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Michael Novak Dies


Michael Novak, Catholic Scholar Who Championed Capitalism, Dies at 83

He was one of those great Catholic thinkers whose intellectual honesty and rationalism made possible both a profound movement toward the truth and an appreciation of God’s place in all things. God bless you, Michael, you will be sorely missed, especially today when there is so much confusion in politics and faith. Rest in Peace.


“Leave the world a better place than you found it.”

big-bag-of-money-6497-largeThis is a nice platitude but that is about all it is. The truth is that we have very little control over the world. We can try to make a positive difference over our small piece of it, but even here things often do not go our way. Indeed, we might be in conflict with one another as to what makes the world better. Is it technology, more parks, electric cars or gas guzzlers, laws that promote “choice” over human life, legalizing sodomy, what? Those who promote justice for some often want it revoked for others. That was a facet of the religious liberty fight between the Church and the current government administration. Often we experience life as a mess and leave the world in a mess. Despite progress can we say that the world is a better place than in the past? There are still acts of terrorism and genocide. This year it was estimated that the one percent of the world population owns over 50% of the world’s wealth and resources. There is an old saying about this— the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

We live and we die. Many people just scrape along, try to find some happiness and deal with dreams realized and/or broken. Relationships give comfort and belonging but there is also betrayal and abandonment. We are a society of givers and takers and critics debate as to which it might be better to be.

Catholic Charities is the largest social service organization in the world just behind the U.S. government. Believers are often very generous to those in need. I heard one atheist share his deep regrets that they were frequently shamed by believers in how they respond to the needy and human suffering. Why is that? What is it about the so-called “pie-in-the-sky religion” that also focuses on earthly struggles and pain? Why is it that by comparison non-theistic forms of humanism often become oppressive and part of the problem?


“There is no one right way to live.”

Eye-3372-largeAnd what is this supposed to mean? Would the atheist tolerate a radical Islam that covered a woman’s face and body, reducing her to property, denying her an education and life outside the home? Would they turn a blind eye to a pre-civil war south where slavery allowed a genteel life for some and one of brutal servitude for others? This so-called commandment is actually nonsense. The truth is that while there are many different states of life and a certain cultural diversity; nevertheless, there are ways of living that countermand human decency and the laws of God. Keeping harems or same-sex partners would also fall within prohibited acts; however, I suspect the atheist critic wants to make room for deviancy. Once more there is a problem with specificity. Who decides what an appropriate lifestyle is and is not? Failure to make any judgment will lend legitimacy to anything and everything.

The Christian would argue that there is a right way to live and that is to live in right relationship with God and man. Sex outside of heterosexual marriage is a sin. A lifestyle that depends upon the oppression of others is a sin. A life that is addicted to booze and drugs is one that faces imminent destruction. Commercialism and materialism will ultimately fail to satisfy the longing of the soul. We live in such a way, in accordance with our nature, so that we can draw out the best that makes us human. We are social creatures which need to interact with each other in a manner that both preserves human freedom and insures the healthy functioning of society. Putting it bluntly, there are right “ways” of living and there are wrong ways, too.

I am somewhat surprised that that a man who promotes science would suggest this dictum. The Mythbusters devote each episode at dispelling myths and trying to ascertain the truth. There is little truth in this so-called new commandment. As with the proper fuel for a car a protocol before a dangerous experiment or explosion— there is a right way and a wrong or dangerous way to proceed.

This new law is really just an excuse for liberality and unhampered toleration. Not that I think he really means it because I suspect there are elements to the Christian life that he would find personally objectionable. In other words, the rule here is biased with unspoken exceptions. He would stretch the definition of marriage and family. Marriage, itself, might be viewed as an unnecessary human construct. Obviously, the atheist critic would not interpret it as a sacrament configured to give grace.

