; right up to the end of his life remained a staunch defender of religious freedom and the right to express one’s religious convictions in the public and political spheres. In an increasingly-secular Western world, where militant secularists seek to marginalise people of faith, but particularly Christians, we need more inspiring figures like the late Michael Novak. May he rest in peace.