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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,032


This is the grave of Michael Novak.

Born in 1933 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Novak grew up in a Slovak family, which meant he was hard-core Catholic. I assume his family worked in the steel mills, as what else did Slovaks do in Johnstown. But time passed and there became a few other options for young people. Novak was a good student and got to go to college, at Stonehill, one of the many Catholic schools in the northeast. He then went to Rome for a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, just in case you weren’t clear that Novak was an intense Catholic. He started a PhD program in philosophy at Harvard, but secular education was most definitely not for him. He hated it there because there wasn’t enough religion for him and so dropped out with the gentlemen master’s degree they give to those who don’t make it.

Novak then went into writing, both fiction and nonfiction. The National Catholic Reporter hired him as a correspondent and he reported from Vatican II, which was a groundbreaking change in how the church operated that still infuriates right-wing American Catholics today. But Novak was pretty supportive of this and other changes in the church at the time, leading conservatives to distrust him. Out of this he wrote his first nonfiction book, The Open Church, which came out in 1964. He also wrote a novel called The Tiber is Silver in 1961 and another called Naked I Leave in 1970. No idea if these are any good because I am not going to read Michael Novak’s death barring a gun at my head.

Novak would then spend the rest of his life as a leading Catholic intellectual. It should surprise no one that as part of this, he had the journey that so many Slovaks, Italians, Poles, Irish, and other Catholic ethnic groups would have from New Deal supporter to hard-right conservative. For all Novak’s pretending that he was some intellectual, his flight to the right was based precisely in the ethnic resentment of these groups. For one, he thought that these groups were ethnically distinct from WASPs and maybe not even white in the same way. But he wanted all the rights for his people and those like him. That said, he did not believe that Black Americans deserved the same rights. So he basically opposed the civil rights movement entirely while also arguing that Slovaks and Poles and the like were a distinctly oppressed minority. He thought that the white ethnics and Black Americans should naturally unite politically on economic issues while also outright opposing the end of legal segregation. He thought integration was “socialism,” which makes me question the entire tenet of Catholic education as that’s just idiotic. Why was it socialism? Because they were welfare moochers unlike those taxpaying ethnics. Ugh. Christ, what an asshole.

But this racism didn’t hurt him in the Catholic world. It only made him more popular. Still, he had moments of clarity. He wasn’t really opposed to the anti-war movement during Vietnam. He even signed the 1968 Writers and Editors War Tax Pledge, where prominent people at least claimed they wouldn’t pay taxes that supported the war. He also held positions at several schools over the years–Stanford in the 60s, then SUNY-Old Westbury from 1969-72, then later at Syracuse. But he became a founding neoconservative and like all the rest of those hacks, it was based on his outrage over campus politics, when it fact it was a bunch of old cranky white men who were changing, not the students. He had already turned against Vatican II. Then, as he claimed in a 1998 talk a Notre Dame (of course), he realized that everything about the left was wrong talking about “a powerful intellectual conviction that the left was wrong about virtually every big issue of our time: the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese regime, economics, welfare, race, and moral questions such as abortion, amnesty, acid and the sexual revolution.” Nice to include a reference to Spiro Agnew in there. Talk about turning into the worst possible person.

Over time, Novak’s right-wing positions overcame his liberal leanings. Rather than the complicated, if quite racist, guy he was in the 60s, he became your typical raving right-winger, just with more words. That of course meant that he ended up writing a lot for The National Review. Novak and Buckley totally seem like the type of guys who would be buddies. He also got super associated with the American Enterprise Institute. In other words, he was now an ELITE, with all that meant. He wrote a lot of books at this time that fit in with his new conservative beliefs. One of these was his 2013 book Writing from Left to Right: My Journey From Liberal to Conservative. I haven’t read this, nor will I. Given that he was never a leftist in any meaningful way, I am going this is an extremely self-serving exercise on how any good Catholic should support far-right candidates. Other books included 2008’s No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers and 2006’s Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country, which must be absolutely unreadable.

Novak’s other big project in his later life was to write about capitalism was a moral system approved by God. In 2007, he stated, “Capitalism forms morally better people than socialism does. “Capitalism teaches people to show initiative and imagination, to work cooperatively in teams, to love and to cherish the law; what is more, it forces persons not only to rely on themselves and their own moral qualities, but also to recognize those moral qualities in others and to cooperate with others freely.” Now, we can debate whether socialism forms moral people or not. The entire question is nonsense though–people are people. But the idea that capitalism–a system based upon personal greed–builds up moral people is just risible nonsense. However, this was a huge part of Novak’s project. He wrote multiple books with this as its trash thesis. These include The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in 1982 and The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism from 1993. What a crackpot.

Although he claimed to be a Democrat through these years, he routinely was a big supporter of Republicans, including Mitt Romney in 2012. He also became a member of the Board of Trustees for Domino head Tom Monaghan’s Ave Maria University in Florida, that institution of right-wing Catholic extremism. He was close to Margaret Thatcher and other right-wing leaders around the world. He also proved influential for eastern European post-communists such as Lech Walesa. This is not good given the rise of eastern European ethnonationalism. In the end, that’s the real legacy of Novak. I’m sure he’d be thrilled with the rise of the far right today. In fact, I could see him openly cheering on the January 6, 2021 coup attempt.

Novak died in 2017, at the age of 83. It was colon cancer that did him in. At the end of his life, Novak was figuring out if Donald Trump was someone he could support. Of course he could! He stated, “Nobody pays any attention to us here, and that of illegal immigrants is a real problem, deeply felt by the Americans, who want to enforce the law. You Europeans do not understand these elections: the truth is that if Clinton wins we risk losing our freedom, because the democrats are increasingly illiberal with those who do not think like them.” It is so hard being a right-wing Catholic in this country. Who listens to them other than the all-Catholic Supreme Court majority and other right-wing extremist Catholics in power throughout this nation? A truly oppressed group!

Michael Novak is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other Catholic “intellectuals,” you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Senior is in Saint Marys, Kansas and John Courtney Murray is in Granite, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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