The theologian, scholar, and writer Michael Novak died yesterday at the age of 83. Novak was one of the most influential Catholic thinkers of his generation, and an indefatigable champion of free enterprise, democracy, and liberty.
Here are five facts you should know about Novak:
1. At age fourteen Novak entered Holy Cross Seminary of the Congregation of Holy Cross at Notre Dame with the intention of becoming a Catholic priest. From there, he went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Stonehill and was selected to continue higher studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he earned a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree. But a few months before he was to be ordained, Novak began to question his call to the priesthood. He left the Congregation of Holy Cross, moved to New York City to work on a novel, and was accepted to Harvard, where he completed a graduate degree in history and philosophy of religion.
2. Novak traveled to Rome in 1963 and 1964 to cover the Second Vatican Council for various publications, including Time and the National Catholic Reporter. When a fellow reporter was unable to complete a book project about the Council, Novak took up the book contract and wrote The Open Church. At the time Novak supported the liberalization of the Catholic Church and opposed such church teachings as its prohibition on contraception. During this time he also became active in Democratic Party politics and worked for George McGovern in 1972. By the mid-1970s, though, Novak had become disillusioned with the left and became economically, culturally, and theologically conservative.
3. In 1982, Novak published what many consider his most important and influential book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. As AEI president Arthur C. Brooks says, the book “advanced a bold and important thesis: America’s system of democratic capitalism represents a fusion of our political, economic, and moral-cultural systems.” The book was illegally distributed in Poland, where it was credited with influencing the Solidarity movement, and used by dissident study groups in Czechoslovakia. The book also influenced world leaders, such as Vaclav Havel, the first president of Czechoslovakia after communism, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
4. Novak is the author or editor of more than fifty, including two novels and one book of verse. His books have been translated into every major Western language, as well as Bengali, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. Although he is most well-known for this books on religion, policy, and politics, Novak was also an accomplished writer on the topic of sports. The novelist Norman Mailer wrote of Novak’s 1976 book, The Joy of Sports, “If America is the real religion of Americans, then the sports arena is our true church, and Michael Novak has more to say about this, and says it better, than anyone else.” In 2002, Sports Illustrated selected this book as one of “The Top 100 Sports Books Of All Time”.
5. During his life Novak was a prolific writer (in addition to his books, he wrote a syndicated column that was nominated for a Pulitzer), teacher (he taught at Harvard, Stanford, SUNY Old Westbury, Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Ave Maria University), award-winning scholar (he was awarded twenty-seven honorary degrees and numerous honors, including recipient the 1994 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion), and champion of human rights (in 1981 and 1982, he served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights).