NEW YORK — Michael Novak, a Roman Catholic social philosopher who abandoned the liberal politics he espoused in the 1960s to make the theological and moral case for capitalism in a series of widely discussed books, died Friday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 83.
The cause was colon cancer, said Elise Italiano, a spokeswoman for the Catholic University of America, where he was a professor.
Mr. Novak, a former seminarian, emerged in the early 1960s as one of Catholicism’s brightest liberal lights. His journalistic essays, collected in “A New Generation: American and Catholic” (1964), and his reporting from the Second Vatican Council, in “The Open Church: Vatican II, Act II” (1964), reflected his reform-minded view of the church and his eagerness to see it address young Catholics like himself with a faith that was, as he put it, “empirical, pragmatic, realistic, and Christian.”
While teaching at Stanford University, he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and argued for “a revolution in the quality of life.”
In “A Theology for Radical Politics” (1969), he set forth a series of propositions designed to “rearrange the power bases of American democracy, both democratically and politically, so that changes can come rapidly and effectively.”
By the mid-1970s, like many of the former liberals who formed the core of the neoconservative movement, he had become disillusioned with campus politics. He was unhappy with the continuing changes generated by the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II. He was gripped, he said in a talk at the University of Notre Dame in 1998, by “a powerful intellectual conviction that the left was wrong about virtually every big issue of our time: the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese regime, economics, welfare, race, and moral questions such as abortion, amnesty, acid, and the sexual revolution.”
In “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” (1982) he mounted a defense of capitalism as a morally superior system based on liberty, individual worth, and Judeo-Christian principles. It was, he insisted, the only economic system capable of lifting the poor from misery and of encouraging moral growth. Samuel McCracken, in Commentary magazine, called the book “a stunning achievement” and “perhaps the first serious attempt to construct a theology of capitalism.”
Among his most fervent admirers was Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister. Mr. Novak, she wrote in “The Downing Street Years,” “put into new and striking language what I had always believed about individuals and communities.” His description of capitalism as a moral and social system as well as an economic one, she wrote, “provided the intellectual basis for my approach to those great questions brought together in political parlance as ‘the quality of life.’”
Michael John Novak Jr. was born in Johnstown, Pa., the grandson of Slovak immigrants and the oldest of five children.
He grew up in Indiana, Pa., and McKeesport, Pa., before entering the preparatory seminary at the University of Notre Dame at 14. He pursued his path to the priesthood at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and English literature in 1956, and at Gregorian University in Rome, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1958. While in Rome, he began writing for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal and the Jesuit weekly America.
It was not long before he entertained doubts about entering the priesthood. His superiors urged him to return to the United States before making any decision, and he studied for a time at Catholic University in Washington. “After 18 months of great darkness but also inner peace, I became certain that I should not be a priest,” he told the audience at Notre Dame in 1998.
He moved to Manhattan and wrote a novel, “The Tiber Was Silver” (1961), about a seminarian in Rome afflicted by religious doubts, and he then accepted a graduate fellowship at Harvard, earning a master’s degree in philosophy in 1966.
While there he married Karen Laub, a painter and printmaker, who died in 2009. He leaves their children, Richard, Tanya, and Jana; and four grandchildren.