Book Review: Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is

In Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, philosopher and theologian Michael Novak and social work professor Paul Adams, writing with Elizabeth Shaw, seek to recapture an awareness of justice, and so of social justice, as a virtue in the ordinary sense—as a habit or disposition of the moral agent.

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Book Review: Can Social Justice Be Rescued?

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.”

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Book Review: What Exactly Is Social Justice?

What Exactly Is Social Justice?

Pope Pius XI Defined the New Virtue, Focusing on the Common Good, in 1931

By Carrie Gress on National Catholic Register on March 3, 2016

Few would argue that the notion of social justice hasn’t stretched the limits of sanity in the public square: So-called “Social-Justice Warriors” at Brown University are complaining that they can’t get their homework done because of the demands of their activism; bakers are being forced to bake cakes for events they don’t condone; and a group of nuns currently awaits the judgment of the Supreme Court about paying for birth control.

And yet all of these are done in the name of social justice. Social justice is perhaps the most over-used phrase in our political lexicon, but what exactly is it?

Gratefully, in Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is (Encounter Books, 2015), Michael Novak, Paul Adams and Elizabeth Shaw clarify once and for all what it is and why it has been so abused. Like taking shears to an overgrown hedge, the authors make short order of the sloppy use of social justice in our own public square.

The first part of the book, “The Theory,” is written by Templeton Prize winner Novak, while Adams, professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii, tackles the second part, “The Practice.” Employing wit, clear insights and stirring examples from Novak’s Slovak roots, the authors make the touchy topic a delight to read, while heavily rewarding the attentive reader.

Novak dives into the primary problem with social justice: its ambiguity. “The term is allowed to float in the air as if anyone will recognize an instance of it when he sees it.” This vagueness, however, Novak argues, is a feature — not a flaw. “Social justice is a term that can be used as an all-purpose justification for any progressive-sounding government program or newly discovered or invented right.” In fact, the word, like rights, feminism and a host of other political terms that are largely unmoored from their original meaning, work best when they are not well defined — allowing fluid and varied meanings, depending on who is talking (or listening).

But perhaps more important than the vagueness of “social justice” is its ingenious default position of rewarding those who use the title. Novak explains: “The term survives because it benefits its champions. It brands opponents as supporters of social injustices, and so as enemies of humankind, without the trouble of making an argument or considering their views.” Much like “pro-choice” is for abortion or “pro-love” is for same-sex “marriage,” who wants to be seen as an enemy of choice, love or of justice? The debate is over before it begins.

Defining social justice is no small challenge, given its broad use. Novak makes clear that it is quite different than simple charity, as many have defined it.

Going back to the origins of the term, Novak identifies Pope Pius XI as the true source (clearly, “Social-Justice Warriors” don’t know this). The Pope introduced it as a new virtue in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. He was responding to the shift in society away from the old agrarian order into the new industrial world, where entire populations were left to the wolves capitalizing off dramatic social change. The pontiff, going beyond the simple justice of what individuals owed to each other, saw the necessity of a type of justice directed at a community: hence, social justice. Of course, justice is inherently social because it engages at least two people, but Pope Pius was trying to emphasize the broader ramifications and ripple effect when people act unjustly.

So social justice is, as Novak explains it, a new virtue that emphasizes the responsibility of citizens to use their gifts and talents to improve the common good of their communities. Starting with the family as the foundational unit, churches, schools, unions and guilds, hospitals and other organizations related to human need are all beneficiaries of this active virtue.

The second part of the book, “The Practice” by Adams, offers a unique approach to thinking about social-justice-type issues. Adams, who has been in the trenches of social work, where the social-justice moniker is used most heavily, reconciles terms that most people consider to be mutually exclusive, such as individual or collective, justice or charity. Social justice is something of a lost art, and Adams uses hot-button topics, such as the marriage debate and the Heath and Human Services’ mandate, to explain the skills associated with social justice. Adam’s practical insights are infused with Catholic social thought, while providing a number of real-life examples to help professionals think through issues of justice and the common good in a new way.

Ultimately, Novak and Adams make clear that social justice has much less to do with public policy and much more to do with virtue. As Catholics, we have a long way to go in rehabilitating not only the term “social justice,” but also reintroducing the practice to generations who aren’t well seasoned in the art of community-building (which is quite different from community organizing). As Novak and Adams make clear, the first place to start is by strengthening our families, because they are the fundamental building block of society. Beyond that, we can stop lamenting the imperfections of our own communities and employ our own talents and gifts to improve them a little at a time. Small things, like joining the Knights of Columbus, getting involved in your local government or joining a 40 Days for Life campaign, can go a long way. The ideas are endless and as unique as each community.

It is an interesting thought experiment to consider those who currently promote social justice under the vague definition, in contrast to those great men and women who came before us and employed the virtue of social justice to make their communities more benevolent. The fourth-century Desert Father Evagrius said: “True charity leads to meekness; activism only leads to bitterness.” One doesn’t have to think too hard to figure out who are the meek and who are the bitter.

Book Review: What is Social Justice?

What is Social Justice

By George J. Marlin on The Catholic Thing on February 20, 2016

Social-Justice-book-coverThe term “social justice,” a potentially useful term, has – as we well know – been taken hostage by progressives in both the secular world and the Church. They have made it a catchall term to aid them in imposing ideological formulas and newly conceived rights on our common institutions, or to promote their favored causes de jure.

These “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs in digital parlance), who support state-enforced redistribution, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, Black Lives Matter, and Occupy Wall Street agendas, also portray their opponents as evil people opposed to all that is good, and often employ tactics designed to silence or repress those who dare to disagree.

