Michael Novak, an author and prominent Catholic theologian, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend, that the political right is overreacting in its criticism of Pope Francis and predicted the pontiff’s economic views would become more friendly toward capitalism.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: We begin the program with the author of “From Left to Right: My Journal From Liberal to Conservative,” Michael Novak. Michael, thank you so much for being with us.
MICHAEL NOVAK: Great to be with you, Al. Just great.
HUNT: This - this fascinating book, you went politically from Bobby Kennedy and Sarge Shriver to Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. Tell us a little bit about that. Was there any compelling catalyst and there were - were there transcendent constants?
NOVAK: Well, it was slow. I would never have predicted it. But one by one, the beliefs that I held earlier just didn’t seem to work so well. Let me give you an instance in the war on poverty, which I was very much for. But I never would have predicted that in 10 years that crime rates would mushroom and that families would start breaking up. In a short compass looking back on it with the study group 20 years later, we concluded the war on poverty worked beautifully with the elderly. The condition of the elderly is so much better, of my parents. Live longer, et cetera. Look younger, did more things.
But with the young, it was pretty devastating because - mostly because of the family breakup and so forth and non-formation of families.
HUNT: You’re talking about issues that have been so prominent and remain so prominent. And you were one of the most prominent Catholic Way people in America. It’s a religion central to your being. It’s central to this book. Give us nine months into his papacy your assessment of Pope Francis.
NOVAK: I’m very enthusiastic. Now I wasn’t at first, I was hands-off in the beginning. I’m a little bit suspicious of the populist type until I saw how - what - what he was going to do, how serious is he. But what’s been done is amazing. He’s done - he’s concentrated on the basics. Love, care for the poor, humility, kindness. And those are what matter, really. The rest is housekeeping.
HUNT: Do you think he’s naïve about economics and capitalism?
NOVAK: If I look at it - I had to learn to look at John Paul II from a Polish direction, never having experienced either one in his lifetime, or only for a brief window. It was a learning curve for him. And when I think of experiences in Argentina and other places in Latin America, what he says is true. There’s almost no movement from poor up. There’s not the upward mobility that my family experienced. Most Americans come out of poor beginnings. That doesn’t happen much in Argentina or other places.
HUNT: Why have so many conservatives in America been so harsh about him, or at least so skeptical, worried, ranging from Rush Limbaugh to some people in the church? Some of it has to do with what he said about - about economics, doesn’t it?
NOVAK: No doubt that’s been one of the weakest points of his address. And he seems a little bit surprised by that. But look, they’re - priests, bishops are not trained to do economic analysis. And he keeps saying, that’s not what I’m doing. I wish he didn’t - no, it’s not extemporizing, but I wish he didn’t say some of the too-simple things he says. But look, the main thing - he’s got his focus right. The main - the main job for Christians today in the next 20 years, underlying job is to raise the last billion people out of poverty. We’ve made tremendous progress in the last 20 years, over a billion. And we’ve got - we’ve got our work cut out for us just on that. And focusing on that is right.
HUNT: I’m going to get to that in just a minute because that’s also a very important part of your book. But just to stay on the - on the pope for a second, do you think his - his economic views will change then or evolve and you think he’ll be less critical of capitalism, if you will, as he goes through this process?
NOVAK: I think they will. I think he will begin to see the different economies of the world in a different light. There’s skepticism throughout the Latin world, Romantic languages, which I experienced when I went to Rome to study years and years ago. And they count - write us off as individualists. I don’t think we are. I think Americans are very - work together. The only time I’m alone is when I’m on an airplane. And I answer the first couple questions. What do you do? I teach. That freezes people right away. What do you teach? The humanities. That’s it. I’m home free.
HUNT: That’s a total freeze, right. Right, right. Well, but - but also some conservatives have been apoplectic about other issues too. For instance, some of the appointments the pope has made. He removed Cardinal Burke, a hero to much of American right-wing Catholics, from the Vatican Congregation of Bishops. Isn’t he clearly signaling some changes from his predecessor, and should conservatives be as upset as some seem to be?
NOVAK: No, you’ve got - got to keep your eye on the basics, keep your eye on the ball. And he understands the inner spirit of Catholicism that’s been growing and building. There were wonderful saint - at the end of the last century, died in 1897 - Saint Therese of Lisieux. And that was her whole message, is - is - the basic thing is God is love. He loves us despite our constant falls. And that is what we’ve got to --
HUNT: So this is -
NOVAK: - we’ve got to energize. We’ve got to --
HUNT: This is an overreaction from the Limbaughs of the world, if you will.
NOVAK: Yeah. Rush doesn’t understand the Catholic part of it and he’s taking it seriously. And I don’t blame him for criticizing. When you see something to criticize, go ahead and criticize. But give the guy a chance to get his feet on the ground, get his arms around the questions of globalization, get his arms around the fact that capitalism is mostly ideas. Practically everything we enjoy in the United States is an idea.
HUNT: Michael, I want to go back to something you said earlier about the Latin - the Latin American countries haven’t experienced the kind of upward social mobility that you and your family and your neighbors and colleagues had, but that no longer is as true in America as it once was. Even Canada and Western European countries data shows now have more social mobility. Seventy percent of people born poor in this country never even make it to middle class now. Should government be doing something about that?
NOVAK: Well the government’s what’s ruined it, don’t you think? That’s what -
HUNT: Well, I’m asking you.
NOVAK: That’s - but that’s what I’ve come to think, is that poverty programs ironically fed the wrong incentives. And for the first time in our history, we have a body of people who are generations on welfare. That - first of all, we didn’t have welfare --
HUNT: But we’ve had - we’ve had a lot of conservative policies in effect for the last 30 years and that social mobility is - is worse today than it was 30 years ago.
NOVAK: Well, I think under Reagan it really jumped ahead. But one thing to note is immigrants jump ahead very quickly. They’re out of - we constantly - we see the stream of poor people in here. Within 10 years, almost all of them are out of -
HUNT: Then should Congress then pass an immigration bill?
NOVAK: Well, I’m in favor of it. I - look. My family got here as immigrants, the wretched refuse of the Earth. And so I’m grateful for that.
HUNT: And became the pride and joy of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, right?
NOVAK: Well, a lot of people did -
HUNT: Michael Novak, thank you for being with us. And this is a fascinating book. And a very happy New Year to you.
NOVAK: Happy New Year to you, Al.
HUNT: Thank you, Michael.
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