Man is not the final arbiter of right and wrong. The rejection of this truth is at the heart of many contemporary problems. Everything is politicized, even human behavior. If the law says something is right, many presume that it must be okay. The war against drugs goes badly, so advocates argue for their legalization and taxation. When the prostitution situation resists resolution, there is a lobby that suggests making it legal with defined health or safety standards. Assault against children, even in the womb was reckoned as manslaughter and a war crime but now it is regarded as a right of women to choose. Within living memory homosexuality goes from being criminalized to being protected and promoted as a basic civil right. No matter what the issue or behavior, people no longer turn to ministers or philosophers but to lawyers and politicians.

This process promotes a lie… about human nature, about God and his commandments… and about our sphere of influence. The subjective eclipses the objective. The relative dominates over point of permanence. The end result is that we damage ourselves and all our associations. Not only is there a loss of a sense of sin but also of any concrete definition.


“We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.”

landscape-with-a-tree-swirl-cloud-4545-largeWhy? God is out of the picture, so why care? No matter what we do, top scientists tell us that the universe is doomed. It is hard enough to care for ourselves and find happiness. Does it really make sense to care for others and generations unborn? We already abort half a million unborn children in the U.S. each year. If the living does not matter then caring about prospective people seems arbitrary and meaningless. Cold and honest atheistic logic cries out: “Maybe it would be better to let the poor and the defective die outright? If we eliminate the world’s refuse, then there will be more for us and the Western elite. We can make the world safe for endangered species by subtracting overcrowding populations of humans. Do we have any more right to the earth than the animals? Show me scientifically that we have an obligation to others and the future! Prove it or give it up. Our personal world might be better off if there were a few less mouths to feed.”

Anyway, we are all such hypocrites. Look at all the stuff we buy these days that comes from slave labor and where people are oppressed. If it is cheaper, it is better… that is today’s mantra. We take advantage of the poor and the worker. The host of Mythbusters can make up this commandment… but even his television show bobble heads and DVDs are manufactured in Chinese sweatshops. We can thus avoid paying local workers at all and pay others a non-livable wage. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer! Yeah, we really care about others… NOT!

As a Christian, I believe that every person has an incommensurate worth. All human life is sacred and we are called to be good stewards of creation. I believe that there is something immortal and lasting about every person conceived into this world. We are all God’s children and God loves you no more or less than he does me. I believe there is an order and a divine plan. It is important to play our part as instruments of divine providence.


“Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.”

creepy-guy-pointing-6790-largeEarlier I spoke about how there is a certain Christian spillage into the non-theistic environment. There is no table rasa for the atheist in the creation of his godless Decalogue. Here he has essentially borrowed THE GOLDEN RULE from Jesus: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Stripped from the commandment is the underpinning of a divine imperative. Also missing is the unique appreciation of sacrificial love espoused by Christ. Our Lord tells us to lend without expecting repayment. He urges us to love those who hate us. He says we must forgive those who hurt and persecute us. This means that we would treat others with compassion and generosity and not measure the cost. Without this appreciation, the Golden Rule might be interpreted as a quid pro quo situation: you rub my back and I will rub yours. There is no bartering when it comes to the quality of love. Once again, there is an element of uncertainty. What can we “reasonably” expect? We might want someone to show us charity and mercy, but in earthly terms are they obliged to do so? Similarly, how far do we put ourselves out for others? Each of us has his own problems and debts. I have heard hard men say, “I ask nothing of others and in return I would like to be left alone by all the panhandlers!” In a cold and cruel way this might be applied to the rule here. I have also heard people say, “Nobody ever gave me a free lunch so why should I have to buy for everyone else?” This reductionism can reach a level where the rule is no more than this: “Don’t try to kill me and I won’t kill you!” The rule is echoed in many cultures and among many religions. However, the full meaning and truth comes clear within the Christian dispensation. God has been good and generous to us. We need to extend this generosity to others.  The matter is deeper than “their perspective” but rather how does God see it?


“Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.”

Praying-Skeleton-4870-largeThis is not so much a commandment as it is a quality of good character. All of us need a level of integrity in how we approach the world and behave. This does not tell us what to do. Rather, it is a premeditation and a later resolve to carry through and accept what comes. I was surprised to see this one on the list because it is the edict that atheists and secularists so often seek to escape.

