The Zwicks, Fr. Neuhaus and Michael Novak

Being a regular subscriber to The Catholic Worker since college, I’m very much acquainted with that particular faction of Catholics and their understanding of economic affairs. Having likewise subscribed to First Things for some time, I have of late familiarized myself with the perspectives of Fr. Neuhaus and the Catholic philosopher & economist Michael Novak. However, I confess that I’ve never fully studied the Church’s thought on these matters, which is something I hope to remedy.

With that end in mind, one of the books I’ve been reading is Michael Novak’s The Catholic Ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism, which is in many ways a revision of his earlier work The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. I’m only halfway through and not at a point where I can provide a substantial review, but it has prompted me to go back and evaluate some of the earlier criticisms of Neuhaus and Novak I encountered in the pages of the Houston Catholic Worker, particularly by Mark & Louise Zwick.

There is something about the way the Zwicks go after these authors (the “neoconservatives”) in the pages of their newspaper that really gets under my skin. Take, for example, their scathing review of Fr. Neuhaus’ book Appointment in Rome, charging that his advocacy of “neoconservative economics” (what they commonly refer to as “neoliberalism”) “presents a view shockingly different from that of the Holy Father” in the apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America. 1

It was in reading [First Things] that we began to see cracks in the facade of this very reputable convert. We did not fault Fr. N. too much, because we knew he was a convert and Catholicism takes time to integrate.

We noticed that in his anxiety to focus on First Things as a Catholic, [Fr. Neuhaus] neglected to focus on the Last Things . . . we, of course, always agreed with Fr. N. that socialism and Communism were not the answers to the world’s problems. However, we knew from the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church that the poor, the marginated, the outcast, as Pope John Paul II has stated so often, must not be neglected. . . .

Solidarity with those most in need, is one of the major themes of the Synod report, Ecclesia in America. It does not appear at all in Fr. Neuhaus’ book . . . To have missed such a major theme from a Synod is quite surprising. It is an indication, in fact, that Fr. N. missed a lot at the Synod. 2

Personally I find that the Zwick’s patience in waiting for Fr. Neuhaus’ conversion to Catholicism “to take” a little condescending. After all, Neuhaus was ordained a Catholic priest nearly a decade before this review was written. And those who are familiar with his writings, or have encountered him in person, would hardly recognize him in the Zwick’s criticism that he “missed the point” of the Synod due to his callous “neglect of the poor.”

In reviewing Novak’s book, the Zwicks forego direct citation and rely on crude paraphrasing. Thus Fr. Neuhaus “endorses an economic system where the vast majority, especially in Latin America, are not free at all. Factories of U. S. companies in Latin America pay slave wages.” The same goes for his cohort, Michael Novak, who “has stated that it is sinful for those who work for slave wages to complain about this disparity in salaries, since the sin of envy was condemned in the book of Deuteronomy”, and that “Fr. Avery Dulles, S.J., defends slave wages as being better than no wages.”

For the Zwicks, to favor freedom, capitalism and moral responsibility over socialism and liberation theology inevitably makes one a supporter of not only unjust wages but torture and execution. Neuhaus “recommends the U.S. economic system as one of fairness and freedom to the Bishops, without admitting that the School of the Americas, where so many Latin American soldiers were trained to torture and kill their people, is an integral part of that system.” Neuhaus’ alleged support of slave wages and Latin American death squads is compounded by the fact that he “suggests that their economic problems might be blamed on the Latin American Catholic Church because of its lack of Calvinism.”

Ultimately, those not inclined to investigate the writings of Fr. Neuhaus beyond the pages of the Catholic Worker will conclude, along with the Zwicks, that he (and Novak, and Dulles, et al.) wholeheartedly endorses a violent political philosophy which “mows down people who are in other countries through maquiladoras, slave wages, international trade agreements and torture taught at the School of the Americas to ensure that “freedom” prevails.”

The Catholic political philosopher Michael Novak is also a frequent target of the Catholic Worker. When he was invited to dedicate a local Catholic business ethis program at a local Catholic University, the Houston Catholic Worker likened the action to “inviting Hugh Hefner to dedicate an institute on the sacrament of marriage”, describing Novak’s vast body of writing as “window dressing to promote an economic system based solely on self-interest.” 3 The former comment was made by a fellow Catholic Worker, and was thought to be “uncharitable” by his colleague. However, according to the Zwicks, “. . . the reality in our world obligated us to speak in truth and solidarity with the cry of the millions of poor people who suffer so much from neoconservative/neoliberal policies” — as if “speaking in truth and solidarity” necessitated such ridicule!