Writing about these “dangerous pseudo-progressive authoritarians” in a New York Observer article titled “The Totalitarian Doctrine of ‘Social Justice Warriors’” journalist Cathy Young concluded, “Because SocJus is so focused on changing bad attitudes and ferreting out subtle biases and insensitivities, its hostility to free speech and thought is not an unfortunate by-product of the movement but its very essence.”

In an effort to rescue “social justice” from this fate and to clarify its true meaning, Templeton Prize winner Michael Novak, and Paul Adams, Professor Emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii, have co-authored an impressive book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is.

The authors contend that “social justice,” rightly understood, is not a state of public affairs but personal virtue. To explain that premise and “to seek out a fresh statement of the definition of social justice – one that is true to the original understanding, ideologically neutral among political and economic partisans, and applicable to the circumstances of today,” the book is divided into two parts.

The first, “The Theory” of social justice is written by Novak and the second part, by Adams, is devoted to “The Practice.”

Social Justice was introduced as a new virtue by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. He called this form of justice “social” because its aim was to improve the common good of a “free and responsible people” by employing social activities closely related to the basic unit of society: the family. Activities could include the creation of local religious and educational facilities and the administering of essential services.

This virtue is also expected to reach ends that cannot be actualized by the individual alone. People are expected to learn three skills: “the art of forming associations, willingness to take leadership of small groups, and the habit and instinct of cooperation with others.”

Social justice wasn’t meant to be dependent on large, impersonal, domineering, and cumbersome federal and state bureaucracies that tend to smother individual and local initiatives. Rather it is a habit of the heart that brings people together to form associations that provide “social protection against atomistic individualism, while at the other pole it protects considerable civic space from the direct custodianship of the state.”

Novak concludes his portion of the work by stressing:

Both Catholic social teaching and the social-work empowerment tradition reject the individualist hypertrophy of the autonomous unencumbered self no less than the hypertrophy of the state. The space – of civil society or mediating structures – between individual and state is the one in which conscience is shaped and the virtues on which it depends are developed through practice and habituation. The virtue of social justice also requires and develops that space in which citizens join together in pursuit of the common good.

As for Catholic social justice in action, Professor Adams describes it as the pre-eminent virtue of free societies. Social workers are virtue-driven and are called to act with people “to improve the common good of families, a local neighborhood, a city, a whole nation, the whole world.”

Social work, Adams argues, is neither individualist nor collectivist, but is devoted to strengthening the caring and self-regulatory capacity of the family and to reduce dependency on the “bureaucratic-professional state.”

Adams greatest fear is that social workers who adhere to Judeo-Christian teaching on life, death, family, and marriage will be driven from their professions. Conscience exemptions are being eliminated in most medical and counseling fields. Conscience has been redefined as merely “personal values that must be left at the office door when duty calls.”

Today clients or patients are sovereign. Any legal practice they demand, the social profession must provide or participate in providing. The professional’s right and duty, Adams observes, “to use her judgment about what is required or indicated or morally permissible is nullified.” The balance of rights between professional and client no longer exists, however, and client empowerment “radically disempowers, even dehumanizes, the professional.”

All too often social service professionals and healthcare workers must either execute policies or perform procedures they find morally degrading – or find a different line of work.

The war on conscience aims at destroying subsidiary associational life, particularly in Church and family. And if Social Justice Warriors succeed, religious freedom will be reduced to freedom of worship and the Church will have to abandon a prime corporate responsibility of caring for the poor, sick, homeless, and orphans.

Because battles over conscience in the public square are so daunting, Novak and Adams conclude that the most important words of Catholic social justice must become: “Do not be afraid.” They call on us to aspire upward and to “draw strength from the example of so many heroines and heroes who have gone before us, winning small victory after small victory, even in the darkest of times.”

True social justice demands nothing less.


By George J. Marlin

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic Voter, and  Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative. His most recent book is Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy.

The Tragedy of Christian Persecution

The Tragedy of Christian Persecution

Published by Michael Novak on RealClearReligion on December 5, 2015:

If you are going to read only one book on the most massive violations of religious liberty -- happening today, even as you read this -- or you feel it's your duty to read only one thing in solidarity with this immense suffering, Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy by George J. Marlin is the one to keep at hand.

The chairman of Aid to the Church in Need covers eight nations of the Middle East, from Turkey to the Sudan, in some painful detail. Behind this detail, lie many hundred thousands of Christian families faced with instant death (or sexual enslavement) or two other choices (1) renounce their hard-won historical faith and submit to the authority of Allah, or (2) enter into dhimmitude, that half-life of paying fines for just being allowed to live and of keeping one's faith completely private, invisible and silent.

But before Marlin gets into all that, he writes two long chapters, one of the birth and rise of Christianity in the Middle East, the other the birth of Islam and the rise of Islamic terrorism 600 years later. Islamic terrorism has been endemic from the beginning, although in some centuries in intermittent remission.

Both sections of the book are essential background reading for our time and also very useful to keep at hand for reference. It is important to keep in mind the many varieties of Islam, and their internal conflicts from country to country in these widely variegated cultures.

Some of the most illuminating material awaits at the end, which brings together voices on Christianity and Islam by informed and experienced Christians, some of them Arabs, who have lived through this period for many decades. For instance, Fr. Wafik Nasry expresses the anguish of seeing so many Christian, Muslim and secular people today "refuse to face reality."

"They pretend," he goes on, "that the radical members Al-Qaeda and ISIS and many other Muslim militant political groups have nothing to do with the true Islam." He adds: "But these pretenders are not facing and/or dealing with reality, but with a figment of their own imaginations. They are dealing with a lie of th own making and live in the realm of wishful thinking. They either pretend not to know or do not really know." Both Muslims and Christians, he insists, "need calmly to face the reality of violence in Islam."