Notice what is left unsaid.

1. How does one judge the consequences?

2. How far can one go to change the consequences?

3. Should the weight of the consequences upon the agent and others be equally measured?

4. Do others have a right to weigh in upon the consequences of acts that one proposes to perform?

5. As long as one will accept responsibility for acts, what determines that these acts are good and moral?

6. What exactly does it mean to take responsibility… obedience, dissent, not getting caught?

The Church urges this dictum when it comes to sexual activity between men and women. Couples should first be married and they should be mindful that this activity is how lovers become mothers and fathers. Sexual intercourse is geared to fecundity and fertility. Of course, the critic objects to this necessary connection. He would prefer a reflection so that an escape clause or out might be found. Thus, as an example, sexual acts might be manipulated or the faculty of generation destroyed through contraception. Instead of avoiding such acts that are inherently life-giving, the act is distorted into one where bonding and pleasure are now the only ends. If the contraception should fail, the traditional believer would say then the child should be welcomed. However, here the so-called commandment is violated or expanded again to include abortion. In truth, responsibility for acts is avoided.

As a Catholic, a difficulty I see is the ingredient of atheism itself. What if Christians should be right about the last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell? Then there are obviously consequences for our actions that the non-believer has failed to evaluate. The tragedy here is that there will be an eternity to suffer remorse.


“God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.”

priest-10214-largeWhat does it mean to be a good person? What makes life meaningful or worth living? It seems to me that God is like the paper upon which we write. Without him we do not even have the tools or perspective to answer satisfactory either question. The atheist critic contends that the believer is greedy and wants a better deal than the universe gives. Unhappy with a broken world, he argues that theists imagine another world where there is a God who cares and an order that will make sense of the present mess. Karl Marx made much of this “pie-in-the-sky” interpretation of religion. These critics contend that eternal life and the joys of heaven are imaginary rewards fabricated to placate those who are currently suffering or doing without. Note that the rise of American atheism has followed the fall of Soviet communism and the red threat. Many Americans once viewed socialist leanings and atheism as stripes belonging to the same animal. In contradiction, we still find a lingering merger of faith to patriotism. It is almost always the atheist or secularist who throws down the gauntlet: challenging “under God” in the pledge, public prayer, the Bible in schools, the teaching of intelligent design along with evolution and civic toleration of religious symbols.

It is true that sinners and the godless can know good fortune and a level of earthly happiness. But what happens when things do not go our way? The believer finds consolation in his faith, particularly in the face of disappointments, suffering and struggle. Other than taking a mood pill, what does the atheist do when he is facing the prospect of failure, pain and death? What is the meaning of life when everything must be defined in terms of limited mortality? Apart from God, do we even know what it means to be a good person? Why be charitable or self-sacrificing when it costs us and this is the only life we will ever know? Are fornication and homosexuality good? Is adultery only bad when you are caught? Is it okay to steal if you think you can get away with it and there will be no negative consequences? If life gets too hard is it good to take an overdose of pills and end it all? If drugs make you happy then should it not be a personal decision to take them? Is it good to help a scared girl to have an abortion even if believers contend it is the murder of a child? Christians are confused about such matters, too. Many think that simply being good will save them or that following their conscience, even an erroneous one, absolutely frees them from culpability. It does not.

People who reject God might stumble upon being good persons, and there are such things as natural virtues, but I suspect it is usually because they have been touched or “contaminated” by the faith of people around them. It is hard to argue for supernatural virtue or ethical principles or defined commandments when there is no belief in God. It strips the law of any genuine imperative. Precepts become arbitrary or capricious. We see this with the current transition of homosexuality from a crime and defect to a right and gift. Instead of civil laws backing up the laws of God, the laws of men become the final authority and they can change at any moment with the current fads and fashions. Politicians become the new priests and prophets, demanding that vice be regarded as virtue and that moral evil be rendered as good. Morality becomes a matter for vote and legislation, not something imposed by a God in Scripture or from a principal agent behind nature and creation.

