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In Memoriam

Michael Novak (1933-2017)
Credit: Templeton Prize

The John Templeton Foundation mourns the death of 1994 Templeton Prize Laureate Michael Novak, whose writings on free society influenced political and social movements around the world. He passed away on February 17 at the age of 83.

Novak held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute from 1983 until his retirement in 2009. During his long career as a journalist, university professor, diplomat, novelist and philosopher, he was the author or editor of more than 45 books that provided new insights into the spiritual foundations of economic and political systems, and extended the boundaries of spiritual thinking into many areas of culture including ethnicity, poverty, the family, and sports. He was widely considered a pioneer of a new discipline, the theology of economics.

None among those books was more influential than The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, published in 1982. It was printed in an illegal underground edition by the Polish labor union Solidarnosc in 1985 and credited with shifting the movement away from socialism. Czech dissidents of Charter 77 and Václav Havel’s Civic Forum used it in their clandestine study groups. When Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical Centesimus Annus in 1991, which defined free society as a three-fold system – political, economic and moral – many observers detected the influence of Novak’s writings. Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs noted that Novak “provided the intellectual basis for my approach to those great questions brought together in political parlance as ‘the quality of life.’”

Michael Novak (1933-2017)
Michael Novak receives the Templeton Prize from HRH The Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace, May 5, 1994.
Credit: Templeton Prize/Clifford Shirley

At the news conference where he was announced as the 1994 Prize Laureate, Novak said: “I have tried to work out my theology of economics with the poor in the forefront of my attention – first of all, the poverty of my own family in its beginnings and in central Europe today, but even more urgently the awful and unnecessary poverty of Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere. If I had one wish to express today, it would be that the poor of the world benefit by it, through having attention focused on the systemic issue: Which sort of system of political economy is more likely to raise the poor out of poverty, liberate them from disease, and protect their dignity as agents free to exercise their own personal economic initiative and other creative talents?”

At a ceremony at Westminster Abbey in May 1994, he concluded his Templeton Prize address, “Awakening from Nihilism: In Preparation for the 21st Century, Four Lessons from the 20th,” with these words: “No one ever promised us that free societies will endure forever. Indeed, a cold view of history shows that submission to tyranny is the more frequent condition of the human race, and that free societies have been few in number and not often long-lived. Free societies such as our own, which have arisen rather late in the long evolution of the human race, may pass across the darkness of Time like splendid little comets, burn into ashes, disappear. Yet nothing in the entire universe, vast as it is, is as beautiful as the human person. The human person alone is shaped to the image of God. This God loves humans with a love most powerful. It is this God who draws us, erect and free, toward Himself, this God Who, in Dante’s words, is ‘The Love that moves the sun and all the stars.’”

Novak used his Prize proceeds for a number of initiatives including funding the Novak-Templeton Scholarship at his alma mater Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts; a fellowship program at the American Enterprise Institute; a grant to Crisis magazine; and a grant to Notre Dame College in Dhaka in honor of his brother Richard, a priest who was killed while on a mercy mission in Bangladesh during the waning days of Muslim-Hindu riots in 1964.

Michael Novak was a longtime colleague of many of us here at the Foundation and a contributor to various Foundation programs including the Big Questions series and the Templeton Book Forum. We extend our deepest condolences to his children and grandchildren and mourn the loss of a giant public intellectual.