RCGS Book Review: Michael Novak, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative

Michael Novak, Writing from Left to Right:

My Journey from Liberal to Conservative New York: Image 2013. 316 pages.


The story of neo-conservativism follows a set narrative that has been established by a flurry of books, articles, and even documentaries. At first glance, this story seems to have little to do with the Roman Catholic Church. The story begins with the sons and daughters of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who settled Lower East side of Manhattan. Bitter that their recent ancestors had not been welcomed in Czarist Russia and that they and their parents were only reluctantly accepted into the United States, they adopted the mantle of Trotskyism, seeking to make a new world without ethnic or religious discrimination. These particular leftists clashed with their Stalinist cousins at City College. While the Stalinists migrated to the New Left in the 1960s, embracing the sexual revolution, taking a soft approach to Communism, and turning a blind eye to the radicalization of the Civil Rights movement, the Trotskyites began to turn rightward. Greatly shaken by the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazism and Communism and disturbed by Hannah Arendt’s comparison of the similarities between German National Socialism and Soviet International Socialism in work Origins of Totalitarianism, the first generation of neocons embraced a hawkish approach to US foreign policy and eventually took a distinctly anti-Communist position. At the same time, neocons, unlike their confreres who remained in the left, never wanted to destroy Western Civilization per se; they simply wanted to change it. The neocons never modified their radical beliefs, but instead of wanting to radically alter the left they chose to change the right. Forming the conservative wing of the Democratic Party led by Senator Henry Jackson of Washington State, the neocons jumped ship into the Reagan administration after the timidity of the Carter presidency. Reaching their apex with the rule of George W. Bush, the neocons have lost virtually all respectability after the debacle of the second Iraq War, but at the same time, they remain a powerful intellectual force and have greatly influenced diverse ethnic and religious groups in the United States and abroad. It is not surprising that Jews would find common cause with nominal Protestants who shared their embrace of liberalism and revolutionary vision. What is strange and surprising is that so many Catholics have been drawn in the neocon fold. There are number of Catholic names that appear in the pages of neocon narratives and populate neocon think tanks and media outlets. There is one name, however, that, without question, appears with the greatest frequency: Michael Novak. Recently, Novak has written his memoirs, titled Writing Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, chronically his political life. While there are innumerable holes and even some sleight of hand in the narrative, Novak’s book is an important guide to unraveling one of the most powerful forces in the Catholic Church today: Catholic neo-conservatism.

Growing up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania of Slovakian ancestry, Novak’s story is very similar to Jewish neocons and other Catholics of many political stripes. Novak’s ancestors were farmers, but his grandparents, having shed their agrarian heritage, became members of the proletariat upon arriving in the United States, and, thus, as working class Catholics, members of the Democratic Party—Novak later takes a childish and historically inaccurate shot at the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which his ancestors lived. Novak frames his work as largely an apology, not for Roman Catholicism, but for neo-conservatism. Near the beginning of the book, Novak tells the story of listening to the 1939 German invasion of Poland with his father; this event left an indelible impression on the young Slovak-American, and Novak’s father told him to study up on Nazis and communists. The narrative of World War II and the Cold War helped to shape not just the mind of Michael Novak, but the entire neocon narrative. Like other neocons and leftists, for the rest of his life, Novak would see “the right,” including Catholic traditionalists, through the lens of World War II and the Nazis. Any authoritarianism, anti-capitalism, or triumphalism in or outside the Church would be equated with the Third Reich, which grotesquely masqueraded as a traditional defender of Christian civilization.

Mr. Novak, however, did not enter into politics immediately. As he grew up, Novak entered the Holy Cross Congregation and underwent formation for priesthood for twelve years, leaving months before he would be ordained a priest. He eventually married, Karen, an artist and became a freelance reporter with a strongly leftist bent, covering the Second Vatican Council—Novak, unsurprisingly, has nothing but good things to say about the council, which took place at a time at which, according to the Novak, “a new spirit was stirring in the world.” Like their friend, Robert Blair Kaiser (another former seminary turned leftist reporter), Mr. and Mrs. Novak proudly hosted various priests and bishops at their Roman apartment, including the future Cardinal Bernardin. In his narrative of the Second Vatican Council, Novak takes a gentle-handed approach to his enemies to the right, but he makes the common leftist and neocon argument that “progressives” at the council were the true traditionalists because they justified their position on the (mis)reading of the Church fathers and early medieval Church documents (Fr. John Courtney Murray SJ, beloved of the neocons, notoriously based part of justification for the separation of Church and State in Dignitatis humanae on the early medieval papacy’s claims of supremacy over the Christian emperor!).

