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Michael Novak’s Neoliberal Catholicism


By Christopher Derrick | December 1983

Michael Novak is a curious fellow. On the ba­sis of no personal acquaintance at all, I see him as the kind of man one cannot help liking, albeit with pursed lips, a frown, a shake of one’s head. He’s certainly a good writer — a poet, I suspect, by real vocation.

His deeply interesting recent book, Confes­sion of a Catholic, falls into two halves. In Part I he offers a sustained med­itation on the Creed, article by article, as under­stood by himself, often subjectively but always rewardingly and sometimes very profoundly, and with constant reference to daily life as experienced today. But in so doing, he keeps drawing our atten­tion to the curious semantic condition in which the word “Catholic” now finds itself. In most common usage — to the distress of some Anglicans — this word is practically synonymous with “Roman Catholic” or (if you like) “Papist.” But even in that latter sense, it is currently applied to two quite different sets of people. The difference lies in their respective attitudes to the teaching Church and its magisterium. There are some who give the “assent of faith” to this: there’s many another who only gives it selective assent.

Novak is “a Catholic” in this latter sense, and is clearly ill at ease with the fact. Mother Church is a voice and tradition with which he finds himself very considerably in agreement: he tries but fails to see her also as a schoolmistress from whom he should be prepared to learn, accepting correction where necessary.

He’s very honest about this. It is most clear in matters of sexual morality, with Humanae Vitae as a prime example of the schoolmistress getting the sum wrong — but also in matters of nuclear moral­ity, though this subject gets little mention here. But in principle, this split-mindedness is present at every point, recognized in his clear distinction be­tween “the faith of Catholics” and “my faith,” and illustrated by certain of his very idiosyncratic interpretations of the Creed. He even rebukes the schoolmistress for giving insufficient respect to what he calls “democratic capitalism,” as though this ideological preference of his ought to become the correct line for all Catholics. It’s the skeptic in me who stands amazed at this assurance.

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