Fr. Nasry gently asks, but is the source of violence in Islam the same as the source of violence in Christianity?

For a Christian, the word "terror" has a negative connotation. Jesus constantly preaches peacefulness, meekness, and the injunction not to reply to a blow with blow of one's own, but rather the resolution "to turn the other cheek." These injunctions are practiced by a cloud of witnesses, among them martyrs who accept death peacefully down through the ages.

For a Muslim, "terrorism" is something mandated directly by God in the Kuran, practiced by Muhammad himself, and persistently both practiced and openly incited by imams down through Islamic history since the seventh century.

Then, summarizing the findings of the Muslim director of Yafa Center for Study and Research, Nasry lists five aims of terror in Islam. In cruelly brief form they are: (1) to punish infidels for unbelief (2) to frighten infidels into keeping their treaties with believers (3) to be a definitive tool of divine might. Q8:12 "I will inst terror into the hearts of the unbelievers: smite them above their necks and smite all their fingertips off them." (4) to cut as a two-edged sword: striking fear into infidels, and protecting believers from their evils and (5) to put an end to oppression, tumult, and division. Fr. Nasry applauds those who try to bring Islam "up-to-date, but regrets that they have so far been very broadly rejected.

I strongly urge that you put Marlin's book on your list for New Year's resolutions: buy it, read it, and keep it nearby for reference.


FROM THE ARCHIVE: Review of Writing from Left to Right

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Review of Writing from Left to Right

Published by Brian C. Anderson in The Washington Times on December 4, 2013


Catholic theologian, social thinker, diplomat, political speechwriter, journalist, influencer of prime ministers and popes, author of dozens of important books — Michael Novak has lived an extraordinary public life. "Writing from Left to Right" is his entertaining and wise memoir of that engagement with his age, and of his movement across the political spectrum.

Born in 1933 to a working-class Slovak family in Johnstown, Pa., Mr. Novak describes two stories from his childhood that colored his later politics. The first is of listening with his father to a crackling radio broadcast in 1939, announcing Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland. "Study all you can about the Nazis and the communists," his father advised. "These will be the two movements that will shape the next forty years." The second is of his Uncles Johnnie and Emil. Both worked at Bethlehem Steel and both offered a supply of gruff common sense. The adult Mr. Novak's anti-totalitarianism and distrust of out-of-touch elites found a source in these early experiences.

"Writing from Left to Right" briefly chronicles Mr. Novak's dozen years as a seminarian and his initial efforts, after leaving religious life, to become a writer, including publishing a first novel, "The Tiber Was Silver," which sold 30,000 copies.

Another chapter tells of his graduate-student days at Harvard University, where a moving encounter with the Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel gave him a lifelong interest in the human "person," a being "able to reflect on her own past, approve of some parts of it, disapprove of others, and choose among various roads into the future." The Protestant thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, relentlessly warning about the unintended consequences of human action, became a second enduring influence from this period.

The memoir really takes off when Mr. Novak enters the political arena. He wrote speeches for Democratic stars Eugene McCarthy, Sargent Shriver, George McGovern and Bobby Kennedy, all of whom come off as decent and impressive men. A Stanford professor at the time, Mr. Novak received an invitation from Kennedy, then seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, to fly to Los Angeles to be with him as the California primary returns came in — the very night the candidate was fatally shot.

Five years earlier, Mr. Novak had been in Rome, covering the unfolding of Vatican II, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. That night, he and his wife Karen would dine with JFK friend John Cogley and "The Other America" author Michael Harrington, trying to make sense of the horror.

As these names attest, the Michael Novak of the '60s was on the left. Several things began to push him right. One was religious. Mr. Novak sympathized with Vatican II's progressives, who wanted to renew the Catholic faith, which they felt had become too defensive and closed to new insights into the truth. Mr. Novak's early book "The Open Church" embodied this vision.

Mr. Novak grew troubled as Vatican II began to be interpreted as calling for a complete transformation of the faith, along the lines laid down by secular elites. Such an agenda was distant from the "probing" traditionalism of Vatican II's leading progressives, future popes Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger, Mr. Novak believed, and, in his view, calamitously misguided.

By the early 1970s, those secular elites were rubbing Mr. Novak the wrong way in other ways, too, he recounts. "I had begun to notice the appearance of two lefts — one that included my whole family and what it represented, and the other a 'new' left, based on a suddenly emerging 'constituency of conscience,' no longer rooted among people who worked with their hands and backs."

Wealthy, self-satisfied, partisans of a new, more "sensitive" and relativistic morality, the new leftists looked down on Mr. Novak's "unmeltable ethnics" — the working-class, predominantly Catholic, and culturally conservative Americans of Eastern and Southern European descent who'd eventually become the Reagan Democrats. Mr. Novak rejected the new liberalism's cultural and political views, though he still considered himself a man of the left.

Mr. Novak's rightward drift was complete after he immersed himself in the study of political economy and came out a partisan of the free economy — albeit an economy molded by a morally serious culture and robust democratic political institutions. Joining a right-of-center think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, in 1978, where he would remain until his recent retirement (and where I worked for him for several years during the 1990s), Mr. Novak read and read Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Max Weber, Alexis de Tocqueville and a vast literature of other social thinkers.

The research culminated in one of his most audacious books, 1982's "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism," a powerful defense of democratic capitalist societies based on the very real goods they provided, including the rule of law, respect for the person and widespread prosperity. Margaret Thatcher and Poland's Solidarity leaders, among many others, would draw inspiration from it.

