Johnstown native Michael Novak, an influential Catholic philosopher and diplomat whose written works on religion’s role in capitalism helped mold the modern conservative movement, has died. He was 83.

The son of an insurance salesman and onetime Penelec stenographer, Novak was a seminary student and later a Stanford University professor who served as a vocal Catholic critic of the war in Vietnam.

But as his beliefs shifted right in the decades that followed, it was his written works, including “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” that made him a free-market champion and early figure in the neoconservative movement.

“Democratic capitalism is neither the Kingdom of God nor without sin,” he wrote. “Yet all other known systems of political economy are worse. Such hope as we have for alleviating poverty and for removing oppressive tyranny – perhaps our last, best hope – lies in this much despised system.”

The capitalist ideal, he wrote, offered a “plain sort of wisdom” that stands for self-improvement and growth.

Those words echoed across the globe in 1982.

World leaders such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cited the “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” as an influence. And the book was illegally distributed in Poland, where the country’s independent labor “Solidarity” movement would soon play a key role in the defeat of capitalism’s rival, communism.

“He was somebody who was able to integrate Catholic theology with conservative democratic capitalist philosophy ... tying together the importance of family, traditional values and the importance of those values,” University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown political science professor Ray Wrabley said.

Novak espoused that position at a time when an emphasis on individualism – and liberation-minded movements – was viewed as something that was eroding those values, Wrabley said.

“He really went full-circle in his life ... from being a liberal at one point, to understanding that capitalism provided the maximum freedom and opportunity to advancing and living a good life,” said Johnstown Area Heritage Association President Richard Burkert, who first met Novak in 2000.

Novak died Friday due to complications from colon cancer, family told the The Washington Post. 

‘Knowledge and truth’

Johnstown and the world lost a great mind – and a great man, said Don Dudley of Geistown, a longtime Novak admirer.

Dudley first met Novak in 1970.

Novak served as a theologian in residence at the University of Maine while he was a student there, Dudley said, recalling evenings spent talking about politics, theology and the fast-changing world around them.

At that point, Novak had not yet begun to cement his legacy, Dudley said. But he was already “a surgeon of the mind.”

“As you follow his writings, you can really see the evolution of the man,” Dudley said. “I don’t think Michael Novak, the person, changed. But I think he challenged his mind the same way he challenged the minds of others.

“He had that never-ending quest for knowledge and truth.”

Over his lifetime, Novak penned dozens of books, served as a U.S. delegate for the U.N. Human Rights Coalition and as a scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the American Enterprise Institute.

The 1994 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion award winner was both received and consulted by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

For all of his accomplishments, Johnstown – and his roots there – always seemed to remain a passion. 

‘Good place to be from’

He once told The Tribune-Democrat that his maternal grandfather risked his life to flee his Slovak homelands to come to America – and Johnstown.

“He came when he was 16 years old, and he often had to hide in hay wagons or in barns at night while soldiers were searching for him,” Novak said, noting the country was under Hungarian occupation at the time. “There was a type of underground railroad that helped him along the way.”

Novak grew up in Morrellville and left the city to attend college. But he returned many times over the years and often spoke of his birthplace.

He returned to the city numerous times, serving as a heritage speaker during the 100th anniversary of the 1889 Johnstown flood and keynote speaker for Talus Rock Girl Scouts, St. Vincent DePaul and other organizations.

“Johnstown seemed to me a city of people who had almost all known poverty, but who had a rugged sense of honesty and hard work and of dealing with adversity,” he said in 1994. “It seemed like a good place to be from.”

Burkert said Novak’s heritage in Johnstown “was really important to him – the idea that he came from a working-class family and his commitment to the church.”

Burkert noted that Novak had recently finished writing a fictional story based on a Slovak immigrant’s experience in the city during the 1889 Johnstown Flood. The tale’s main character was based on his grandfather, Novak told The Tribune-Democrat in 2016.

Burkert said he read several drafts of the story over the years. The Johnstown native, he said, was a bit of a neophyte when it came to fiction writing – but in true Novak fashion – “you wouldn’t know it,” Burkert said.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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