NEW YORK, MARCH 8, 1994 — Michael Novak, a religious philosopher whose writings on free society have influenced political and social movements around the world, has won the 1994 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. The announcement was made today at a press conference at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York.
Novak, 60, a former U.S. ambassador who holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, is widely considered a pioneer of a new discipline, the theology of economics. During his career as a university professor and journalist, he has published a series of books that extend the boundaries of religious thinking into many areas of culture, including ethnicity, sports, poverty, the family, and the moral foundations of democracy and capitalism.
The Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion is the world’s largest annual award, this year valued at 650,000 pounds sterling, about one million dollars.
Begun in 1972 by the renowned global investor Sir John Templeton, the prize is given each year to a living person who has shown extraordinary originality in advancing humankind’s understanding of God and/or spirituality.
While some winners are well known, such as Mother Teresa in 1973 and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1983, many of the prize recipients are little known outside their chosen disciplines. The winner in 1978, for example, was Thomas Torrance, a theologian who studied the relationship of science and religion. Other recipients include astrophysicist Stanley L. Jaki (1987) and biologist L. Charles Birch (1990).
Last year’s winner was Charles Colson, the former Watergate figure who went on to establish Prison Fellowship, the world’s largest prison outreach program.
The Templeton Prize will be awarded in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace on May 4. The public ceremony in connection with the Prize will be held on May 5 at Westminster Abbey.
In a statement prepared for the news conference, Novak said:
“I have tried to work out my theology of economics with the poor in the forefront of my attention–first of all, the poverty of my own family in its beginnings and in central Europe today, but even more urgently the awful and unnecessary poverty of Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere. Thus, if I had one wish to express on the occasion of this year’s Templeton Prize, it would be that the poor of the world benefit by it, through having attention focused on the systemic issue: Which sort of system of political economy is more likely to raise the poor out of poverty, liberate them from disease, and protect their dignity as agents free to exercise their own personal economic initiative and other creative talents?”
Leaders from around the world have cited Novak’s writings–which include over 20 books and hundreds of articles and commentaries–for their influence and guidance.
Novak’s works, for instance, were printed in an illegal underground edition by the Polish labor union Solidarnosc in 1985, and credited with shifting the democrats’ ideal from socialism to capitalism.
Czech dissidents of Charter 77 and Vaclav Havel’s Civic Forum used Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in their clandestine study groups.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan named Novak U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, and in 1986 to the Bern round of the Helsinki talks.
When Pope John Paul II issued Centesimus Annus in 1991, a call for “a business economy, a market economy, or simply free economy,” and defined the free society as a three-fold system–political, economic, and moral–many observers detected the influence of Novak’s writings.
Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs noted that Novak “provided the intellectual basis for my approach to those great questions brought together in political parlance as ‘the quality of life.'”
His books were also used by the nascent democratic movements of South Korea, Chile, Argentina, the Philippines, Venezuela and others in the 1980s. Recently, the Communist party in China has permitted the publication of a Chinese translation of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.
Novak’s scholarly and personal inquiries have produced an unusually diverse range of positions.
He supported the presidential campaigns, for example, of both George McGovern and Ronald Reagan. He was an active critic of the Vietnam War, yet argued against the much-debated American Catholic bishops’ letters on the morality of nuclear weapons and, later, the U.S. economy. Although he has written passionately about the need to help the poor, he opposed “Liberation Theology” as an impractical way to eliminate poverty in Latin America, at a time when many theologians supported it.
Critics have praised the clarity and vividness of Novak’s writing, particularly the concreteness and practicality of his arguments. Indeed, it is when his theories are applied to the real life fray of poverty, ethnicity, faith, liberty, peace and justice that they achieve their greatest resonance.
Novak was born to a Catholic working-class family in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Pursuing a call to the priesthood, he spent 12 years in seminary before leaving his studies within months of ordination. He received a B.A. from Stonehill College in 1956, summa cum laude, a Bachelor of Theology from Gregorian University in Rome, cum laude in 1958, and an M.A. from Harvard (where he was a Kent Fellow) in 1966. He has received 12 honorary degrees.
He has taught at Harvard, Stanford, Syracuse, SUNY Old Westbury, and Notre Dame. Currently, Forbes features Novak’s monthly column, “The Larger Context.” Novak’s Belief and Unbelief (1965) and The Experience of Nothingness (1970), both still in print, are his bestselling books.
Novak is married to Karen Laub Novak, a professional artist and sculptor. They have three grown children, Richard, Tanya and Jana, one grandchild, and make their home in Washington, D.C.