The rest of the book reveals a life among most powerful and influential people in America. Novak studied at Harvard and taught at Stanford and Syracuse; like many neocons academics, Novak was repulsed by the violent radicalism, and despite his own radical views on purity, Novak saw the emergent hippy generation as rude, sloppy, and lazy. Despite his growing disenchantment with radicalism, Novak continued as a Democrat, working on the 1972 Presidential campaign of George McGovern and shadowing vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver on the campaign trail. As for many neocons, Novak finally made his definitive break with the Democratic Party during the Carter presidency. Novak rightly realized, as many working class Catholic ethnics still have not, that the Democratic Party was no longer the party of labor but the party of race and gender—he expressed some of these ideas in his 1972 The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. It must be noted, however, that even after abandoned the Democratic Party, Mr. Novak has a great deal of praise for William Jefferson Clinton because of the economic prosperity during Mr. Clinton’s tenure. Spreading the neocon message in and outside the Church, Novak also was a regular contributor to National Review and founded what would become Crisis Magazine.

Novak further had a number of strange ties to organizations traditionally hostile to Roman Catholicism as well as American national sovereignty; he worked for the Rockefeller Foundation and served as American ambassador to United Nations’ Human Rights Commission. Throughout his career, Novak studied at the feet of neocon kingpin Irving Kristol and formed an alliance with George Weigel, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and Fr. Robert Sirico, which would come to dominant the intellectual realm of “conservative” American Catholicism. Like many of the Catholic neocons, Michael Novak’s presence is pervasive throughout the Catholic world, and many Catholics, in the United States, at least, look to Novak as one of the custodians of orthodox Catholic thought.

The role of Novak in the neocon manipulation of American Catholics has always been that of the resident theologian of capitalism. In his 1982 The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, a work largely based on Irving Kristol’s earlier, Two Cheers for Capitalism, Novak inaugurates a series of works written by Fr. Neuhaus, Fr. Sirico, and Novak himself meant to exonerate capitalism from Catholic censure and ease consciences of Catholic businessman and usurers. As capitalism and the market economy has grown to dominate the world, the Church traditionally has cautioned a ready and hasty embrace of laissez-faire economics—in fact, she has repeatedly condemned unbridled capitalism. Still the radical, Novak makes the argument, now losing its vigor after the 2009 recession (from which the world still has not recovered) that capitalism is the most effective means of generating wealth, and the Catholic Church has been behind the times in embracing the free market economy.  In The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, he blasphemously argues that capitalist markets imitate the Most Holy Trinity and even argues that corporations themselves are “metaphors for grace.” Taking his cue from NeoThomists like Jacques Maritain and the very worldly Vatican II, Novak sees the common good as being concerned primarily with temporal prosperity and a vague idea of civic virtue couched in the language of liberalism. There is little discussion or concern with salvation in Novak’s autobiography or in any of his other works for that matter. This is probably the greatest tragedy of Catholic neocons and provides a foundation for their ecumenism. Neoconservativism is a movement in which Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and other well-wishers work collaboratively for a New World Order in which liberalism dominates the world and everyone lives a comfortable, middle class life. While Jesus Christ came to redeem the world, and it has been the mission of Christians ever since to “baptize all nations,” Novak and the other Catholic neocons have replaced this mission with the “empire of liberty” and Novus Ordo Seclorum envisioned in the coffee houses and free masonic lodges of the Enlightenment.

Turning from a socialist to a capitalist, Novak never was able, however, to shake his earlier sexual radicalism. One of the most curious parts of the narrative occurs when Novak, very strangely tells the story of his wife inviting him to a nude beach in Europe so that he could observe the women there. This passage is extremely bizarre and even transcends Randy Boyagoda’s celebration of the late Fr. Neuhaus’ peccadillos in his biography Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square. However, this unrepentant sexual radicalism is part and parcel of the Catholic neocon project, which seeks to refashion the Church. Novak’s “left wing” early works are explicitly pelagian while his later writings as a neocon contain many ideas that could be interpreted as such. As he does for economics, Novak seems to take chastity that the Church since the apostolic period has been straight jacketed by pre-modern stuffiness and rigidity and needs to modernize and “get with the times” and at least go halfway with the sexual revolution.

However, perhaps, the strangest thing about Novak’s narrative is what is not said. The narrative of the book progresses like the fragmentary memoirs of an octogenarian former mafia boss who entered into mainstream American politics or business but was never able to shake his criminal past. An especially strange portion of Writing from Left to Right is Novak’s treatment of the release of Pope John Paul’s economic encyclical, Centesimus Annus. Novak writes that John Paul II, although highly critical in Laborem Exercens (1981) and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) finally wised up in Centesimus Annus. Novak often claims that he is responsible for changing John Paul II’s mind with The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, and, while his detractors to the left and right question this narrative, it seems very likely that there may have been some influence. Novak openly admits that he was given copies of Centesimus from a “source” close to John Paul II, and he defends his publication of articles on the encyclical before its release by stating that the interpretation of he and the other neocons would be the most “fair.” What no Catholic neocon has been able to explain is why in the copy of Centesimus Annus contained in Fr. Neuhaus’ Doing Well and Doing Good and A New Worldly Order, edited by George Weigel, there are passages critical of laissez faire economics that are missing.