"Writing from Left to Right" covers lots more: Mr. Novak's conflicted views on the Vietnam War; his late-'60s run-in with left-wing campus lunacy at the experimental college of the State University of New York at Old Westbury; his stints as Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights; his tireless efforts during the 1980s and 1990s to build a consensus for welfare reform and to find new approaches to help the poor; and his profound respect for Pope John Paul II, whose encyclical on the free society, "Centesimus Annus," he clearly influenced.

Throughout, Mr. Novak's tone is conciliatory. He draws warm portraits of allies, but he's also magnanimous toward political opponents. This marvelous political memoir deserves the widest possible readership.

Brian C. Anderson is editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal and author of "Democratic Capitalism and its Discontents" (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2007) and "South Park Conservatives" (Regnery, 2005).

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

Rev. James V. Schall Reviews “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is”

What “Social Justice” Really Means

Justice graphic

For much of my academic life, I considered the terms, “values,” “rights,” and “social justice,” to have equivocal meanings. When these terms were used without clarification, they disrupted any fair social order. Each of the phrases had two or more meanings that usually meant the direct opposite of each other. Conversations and legislation in which these terms were used almost always ended in incoherence. One group used a term one way; the next group used it in an opposite way. Both usages were found in the language with various explanations of how they came into common usage. Each usage had its own philosophical presuppositions.

“Value” was a term from Max Weber or Nietzsche that denied any grounding to our ethical lives. Whatever we chose as our purpose or end was all right. The term admitted no rational scrutiny, only arbitrary choice. “Science,” in this sense, dealt exclusively with the means whereby we might achieve our selected end or purpose, whatever it might be. To say “this is my ‘value’” meant simply that I “opt” for this or that desire. I have no intrinsic reason why one choice is better or worse than another. The word “value” was thus a function of relativism. To “guarantee” values, or agree on them, merely meant accepting whatever we willed, not understanding and being held to what is right or wrong, true or false.

The word “rights” caused even more confusion. Especially in Catholic social thought where it was equated with some objective duty. But the modern usage of the word comes from Hobbes. It means that no objective goods can be rationally comprehended. A “right” was whatever I thought that I needed to avoid violent death. A “right” was the intrinsic power to obtain it and keep what I decided.

The Leviathan state was contractually empowered to guarantee these “rights.” This guarantee meant, in effect, the state defined the “rights” that were allowed to exist. The “right” to life confronted a “right” to abortion. When people insisted on their “rights,” they were accused of denying the “rights” of others. Battle after battle to defend the “right” to life was lost because it was seen as a denial of a “right” to abortion. The rhetoric of “rights” was independent of the rhetoric of truth.

 Social justice” was purportedly a new addition to the classical legal, distributive, and commutative justice ideas found in Aristotle. It was rather connected with the Leviathan state. Social justice was based on the idea that what is “due” to people for their flourishing is what decides their good. It was not personal virtue that was at the center of moral and political life. Social and political “structures” determined virtue and vice.

So the “vocation” to “social justice” derived its nobility from “service” to the poor and down-trodden through promises to “re-structure” the state or economy. Oftentimes this renovation of society was promoted in revolutionary terms, because state and social “structures” determined the meaning of virtue and vice. “Social justice” always hovered in the shadow of totalitarianism. The state became the center of all human life. Social Justice received its self-justification from what it distributed to everyone.


In this context, Michael Novak and Paul Adams have brought together in one concise consideration an understanding of “social justice” that does not arise from these “value-rights-justice” presuppositions found in the post Machiavellian understanding of modernity and the state. In Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, they undertake a systematic re-reading of what is known as “Catholic Social Doctrine.” But their “re-reading” turns out to be directed to everyone, to social and political thought as such. The approach is unique and convincing. Initially it arises from the experience of Adams who has been involved in what we now call “social services,” that is, those efforts of the state and other bodies to meet pressing needs of the poor, disadvantaged, or otherwise needy. The theoretical issue is over what kind of analysis best deals with these issues, while retaining and expanding any real meaning of a civilization of love and reason.

Social Justice book coverAs the family has come more and more into a crisis status, the growth of state agencies to meet the result has been almost exponential. Chesterton said somewhere that if we stop doing things out of personal sacrifice, love, and generosity, we will soon find ourselves having to pay others to do the needed things for increasingly high wages. This same point is really what Benedict XVI argued; namely, that no bureaucracy could substitute for the kind of personal care and love that actual human beings require above minimum physical needs that can be purchased.

What is argued here is lucid and well-grounded. It is a much better explanation of both facts and vision than other approaches to basic world economic and political issues. Social justice is not, as too many maintain or imply, a revolutionary virtue whose object is the restructuring of the state, family, or society as the principal way to deal with modern problems. Rather it is an aspect of Aristotle’s understanding of justice and politics. It is a flushing out of the habit of virtue in all its implications. This virtue is located within each person. It is an acquired habit, the result of repeated and prudent acts.

This centrality of habit/virtue is where the discussion of human good properly belongs. Novak is particularly good in spelling out how this classic virtue is involved in those activities that are necessary, and even beyond necessity, for achieving the common good. The careful discussion of charity is a disciplined effort to acknowledge that into any social order something from outside of it may be necessary for its ultimate good. The classical idea of benevolence is the natural basis of the supernatural virtue of charity.

The “common good” is another basic idea from Aristotle and Aquinas that needs fuller restatement in the light of the centrality of personal virtue. The “common good” is not some grand plan to reform all of society to meet and eliminate every human ill. Novak is a realist when it comes to human evils. Any actual human common good must deal responsibly with this basic problem. Evils (vices) will always be present in any society. They will always need to be confronted with clear eyes. What is wrong in the world is mainly located in the human heart and relates to human freedom. We cannot pass down the virtue or vice of one generation to another because each generation of persons must itself decide whether it will be good or not in its concrete activities. Talk of reform of society that does not include talk of habits, of virtue and vice, is but another way of abandoning any real understanding of man in society.

