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Michael Novak: acclaim, disdain and a big prize follow his pen from left to right; one-time critic of U.S. capitalism now a fixture on circuit to assure the rich.

"Who are the capitalists?" the cheerful driver asked the half-dozen or so people in the Holiday Inn airport van. Several hands went up. He squinted at them. "OK, leave your bags in the van when you check in and I'll take you to your rooms. We've got 19 acres here; don't want you getting lost."

One more contingent was being delivered to the "Capitalism and Compassion" seminar, brainchild of the 2-year-old Institution for World Capitalism. That group, founded by a grant from the late billionaire grocer J.E. Davis, is attached to Jacksonville University in Florida, a private school founded by local businessmen in the 1930s.

For the 30 seminarians, students and professors from mainly minor Protestant institutions in the South and Midwest, the draw for this October gathering was a Catholic: Michael Novak. Novak was present to give a news conference and deliver two addresses and to accept this year's IWC International Prize (last year, Milton Friedman received it) of a medal struck from Statue of Liberty copper, plus $50,000. The difficulty in presenting to Novak such a fine sum was that it pales in comparison with the $1 million Novak received for the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion earlier this year.

In 30 years Novak, author of 25 books, has glided across the political spectrum from a 1960s bead-wearing Stanford hippie professor to a 1990s preeminent theologian for capitalism. His conversion and defense of his conversion has fascinated even some of those who do not share his convictions.

Not all, however, had come to Jacksonville to praise Novak. Some had come to question him, including a young Disciples of Christ seminarian, Roger Burns-Watson, also in the van. The initial invitation to the seminar led with a Novak quote: "I have tried to work out my theology of economics with the poor. If I had one wish to express, it would be that the poor of the world benefit by democratic capitalism."

The invitation described the Oct. 12-14 program as an "interactive seminar for the religious community to promote a greater understanding of the role of democratic capitalism in improving the human condition."

In that evening's welcome, Mark Perry, IWC's policy and research director, explained that throughout the year IWC was bringing in people from the former Soviet republics, Poland and central Europe on scholarships to Jacksonville University to introduce them to democratic capitalism. Like the seminar attendees, they would be shown "the compassionate side of capitalism," a capitalism that many people criticize as oppressive.

"There is a great misconception about profits and capitalism as a force in the public interest," said Perry. He contrasted the treatment people receive when they walk into a Wal-Mart or Target store -- where an employee greets them: "Welcome. How can I help you?" -- with the treatment someone receives at the hands of, say, Department of Motor Vehicle bureaucrats.

"Mr. Davis didn't oppress anyone," said Perry, he just invited them to shop at his Winn-Dixie supermarkets. IWC, he said, was Davis' response to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the opening of central Europe and the former Soviet republics to capitalism.

As for oppression, "People were more afraid of the IRS than of J.E. Davis or Sam Walton (Wal-Mart founder)," Perry said. All of which led Perry to criticize government involvement in everyday life, such as welfare, which should be handed over to the private sector because it "can do it better and cheaper."

The libertarian mood set, the group adjourned. Later that evening, reached by telephone in his room at the nearby Omni Hotel, Novak was asked whether he was interested in being interviewed by NCR. He declined.

Michael John Novak Jr. was born in Johnstown, Pa., on Sept. 9, 1933, grandson of Slovak immigrants and the oldest of five children. In 1947, at 14, he entered the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He left 12 years later, just months before ordination.

By 1958, Novak had two bachelor's degrees (Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass., and the Gregorian University in Rome) and had published his first piece of national journalism, in Commonweal. In 1960, he entered Harvard on a teaching fellowship; in 1961, his novel The Tiber Was Silver became the first of his two dozen books.

How left was he?

In the decade ahead, Novak would, through his journalism and books, identify himself with progressives and the left in church and society. That changed. In a 1987 essay, "Errand into the Wilderness," Novak wrote, "I also thought my way out of left-wing positions."

How left was Novak?

"This was no socialist," said one prominent name from that era. "Michael opposed the war in Vietnam -- you didn't have to be a socialist to do that. And when confronted by radicals at Old Westbury (an experimental state university in New York) he couldn't handle it."

Novak's 1970s rightward shift was capped with a 1979 speech in Aspen, Colo., when he stunned his liberal audience by defending capitalism.

