Appeared in Fall 1994, Vol. XX, No. 3

Michael Novak has recently been making the improbable claim that liberalism and Catholicism are not only compatible, but in many important respects essentially the same. To illustrate this, he is fond of asserting that St. Thomas Aquinas is the first liberal.1 Novak takes his cue from Friedrich Hayek,2 who approvingly cites Lord Acton’s assertion that St. Thomas (in a long quotation which acton attributes to Thomas) put forward “the earliest exposition of the Whig theory of revolution.”3 Thus, Novak calls St. Thomas a proto-liberal, and calls for a return of the “Catholic Whig”.4

Two problems arise in this procedure. First, while language similar to some of that which Acton attributes to Thomas may be found at various places in Aquinas, the “quote” is at best an interpolation, at worst a fabrication. Second, Novak has a great deal of theological, philosophical and historical revisionism to do in order to say that Aquinas would even understand the language of liberalism, much less hold the ideas which Novak attributes to him.

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