The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Michael Novak taught a generation of Catholics that capitalism can be virtuous

He was an intellectual giant and a true friend.

Michael Novak with Jeane Kirkpatrick during a panel discussion. (American Enterprise Institute)

Michael Novak came to my rescue when I had just been defrauded of millions of dollars. It was late 2001, and the high-tech wave of the ’90s had ended for me with a devastating wipeout. The company that bought my start-up for hundreds of millions of dollars turned out to be mostly show. As soon as the charade was revealed, our stock went from 100 to zero with the inverse speed of a Ferrari, and the money was gone. I’d been had.

Smarting from shock, as a Swiss immigrant who’d come to the United States with essentially nothing, I wondered whether the rags-to-riches American Dream I’d been living — and with it the whole apparatus of the free market, entrepreneurship and capitalism — was doomed by nature to be ugly.

It was then I stumbled upon “Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life,” my first encounter with the man whose ideas about human freedom won him the Templeton Prize and helped fuel the Polish Solidarity movement that brought down Soviet communism. A man of the left who wrote and thought his way to the right (as he chronicled in his memoir), Novak wrote more than 45 books on disparate subjects, served the United States as its U.N. ambassador for human rights under President Ronald Reagan, and received from three nations their highest honor available to a foreign citizen.

Novak, who became my mentor and friend, and later my colleague at the Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business and Economics, passed away this week after a battle with cancer. It’s hard to measure what the world has lost.

Michael Novak, theologian who made a spiritual case for capitalism, dies at 83

Reading “Business as a Calling” did two things for me: It made me wish I’d read it 10 years earlier; and it helped me make sense of the turmoil I’d just been through.

Many passages resonated deeply with my own experiences — and showed me that the necessary critique of immoral business practices need not indict an entire system. Capitalism, as such, is not bad, Novak argued; people who lie, cheat and steal are. “Immoral acts do occur in business,” he acknowledged, “but to behave immorally is neither necessary nor conductive to business success.” A career in business, Novak showed me, could be not only a serious vocation but a morally noble one. What is needed to fulfill that promise is for those of us engaged in business, he said, to internalize moral principles so that we become “watchmen over [our] own behavior.”

Novak showed me that, with the right checks and balances (including law, a free press and “an alert public opinion jealous of its moral inheritance”), the free market is not (or need not be) a system of victims. It’s a system of action, which I help shape with my choices, and with what I choose to participate in — or not.

Not until much later did I come to realize that Novak’s ideas about the free market, democracy and public moral culture had changed the world, forming the intellectual firepower for the revolution of 1989, and having an influence on then-Pope John Paul II. The now canonized pontiff invited Novak to meet with him several times as he was formulating his own thoughts about economics and freedom, later captured in his powerful social encyclical, “Centesimus Annus.” Novak always said that of all the many honors he’d received over his long career, the one he was most proud of was that John Paul II had publicly called him “my friend.”

From that introduction, I read almost everything Novak ever wrote, including his fiction, which I strongly recommend. Among his more than 45 titles are some of my favorite reads altogether. He wrote intelligently about profound things in the most beautiful and delicate language. No matter the topic, from his seminal “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” to “The Tiber was Silver” or “The Myth of Romantic Love,” his writing soars.

Years after this initiation into his thought, I had the privilege of meeting Novak through our mutual association with the Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization concerned with questions of human purpose. Like a fanboy, I told Novak eagerly that I’d been reading his books. I explained that I was involved in entrepreneurship and enterprise solutions to poverty and would love to talk with him. Since an accomplished author gets such requests all the time, I fully expected polite brushoff.

Instead he invited me to his office. When I arrived, he greeted me with his characteristic warmth and immediately wanted to know all about me. He deftly turned the conversation away from himself and toward me, showing true delight at my successes and sorrow for my failures.

His only interest in talking about his own life came when I told him that my wife is an artist. Then he proceeded to tell me about his beloved wife, Karen, also an artist, whom he adored. He could never speak highly enough or often enough of her work, and the way she explored faith and the human experience through her art.

Novak’s warmth was similar to that which I’d experienced with John Paul II many years earlier while serving as a Swiss Guard in his detail. Each time I interacted with the pope, he made me feel as if he’d got up that morning just to meet me, a lonely 19-year old guard. Novak made me feel the same way — and our common bond with John Paul cemented our friendship.

Nowhere was Novak’s kindness more evident than this past year, when I had the pleasure of welcoming my friend and mentor as a colleague at the Catholic University of America. He seemed to find it fitting that he’d come full circle to the place where his academic career began. His colleagues and I at the Busch School found he wore his enormous erudition and accomplishment lightly. He was quick to lend a hand if he could, keen to encourage and to help others shine.

As Novak reflected on John Paul II’s friendship as one of his life’s proudest accomplishments, I, too, reflect on my friendship with Novak. He has been gone for only days, but I miss him already.