In Jacksonville, over pancakes the next morning, seminarian Roger Burns-Watson was less interested in where Novak started than in where he'd ended up: on the right, where the clever writing and winning words that once consoled or aroused liberals now comfort the comfortable and endorse U.S. laissez-faire capitalism.

In Novak's writings, Burns-Watson reads a defense of this rightward shift: that the left abandoned him first. Novak talks to the anger he felt from others. But what the seminarian will not learn about, for Novak steps around them, are the wounded mentors and former colleagues, some of whom he still claims as friends but who would not talk to NCR with attribution about Novak or their pain.

One said, "During his 'shifting period,' Michael was, on the one hand, attacking many of us quite ruthlessly in articles and speeches around the country and yet, in a very interesting way, yearning still to be in contact.

"He did not want to repudiate his friends, but in repudiating our positions he did not distinguish very much between the position and the friend."

Said another academic of this period, "Michael became a whine. You'd get a tender letter one day and whiny one the next. He is still whiny at times."

Robert McAfee Brown, with whom Novak taught at Stanford in the 1960s, understands the comments. He said, "Part of the difficulty in dealing with Michael is that if you mention him almost in passing in an article, and it is at all critical, this inevitably draws a long, detailed and pained response about how he is misunderstood. His discussion then moves away from the substantive issue into a discussion about him. I just decided I didn't want to play that role."

Burns-Watson, 27, who attends Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky., will be ordained for the Disciples of Christ next Pentecost. He is preparing a research paper critical of capitalism in Honduras and particularly the U.S. government's role in promoting the United Fruit Company's interests.

"Part of the paper is arguing with Michael Novak and other supporters of capitalism, who say it's a great system," said Burns-Watson, a native of Spring-field, Mo.

Burns-Watson said that Novak, in an Atlantic article titled "Why Is Latin America Poor?" answered that "in so many words it's because they lack the proper work ethic. North and South, we all started off on the same foot, and we just happened to be blessed with people who had the right way of looking at things, and the right spirit, and that's why we're rich and they're poor." Burns-Wastson thinks the answer is a lot more complicated than the superior North and "white man's burden" line the conservatives have now adopted.

"Work ethic does not explain why in Honduras, 10 people live in little tin shacks. ... It doesn't. They work very hard." The seminarian spreads his criticism around: Marx, Max Weber (known for his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), Roman Catholicism ("It's as fragmented as Protestantism"), and liberation theologians are all found wanting as Burns-Watson seeks Christianity's place in economics.

But it is Novak he's focused on.

Back to Paul

"Novak claims that any attempt to change the system comes because people are feeling guilty, because they have wealth and other people don't. That's not true," said Burns-Watson indignantly.

"The place to start is with the Pauline emphasis, Corinthians. We're all part of the same body. That's why we should do things in Honduras -- because what affects that part of the world affects us."

Burns-Watson said that Novak and others believe in the curses and blessings of Deuteronomy: "That if you please God, God will reward you materially. Therefore, the capitalists in this country say, 'Look around. We had no material wealth but we do now; we must be doing something right. Look at Latin America. They don't. Therefore, they must be doing something wrong. Therefore, God is in our midst. God is in our capitalist system, and if you want to be with God, and you want God to like you, you have to be like us.'"

Further, for justice' sake, "the issue of restitution must be dealt with," he said. "Liberation theology is correct in acknowledging that U.S.-owned fruit companies stole land and still have land in Honduras that is not theirs. They stole money that isn't theirs. It has to be given back."

Burns-Watson was in law school when an urge toward ordination he'd been suppressing since high school became too insistent to ignore.

"I had been rationaalizing in law school that I'd do all this pro bono work and do these wonderful things for God. And I did well in law school."

That first morning in Jacksonville, chatting with Novak and Commonweal's Paul Baumann before Rabbi Gary Perras explored "The Biblical Roots of a Free Economy," NCR commented to Novak that he'd reached the age when the awards and honorary doctorates come along. "I've got a box full of them," said Novak.

At just under 6 feet tall, balding and somewhat overweight -- his doctor wants him to exercise more -- Novak is a regular on the right-wing speaker circuit with frequent evening receptions and stodgy hotel meals. Consequently, as befits a new grandfather, he looks increasingly grandfatherly. He and his wife, Karen, have three children.

