Michael Novak and the Moral Foundations of a Free Society

The Catholic world lost one of its most illuminating thinkers when Michael Novak recently passed away at age 83. Novak can be credited with articulating a vision of the moral foundations necessary to maintain a system of democratic capitalism (political freedom and free enterprise).

Likewise, one could say Novak was one of the originators of a theology of economics, that is, an understanding of how man’s creative participation in social and economic life contributes to the development of his personality, fulfills his vocation to be a steward, and realizes his dignity as a co-creator made in the image and likeness of God, who Himself creates out of love.

Continued relevance

Novak’s work remains important today, as our supposedly free market economic system, as well as the system of global capitalism, is not operating as it should. Greed, cronyism between government and corporations, and outright corruption create what Pope Francis calls an economy of exclusion. Too many economic actors focus on extracting wealth from the system as opposed to creating it, and put up barriers to entry instead of expanding participation.

Rather than serving as a playing field in which all persons find sustenance and develop their God-given potential, this economy of exclusion, in the Pope’s estimation, is an “economy that kills.”

What’s needed is a recovery of the sense of the moral foundations that undergird a properly functioning economy. For his part, Novak cited caritas (love), as the cornerstone of this societal architecture, and saw that persons could not flourish without it.


In his later work, Novak proposed what he called the Caritapolis, the city of Caritas—“one human family of brothers and sisters who are willing to give their lives for each other.” It had three foundations: political, economic, and moral.

Novak asked, “What would it profit the human race if we were to achieve a higher level of political and economic liberty than ever before, only to live like pigs, enslaved to our desires without reflection and deliberation? This would be a travesty, for it is not only our political and economic systems that must be worthy of our human nature, but also our habits of moral living.”

His assessment was especially needed at a moment when capitalism had defeated communism, and was set to reshape the global economy. Prescient thinkers such as Novak and Pope John Paul II—whose encyclical Centesimus Annus shares many strands of thought with Novak’s Caritapolis—knew that without the proper moral and anthropological basis, the triumph of democratic capitalism would turn into soft totalitarianism, and that we would indeed have a consumerist economy that commodifies persons.

All is gift

Novak expanded upon this idea in his description of Caritapolis, noting that free societies and free enterprise systems must be animated by people who understand that they have been created and

redeemed by the gratuitous and undeserved gift of God’s love. Therefore, all of creation, including our own individual lives, should be viewed as a gift to be shared with others.

Understanding ourselves within the context of this narrative of gift, we create a Caritapolis when our actions are rooted in this great gift of self. We understand that everything we have is a gift, including our economic resources, and that, being good stewards of this gift, we are called to invite others into greater participation in the gift.

In the Caritapolis’s economy of gift, those with property and economic resources must work to foster greater labor participation and create meaningful work for others; they create new enterprises that are both profitable and contribute to the common good; they avoid the vice of luxury; and they channel excess profits into its employees, the community, and new creative enterprises. Their business ethic is animated by self-giving love (caritas).

Lest this sound like pie-in-the-sky romanticism, Novak distinguished caritas from merely sentimentalism or romantic love: “We must fix our eyes on the points of suffering at the heart of things and watch for concrete results, not sweet talk. Caritas is a teacher of realism, not soft-headedness; of fact, not sentiment; of suffering love, not illusory bliss. To think in a utopian way is a sin against Caritapolis.”

As Pope Francis continues to challenge us to consider how an economy can lift up or degrade human dignity, Michael Novak’s many books and writings on the subject are worth revisiting. While not all Catholics need agree with his prescriptions, each of us should similarly strive to put love at the center of all our actions.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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