The common good is an order of thought, habit, law, and custom among acting persons in which the actual potentialities of individuals can and do develop. No human being or organization can foresee the varied goods of all types that arise out of the freedom and intelligence of human beings. The common good does not mean that everyone has exactly the same things. It is not uniform. Rather, it means that everyone develops different things. The total goods implicit in human potential and variety are allowed and encouraged to come forth. Thus, the common good will also include those differing institutions of law, police, army, and common sense that directly deal with the vices that also arise from their intelligence and wills.


In many ways, this book is about America and its earlier tradition of law, free markets, federalism, and generosity as something new in the world, yet as something that continues and develops classical and Christian thinking of the good of mankind. The degree to which cultural America has deviated from its own founding on matters of sin and relativism is treated in detail. The Founding Fathers were often aware of the dark side of human nature, and sought to counteract it, as some described in the Federalist.

But it is quite clear that America’s general contribution to the world’s fund of practical knowledge is a major accomplishment, particularly concerning issues of poverty and human dignity. The dynamism that exists in each human soul is fundamental to recognize. Man’s intelligence and drive are the real sources for meeting real needs of actual people. But they will not be allowed or properly developed by just any religious, ideological, or traditional mode of thought that impedes the basic place of virtue in human life.

Novak uses several initiatives or remarks of Lincoln to illustrate his point about how social justice properly understood works. He cites Lincoln’s remarks on the provision for patents that the American Founders put in the Constitution. Perhaps no single act has been more important in providing for ordered human progress than the law of limited patents. For this provision allowed individuals to use their own initiative to invent or write things that would step by step contribute to human needs and wants in growing and ever-more complex societies. Again and again, the activities and institutions between the individual and the state are emphasized as central to true social justice. No actual person is an isolated being. Rather he is a member of a family and myriads of other associations designed to accompany human purposes through free and responsible human activity.

We find here a particularly fine discussion about just what really does help the poor to become not poor. People need not be poor. The first step is to understand that wealth is not another commodity or property. The constant repetition of the statistic about 20 percent own 80 percent of the wealth implies that this is an obvious injustice. It isn’t. The statistic completely overlooks the cause of wealth production and the growth of entire economies including that of the poor. It is ultimately intelligence and the skill in applying it. The principal agent for dealing with poverty is not some foreign aid or rearrangement of laws or state structure. It is a recognition of the capacity of individuals, if given a chance, to deal with problems themselves in free concert with others.

There is an almost diabolical temptation in the souls of many politicians, clerics, and academics to want to solve someone else’s problems. Instead of thinking what people themselves can do to solve their own problems, the temptation is to think of ways to do it for them. This latter approach almost always ends up in emptying society of that individual and personal vitality that alone is able to vivify a society. Neither individualism nor socialism, or their variants, can show the record that a personalist-based approach to social justice as a virtue can achieve.

“It is not at all necessary that there should be poor people on this planet. The Creator of this world has made it abundantly fruitful for all, and has hidden within it huge resources for human wit to discover and put to use for all,” Novak wrote. This book was unfortunately mainly written before Pope Francis’ full comments on economics were clear. The tentative reflections here are based almost solely on Evangelii Gaudium.

If anyone from the pope to the bishops to college professors and students, to media, business people, and government cadre is looking for a succinct and far-reaching guide to reconsider how to think about the order of this world and its relation to the human good, it would be difficult to find a better book than this work of Michael Novak and Paul Adams.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. His latest books include The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press

Catholicism, Capitalism, and Caritas: The Continuing Legacy of Michael Novak

Catholicism, Capitalism, and Caritas: The Continuing Legacy of Michael Novak

Published by Nathaniel Peters at Public Discourse (The Witherspoon Institute) on June 2, 2015


In a time of intense debate about global capitalism and the power of economic elites, Michael Novak’s work is essential reading for those who seek to work for free and virtuous societies. Novak’s life is also a lesson in charity.

The current issue of First Things captures the paradox of contemporary capitalism. In “The Power Elite,” Patrick Deneen describes how the fight over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act was won by corporate activism and interests. This is so, he argues, because

Today’s corporate ideology has a strong affinity with the lifestyles of those who are defined by mobility, ethical flexibility, liberalism (whether economic or social), a consumerist mentality in which choice is paramount, and a “progressive” outlook in which rapid change and “creative destruction” are the only certainties.

Corporations use their power to effect the changes they want, which all too frequently benefit elites at the expense of working-class Americans, socially and economically.

A few pages later in the same issue, Michael Novak describes free markets as engines of creativity, solidarity, and poverty reduction. “Free markets are dynamic and creative,” he explains, “because they are open to the dynamism and creativity intrinsic to our humanity.” Competition among corporations leads to better products, available to more people. Aiding entrepreneurship and making it easier to enter the market are essential for allowing the “bottom billion” to improve their lot. Novak argues, as he has for thirty years, that the best solution for poverty is still democratic capitalism: “a system of natural liberty, incorporating both political liberty and economic liberty” and founded on a prior “moral and cultural system, constituted by civic institutions and well-ordered personal habits.” Today, however, that system is changing fast, endangering the families and social organizations that help society flourish.

In Deneen’s mind, capitalism undermines society. In Novak’s, the right kind of capitalism is an important component of a free society, but by no means the only one. Those who seek to maintain the benefits of free markets without undermining the moral foundation on which society rests should review the basics of Michael Novak’s work. An American and Catholic Life: Essays Dedicated to Michael Novak is a good place to start. The essays in this recent festschrift capture the important moments of Novak’s life and touch on many of the themes of his work, which ranges from philosophy to sports to religion and the American founders. Novak’s most significant intellectual contributions examine the way in which theology shows us what makes a society free and virtuous. In particular, they offer insight into three main topics: economics, civil society, and charity.