Yet Novak hasn't changed that much in appearance over the years: a recognizable version of the skinny kid sent, with funds contributed by NCR readers, to cover the Vietnam elections. Novak omits any NCR reference in the highly detailed biography he wrote for Templeton Prize application. Yet he does refer to "visiting students" in Vietnam, one of whom was NCR editor Tom Fox, at the time a volunteer working with war refugees. Fox was at Stanford when Novak held a three-year assistant professorship in religious studies.

Not without wit or daring, today's Novak is a long way removed from the speechwriter for Sargent Shriver's presidential bid (and who in Commonweal described Shriver's campaign plane as a "silver penis" thrusting its way through the skies). Those who accuse Novak of having sold out note his service with five presidents or presidential candidates before skipping to a sixth: Kennedy, Johnson, Eugene McCarthy (whom he later dropped), Robert Kennedy and then Shriver. Then Ronald Reagan.

Capitalism's exclusions

Burns-Watson hopes to pursue a PhD at the London School of Economics or the Theological Union, Berkeley, after ordination.

His doctorate presuppositions are twofold: that "capitalism as practiced in this country is inherently designed to benefit a few at the expense of the many; and that no relevant social change can occur in this country without the participation of local religious congregations -- the paradigm for understanding that is the 1960s civil rights movement."

How will the average Disciples of Christ congregation take those suppositions? "Not well. Not well at all," said Burns-Watson.

And after the doctorate? "Change the world," he said, without bravado but with an intensity that may contain just a little precociously wise sorrow. "I'm still young enough to believe I can do that for a little while."

Some 35 years ago, Michael Novak went for a PhD, too, to Harvard, where he first took a master's in history and the philosophy of religion. But Harvard would not accept Novak's dissertation.

Novak's reaction to that decision, as recalled in his essay "Errand into the Wilderness," was that Harvard philosophy was "heavy on logic and language analysis -- terribly inadequate to the century of the Holocaust, the turmoil in Europe (Hungarian reolution) and to the spiritual quest many had been experiencing in the late 1950s." Yet he was busy working on books and writing a piece for Harper's titled, "God in the Colleges."

Novak at Harvard, according to one view, had come up against the fact that "not all faculty like to see their students ripen too soon; they like to have a monopoly of their attention." Whatever, Novak never obtained his PhD, and the honorary ones in his box, scrupulously listed in his fact sheets, are from minor colleges.

The Harvard experience sent Novak off on another tack: anti-WASP. Novak's new crusade was ethnic affairs, a commitment even people of the left commend. His book The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1972) was well-received; his poor-little-Slovak-me piece in Harper's was not.

Novak complained that nobody gave Slovaks a voice, which amused readers familiar with names like columnists Mike Royko and Robert Novak and movie star Kim Novak. However, former colleagues praised Novak for "taking seriously his Slovak-central European roots and promoting a group that was having more difficulty making it on the American scene perhaps even than blacks at that time were having."

Several people interviewed about Novak mentioned his anti-WASP period. Conservative Michael Schwartz, an admitted Novak admirer, said, "Strangely enough, Michael has the mental furnishings of a WASP. What I liked best was his ethnic period."

Schwartz said he did not like it when Novak, "for a period was reduced to amanuensis of the William Simon types." Simon, a Catholic, is a former treasury secretary and known as an investor and dealmaker. He and Novak were the mainstays of a quickly convened and soon dormant Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, formed to combat the U.S. Catholic bishops' process leading to their 1986 pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All."

A different observation was that Harvard's rebuke led to an "anti-intellectual, anti-academy ethnic binge."

That anti-WASP period is the absolute opposite of Novak's current constituency and platform, a change that represents a cultural shift deeper even than the political shift from wherever -- left, liberal or centrist -- to the right. That morning in Jacksonville, Novak sat quietly as the rabbi told the audience something it did not want to hear: The teaching of "classical Christianity" was "inimical to the possession of wealth." He offered one of the obvious sources:" "...easier for the camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

And from that proposition the rabbi would not budge, even though later, during questioning, he acknowledged that most likely "money would be totally extraneous" to the early Christians because to them "Jesus and God's kingdom were imminent."

The 'great cultural war'

Next came a Novak press conference at Jacksonville University.

In a brief address, Novak thanked the organizers and the Slovakian ambassador to the United States, Branislav Lichardus, who brought him a congratulatory letter from Slovakian President Michael Kovac.

