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Michael Novak and the ‘crisis of capitalism’

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Jordan Ballor recently brought to my attention this remarkable passage from Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, “Our moral and cultural traditions have not kept pace with our economic possibilities. We try to match new demands with a spiritual life not designed for them.”

What we think of as ‘democratic capitalism,’ and the economic and political theories which under-gird it, arose out of a tradition of moral and theological reflection on the institutions, ethics, and law of early modern Europe. The degree to which we are suffering a ‘crisis of capitalism’ despite increasing material prosperity is the degree to which we have become culturally estranged from the moral and theological tradition from which it was birthed.

The Acton Institute’s mission to promote a free and virtuous society is fundamentally a project to of reconciliation. Of bringing our moral and cultural traditions (virtue) into alignment with our economic possibilities (freedom). The key to the institutional, material, and technological development which characterizes the modern world were cultural shifts in early modern Europe grounded in a Christian vision of the human person as one both free and responsible, as Lord Acton put it,

The Catholic notion, defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought, denies that general interests can supersede individual rights. It condemns, therefore, the theory of the ancient as well as of the modern state.

These individual rights and the limitation of the state arose first in the rights of conscience in religion and then were later extended to other aspects of human life. Gaudium et Spes illuminates this doctrine well when it states,

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.

As the reign of conscience expanded into all avenues of life including scholarship, innovation, and commerce dedication to God, the dictates of conscience, and professional excellence were joined in the concept of vocation. The fruits of action such as wealth and status were no longer either resented or coveted but put to work toward both excellence and service.

This perspective and way of life was by no means universal but the path forward was made clear. The path forward from acquisitiveness, pride, and the contagion of desire and envy which leads to inevitable conflict is the rejection of all human mediators and the abandonment of self to God, conscience, and selfless service.

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Dan Hugger Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.

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