Catholicism and Capitalism

Novak’s economic positions are some of his most controversial, perhaps because they touch on an unfortunate division within American Catholicism. It’s common to argue that both sides of this divide pick and choose what teachings to accept: progressive Catholics dissent from the teachings about sexuality and the human person, while conservative Catholics dissent from teachings about the economy. In this vein, some criticize Michael Novak as a shill for capitalism, accusing him of distorting Catholic social teaching to baptize big business.

But this argument betrays a deep ignorance of Novak’s writing. At the heart of his thought on economics lies one question: What gets people out of poverty? Or, in a more academic articulation, what economic systems are most conducive to allowing people to exercise their human dignity, realize their God-given capacities, and provide for themselves and their families? When many people think of capitalism, they imagine factory owners exploiting workers. Novak sees a woman with a micro-loan who can now start a business to support her family, or a community of immigrants who have arrived in America—like Novak’s own Slovak ancestors—who through hard work in their local community can build better lives for themselves and those around them.

What leads to the flourishing of such communities? A planned economy restricted by regulation, or a more open economy that permits failure and rewards success? Novak’s conclusion, developed at great length in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and other works, is that free economies are best equipped to do so. Novak’s vision inspired those working for liberation from communism, in particular. It explained why the ideology of their government ran contrary to human nature and proposed what a more humane social structure might be.

But that was thirty years ago. What of today? Certainly, we must remember that business can be a real calling; offering good products to customers and providing jobs for workers in a manner consonant with Christian principles are important tasks. But where Novak argued against forms of socialism, we must argue against corrosive forms of capitalism. In particular, we must fight the crony capitalism that ties those who police the market closely to its most powerful actors. A free market helps small businesses and micro-loans, but also allows for large and exploitative corporations. We should help the former and limit the latter. Advocating a free economy does not mean being mindlessly pro-business or anti-regulation. Rather, it means returning to core truths about the nature of the human spirit and the dignity of work and thinking about how these can best be promoted for the least among us.

As part of that, Samuel Gregg reminds us, we must remember Novak’s admonition that a free economy and constitutional democracy require “a culture that underscored the reality of moral truth and that held up, as the founders did, virtue and human flourishing as the goal of freedom.” Liberty allows economic actors to exercise and cultivate virtue.

Family and Civil Society

For Novak, economic liberty is not an absolute goal, but an important component in a society that allows its members to grow and flourish. As Samuel Gregg puts it, Novak argues that a free and virtuous society has “three legs: a free economy, a virtuous citizenry, and a political system grounded in accountability and responsibility.” By that standard, Gregg points out, the US is not looking good:

We have not so much a free economy as we have managerial, in some cases crony, capitalism; we have a citizenry that largely does not see or want to know about the happiness found in freely choosing to live in the truth; and we have a political system in which accountability and responsibility are increasingly voided and avoided.

Where are we to look for a solution? One possibility is to focus on large-scale solutions: government programs implemented at a distance to bring about greater material welfare. Historically, the results of those efforts have been a great lesson in unintended consequences. Instead of raising the American underclass out of its plight, they further entrenched it there. Figures such as Novak recognize that this was because poverty is not only about material wealth but about moral and social wealth. Communities don’t just need economic assistance. They need to cultivate values that will allow them to flourish. Any economic assistance that hurts the cultivation and transmission of such values will do much more harm than good.

This leads Novak and other figures to focus on civil society or the “mediating structures” that exist between the person and the state. These include churches, businesses, charities, unions or guilds, and non-profits such as the Boy Scouts. But the mediating structure in which values are first cultivated and transmitted is the family. Brian Anderson captures the core of Novak’s argument:

As Novak argues, it is in the families and communities of civil society that the moral life takes form and people learn about duties and personal responsibility, not just rights and self-interest and entitlement. . . . it is primarily in the family that we become self-governing—self-policing—citizens.

In other words, the family is the fundamental unit of society. It must be protected and strengthened by other parts of society so that it can help individuals and society as a whole to flourish.

Civil society has an enormous potential to build networks of growth from the ground up. It does not exist to serve the state; on the contrary, Novak argues, the state exists to serve it. Furthermore, the family is not only a place where moral capital is accrued, but also where financial capital begins. Many get their first jobs from parents, uncles and aunts, and members of their churches. Those who are serious about helping the poor need to take account of the moral ecology required for human flourishing and the structures that maintain it.

Divine, Cosmic, and Personal Charity

One other theme stands out in An American and Catholic Life: charity. In her essay, Elizabeth Shaw describes charity as not only the “pure and perfectly gratuitous love of God” but also, in Novak’s words, our “partial, fitful, hesitant, and imperfect” participation in that love.

The application of charity to the social order is what Novak calls the caritopolis, the civilization of love. A civilization of love recognizes that material things, the state, civil society, and the free market can be good in their own rights, but not absolute goods. Rather, they should be ordered to help members of society attain their highest good: union with God, who is love itself and the source of all that exists.

The caritopolis is not sentimental but realistic, especially about the failings of the human beings who comprise it. As Shaw puts it, “the Civilization of Love takes the best, most proactive approach to the fallen human condition, and indeed it exists precisely to confront and correct these shortcomings.” It also recognizes that human beings are social creatures. Respect for the dignity of the human person and the indispensability of human solidarity help form the foundation of a just and loving society.

Although the characteristics of caritopolis are universal, each society will manifest them in its own ways. Novak emphasizes “the right of societies to maintain their own unique character, the integrity of their own culture, and the historical source of their own spiritual unity.” This right must be balanced by a “cultural humility,” which recognizes that no culture possesses the truth completely but all stand under the judgment of truth. That in turn requires an understanding that the truth exists, that it can be attained, and that it can make demands on those who find it.

