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The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Capitalism Has Important Religious Foundations


Michael Novak’s name is familiar to most readers of The Freeman. For both old friends and new acquaintances, this newly published collection of recent Novak essays is worth reading.

Novak’s title is an intentional play on the title of Max Weber’s 1904 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. According to Weber, capitalism has important religious foundations, derived in large part from what Weber believed to be essential characteristics of Calvinism or Protestantism. Novak’s version of capitalism is different from Weber’s. Where Weber saw primarily individualism and calculation, Novak offers a vision marked by opportunity, cooperative effort, social initiative, creativity, and invention. Novak insists he is using the word “catholic” in two senses: (1) with a capital “C,” where the word refers to Roman Catholic in opposition to Weber’s “Protestant”; and (2) with a small “c,” where the word refers to a broader definition of Christianity than Weber’s.

When Novak talks about a Catholic ethic (capital “C”), he has three distinct things in mind: (1) The Roman Catholic approach to social ethics to be found in the thought of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI. Novak covers this material in part one of his book, examining in the process the years between 1891, when Leon XIII issued his Rerum Novarum, to 1931. (2) The significant work of John Paul II from 1978 to the present, but with special emphasis on his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, issued on the centennial of Rerum Novarum. Novak’s exposition and analysis of the 1991 encyclical constitutes part two of his book. (3) The third aspect to Novak’s “Catholic Ethic,” though he is too polite to say so, is his own considerable contributions to Roman Catholic social thought, especially in the last ten to fifteen years. Part three of his book contains three chapters that show off some of Novak’s reflections on such issues as poverty, ethnicity, race, and other social problems in contemporary American life.

Novak’s book succeeds in spite of a possible problem that sinks many similar projects. Because most of the chapters are previously published essays, the trick is fitting them together in a way that produces a unified theme. The careful reader will detect a few cracks in the project; but to make something of this fact would be uncharitable quibbling. One final observation is in order: Novak’s “catholic ethic” (small “c”) contains nothing that would exclude Protestant and Jewish defenders of capitalism. []

Ronald Nash, a contributing editor of The Freeman, is Professor of Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando) and the author of 25 books.


January 1994

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April 2014

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