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Michael Novak, theologian who made a spiritual case for capitalism, dies at 83

Michael Novak was 83.

Michael Novak was 83. Credit: Catholic News Service

Michael Novak, a Catholic philosopher who helped carve a space for religion in modern politics, diplomacy and economics, arguing that capitalism is the economic system most likely to achieve the spiritual goods of defeating poverty and encouraging human creativity, died yesterday at his home in Washington. He was 83.

The cause was complications from colon cancer, said his daughter Jana Novak.

Novak, who spent his formative years in the seminary, was widely recognized as one of the most influential Catholic theologians of his generation. He was the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize, which honors makers of an “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension” and is accompanied by a monetary award exceeding that of the Nobel Prize.

In a measure of Novak’s influence within the Catholic Church, he was received and consulted by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He was at times a professor, a columnist, chief U.S. delegate to the UN Human Rights Commission and, for several decades, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank in Washington.

Novak was among several scholars who “brought serious religious thought to Washington in a way that it had not been present before,” George Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow at the D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, said in an interview.

Novak wrote a shelf full of books on topics ranging from nuclear weapons to atheism. But he was best known for his economic writings, particularly the book “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” (1982).

“Democratic capitalism,” he wrote, is “neither the Kingdom of God nor without sin. Yet all other known systems of political economy are worse. Such hope as we have for alleviating poverty and for removing oppressive tyranny — perhaps our last, best hope — lies in this much despised system.”

Novak’s book found resonance around the world. It was illegally distributed in Poland, where the Solidarity movement helped defeat communism. His writings were credited with influencing Václav Havel, the dissident playwright who became the first president of Czechoslovakia after communism, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain.

Critics charged that he overlooked the severe inequalities often wrought by capitalism.

Novak’s wife of 46 years, the former Karen Laub, died in 2009. Survivors include three children, a sister, a brother and four grandchildren.

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