The Poverty of Michael Novak

As mentioned yesterday, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute has produced a short discourse on the Pope’s not-yet released encyclical on social justice over at First Things. Novak’s article is to the encyclical what condoms are to intercourse: Novak is trying, and trying desperately, to frustrate Pope Benedict’s intention in issuing an encyclical on social justice.

 

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Pope Benedict is, of course, a pastor. By training he is also a theologian. An encyclical is a means by which the Pope teaches Catholic truth, which truth is intimately and intrinsically tied to the revelation of Jesus Christ. In other words, the truth Pope Benedict will proclaim is a theological truth. Yet, not once does Novak mention theology and the only reference he makes to a theologian is to a statement of Pope John Paul II’s that has no particular theological content. Novak, for example, writes, "Will all those good Catholic leftists who announce their own enthusiastic preference for the poor actually help to liberate the poor, even by a little? Will their anticapitalist policies help alleviate poverty? The historical record offers very little evidence for that contention." The verb "liberate" is the key to that quote and Novak means something different from liberation from what St. Paul meant. Freedom from government regulation is not the same thing as the freedom of the children of God. The question, the theological question, about capitalism is not whether it alleviates material poverty. We can stipulate that fact, although many in Latin America are right to wonder what happened to the promises of prosperity from the NAFTA crowd. But, the theological question is this. Do not the very means by which capitalism increases material wealth entail an impoverishment of the spiritual wealth of the people who engage in it?

Novak assures us that this is not the case, that capitalism is not all about greed but is romantic, it involves noble sentiments of the human heart like the yearning for innovation and human creativity. "In actual capitalist practice, the love of creativity, invention, and groundbreaking enterprise are far more powerful than motives of greed," he writes.

How does Novak know this? I checked his biography and it appears he has never once been an entrepreneur. I can assure him from my years as the manager of a small business that I never once was asked by the owners if I was focused sufficiently on being creative. They asked about the bottom line. And, if you wanted to motivate the waiters, bonus money was the ticket, not appeals to their "love of creativity." Perhaps Novak spoke with the donors at the AEI. I am quite sure that this interpretation of the source of their wealth suits their self-image nicely. Who wouldn’t rather appear as a groundbreaking, creative sort rather than a greedy money-grubber. Flattery may not get you everything, but it has gotten the AEI a lot of donors.

As for his comments about the source of our current economic troubles, and how and why greed was not the problem, etc., well, read them yourselves. His take on the current economic crisis is precious.

Why does anyone listen to Novak? His essays are a shill for rich people, nothing more and nothing less. He once compared the modern business corporation to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, a comparison so bizarre and outrageous I laugh every time I read it. Now, he has marked out his turf vis-à-vis Pope Benedict, putting his own ideological frame on the Pope’s encyclical before even reading it and without realizing that the ideological framing of Church teaching is one of the problem the Church faces, not one of the solutions. Mr. Novak and his neo-con friends can try as they might to wiggle greed into a virtue, to dress up capitalism in the garb of human creativity and it may well be the best form of organizing an economy known to the annals of history. But, from a Catholic perspective, we must insist on the priority of faith and its claims over the claims of economics, no matter what they think over at the AEI.

 