Liberalism might rule the day at present, but views can change and we may see an atheistic secular world fighting itself over what is right and wrong. A person might tolerate sodomy but condemn pederasty. The pederast or pedophile might object to bestiality. The bar is increasingly lowered but not every atheist may find he can bend so low in reference to certain indignities. Killing the child in the womb might earn his or her remarks of gratitude as a feminist for women’s rights; but kill a three year old that no one wants might make the same critic puke in disgust. Such is the brave new world we are creating. What we have forgotten is that even Hitler and his Nazis thought they were good persons doing good work with eugenics and holocaust. Today we would stamp them as evil although many of their stratagems against the innocent have been put back into place. I will say it again and again. Without God, we do not know how to be good. Of course, this is a different question than, are Christians actually good? The believer acknowledges that he is a sinner who has fallen short. We need the mercy of Jesus. While God’s grace can make us saints; his law reveals how much we have fallen short and how much conversion we still require. If there is no God then there is no sin and no need for forgiveness. We must also then face a universe that could not care less about us. We can live for a few seconds of a hundred years, but eventually the world will get its way and we will die. We are children of nature and we are destined to die. A fallen world will kill us. We will get cancer or diabetes or heart trouble or something else. The atheist says he is not afraid to live and die. I suppose those who feel they have achieved something might feel this way. But what if you are a “nobody” with nothing going right in your life? Suppose you think that nobody loves you. No one wants you. You might conclude, “I would be better off dead,” and if the atheists are right then you would probably be right. In any case, you will get your wish. You will die. We all do. The atheist has to face the prospect that he will be forgotten. It will be as if he never were. Nothing he did will have any permanent significance. How can one be really happy when the transitory is all that one believes to exist? The story of Job was in response to such concerns. The ancient Jews gave little thought to an afterlife. They saw God’s reward in earthly success: wealth, property and family. But what if evil men should flourish and good or innocent people should suffer? Where is the justice in that? Here is the conundrum and it leaves us with one of two possibilities. Either there is no God or at least none that cares a damn for us or there is a good God who will balance the scales in another life where some will be rewarded and others punished. The former argues that we live in a universe where ultimately there is neither justice nor mercy— a prospect that many of us find too terrible to conceive. The latter claims that there is more to reality than we know and that a just God has given us an innate desire for life and happiness that he will satisfy— not in this world but in the kingdom of Christ.


“The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.”


I have a profound respect for the utility of the scientific method; however, it would be the height of hubris for one to place it alone on the dais of truth. It has very significant limitations. I am not surprised that this “new” commandment is proposed by one of the renowned television Mythbusters. One of my favorite shows, the premise is that a “myth” or hypothesis must be testable through experiments or observations that are repeatable. The program gives one of three answers: Confirmed, Plausible or Busted. Despite a desire from certain cast members to tackle “religious myths,” the Discovery Channel has said no, if not to avoid the mockery of faith at least to preserve a large faith-based audience.

Such an approach to the natural world is often best with particularized or tightly delineated questions. The topics that concern philosophers and theologians are generally beyond the parameters of the scientific method. For instance, string theory might make good math but how would one go about proving experimentally a theory “about everything”? When researchers try, the experiments, by necessity become increasingly expansive. Astronomers and astrophysicists want telescopes that see further into the universe and into bands of light or energy that we could not normally perceive. We now think we have detected the cosmic radiation present after the Big Bang. Physicists peer in the opposite direction, looking for the God particle or the infinitesimally small, as with the massive (17 miles long) Hadron Collider. However, after all the number crunching and investigation, there is still no good science that demonstrates either a doomed or self-perpetuating cosmos without a Creator. This should force even the most hardened cynic to agnosticism, not to an atheist’s absolute denial of a deity. They will argue that the burden of proof is upon the believer. And yet, the believer looks around and sees proof everywhere; he is shocked that the atheist cannot see it. Nothing comes from nothing. If there is no Creator, then nothing should exist— not a butterfly or a smiling child— not a tick of the clock or the movement of an electron and proton— nothing, no time, no space, no matter, and definitely nothing that should be asking these questions or reflecting upon existence. But here we are. Are we just a cheap accident? That is no answer. If being and non-being is a flip of the coin, then I want to know who is supplying the change!

