Remembering Michael Novak '56

February 24, 2017

When alumnus Michael Novak ’56, who died recently at age 83, won the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994, he also received an award of $1 million. Upon receiving that handsome sum, he shared a quarter of it with the College for student scholarships.  

Over the years, we estimate that close to 300 Stonehill students have benefitted from several Novak-inspired scholarships. In the years ahead, thanks to his scholarship legacy more students will receive needed financial support.

Steadfastly Loyal

“No matter how successful or influential Michael was as an author, philosopher, theologian,  teacher, diplomat or advisor to popes and presidents, he remained steadfastly loyal to Stonehill throughout his life and illustrious career,” said President John Denning, C.S.C.

“Michael had a brilliant mind, which could analyze so many topics—be they sports, theology, economics or politics—with razor sharp insight and understanding, and he was also known for his kindness of heart and innate graciousness,” added Denning who concelebrated Novak’s funeral Mass in Washington, D.C. on February 25.

Early Years

Born to a Catholic working-class family of Slovakian heritage in western Pennsylvania, Novak first encountered Stonehill as a Holy Cross seminarian in 1952. A philosophy major, he graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in 1956, the same year he had his first national article published.

After the article appeared in Commonweal, Novak went on to write 45 books, many of which have been widely translated, and countless other articles over six decades. In the process, he established himself as “an author who was highly regarded for his religious scholarship and intellectual independence,” according to Catholic News Service and as “one of the most influential Catholic theologians of his generation,” according to the Washington Post.

Novak provided critical and literate debate on issues as diverse as capitalism versus socialism, human rights, faith, labor union history, sports, ethnicity, peace, liberty and justice, the American presidency, families, welfare reform, television, and the role of the churches in a pluralistic world.

From Left to Right

Although politically liberal during his early career, he became more conservative during the seventies and, with the publication of his groundbreaking In the Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, he confirmed that shift with considerable emphasis.  As commentator Samuel Gregg noted:

“In penning the Spirit, Novak was the first theologian to really make an in-depth moral, cultural, and political case for the market economy in a systematic way. Needless to say, Novak’s book generated fierce reactions from the religious left. The opprobrium was probably heightened by the fact that the Spirit confirmed what had become evident from the mid-’70s onwards: that Novak was well on his way to abandoning his previously left-wing positions.”

As Novak himself explained: “Democratic capitalism 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.”

Natural Teacher

In addition to his body of scholarship and analysis, Novak was also a natural teacher.  Students voted him teacher of the year in two of the three years he taught at Stanford University. He also taught at Harvard, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Ave Maria, and Catholic University. He received 27 honorary degrees, including a Doctor of Humanities degree from Stonehill in 1977.

Stonehill Ties

From 1993-1999, he served with distinction on the Board of Trustees. In recognition of his achievements in the fields of philosophy and journalism, Novak’s fellow alumni at Stonehill honored him with the Outstanding Alumnus Award in 1974.

In 1998, on the occasion of the College’s 50th anniversary, Novak was one of 50 members of the Stonehill community to receive a Moreau Medallion in recognition of the important role they played in the life of the College during its first half century. His brother, Rev. Richard Novak, C.S.C., a 1958 Stonehilll graduate and missionary was killed in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1964.

The College is also home to his papers and the Novak Collection includes manuscripts, books, correspondence, newspaper columns, awards and journal articles. His writings are regarded as being central to a fuller understanding of Catholicism in modern America. The Novak Collection at has been used by students, faculty, alumni, and scholars from other institutions.

Novak On God

“He is not ‘the Big Guy upstairs’ nor the loud booming voice that Hollywood films affect for God...There are hosts of bogus pictures of God: the Watchmaker beyond the skies, the puppeteer of history,” he wrote. “If you wish to find him, watch him in quiet and humility—perhaps among the poor and broken things of earth.”

Reflecting on his prolific career as a commentator on Catholic social teaching and its relationship to different political, cultural and economic systems, Novak remarked:

“My favorite image is a white hot ingot, like those I saw as a boy at the (steel) mills of Johnstown. That inner fire and light suggested how God is presented in all things. My ambition has always been to show that presence in every part of the world.”

Predeceased by his wife, Karen Laub Novak, an artist and sculptor, Novak is survived by his children, Richard, Tanya and Jana, one grandchild, his brother Ben, and his sister Mary Ann Novak.