by IHE Fellow Andreas Widmer

An unusual mix of scholars, friends, and students met on campus at Catholic University March 19 for the second Novak Symposium, a project of the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship, directed by IHE Fellow Andreas Widmer.

Michael Novak, the esteemed author, philosopher, and theologian for whom the Symposium is named, loved to examine commonly held ideas to see whether or in what sense they were actually true. For example, although it’s usually held that the United States is the land of the “rugged individual,” Novak studied life in early America and saw that it was really the story of communities being built by common needs and interests — the land of the community barn-raising, not the isolated loner. Thoroughly orthodox in his Catholicism, he nonetheless excelled at bringing a fresh perspective to our sometimes too- conventional thinking.

It’s in this spirit that the annual Novak Symposium convened: not to repeat what Michael Novak said, but to continue his genuinely open-minded and big-hearted manner of confronting problems. This year’s theme took as its starting point Novak’s Templeton lecture from 1994, which student participants were asked to read. In 1994, with the collapse of Soviet Communism, the world assumed that the free market had “won” the debate with Socialism. Is that still true in 2019?

The event took place in two parts. In the morning, in the fashion of a traditional academic conference, three speakers engaged the question from their distinct perspectives. Author Mary Eberstadt, a close Novak friend, discussed what it means to engage a problem with a “catholic mind.” (A taste of her remarks is available here.) George Mason University Professor of Economics and Philosophy Peter Boettke argued that free markets require virtue, but do a better job than the alternatives when it comes to fostering the needs of the human person, who has more than just material needs. Economist and techno-visionary George Gilder offered a fascinating presentation on how the Chinese economy has begun to outpace the American in dynamic innovation. It was an intellectually bracing morning.

In the afternoon, students competed in a “social justice hack-a-thon,” during which they tried to tackle a current social problem in a “Novakian” manner — that is, applying Novak’s definition of social justice as a personal virtue aimed at building the common good. Professor Elizabeth Shaw, Director of Special Academic Projects for the Ciocca Center at The Busch School, and a long time collaborator with Michael Novak, organized the event. She was especially pleased by the high student participation rate, since an important aim of the program is to spread Novak’s legacy to a new generation. “Interacting with students was a priority and a joy for Novak, so the good turnout of undergraduates, both for the morning conference and for the hackathon in the afternoon, was especially gratifying,” she said.

Andreas Widmer is an IHE Fellow and the director of entrepreneurship programs at the Busch School of Business. Mr. Widmer works closely with top entrepreneurs, investors, and faith leaders around the world to foster enterprise solutions to poverty and promote virtuous business practices.

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