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8 years 4 months ago
 The groundwork is already being laid for a reprise of "Mater Si, Magistra No." The neocons have had the welcome mat removed from the door of St. Peter. Benedict is not John Paul!    
8 years 4 months ago
Novak completely lost my respect when he went to Pope John Paul II to prove that the attack and the following war in Iraq were justifiable by Roman Catholic doctrine. He continues to use  Republican politics as a way to interpret Catholic doctine instead of using Catholic doctine as a means to critque politics.  Perhaps one day he will get things in the correct order.
8 years 4 months ago
Excellent comments - the bias of First Things and EWTN, etc. was clarified on Monday nite - EWTN News Hour that evening with Sirico and Arroyo.  Like Novak, bending over backwards, speaking out of both sides of their mouths, confusing and mixing examples to prove their orthodoxy. Example - asked by Arroya, Sirico goes on a complicated exercise in explaining how social justice issues especially any proposed, current program of the Democratically controlled congress and executive branch (e.g. national health care; immigration, climate control, etc.) are really just political choices that catholics are free to disagree and oppose - they are not dogma or doctrines of the church.  In the very same explanation, Sirico repeatedly states that current political issues such as immigration, economy, healthcare are gospel imperatives but they are NOT current dogmas - thus, a catholic can take a different position.  Both repeatedly state that these issues are important parts of the gospel message BUT they do not have the weight of the "intrinsic evil" of abortion. It is sad to see them confusing vulnerable folks who watch junk like EWTN.  Like Novak, we have gospel imperatives but they do not have the same weight as their cherished issues of the day.  Give me a break!   
8 years 4 months ago
I'm sorry ... I was lost at the bizarre, misplaced, and inappropriate condom comment (which I'm still trying to understand). I know our society, and particularly the church, has a fascination with all things penile, but can we please give it a rest?  I'm not sure an article about the pope's forthcoming social justice encyclical merits a penis reference. Grow up.
8 years 4 months ago
Ah yes. Novak's 1991 volume, Towards a Theology of the Corporation, in which he claims the 'despised' corporation is the analogue to the Church, the suffering servant, incarnation of God's presence among us. wow. That will certainly go down as one of the silliest relics of the neocon/catholic era in the US.  Yes folks, Haliburton, Lockheed, WalMart, ComCast, Enron et al. - analogues of the Church.  Wait a minute! maybe Novak's onto something!
8 years 4 months ago
At least First Things has switched to a format that allows for comments.  It appears they're now brave enough to face a few objections.  I quit reading their site long ago not because it wasn't interesting (even though it could be predictable), but rather because they never appeared to allow for disagreement. - TL
8 years 4 months ago
Novak has got to be ripping out his hair right about now.
8 years 4 months ago
The comment of the first poster above about EWTN is right on. It should be called the Eternal Republican Television Network. One of the Friars there once said on TV something like, we're about Catholic truth, we're not a neo-conservative network. I'm sure he wasn't a neo-con, but Mr. Arroyo sure is. And so is the nework. After the defeat in 2006 of Uber-Catholic Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, I challenged "The World Over" to now give equal time to the man who defeated him, equally pro-life Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr. Of course they haven't. The lineup of guests on Mr. Arroyo's "news" program over the years speaks for itself. Pat Buchanan, William F. Buckley; who got a glowing puff piece; Sean Hannity; Santorum; Rev. Neuhaus; Mr. George Weigel, who still apparently believes his own non-sense about Iraq; Laura Ingraham; Peggy Noonan; Mel Gibson, and on and on. The list of wonderful Catholics they haven't had on is legion. Arroyo's typical strategy on any issue is to have on an official church representative, usually a bishop or someone from the USCCB, and with that person some right-wing kook who in the EWTN view represents true "orthodoxy." EWTN  very very rarely has anything "fair and balanced" on about social justice or peace. It is a crying shame that the face of Catholicism on television in the U.S. is so often a shill for the neo-cons and the GOP. Oh, for a full-Gospel Catholic network which would reflect Church teaching in all its glory and would not be afraid of talking to Catholics at all points on the political and religious spectrum! Peace.
8 years 4 months ago
I must say that I am not very interested in commenting on a comment on a comment on a not yet published encyclical. But I was shocked by the tone of this post. The June 22-29, 2009 issue of America has a wonderful editorial "Community of Disciples", which calls for respect and kindness when correction is needed. I do not think that  sentences like "his essays are a shill for rich people, nothing more and nothing less" fits the bill. And in any case, if this is true, why bother commenting on his essays?
8 years 4 months ago
Christians do not seem to realise that the Church is a community. It is therefore not enough to attend church, shake the priest´s hand, have coffee and go away. Once Christians begin to realise this there will be no need for Liberation Theology.

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