He spoke -- as he would in all three Jacksonville appearances -- of his Solvakian grandparents' home and roots in the Tatra mountains and of the importance of "democratic capitalism" succeeding in Slovakia on "that great plain that shoots like an arrow on out toward Siberia and has an effect on China. Unless there's a dynamic and growing economy in Slovakia, in Poland, in Hungary, in Russia, people will not be satisfied with democracy. If democracy only means voting every two years or four years and no improvement in their mateial condition, they will reject it.

"However, beyond the political and economic struggle, deeper than and more important, there's also a great cultural war going on, especially in advanced societies. ...

The collapse of Soviet and central European dictators taught two lessons: that democracy is better for the protection of human rights and that capitalism is better for lifting people to a higher level of living. But in the background (are) the great cultural and moral issues. To what end? How ought we to live? In what sort of culture? I suspect over the next generation the great issues will be cultural. ...Economics is beginning to move away from mere consideration of material phenomena and looking more a human actors and the ethos in which they act."

On capitalism, he said, "The vocation of Jews and Christians and others as people of business is becoming one of the most central vocations of the world. You can't have a theology of the world without having a theology of work. And you can't have a theology of work without having a theology of laypeople and places where they work. And this means you need a theology of economic systems and different institutions within those systems and different circumstances within those systems."

If, for example, in Poland, he said in closing, people do not step forward and begin to act as entrepreneurs, but sit back and wait for the government to move, "things will look very bleak. If they do the former, there is a chance the economy will grow." Conditions of poor people throughout Poland might so improve, he said, "that people will embrace the new system with a certain amount of love and gratitude."

That evening, Novak would expand on what he meant by the "democratic capitalism" that the poor people "will embrace with a certain amount of love and gratitude."

'Democratic capitalism'

In his writings, Novak rightly makes no claims as an economist nor does he suggest he has any particular contribution to the business of business. In essence, the 1990s Novak is entranced by something every student of political economics knows well: that historically the entrepreneurial and commercial classes, Marx's bourgeoisie -- whether the medieval burghers, 18th century British cotton mill owners or late 20th century Eastern European computer company entrepreneurs -- usually play a vital part in wresting democratic structures and practices from monarchic, aristocratic, feudal or statist powers.

That's Novak's "democratic capitalism." He goes no further in the process though. He does not investigate what capitalism then does to democracy. Instead, he and others on the right hold tight to the reassuring hand of Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations). Even Adam Smith, as the Institution for World Capitalism welcomers mentioned, found the capitalism of the butcher and the baker quite crass. What fascinated Smith was manufacturing capitalism's productive possibilities.

The news conference consisted of three cameras, three print journalists, four questions.

NCR's question dealt with a recent statement from nine North American Catholic editors, self-described as ranging from left to right. The publications were the New Oxford Review, Nazareth, Inside the Vatican, Forefront, Communio, The Chesterton Review, The Catholic Worker, The Canadian Catholic Review and Caelum et Terra.

The editors challenge the co-opting of Centesimus Annus by the right and ask whether there really is freedom at the heart of Western liberalism. "Cultures embrace Western freedom only to discover -- too late? -- that they've been made unfree by Western consumerism ... and (slaves) to appetite," they write.

Novak did not deal with the question's content but congratulated the editors for joining in the discussion of Centesimus Annus. He also commended Pope John Paul II for thinking, in his 1991 encyclical, along the same lines as Novak himself. "I must say, I'm quite gratified to see so many passages in Centesimus Annus seeming to reflect passages from my own work, including that distinction between political, economic and cultural, and (to) speak also, as I spoke earlier myself, on the ecology of liberty. I was very glad to see it given such a big megaphone by Centesimus Annus."

"Pretentious," said former New York Times religion writer Kenneth Briggs, who tended in comments to lump Novak with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran turned Catholic. In assessing their ability to heap themselves with accolades -- Neuhaus describes himself in his onepage biography as "one of the foremost authorities on the role of religion in the contemporary world" -- Briggs commented, "One thing that makes Novak and Neuhaus the way they are is that for a good portion of their lives they haven't had the kind of institutional base they wanted."

They still don't. Neuhaus runs a oneman shop, the Institute on Religion and Public Life; since 1983, Novak's permanent home has been not a university or divinity school but the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, a freeenterprise think tank that Briggs -- now an NCR board member -- once described as "an udder with many teats." Conservative Michael Schwartz said, "Michael (Novak) wants absolutely to equate Catholic orthodoxy with democracy and capitalism."

