Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg is featured in The American Spectator today with an article titled, “The Book That Changed Reality.” The piece lauds Catholic philosopher, journalist and theologian Michael Novak’s groundbreaking 1982 book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Called his magnum opus, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism synthesized a moral defense of capitalism with existing cultural and political arguments. Gregg notes this and comments on the book’s timely publication and lasting influence:
From a 2012 vantage point, it’s easy to forget just how radical this book was. In penning the Spirit, Novak was the first theologian to really make an in-depth moral, cultural, and political case for the market economy in a systematic way. Needless to say, Novak’s book generated fierce reactions from the religious left. The opprobrium was probably heightened by the fact that the Spirit confirmed what had become evident from the mid-’70s onwards: that Novak was well on his way to abandoning his previously left-wing positions.
Thirty years ago, however, many Christians — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, clerical, and lay — were marching in precisely the opposite direction to Novak. Theologians in the Americas and Western Europe were still waxing lyrical about “dialogue” with Marxism. The fight-back led by Blessed John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger against the doctrinal heresies and Marxist analysis underlying liberation theology had only just begun.
At home, America’s Catholic bishops conference was issuing what seemed to be an endless stream of commentaries about economic subjects that invariably reflected a monotonously soft-left line. Then in 1986, the bishops conference published Economic Justice for All — a document whose 25th anniversary passed almost unnoticed in 2011, and which bore all the hallmarks of the influence of people who thought the “two Johns” (Rawls and Maynard Keynes) had said all that ever needed to be said about justice and the economy respectively.
Unlike Economic Justice, Novak’s Spirit continues to provide inspiration today — something that hasn’t been limited to Americans. Its samizdat translation and publication by dissidents in Communist Poland in 1986 reflected the fact that those who actually experienced real socialism in all its deadening grayness not only knew that collectivism had failed; they also understood there was no “third way.” At the same time, Central-East Europeans weren’t impressed with merely utilitarian or efficiency arguments for markets. They wanted to root free economies in a wider and richer vision of the human person. Many of them found what they were looking for in the Spirit.