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Michael Novak. a Catholic Christian's move from the left to the right

In a six-decade literary career, he loved liberalism but found conservatism more practical

Michael Novak. a Catholic Christian's move from the left to the right

COMMENTARY: Michael Novak’s focus on the centrality of Christ-like love was of one piece with all the political and economic words he’d written over six decades as a Catholic and public intellectual.

Before he died the morning of Feb. 17, Michael Novak was heard to say, repeatedly, to everyone who came to say goodbye, “God loves you and you must love one another, that is all that matters.”

I saw him for about an hour the previous evening: He was at peace and ready to meet God (and deceased loved ones, especially his wife Karen). He had accepted going into hospice care, at home, where he was really taken care of, quite lovingly, by his sister Mary Ann, and children Jana and Rich.

Most people only know Michael from his enormous literary output. I once heard him tell a student in Europe, quite matter-of-factly — not boasting — that the way you become a writer is to work hard at your first million words, which helps establish your voice. Hard work is always good advice, of course. But it came in the context of an annual Summer Seminar we’d both been running in the Slovak Republic, where he urged on students his idea of Caritapolis, a city of Charity, and insisted we sing at every Mass the hymn Ubi Caritas et Amor (“Where there is charity and love, there is God.”)

It may seem odd, but his focus on the centrality of love was of one piece with all the political and economic words he’d written over six decades as a Catholic and public intellectual. Though I’d known Michael since the early 1980s, I only recently caught up with his autobiography Writing From Left to Right, which explained to me things I’d never known about him. Primary among those was that his move politically from liberal to conservative (that’s the meaning of the title) was mostly driven by what he came to believe really worked in helping people, especially the poor. While liberal colleagues talked, sincerely, about helping people, more conservative ideas had shown themselves to be better in real terms for individuals, families, nations, and the world as a whole.

A lot of people misunderstood that about him. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, probably his most important book, was not simply a partisan argument for American–style politics and market-based economics. It was his attempt to show how liberty in the political and economic sphere, guided of course by a strong legal and moral cultural system, could produce benefits — along with many problems, of course, as always happens in a fallen world — that no other set of institutions has shown itself capable.

That was also the motive behind another key book Will It Liberate?, his examination of liberation theology. Like Pope John Paul II, a personal friend, Michael was a close student of Marxism and Marxist states. Some of the Marxist ideas that found their way into almost all Latin American liberation theology sounded good, as simple ideas often do. It was his contention, though, that people — especially workers and the poor — did demonstrably better, not universally well but better, in free societies than in ones that used the heavy hand of the state to direct economics and politics.

This article continues at [NC Register] In Memoriam: Michael Novak

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