While the Catholic already accepts the existence of God and even says that he has intervened in human history as a caring God; nevertheless, he wants to make sense of the natural world. God can use miracles and suspend his laws but usually he does not. Otherwise, creation would be capricious and God would seemingly curse the very order he put into place. The Catholic notion of intelligent design looks at the patterns in the natural order and philosophically deduces a knowing agent. Schools often refuse to admit the view, even though it respects the scientific data associated with theories of creation and evolution. There is no empirical test to prove or disprove the existence of a divine being. Public schools, in particular, will make room for experiential science, but increasing reject not only religion but the benefits of natural reason and philosophy. This throws out the best of Western civilization and represents a type of intellectual reductionism. The same philosophy that would allow for intelligent design would also promote logical reasoning and a study of the virtues. It is no wonder, that vice and actions are increasingly separated from the concern of culpability or objective morality. Schools become hell holes because we have subtracted everything of heaven out of them.

The scientific method is a useful tool, but it is only that.  It has led to discoveries that have both improved and endangered the world.  Knowledge is gained but often without the wisdom as to how to use it properly.  Understanding the atom has made possible new sources of energy and medical treatment; it has also made possible the Bomb and the prospect of nuclear holocaust.  It is truly a two-edged sword.

It falls short in teaching us values and in answering the question about the origin of the natural order. Even if there were an infinite sequence, and eternal regression and progression, (which Thomists regard as an absurdity), the question could be raised as to whom or what put it into place. Similarly, if creation has a beginning and an end then questions emerge that beg for an answer. When the last of the energy evaporates from the one remaining black hole, what happens next? Or looking to the very beginning, where did the point or singularity come from? Compared to the claims of science, those of religion are looking more credible, even if still inscrutable. God lives outside of time and space. Even though he is the source for the natural world, there is a wall between experiential knowledge and a dimension without matter or temporal and spacial extension. He is existence or the source of all being. He creates everything from nothing. While no one is compelled to believe in a deity, similarly the notion should not be ridiculed or banned. As a believer, I contend he shares with creation the perfections that he has in infinite measure as their source. God by definition would defy being placed under the microscope or being reduced to mathematical formulae. He has called us to know him, but only the surface of this “knowing” can be scratched. The mystery remains and the response of believers is gratitude and praise. I suppose the lack of thankfulness is what most infuriates believers about atheists.


“Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.”

What seems “likely true” might not always be the case. The pagan worldview had to surrender to the Judeo-Christian. Many presumed that the world was flat, that the earth was central with a revolving sun, etc. The majority held a view that was challenged by Copernicus and later by Galileo, both Catholics and the former, a monk. When science widely advocated spontaneous generation, Louis Pasteur discerned a small invisible world where contamination and vaccination was possible. When science took for granted a Newtonian view of the world, modern physics would largely rewrite the book. We strive to understand what is true, but that which is most likely can shift and change.

I am not convinced that all atheists are so objective. It seems to me that some of them fervently resist any and all assaults against their denial of a God and/or Creator. In other words, while they would applaud the rejection of God by believers; they would not permit any data on their radar that would imply his existence. Science is a wonderful area of investigation and knowledge; but scientists (religious and atheists) can and do battle with each other over what they “believe” and “wish” to be true. Indeed, these arguments can become very passionate: everything from a closed to an open universe to warm-bloodied dinosaurs over cold reptilian. Data is interpreted in a way that favors their views or hypotheses.