In October 2002 the columnist Peggy Noonan recommended Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism as an antidote to the selfishness which characterized the businessmen involved in the recent corporate scandals. According to Ms. Noonan:

[Novak] spoke movingly of the meaning and morality of capitalism. He asked why capitalism is good, and answered that there is one great reason: Of all the systems devised by man it is the one most likely to lift the poor out of poverty. But, he asserted unassailably, capitalism cannot exist in a void. Capitalism requires an underlying moral edifice. Without it nothing works; with it all is possible. That edifice includes people who have an appreciation for and understanding of the human person; it requires a knowledge that business can contribute to community and family; it requires “a sense of sin,” a sense of right and wrong, and an appreciation that the unexpected happens, that things take surprising turns in life. 4

Shortly thereafter the Zwicks published an editorial responding to Ms. Noonan’s endorsement of Michael Novak. Again, they chose to exercise their right to “speak in truth and solidarity with the cry of millions”:

Novak is an underwriter of Enron capitalism, giving permission to create wealth in any way that the market allows. He gave the greedy all permission in the name of the Church. In his many talks and books he told them wealth creation was a virtue, that the Fathers of the Church were dead wrong when they said avarice was a capital sin. He said CEO’s deserved as much money as they could get because they worked hard and creatively. He even compared the behavior of these corrupt CEO’s to the creative work of God, without any criticism of their approach. 5

In their editorial the Zwicks ask “Did Peggy Noonan read Novak’s books?” One might ask the same of the Zwicks. In fact, on one occasion Novak was moved to tell them: “I enjoyed serving several times in various articles as an evil presence in the world of your imagination . . . I enjoyed it because you have created a straw man”, recommending several of his books to them and offering to provide them himself. The Zwicks published his letter with a lengthy response, in which they praise (“we have read several of your books in that beautiful romantic prose”), chastise (“for you to quote the Pope in favor of your form of capitalism bears resemblance to the devil quoting Scripture”) and finally invite him (“As a fellow Catholic who partakes of the same Eucharist”) to assist them in developing a new economic model. 6

Clearly the Zwicks differ sharply in their interpretation of Novak’s thought. I can only wonder how the Zwick’s can square their characterization of Novak as an apologist for “Enron Capitalism” with his contension (along with Pope John Paul II) that

“Capitalism must infused by that humble gift of love called caritas . . . This is the love that holds families, associations, and nations together. The current tendency of many to base the spirit of capitalism on sheer materialism is a certain road to economic decline. Honesty, trust, teamwork, and respect for the law are gifts of the spirit. They cannot be bought” 7

Fr. Neuhaus also responded to the Zwicks in his column in First Things, noting that “The Catholic Worker seems to be of the view that the authentically Catholic position is one of being in love with being in love with the poor and the suffering. The course of love, I would suggest in agreement with Catholic doctrine, is to do all we can to remedy poverty and suffering productivity and exchange”. He concluded:

What is one to make of the nastiness perpetrated by the Catholic Worker? Because of the vestigial connection with the much admired Dorothy Day, a general inclination is to cut a lot of slack for those who claim to be her heirs. As a friend says, “Of course what they say about economics and politics is mostly nonsense, but they are idealists and they keep the rest of us honest.” It is a benign view, but I cannot agree. Nobody is kept honest by their dishonesty, by their attempt to ideologically hijack Catholic social teaching, or by their misrepresenting of those with whom they disagree. That is not idealism. It is moral posturing that serves no purpose other than the inflation of self-esteem as people of ever so superior sensitivity to the sufferings of the poor.8

I do respect Mark & Louise Zwick: it is truly inspiring to see a couple devote their daily lives to the Works of Mercy and assisting the least among us. Nevertheless, one would think that their efforts to embody a new economic model distinguished by “cooperation and sharing between rich and poor” would be assisted by genuine dialogue with those they disagree with — and to the extent that they misrepresent the thought and character of Fr. Neuhaus and Michael Novak, their manner of writing strikes me as inevitably counter-productive.

A blog is not a suitable vehicle to go into a lengthy, detailed examination and point-by-point rebuttal of the Zwick’s charges — nor do I think I’m especially knowledgable or competent enough in this area to do so. However, I have read enough to believe that anyone who confines themselves to the Zwick’s assessment of Novak & Neuhaus in the Houston Catholic Worker is sorely deprived. 9


  1. “Fr. Neuhaus should withdraw his Book”, by Mark & Louse Zwick. Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Mar.-Apr. 1999.
  2. The Zwicks translate the Pope’s condemnation of “neoliberalism” as nothing less than a condemnation of capitalism as has been put forth by Neuhaus & Novak. Michel Therrien offers a different reading here.
  3. “The Economic Religion of Michael Novak”, by Mark & Louse Zwick. Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. 18, No. 3, May-June, 1999.
  4. “Capitalism Betrayed”, by Peggy Noonan. Wall Street Journal. June 28, 2002.
  5. Michael Novak: Enron Man, by Mark & Louse Zwick. Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 5, September-October 2002.
  6. Letter from Michael Novak and Editors’ Response Houston Catholic Worker circa. 1997.
  7. “How Christianity Created Capitalism”. Religion & Liberty, May-June 2000. That the success of the free market and Western society is utterly dependent on its rootedness in the practice of Christian virtues is the chief lesson I get from reading Novak.

    Another article worthy of reading in the same publication is “The International Vocation of American Business” (July-August 1999), on a topic close to the Zwick’s heart: the economic collaberation of certain corporations with nations who turn a blind eye to human rights and civil liberty.

  8. Against Neoliberalism, by Richard John Neuhaus. First Things 95 (August/September 1999).
  9. For a good introduction to Michael Novak’s thought, and an overview of many of the same books mentioned by Mark & Louise Zwick, see “Michael Novak’s Portrait of Democratic Capitalism”, by Edward W. Younkins. Markets & Morality. Vol. 2, No. 9 Spring 1999.
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