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The Heresy of Novak

The brand new encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI is out and there are a smattering of responses about the blogosphere. Whatever we may want to say about the merits or liabilities of Benedict’s claims in the encyclical, no one could do worse than Michael Novak in his pathetic response over on the First Things blog:

What Benedict XVI has not spelled out yet is another forgotten lesson from St. Augustine: the ever-corrupting role of sin in the City of Man. Augustine points out how difficult it is even for the wisest and most detached humans to discover the truth among lies—and how even husbands and wives in the closest of human bonds misunderstand each other so often. The Father of Lies seems to own so much of the real world.

What are the most practical ways of defeating him? The Catholic tradition—even the wise Pope Benedict—still seems to put too much stress upon caritas, virtue, justice, and good intentions, and not nearly enough on methods for defeating human sin in all its devious and persistent forms.

So, according to Novak what we need is to stop trifling with all this stress on “caritas, virtue, justice, and good intentions” and starting looking for some new “methods for defeating human sin.” Not only is his whole thing about the “Father of lies” owning the “real world” straight up Manicheaism, Novak clearly just doesn’t think Jesus is worth bothering about in any significant sense whatsoever. Fuck charity, justice, and virtue, I need an effective method, dammit! In short, for Novak, Jesus simply doesn’t save.

What other method could there be for dealing with sin other than love, justice, and virtue we ask? I can only assume it must be some sort of coercive power. What else is there?

I mean seriously, this prick is saying that there’s far too much stress being given…to justice. WTF??

Novak has very openly declared his own apostasy. His god is Adam Smith and his religion is neocon capitalism. For goodness’ sake, he even acknowledges in his quote that it is outside of “the Catholic tradition”! Thanks for proclaiming your heterodoxy, Novak, old boy. At least now we don’t have to argue with you about it anymore.


  1. Hill wrote:

    The typos and obscenity in this post clearly show that Novak has struck a nerve. Tsk tsk.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I corrected them but something happened…wierd.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  3. WJ wrote:

    I suspect that Novak believes Toqueville’s “self-interest, rightly understood,” to be a better defeater of sin than traditional Catholic teaching. This comes across very much in his Free Persons and the Common Good.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  4. Evan wrote:

    I think you go a bit far on the heresy line… and in fairness to Novak he never says that the “Father of Lies” owns “the real world”.

    But I think a strong point should be made against neoconservative American Catholicism, of which Novak is of course a prominent voice. This line of his strikes me as more central to what’s problematic about the neocon crowd:

    “Even the Pope’s understandable nostalgia for the European welfare-state too much scants the self-interests, self-deceptions, and false presuppositions that are bringing that system to a crisis of its own making.”

    I don’t know, maybe I’m being naive. The flaws of this sort of realism have never struck me as “heretical” per se, with regard to their underlying metaphysics… I think they can be wrong without going over that cliff, even if their drawn out implications lead to such an end… because what political stance, if taken to its theoretical ends, doesn’t lead to such an end? At least the bracketing performed in political realism acknowledges that there is something wrong, which can’t be justified in any ultimate sense. I don’t think they’re unaware of that fact.

    But I do agree with you that the response of Novak et al. is a huge mess. It’s comical in a depressing sort of way to read their befuddlement with Catholic thought that they can’t help but reduce to a Euro-pathology.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 2:50 pm | Permalink
  5. robert wrote:

    “The old man longs to hear His voice, to hear Him reply; better
    words of bitterness and scorn than His silence. Suddenly He
    rises; slowly and silently approaching the Inquisitor, He bends
    towards him and softly kisses the bloodless, four-score and-ten-
    year-old lips. That is all the answer. The Grand Inquisitor
    shudders. There is a convulsive twitch at the corner of his
    mouth. He goes to the door, opens it, and addressing Him, ‘Go,’
    he says, ‘go, and return no more… do not come again… never,
    never!’ and–lets Him out into the dark night. The prisoner

    “And the old man?”

    “The kiss burns his heart, but the old man remains firm in his
    own ideas and unbelief.”

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  6. Charlie Collier wrote:

    Novak: “The Father of Lies seems to own so much of the real world.”

    Yes, indeed, he appears to own a good chunk of the real estate at the American Enterprise Institute and at First Things.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 4:13 pm | Permalink
  7. Bill from Fairfax wrote:

    I simply read Novak as complaining at the level of abstraction at which the Pope is writing. You clearly read something else. Could you elaborate upon what it is that prompted all the profanity and spleen? And perhaps we could move beyond the “neocon=bad, Halden et al, good” level of analysis. Or maybe not.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  8. roger flyer wrote:

    Love it Fyodor.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  9. roger flyer wrote:


    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  10. Evan wrote:

    The question becomes… who is this reference for? If Novak is the Inquisitor, I suppose we’re still waiting for someone to pucker up.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 8:38 pm | Permalink
  11. Nathan Smith wrote:

    Maybe David slipped a single, solitary ice cube into Halden’s scotch?

    Anyone remember the Saddleback forum during the campaign?

    WARREN: How about the issue of evil. I asked this of your rival, in the previous debate. Does evil exist and, if so, should ignore it, negotiate it with it, contain it or defeat it?

    MCCAIN: Defeat it.

