Can Social Justice Be Rescued?

This book promises to rescue the term from “its ideological captors” by clarifying “the true meaning of social justice.”

To end with one down-to-earth example: How is it that the most Catholic continent of all, South America, with an open field for continuously implementing Catholic social thought ever since 1891, should come into the twenty-first century with the second-largest population of truly poor persons on the planet? With so many structural deficiencies? For all its strengths, Catholic social thought carries within it far more false turns, inner irony, and even human tragedy than its partisans (ourselves included) typically address.


The book Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is isn’t what you think it is. The dust jacket of the latest from Michael Novak (with coauthors Paul Adams and Elizabeth Shaw) promises to rescue the term from “its ideological captors” by clarifying “the true meaning of social justice.”

What it provides is a careful reading of select papal encyclicals, and application of them to the concept of social justice and contemporary social work—especially that being done from a Roman Catholic perspective. The book’s aim, in practical terms, is to make social justice safe for conservative Catholics both in theory and in practice.

Novak humorously notes that this anti-market rallying cry of the Left has an “operational meaning”: that “we need a law against that.” One response to such social justice boosterism—Friedrich Hayek’s, in fact—is to reject the phrase altogether. Novak summarizes Hayek’s critique succinctly: Either social justice is a virtue, and so is about individuals and not about redistribution; or it is not a virtue and “its claim to moral standing falls flat.” Because its advocates treat it “as a regulative principle of order, not a virtue,” the slogan serves as an instrument of coercion, not a call to good habits of character, so the Hayekian conservative should set it aside.

But there’s a problem: Various popes since the 19th century have embraced the term. This has made it easy for Catholic Progressives to appeal to papal encyclicals when arguing against more market-friendly Catholics. Social workers (of all religions and no religion) have gone even further, as coauthor Paul Adams notes, making social justice a core value that accredited schools must embrace. So the Hayek option—rejecting the term altogether—is unavailable to many, if they want to maintain their other commitments.

The solution: Offer a competing definition of social justice by arguing that, pace Hayek, it is a virtue, but not because entire societies can somehow be virtuous (as J. S. Mill thinks). The key is to look upon it as a virtue of individuals directed toward associations that foster the common good. Defining social justice in this way makes it a check on, not an extension of, state power.

Indeed, big government, “to protect its own turf,” crowds out the free associations that social justice, properly understood, holds dear. In chapters 5 through 7, Novak elucidates 16 principles he finds in Catholic social thought, and, in chapters 8 through 13, he considers specific papal encyclicals. Unsurprisingly, his discussion of John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus is (no pun intended) magisterial.

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