Where We Go from Here

In a sense, Novak and his vision of the caritopolis won their first big argument. Liberal democracy and the free economy triumphed in the Cold War. But the ground for the debates in which Novak engaged has shifted. We now wonder how to maintain a free economy, robust civil society, and the subjectivity of society in the face of the consumerism and cronyism that plague global capitalism. Samuel Gregg and others have sought to address these questions by building on Novak’s arguments. But Patrick Deneen, David Schindler, and others have argued that there are deeper problems with Novak’s thought, in particular his argument that the liberal philosophy undergirding the American founding can be reconciled with Catholicism.

In the afterward to An American and Catholic Life, Novak offers a rejoinder to these critics. He argues that certain liberal institutions are among the goods of the American founding, including “trial by jury; religious freedom; the separation of governmental powers; the division as well as the interdependence of the three great systems of a free society, the political system, the economic system, and the moral-cultural system; freedom of the press . . . .” But, he continues, “liberalism as a philosophy is unable to account for these institutions, is peculiarly vulnerable to relativism and authoritarianism, and is chiefly responsible for undermining the liberal institutions that we cherish.” Schindler and Deneen join many secular liberals when they think that liberal philosophy can explain the American founding. Instead, Novak thinks that “our philosophy lags behind our living.” Instead of condemning America to its root, we should conserve its best institutions by joining them to the non-liberal theological and philosophical principles by which we have lived.

However, our philosophy is conquering our living. The task now facing those who follow Novak is how to conserve and ground the goods of democratic capitalism in the face of undemocratic corporations, political parties, and slanderous internet commentators. The solution is not to blame free markets tout court. Rather, we should fight what undermines the moral ecology required for free societies, and free markets.

This will not be easy work. But the example of Novak’s life and the tenor in which he has engaged so many controversies provide another important lesson. Novak treats his intellectual opponents with a rare—and regularly unreciprocated—amount of charity, respect, and good humor. Throughout his debates in the public square, Michael Novak has lived out the charity, breadth of knowledge, and openness rooted in the truth that he preaches. We should do no less.

Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.


Ave Maria Publishes Book of Essays Honoring Michael Novak’s Legacy

Book Honoring Legacy of Michael Novak  Published by Ave Maria University on January 26, 2015 In September 2013, the Ave Maria community celebrated the life and work of Michael Novak on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. The weekend was full of memorable events, including an evening of live entertainment and a daylong conference recognizing the many achievements of the former U.S. ambassador. Friends, family and colleagues flew in from around the country to honor this great man. Sapientia Press, the academic publishing house of Ave Maria University, is releasing a compilation of the essays delivered at the conference. The collection, entitled An American and Catholic Life: Essays Dedicated to Michael Novak (2015), is edited by Elizabeth C. Shaw, a professor at the Catholic University of America and Novak’s research assistant since 2009. Those who spoke at the conference were:

◦Brian Anderson, Editor, City Journal: “Novak on Civil Society” ◦Fr. Derek Cross, The Oratory of St. Philip Neri, Toronto: “Aristotle, Newman, and Novak” ◦Rabbi David Dalin, Professor of History and Politics, Ave Maria University: “Novak on Religion and the Founders” ◦Mary Eberstadt, Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center, “Recollections of Karen and Michael Novak” ◦Samuel Gregg, Director of Research, Acton Institute, “Novak on the Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” ◦Michael Pakaluk, Professor of Philosophy, Ave Maria University, “Novak on American Exceptionalism” ◦Michael Waldstein, Max Seckler Professor of Theology, Ave Maria University, “Novak on Charity” ◦Keynote Speaker: George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center

  The collection of essays, An American and Catholic Life: Essays Dedicated to Michael Novak, is available at

Michael Novak's Moral Compass

Published by Mark Michalski on September 4, 2014 in Real Clear Religion



When Michael Novak was writing The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, I was fortunate to have worked as his assistant. I still remember very vividly, when Michael would emphasize the need to think clearly. He liked to put a twist on Jacques Maritain's famous dictum: "you must distinguish in order to discern."


Michael's magnum opus was published in 1982 and quickly became a bestseller, and quite distinguished.


When he worked for political candidates, Michael coined some great phrases, or sound bites, such as: "enlightened self-interest" and "New Frontier." Working on an ethos of a modern, democratic capitalism, he has not only refined the concept, but he recognized the critical role of the entrepreneur, the concepts of risk and reward, ethics and trust (he claimed: "bad people would make bad capitalists").


He introduced first the positive notion of "enlightened self-interest, in contrast to that of Adam Smith's sheer or brute "self-interest." Also, reading all of Pope John Paul II's ideas contributed immensely to the final shape of his grand book. Novak always sought diversity of views and opinions. During his three decade-long tenure at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), he started monthly discussions on current socio-economic, cultural, and philosophical issues. He invited leading experts in their field. He liked to have an agora -- or a market place -- for new ideas that brought about great debates. These discussions provided fertile ground for his creative writing.


His most recent book, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative is more than an honest memoir -- it is a story of transformation. Michael journeyed from a radical left-wing socialist in the 1960s to an architect of neoconservative movement of the 1980s. Some might compare his biography to Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain for its insights and spiritual values. In his vivid and splendid narrative, Novak takes hold of a turbulent economic and spiritual era in the United States in which Novak explores the complex events of the 20th century -- forging into the new third millennium. "At eighty, I look back over the events I have witnessed," Novak writes, "and I revisit the lessons I learned the hard way. Events and facts forced me to change my mind about ideas with which my education imbued me."