Schwartz, who works with Citizens for Educational Freedom, the American Legislative Exchange Council and a new antiabortion organization, Life Advocacy Alliance, continued: "Michael's had this problem all his career -- trying to figure out what political ideology he needs to teach the church. When he changes his mind, he raises a new goal for the church.

"(Today) he honestly believes this stuff just as he honestly believed in the 1960s that democratic socialism was what the church had to grow into; in the '70s that escaping from the WASP culture was what it had to grow into."

Schwartz said he approached Novak's latest book, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, with great trepidation but gained a new understanding of the author. "Prior to Centesimus Annus, I think Michael really thought the church endorsed socialism. That comes from his early years as a member of the Catholic left intelligentsia -- the audience he has been playing to his whole career, and still is.

"What this book was, however, was a celebration, Novak saying: 'The church has finally come to the same place I have.' I think that Novak certainly overstates the Catholic church's commitment to democratic capitalism in Centesimus Annus or anywhere else. The church's viewpoint on these issues is that the church is not in the business of teaching economics, it is in the business of teaching theology," Schwartz said.

Novak alludes to his influence on the encyclical, but Neuhaus broke the embargo on it with a Wall Street Journal piece that claimed it for the right before anyone had a chance to read it.

Said one scholar, "It's disconcerting when, as so often happens in Novak's case, they heap on their own praise."

In Jacksonville, Novak was on stage that evening at the Omni Hotel Florida Room. The afternoon's interactive session had been canceled; seminarian Roger Burns-Watson was not amused. He bemoaned the lack of dialogue and the fact that "there's no self-critique. No theology is being done; they're all just preaching to the choir."

At the Omni, locals and attendees, including the Institution for World Capitalism's central European students, mingled at a cash-bar reception. Dinner led into the Novak prize time -- with congratulatory letters from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And then into his circuit speech. The tuxedoed Novak (red bow tie), said: "My remarks tonight are, as you should expect from a philosopher, a good bit heavy. I called them, however, 'Capitalism for the Poor, Capitalism for Democracy.' 'Democracy,' Winston Churchill once said, 'is a bad system of government except when compared to all the others.' Much the same might be said of capitalism. Capitalism is a system that commends itself best to the middle-aged." Smiles and knowing nods from the head table, all-male except for Karen Novak.

Romanticizing capitalism

"My own field of inquiry," he said, "is theology and philosophy. From the perspective of these fields I would not like it to be thought that any system is the 'kingdom of God on earth.' Capitalism isn't. Democracy isn't. The two combined are not. The best that can be said for them, and it's really quite enough, is that in combination, capitalism, democracy and pluralism are more protective of the rights, opportunities and conscience of ordinary citizens, all citizens, than any known alternative."

To large measure, having said that, Novak had concluded Part 1 of the three-strand evening as he aimed to charm and educate this audience by romanticizing capitalism. Novak proceeded in a loosely woven talk with threads picked up from Irving Kristol (Two Cheers for Capitalism), The Federalist Papers (Nos. 10, 14, 53), Peter Berger (social democracy is part of the continuum of democratic capitalism"), while touching on the failed alternatives (North Korea, Cuba, Third World state-controlled economies) and the collapsed dictatorships.

Capitalism, as described by Novak, encouraged the mind, was a product of human wit and ingenuity, and, in the American form, was given its head because the fathers founded what they called "a commercial republic."

"Why did they choose crass commerce? Lowly, servile, mercantile industry? I love the liberal arts. I make my living in liberal arts," said Novak. "But it hit me one day, what you're free from when you practice the liberal arts: work. People in liberal arts should never sweat -- at least don't let people see you sweat."

The talk was by no means over, but the late Scottish writer Sir Compton MacKenzie would already have recognized what Novak was doing: For the businesspeople in the audience, Novak was "making a romance out of commerce" while admitting that his own income derived from "making commerce out of the romance."

Novak's second strand was: "When every person in a republic sees his or her material conditions are actually improving from year to year, they are led to compare where they are today with where they would like to be tomorrow. They stopped comparing themselves with the Joneses. ... They don't envy their neighbors and you have a happy and peaceable republic."

Peaceable, satisfied smiles at the head table.

