Our Founders always wondered about how long it would last. The price of liberty is everlasting vigilance. You've got to be on your guard every minute or you will lose it.
Michael Novak was born in Pennsylvania on September 9, 1933. His parents instilled in him an appreciation for reading and critical thinking. His lifelong love of Catholicism came from his mother and led him, at 14, to seriously consider the priesthood. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Stonehill College and then a bachelor of sacred theology degree from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Novak ultimately chose not to enter the priesthood and attended Harvard on a graduate fellowship in late 1960.
During the Second Vatican Council, Novak spent much time in Rome covering the event for several publications. He recorded his accounts of the second session of the Council in his book The Open Church. Later, he became the first Roman Catholic to teach in the humanities program at Stanford University, where he continued to write. After Stanford he held a number of different academic roles until 1978, when he joined the American Enterprise Institute as a resident scholar. He also regularly wrote for various conservative and Catholic outlets. He held a number of other noteworthy roles, including U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. He also served on the board of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and advised the Institute on Religion and Public Life.
Novak’s most famous book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, was one of the first to take an in-depth look at the free market from a moral perspective. The 1982 revolutionary work offered a new assessment of capitalism. Capitalism had been accused of (and is still being accused of) lacking any moral or spiritual dimensions. Its endgame seeming to be simple profit maximizing. Novak challenged that assumption, arguing that democratic capitalism is, beyond being a more practical system, morally superior to socialism or any other economic system for that matter. Novak wrote that capitalism has a very distinctive spirit with three significant elements: democracy, a market-based economy and a pluralistic, liberal culture. “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” begins Samuel McCracken in his review, “may prove one of those rare books that actually changes the way things are.”
Novak didn’t just write about economics, morality and democracy. He was also very interested in athletics. In 1976, he published The Joy of Sports, which Sports Illustrated listed as one of the Top 100 Sports Books of all time. Novak looks into baseball, basketball and football as the three sports invented by Americans for Americans. “All around this land there is a faith without an explanation, a love without a rationale,” Novak writes in the book. “This book is written to fill a void among the faithful.” He explained that sports in America is almost a kind of religion, “built on cult and ceremony.” This lesser-known book explores that idea in depth.
Novak had long been associated with Acton, speaking at multiple Acton Universities and enjoying close friendships with many Acton staff. One of Acton’s biggest projects is the “Novak Award.” This annual award recognizes an outstanding scholar whose work includes the intersection of theology, philosophy and free-market economics. Acton has awarded a Novak Award every year since 2001.
Michael Novak was married for more than 40 years to Karen Laub-Novak, a professional painter, scultor and writer who passed away in 2009. They had three children together.