With great honesty, humor, and humility Michael Novak shares his fascinating stories of a long and active life. Novak's passion, gentle joy and zest for life is impressive. His biography proclaims that we all could and should discover in this life something deeper and divine, something wonderful, even in daily, ordinary events -- only after we become fully engaged in it.


Michael Novak has been a theologian, philanthropist, and activist throughout his long life. But, ultimately, he has remained a great writer, teacher, theologian, and philosopher. Through his experiences, his humble beginnings and sensitive, poetic soul, he describes and explains the socio-economic, political and cultural marvels of our contemporary world. He taught at America's best universities (Harvard, Stanford), worked for some of the most respected politicians (Kennedys, Reagan) and became close friends with the most charismatic leaders (Thatcher, John Paul II). He represented the country at Geneva and Bern peace negotiations with the Soviet Union, working on his guiding passions -- fighting poverty and advocating for human rights -- through writing on virtues of market economy and enlightened democratic capitalism. In his eloquent and enthusiastic memoir, one cannot help but see a man of powerful mind, moral courage, and strong convictions well worth adopting and emulating for a good life.


"My dream was to write about the philosophy, the theology of American culture -- and not because it was American, but because there was something different here and unique," Novak writes. "It belonged to the whole human race, but we were pioneering it."


Michael Novak entered academic life after 12 years of preparing for the priesthood. He left the seminary just months before his scheduled ordination. He moved to the more radical political left while teaching at Stanford University, where he was voted "the most influential professor." He came to Robert Kennedy's attention during his 1968 run for the presidency, and worked on Kennedy's campaign. "I loved working for the Kennedys, even though I didn't appreciate at the time the Kennedys' personal life. No one said anything in those days."


He left Stanford for a new Experimental College of the State University of New York on Long Island. It was there, among "some real whacko students and some real whacko faculty" that his political right turn began. "I was radical, but they were destructive," he explained. "I supported very strongly the War on Poverty," he said, "and then it just went belly up. Crime went up 600 percent. Marriages fell apart at unprecedented rates. Marriages didn't even form. And I thought, 'This is crazy I can't keep supporting that.' So I became more conservative."


Through intense debates, experience and study, he came to adopt conservative economics. After studying the "Austrian School" of economics (Friedrich von Hayek, J.A. Schumpeter, and C. Menger), he perceived that a free-growth economy benefited not only the entrepreneurs, but the general population. In the 1970s and '80s, he became a strong supply-sider and Ronald Reagan supporter. "It just seemed to me that the 'preferential option for the poor' was just a disguised way of saying more government funds to give to the poor and keep them dependent. Keep them like on a plantation. Keep them like Animal Farm."


Changing slowly from left to right, Novak points out how he came to see the essential truths of life -- fighting poverty, advocating for human rights -- as better served by an enlightened capitalism and by democratic politics than any alternative social order, especially a heavy hand of the state-run enterprise. His conversion cost him some friends, who remained on the Left.


Novak: "I witnessed with my own eyes the almost immediate results of the switch from Carter's economic policies to Reaganomics. Entrepreneurship not only expanded dramatically, it boomed. Reagan's incentive tax with business friendly regulatory regime gave rise to numerous small businesses, with employment soaring. The favorable climate suddenly propelled both creative innovations with the emergence of new, high technologies." Novak's influence and recognition rose as well. So much so that, although his impressive writing continued, and he took yet on another career, that of a diplomat, an ambassador, negotiating with Russians on behalf of President Reagan, and later also for President Clinton.


Writing as if to a very close friend, Michael Novak shows how Providence placed him in the middle of many crucial events of his time: a month in wartime Vietnam, the student riots of the 1960s, the Reagan revolution, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Bill Clinton's welfare reform, and the struggles for human rights in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also spent fascinating times, with inspiring leaders like Sargent Shriver, Bobby Kennedy, George McGovern, Jack Kemp, Václav Havel, President Reagan, Lady Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II, who helped shape -- and reshape -- his political views.


Yet through it all, as Novak's sharply etched memoir shows, his focus on helping the poor and defending universal human rights remained constant. He gradually came to see building small businesses and free democracies as the only realistic way to build free societies. Without economic growth from the bottom up, democracies are not stable. Without protections for liberties of conscience and economic creativity, democracies will fail. Free societies need three liberties in one: economic liberty, political liberty, and liberty of spirit.


"The only way the poor will be lifted out of poverty is if they can start businesses that bring economic growth to the bottom," Novak argues. But culture, he writes, is more important than either politics or even economics. Culture, more than the hot-button issues of the day, is what touches every heart and stirs every soul. Especially in its moral and ethical dimensions, culture is what animates the decisions of many people. After all, is not the Creed but a profound cultural statement?


Novak invites readers to see life as it is and can only be seen after years of contemplation, reflection, and long cumulative experience. He invites us to examine life, to see the world anew, and share his delight in aging, with the wonders of growing in wisdom and accepting life's good and bad moments.


He concludes the book by describing the role he played in helping clarify certain points in the Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Centesimus Annus. "When it comes to life the critical thing," G.K. Chesterton said, "is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude." Michael's story of his fascinating journey of life -- epitomizes this Chestertonian attitude of gratitude and wonderment.


Perhaps this is why Michael Novak's writing is so wonderful. Throughout this warm, witty memoir, he comes across as the happy human being, a magnanimous man interested in truth. Searching for the best in people, acknowledging it without regard to political affiliation -- and he teaches us do the same.


Michael Novak's journey from left to right can help us find our own moral compass in an increasingly complex, global world.



Mark M. Michalski, PhD lectures on international marketing at the Catholic University of America and management and business ethics at the University of Maryland University College.