The third element dealt with who gets to define capitalism. Novak said that all dictionaries accept Marx's definition: "a system of exchange, private property and private accumulation for profit."

Continued Novak, "Knowing Marx's animosity against capitalism, why should we accept his definition? He didn't become the first to talk about capitalism because he liked it. This is my definition: Capitalism is an economic system dependent on an appropriate political system and supportive moral cultural system. All three are necessary but it's the economic system that brings a large variety of social institutions to the support of human creativity."

There were three questions. One serious, which Novak sidestepped. That questioner feared for the future if reports are correct that 4 percent of the U.S. population now draws 48 percent of the wealth and that more and more people say they don't think their conditions have improved from year to year. Novak said it was hard for him to believe that last point: A close relative would have died 15 years earlier except for technologies that came out in the past four or five years.

"Another little fact: Journalists bear a very large responsibility for this," he said. "They tell their stories, which are repeated back by people. They don't think often enough about how much more young people today stand to inherit just from the real estate of their parents."

Novak said the figures were skewed: "The number of people who feel envy about where on the actual picture they may be on income, the number of people who actually feel envious about them -- there are very few."

Burns-Watson reported in the following morning from the seminar sessions and Novak's dinner speech: "Among the people I'm talking to, there's a great deal of frustration. (At the seminars) they're telling you elementary capitalism stuff; there's no real dialogue. It's not even aimed at a theology/clergy audience.

"God, when God has been mentioned, it's in a deist sense. It's almost like they brought you here hoping to sort of convince you to buy into their worldview."

A Burns-Watson colleague, a Kentucky pastor, added, "They've patted us on the heads and said, 'Now go back and preach this from your pulpits.'"

Novak's speech

"I will grant him," said Burns-Watson, "that probably the system they have endorsed, theoretically, is better than some others that exist. But most of the underlying suppositions he makes I would challenge. I believe it's a zero-sum game: that resources are finite. They've always had the mentality that the Christian faith was tied up with democratic capitalism, that's always been subtle. Now they're just sort of dropping the 'Christian faith' part for the more subtle 'God ordained.' This is the manifest destiny that's never gone away.

"But Christendom isn't what they're after anymore. It's now the economic 'structure,' and Novak keeps talking about this 'moral' system -- yet he denies the presence of envy in our society."

And he never mentions greed, not even the old conservative defense, constructive greed. How well did Novak deal with the '4 percent owning 48 percent of the wealth' question?

"Poorly," said Burns-Watson. "For a scholar to simply blame the press -- that's an overused conservative tool. His response on the figures, that the figures are wrong? Well, who says? How do you deal with it? You offer alternative statistics. ... He wasn't going to answer any question that was argumentative."

And yet, he said, most people in U.S. church pews "will feel so much more comfortable with Michael Novak than Jim Wallis," referring to the clergyman who heads the evangelical Sojourners Community in a poor neighborhood in Washington.

"Novak doesn't get up and do anything that conservative preachers don't do, which is say, 'All you need to change is your morals. He tells them that it's OK to have two cars and a big house and all this other stuff. He doesn't tell them that the way they live is wrong. He doesn't make their life uncomfortable. Personal piety is easy to preach. People can go home and feel bad about not having devotions with their wives and kids tonight, and that's a lot easier than thinking, 'Good God, there's people starving because of the way I live.'"

On the final morning, Novak was at Jacksonville University to collect another doctorate for his box and to make his final address. Ninety-seven people were dotted around the lecture hall, including about 45 students.

Compared with the previous evening, Novak's morning offering to the students was a thin soup of platitudes and truisms, his own and others. The gathering was given one-liners from or about Cicero, the National Football League, Aquinas, Aristotle, John Paul II, the Novaks' cats, the Austrian economists, Centesimus Annus and Adam Smith.

If commercial people want the customer to keep coming back, "the tendency toward moral and honest behavior is very strong indeed," he said, explaining the forces that promote honorable business.

Novak said that what causes the wealth of nations is in the human head. He illustrated his grasp of historic and current developmental economics: "Take Brazil, enormous natural resources. Japan is a fraction of the size of Brazil, has virtually no natural resources. They have probably the same population. And Japan is wealthy and Brazil is poor. What explains that? If we apply the Centesimus Annus theory, it's the wit with which the Japanese have organized themselves."