Because of these lapses in his narrative and his failure to tell the reader what exactly makes him a “right wing” thinker (or even what made him a left wing thinker) it is difficult to see how Mr. Novak did write “from left to right.” Like Jewish and Protestant neocons, Novak simply went from being one type of liberal to another. What is most damaging to the Church is that Mr. Novak, along with George Weigel, the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus, and Professor Robert George, has claimed to be the authentic voice of the Catholic tradition for twenty-five years. This makes Catholic neocons infinitely more dangerous than Catholic leftists who proudly flout their disobedience to the Church’s tradition and do not disguise their desire to change the Church’s perennial teaching. Neocons call themselves “orthodox” while arguing for “development of doctrine” of the Church’s teaching on religious liberty, economics, purity, and ecumenism. Novak also very strangely seems to have no enemies to the right or left. He does not discuss at length the bete noir of neocons: traditional conservatives. While his colleague George Weigel has set his sights on traditionalists, Novak avoids the issue all together. It is not as though Novak is being conciliatory; he simply skirts the issue either because he does not want to bring up old wounds or because he, like other Catholic neocons, benefits more by making it seem as though there are no other, variant conservative voices in the Church or in American politics.

However, the neocon strangle hold on American Catholics has lost some of its grip. What has shaken most rank and file conservative Catholics’ appreciation of the neocons is the belief that they broke ranks with John Paul II over the Iraq War. In Writing Left to Right, Novak gives his spin on the Iraq War debacle and his failure, on behest of the US State Department to convince John Paul II that the second Gulf War deserved his support.  In his attempt to both defend the war and his support of it as well as reestablish the impression that he and the other Catholic neocons are the official interpreters of John Paul II’s life and thought, Novak reveals a number of key elements of the Catholic neocon method. In order to justify his departure from fidelity to the “living magisterium” of post-Vatican II popes, Michael Novak argues that his conscience told him to disagree with John Paul II. What is more, his personal interpretation of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church led him to believe that John Paul II was wrong in opposing the war. This passage in the book is especially interesting.  Neocons rightly blast Catholic leftists for their justification of heresy and immorality on the interpretation of their own malformed consciences as opposed to the Church’s teaching (even if framed in the erroneous terms of following every directive of a pope). However, it is clear that this principle dissolves among Catholic neocons when it clashes with foreign policy under a Republican president. Novak then attempts to diminish the view that he clashed with John Paul by stating that he is now “glad” that John Paul II opposed the war because it would be “horrific” if the Iraq War would have been perceived as a religious war. This is another key passage of the book that reveals where neocon loyalties lie. A religious war like the crusades would be the worst thing imagine for neocons, for it would show the Church militant as being truly militant. Rather, for neocons, there primary loyalty is to liberalism for which there is no sacrifice too great.

The memoirs end with a gushing remembrance of John Paul II, who was, for the Catholic neocons, their pope (even if they disagreed with him and distorted his teachings). Novak tells the story of flying with President Bush to attend the funeral of the Polish pontiff. While at the funeral, a beam of sunlight fell on the casket, and Novak ends with his autobiography with the chanting of the crowds to have Pope John Paul II immediately canonized. This story is a fitting end to Writing Left to Right, and it encapsulates Catholic neo-conservatism in a nutshell. A Protestant Republican president, who, obviously, valued Mr. Novak’s friendship and his role as a Catholic very open to liberalism and the Bush doctrine, brought a Catholic theologian who had been groomed his entire life by elites in the Democratic and Republican parties to the funeral of a pope whose works had been filtered and manipulated to suit a liberal agenda.  What is strange, but maybe not so strange, is that this combination of errant philosophical principles, dangerous political ideas, and emotive imagery has successfully captured and wooed the “John Paul Generation” of Catholics.

There is no reason to doubt that Michael Novak is a true believer in his own personal vision of Catholicism. There also is no question of Novak Catholic neocons’ commitment to the prolife cause or their support of traditional marriage or their personal piety. However, both within and without the Church, neo-conservativism has failed catastrophically and cost untold damage both in the temporal order and to the salvation of souls. Attempts by neocons in the Obama administration to ignite an unjust war with Syria, Iran, Russia, and China have failed (so far). Within the Church, neo-conservatism began to shudder after the Pope Benedict’s attempt at partial restoration of tradition with Summorum Pontificum and reaching out to the SSPX, and Catholic neo-conservativism has taken a tumble under the reign of Pope Francis who seems to have rehabilitated liberation theology and is open to a modification in the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. Nonetheless, Michael Novak’s Writing Left to Right is an important, if obscured, vision of a once strong, if morally questionable, movement in the Catholic Church.

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