ANATOMY OF A CONSERVATIVE DISSENTER
The Social Thought of Michael Novak: At Odds with the Principles of Catholic Social Thought

November 1988By John C. Cort

John C. Cort, the father of 10 children, is a Boston-area writer. He has worked as a reporter, editor, union organizer, and Peace Corps and antipoverty official.

Michael Novak is a remarkable phenomenon, and in many ways admirable. A man of prodigious energy, he has written or edited about 20 books of fiction and nonfiction on such varied subjects as theology, philosophy, history, labor, sports, eth­nics, politics, economics, and the Third World. Granted, he has of late enjoyed the services of the well-funded staff of the American Enterprise Insti­tute, a conservative think-tank, where he serves as a specialist in “philosophy, religion and public poli­cy.” Still, his production is impressive.

Trained at first for the priesthood, he has studied and read widely in other disciplines. Origi­nally a self-described “democratic socialist,” he lost his socialist convictions and moved to the right in the 1970s. In 1981 he was appointed by Presi­dent Reagan to head the U.S. delegation to the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission. In 1984 he served as vice-chairman of a Lay Commis­sion organized by William Simon, former Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Nixon and Ford. This commission consisted substantially of corpo­rate executives. Novak was the principal author of its “Lay Letter on Catholic Social Thought and the U.S. Economy,” which appeared a few days before the first draft of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral on the same subject.

Michael Novak can fairly be described as a Christian apostle to the U.S. business community, and in many respects he has been a good influence on that community.

One of his more important books is The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (Simon & Schuster, 1982). In a recent letter to the NOR (July-August) he accused this writer of “false witness,” notably about my use of the phrase “democratic capital­ism.” I had written: “anyone [meaning Novak] who describes capitalism in its essential structure and practice as ‘democratic’ has automatically earned a failing grade in economics, politics, logic, and common sense” (May NOR).


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