He continued, touching on U.S. immigrants, Aristotle and virtue, the distinctions between animal liberty and human liberty, again the cats, the French, the Statue of Liberty, Jefferson and "the great danger to the American Republic: to forget that the liberty for which we stand is not the liberty to do what we wish and what we feel like, but the liberty to do what we ought to do."

Applause. Slow exit through the scattered assemblage in latest doctoral garb.

Light refreshments in the lobby where NCR remarked to Institution for World Capitalism President David Busse, "All those students and no question period?"

"By golly," he said, "you're right."

But all was not lost for Burns-Watson.

He managed some private time to talk to Novak. After a late-morning panel session, Burns-Watson introduced himself to Novak and told him he was reading some of his work for a paper he was doing. Novak invited him to talk after lunch.

His impressions: "I sort of felt Novak wasn't comfortable up there (on the panel). He's not a libertarian and the other two were. He was really defensive (with me) at first. But we talked. He told me not to give in, not to give up my ideas until somebody convinced me otherwise."

Burns-Watson left Jacksonville feeling that Novak was "much more creative and complex than the rest of them were. He understands and sees the need for government. I figured out where my differences with him lie. I still don't agree with him, but I respect him a lot more.

"He's one of those people who, if you're going to disagree with him, you have to wrestle with him. The others would take 30 seconds to pin intellectually.

"My critiques of capitalism have been from a Christian perspective. What he said triggered ideas in my mind -- that we live in a pluralistic society. We also have gone through an age where people tried to make the world Christian. And that was a bad thing -- it was really imperialistic.

"So if you believe that you have to have a moral foundation for a government and society to work, which I do -- most philosophers throughout history have said so -- what, in a country of 300 million people who aren't all Christian, is it going to be?

That natural law stuff

"Well, Novak and the founders of the Constitution argue it should be these natural law things ... that somehow God created the world and left it to us to run. Novak buys into that natural law stuff. Because for him, that's the way to find that moral grounding for society." As a Christian, Burns-Watson said, he wants a theocentric moral basis. "Now what Novak makes you argue with, and he's correct is: How do you do that in a pluralistic society, without falling back into the old Christendom problem -- trying to make everybody Christian?

"I need to do some work on that one."

Novak also told him: "'You're a little too intelligent to sell out. Keep at it. You may end up where I'm at. But work it out.' And I appreciated that."

These days, Novak's life is settling into one of adulation and honors from the wealthy right and talks on the college circuit. He has no book in progress, he said.

But where is he?

That depends.

A former Democrat congressional press secretary and analyst, who requested anonymity, said, "The reason Novak, Neuhaus and Weigel [George Weigel, conservative Catholic activist] are so arrogant is that they want to be respectable in certain political circles. ... They don't want to be aligned with the right's superwackos.

"That's a hang-up for them because, of course, their beliefs aren't that far removed from or significantly different from the people who hang around Jesse Helms. Yet, except in their pretensions -- the Helms people don't quote Chesterton, Shakespeare and Churchill -- they're identical to the Jesse Helms crowd."

The late Dan Herr, editor of The Critic, once gave Novak the sentence-of-the-year award for stating: "Not a single reviewer of my corpus of books has ever determined the complete consistency of everything I've had to say." Herr said no one flip-flopped like Novak.

Novak, said another, believes he has achieved some heights, "but it is not a commanding position. He is not at the top of the mountain -- more like a flagpole sitter."

Robert McAfee Brown summarized: "I say this not in anger but in sorrow. He moved so rapidly, so polemically from those earlier positions. He got hold of this truth that the rest of us had been too dumb to recognize and positioned himself increasingly far away from us, which makes it harder to keep any other kind of relationship going."

Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton don't see Novak that way -- their laudatory letters read at the IWC banquet stressed other attributes.

But what about that rightward shift?

Three possibilities.

Growing more conservative with age or the shock of cultural change seems inevitable in some people.

Or is he John Shawcross, in Spring's Fame is the Spur, letting the saber -- symbol of early caring -- rust in its scabbard? Or is he Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone's son: "If he were not a socialist at 20 I would fear for his heart, and if still one at 30 I would fear for his head?"

Michael Novak can claim success according to his lights. He once wrote that since second grade he had wanted to be a writer.

That he has achieved. For 40 years he has lived by his pen. No sweat.
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Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 13, 1995
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