Nevertheless, Catholic believers are also called to be rationalists. We do not subscribe to the faulty proposition held by certain Protestants of a “blind faith” or “faith over reason.” Indeed, it is because of this philosophical demarcation that certain Fundamentalists hate and attack Catholicism. Catholicism proposes “faith seeking understanding.” While the fundamentalist argues for a literal six days of creation and a world that is six thousand years old; Catholicism accepts the reckoning of time from archeologists and physicists, unperturbed at the prospect of millions of years of evolution and a cosmos that is 13.8 billion years old, as long as one might posit intelligent design. The difference with the atheist is that the informed Catholic has a profound respect for divine revelation and refuses to invalidate his subjective experience of a relationship with a living God. Indeed, he feels that we are wired for God and have an inherent capacity to acknowledge the divine transcendent… a reality he tries to convey not only in Scripture and ritual but in poetry and art. I suppose we would argue that there is something measured here that is just as real as in the scientist’s mathematical formulae and in Hubble’s distant astronomical images. There is a sense of awe which many of us refuse to associate with chaos or chance but rather see the finger of God and providence. The proposition here seems to imply that it is a matter of “either/or” while the Catholic Christian would say it is a matter of “and.” Catholicism is the religion of the “great and.” It is not faith alone or the Bible alone or Jesus alone or even empirical science alone. Catholicism is the religion that speaks to faith and works; the Bible and sacred tradition; Jesus and Mary and the saints, etc. She is the religion that fostered great scientists, even as she stumbled sometimes to see the tapestry where science might be interwoven with faith. She embraces all that is good and true and claims it for her own. That is why the Church has the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) on top of Mount Graham in Arizona. That is why our universities foster some of the best scientific research in the world. That is why the Pontifical Academy of Sciences includes believers and non-believers alike who further the advancement of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences and the study of related epistemological problems.

I suppose we need that child-like faith which trusts that what we believe can also be true. Atheists sometimes witness to this truth in their romantic liaisons and families. Cold science might argue for finding the optimum physical specimen for reproduction. However, most fall in love and embrace a mystery with their hearts even as their heads insist it is all just chemistry and sparking synapses. I suspect the transcendent shows itself even as certain critics contend that it cannot exist.


“Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.”

First, the problem here is that atheists are not “open-minded.” They begin with the absolute premise, which many of us would judge as false, that there is no God. This means that they violate the very first so-called new commandment they propose. Second, they tend to reduce truth and knowledge to empirical proofs. They find satisfaction with numbers and that, which can be seen and measured, but are utterly distressed by philosophical arguments, the prospect of divine revelation and by subjective witness. They look at the ordered universe and refuse to acknowledge that there is any agent behind the order.

When it comes to changing beliefs, they do not mean what they say. They have deified science which is a kind of self-preoccupation. This they refuse to change. A worldview might shift, but not the underlying secular faith. It presumes that man has the capacity to fully understand the universe. There is no proof to show that this assumption is true. Indeed, while the various string theories are understood, albeit in a contradictory manner between theories, only a very small portion of the human race has the intellectual genius to appreciate the math. Who is to say that there are not mysteries too complex for men and the wiring in their heads? We already use machines to store information and to calculate where human brains fall short. When the atheists talk about the willingness to abandon faith, they are speaking in a dictatorial manner to people with religious beliefs. They insist there is no evidence for God and the various religious creeds. Consequently, they judge people who refuse to abandon such faith as backward (stupid) and stubborn.

Catholicism has a greater appreciative for the whole human experience. We would not reduce knowledge or truth to what computers might tabulate. That is why the Church embraces the arts as also a medium to communicate the Gospel. Catholicism teaches that there must be a complementarity of truth. If something does not correlate between the disciplines then something is wrong and must be adjusted. We find truth in philosophy, in theology and in science. Philosophy allows for a rational reflection upon truth and the nature of things. Theology permits a reflection upon the elements of faith in divine revelation. Science offers insight in understanding the makeup of the world where we find ourselves. They ask different questions but there is an overlap. That is why Catholics speak of intelligent design but do not insist upon a fundamentalist or literalist interpretation of Genesis and creation. That is why we speak of the Bible as a book to help us go to heaven, not as a book that tells us how the heavens go. Philosophy would have us ask questions like: What is the nature of man? Is there a God? Theology or Religion would ask: Who is this God that has revealed himself to us? Does God care about us? Science would ask: How do the organs of the body work together? What is this world or creation where we find ourselves? How do things work? There are some questions that certain disciplines can and cannot answer.