    Novak is with McCain on this one, it seems. He is saying something along the lines of “‘overcoming evil with good’ is OK, but if we are going to overcome evil, we need something more.”

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 8:50 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Bill de Fairfaxe, the problem with Novak’s statement is that he says that sin must be overcome with something other than love, justice, and virtue. In other words, the very way Jesus claimed to be overcoming sin is rejected, explicitly, by Novak.

    When someone claims that pragmatic measures (clearly implied to be violent and coercive) rather than Jesus saves it tends to get my dander up. But that should not distract from the complete heterodoxy of Novak’s disavowal of Jesus as the one who saves from sin. At least, if that sort of thing matters to you.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    This blog is really just one big inside joke, isn’t it?

    How do we put hairshirts and scotch on the rocks into one little phrase?

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink
  14. kim fabricius wrote:

    Ah, yes, the tyranny of necessity and the bondage of the bottom line.

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 1:03 am | Permalink
  15. d. stephen long wrote:

    Make no mistake, Novak like Niebuhr, confuses Adam Smith’s doctrine of unintended consequences with the Christian doctrine of original sin. And then they slander Augustine by claiming the mantle of his authority. Christ defeats original sin. The doctrine of unintended consequences is not to be defeated but used in order to create social harmony. This is so far from Christianity that it does not deserve comment — so now I’ll submit my comment.

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 4:34 am | Permalink
  16. It is possible I have just missed it, but why is it that liberation theologians are often silenced but people like Novak are always allowed by the hierarchy to keep spreading their bullshit all over the place? I don’t want to make assumptions from this fact, but it does give reason for pause.

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 5:53 am | Permalink
  17. roger flyer wrote:

    I’ll give it a go.

    While enjoying a dram of renowned single malt scotch mixed into a devilish cocktail with tequila, lime juice, creme de cacao and Portland microbrew, Halden is found editing Papa’s latest encyclical in his favorite hairshirt, doing penance for his propensity to use the word ‘fucking’ when he is truly fucking pissed off by somebody’s (in his opinion) whack theology.

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 7:57 am | Permalink
  18. Mike wrote:

    The hierarchy tacitly approves of violence: that’s why Novak gets permission.

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  19. roger flyer wrote:

    Hairshirt for Mike.

    -from a source no less esteemed than Wikipedia!

    “Thomas Becket was wearing a hairshirt when he was murdered, St. Patrick reputedly wore (one), Charlemagne was buried in a hairshirt, and Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, famously wore one in the Walk to Canossa during the Investiture Controversy. Prince Henry the Navigator was found to be wearing a hairshirt at the time of his death in 1460. In modern times it has been used by Mother Teresa, Saint Padre Pio, and slain archbishop Óscar Romero. The Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was also known to wear a hairshirt.

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 8:59 am | Permalink
  20. Well, that’s what I think too, but didn’t want to say it. People love this Pope!

    My friend pointed out that, in RCC discourse, the Left option is always painted as more dangerous and reacted to more strongly while the Right is largely given a pass. Hence the very soft remarks towards the Nazi regime and the absolute condemnation of the Bolshevik’s and any form of Socialism. Those who really want to somehow unite with Rome and still claim the title of Christian Socialist should take note of Pius’ remarks that one can not be both a Christian and a socialist. Just saying.

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  21. Hill wrote:

    Basically what you are saying is that it’s impossible to go wrong with one of these bad boys.

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  22. evagrius wrote:

    I think Novak wants “Shock and Awe” and a good touch of waterboarding defeating evil.

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  23. roger flyer wrote:

    Cocktail for you, Hill.

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 6:32 pm | Permalink
  24. Mike wrote:

    I want a cocktail, too, with my hairshirt… a traditional margarita, thank you. If any cocktail is non-violent, it is a margarita.

    Thursday, July 9, 2009 at 7:08 am | Permalink
  25. roger flyer wrote:

    Roger (while expertly mixing drink says): “Yes sir, coming right up. (and asks naively:) “What do you think of the new Encyclical?”

    Thursday, July 9, 2009 at 7:46 am | Permalink
  26. robert wrote:

    The encyclical didn’t say anything that wasn’t already known. It didn’t so much directly criticize the Liberal order as it restated the Church’s imagination. It was quite the gentle kiss.

    Thursday, July 9, 2009 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  27. Nathan Smith wrote:

    “The Hairshirt” might be a good name for that pious cocktail Halden is seeking. It’s got to be something that encourages penance.

    Thursday, July 9, 2009 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  28. John M. Plecnik wrote:

    I would love to read Dr. Novak’s comments on Ch. 5. Here the Pope speaks of the relational nature of the human person and not about the self-interest implied by the talk of the bottom line.

    Thursday, July 9, 2009 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  29. John wrote:

    Michael Novak’s own words: “The point of the Incarnation is to respect the world as it is, to acknowledge its limits… and to disbelieve any promises that the world is now or ever will be transformed into the City of God. If Jesus could not effect that, how shall we? …The world is not going to become—ever—a kingdom of justice and love.”

    Friday, July 10, 2009 at 9:45 pm | Permalink
  30. roger flyer wrote:

    Good one Nathan!

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink
  31. Halden wrote:

    Yes. It will be made. This I, the aspiring mixologist, vow.

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  32. Brad A. wrote:

    A compelling quote, John. Do you have a source?

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

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