Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Michael Novak and the theology of Caritas

While not one of the original 'neoconservatives', Michael Novak follows in their footsteps, having experienced a transition from the radical left in early years to a gradual appreciation and support of capitalism and 'The American Experiment.' In the First Things article 'Controversial Engagements', he identifies several underlying elements of continuity in the stages of his thought -- probably the most important of which is his experience of caritas:

According to Novak, caritas is the metaphysical ground of reality, the dwelling place of God -- "a dark and terrible form of realism best symbolized by the Cross on which He willed his Son to die.":

The greatest continuity in my work is this affirmation that the basic energy, power, and force in creation is caritas. In this otherwise vast and possibly empty series of silent galaxies, the Creator made humans in order to have at least one creature able freely to respond to Him -- either with love or not. Caritas is the one energy that matters. In it, we are first related, before we are solitary. We first receive, before we act on our own. We are first empowered, before we take responsibility for our own acts. We are first endowed, before we have rights. In all these things, all humans are linked together. Creatures depend. That is the great "intuition of being" that Jacques Maritain talked about. 1

In a recent interview with, Novak elaborated on this concept: "Caritas is to will the good of the other . . . it is love aimed at the real, not the apparent, good of the other." It is also marked by a realistic understanding of human nature, of human sinfulness, calling for "realistic judgments rather than illusions, appearances and sentimentality." It should play an active role in shaping the institutions of society "to liberate the poor of the earth from the prison of poverty." This must be accomplished by an economic system which "rests upon, and nourish, voluntary cooperation", and is marked by a respect for "the human person as the originating source of human action -- the chief cause of the wealth of nations." Most importantly, it must:

"be based upon the presupposition that humans often fail in love, and only rare ones among them base all their actions thoroughly upon realistic love. Caritas must guide institutions in a realistic, not utopian, aim of establishing a free society." 2

It is this recognition of caritas which influenced his transition from a left-wing socialist to a Catholic seeking to integrate his faith with an appreciation for "democratic capitalism" and the American tradition. In 1979 Novak was asked to give a lecture at Notre Dame at a conference for Chicago Laypersons, on the topic of "the continuing neglect of the laity in the Church" in the years after Vatican II. He began by calling attention to this presence of caritas:

"Through the work of our minds and hands," I said, "the life of the triune God expresses its own love and truth and healing power, not all at once, imperfectly and in the darkness, but yet effectively. We build up the social institutions by which human history is slowly, very slowly, transformed into God's own image. As our God is triune -- a communal God -- so is our vocation communal."

Whereas many of Novak's contemporaries insisted that such a reconstruction of the social order in God's image would entail a rejection of capitalism, Novak devoted the final part of his address to the need to understand capitalism's religious possibilities: "The capitalist system, after all, was the system in which most Notre Dame graduates would work. There could not be a realistic theology of the laity, or theology of work, without a theology of capitalism." Novak recalls this occasion as his very first public defense of capitalism. Predictably, he did not find a very receptive audience ("No one would speak to me. I had violanted an important Catholic taboo . . . I had excommunicated myself from the Catholic left.") 3

Unfortunately, there were obstacles which prevented the development of such a "theology of capitalism." For Novak, the problem was twofold: On one hand, economic theorists had abandoned religious & philosophical considerations in their attempt to model their profession after the physical sciences. On the other, many theologians had aken an adverserial stance toward economic activity, as something "vulgar and crass, if not evil." Novak acknowledges that "whatever the present model of political economy, it will not measure up to the height and depth of the Kingdom of God. It will always be inadequate." Nevertheless, those commited to an incarnational witness must not refrain from "[going] out into this city, whatever its stage of moral and religious development, and try to incarnate the Gospels in it as Jesus incarnated God in history."

Novak spends the much of the article detailing this transition in his thought and those who have influenced him along the way, including the eschatological witness of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, his years at Holy Cross Seminary (1949-56), the philosophy of Jacques Maritain, and the life and work of St. Thèrése of Lisieux:

St. Thèrése (1873 - 1897) is the teacher of the Church about the everyday exercise of caritas, in ways so humble that they mostly cannot be seen, even though their effects may be subjected to the tests of the gospel. She taught me the importance of thinking small and honoring the humble things that I at first tended to despise. For the theology of the laity and the theology of work and the theology of daily institutional life, her work has been described -- by no less an authority than Hans Urs von Balthasar -- as revolutionary.

Quoting from one of his early books (A New Generation: American and Catholic), Novak writes that "in solving the crucial problems of Americans and Catholics in America, one needs 'a consistent point of view, [one that is] empirical, pragmatic, realistic, and Christian.'" He believes he has been faithful to this vision. Whether he has accomplished this is part of the present discussion. For those who are just beginng to read his works, "Controversial Engagments" is a very helpful introduction and overview of the many tangents of his thought.

  1. "Controversial Engagements". First Things 92 (April 1999): 21-29.
  2. Michael Novak's Recipe for a Civilization of Love. Interview with Zenit.Org. July 17, 2003.
  3. Novak's 1979 lecture at Notre Dame would be better described as his "first public religious defense of capitalism." Novak ahad written a book in 1978 called The American Vision -- "my first neoconservative book" -- in which he introduced his conception of democratic capitalism and the aims and visions of the American tradition, laying the groundwork for his subsequent writings.