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.

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

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.

Read More

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

What “Social Justice” Really Means

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.

Read More

Welcome to America, Pope Francis!

Patheos Blog

The first pope to visit the United States was Paul VI in October 1965, just before the close of Vatican II. Pope John Paul II during his long reign visited seven times. And Benedict came in 2008. So there is already a tradition of popes getting to know our country.

The history of famous Europeans writing their first reflections on America after their visits here is also extensive, including Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens, G. K. Chesterton, Jacques Maritain, and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber. The writings of many of these shrewd observers are quite brilliant.

By Eduardo Martín Schweitzer Benegas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Jacques Maritain, for example, came here with the typical European Catholic prejudices about America: that Americans are materialistic, that our system is based on pure self-interest and nothing else, and that we are supreme individualists with little sense of community. In his Reflections on America he analyzes with a philosopher’s shrewdness how and why these prejudices of his were shattered.So the writers in Rome preparing the longer speeches and briefer remarks of Pope Francis for his appearances in the United States during his upcoming  visit in September have a mound of past testimony from non-American points of view to work from.

They also have from such research institutes as Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate a good picture of the myriad institutions and national organizations built by American Catholics, especially during the last 200 years. Two hundred twenty-four colleges and universities, some 1,200 secondary schools, and almost 13,000 elementary schools. The Catholic Church in the United States has built the second largest hospital system in the world, with over 600 hospitals and approximately 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities around the nation.

Americans in Rome early discover that Vatican officials either do not know at all or pay little regard to this amazing panoply of institutions, built largely from the bottom up, through the efforts and funds of Catholic families and individuals themselves. Scores of thousands of missionaries from elsewhere have come (and keep coming) to help build the Catholic Church in America. In return, scores of thousands of American Catholic missionaries have labored (and some have died) in missionary service around the world.

The papal nuncio to the United States, a couple of decades ago, commented with amusement that America is heavily spiced, like a really good Italian sauce, with lots of energy and originality and turbulence to enliven any kind of pasta. Thus ours is not a bland national church, but peppery and alive.

Among my own favorite comments of a pope visiting the U.S. is that of John Paul II on the occasion of his visit to that great baseball stadium of the Baltimore Orioles, Camden Yards, in October 1995. There the pope reminded Americans of President Abraham Lincoln’s deeply troubling question at Gettysburg in 1863: whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal can long endure. The pope worried that “the Biblical wisdom which played so large a part in the founding of America” might “be excluded from public moral debate.” He further reminded us that “every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we would like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

Further, the pope encouraged Catholic parents and his brother bishops to guard the truth, “especially in view of the challenges posed by a materialistic culture and by a permissive mentality that reduces freedom to license.” He pictured Christian life in the United States as a constant intergenerational battle in which both the liberty and the liveliness of conscience are in danger of perishing.

Above all, St. John Paul the Great worried that “Americans would forget the Biblical wisdom which played such a formative part in the founding of your country.” And he asked searchingly, “Would not doing so mean that America’s founding documents no longer have any defining content, but are only the formal dressing of changing opinion?” Relativism, the pope knew, would totally undermine America’s founding ideas.


Pope Francis need not worry about criticizing Americans too severely. Any taxi driver in New York City will blame the country far more than the pope can imagine. Americans are constantly criticizing one another. We have schemes of perfection dancing in our heads, to which we want others to conform. That is what it means to be born within a Puritan heritage. Even our libertines chastise one another for not being libertine enough.

One thing I wish Pope Francis would not do, though, is repeat some of the sweeping rhetorical comments he has made until now. In the light of my own experience, some of these claims are simply not valid. For example, he has said more than once that the poor never get richer. But virtually all Americans come from families who began life poor, but under the challenges of a free and responsible society, ceased being poor after at most two generations. That is true of my own family. It is true of virtually every other family I know.

Our pope is already deeply beloved here in America. Not long ago I attended a meeting of devout Evangelical leaders. A generation back, virtually all the members of such a group would have described themselves as ardent anti-papists, and it would have been rare to hear any speak of a pope with respect. But at this conference, several were describing Francis as the best model of Jesus Christ anywhere on earth today.

On a quite different point of the cultural spectrum, many of the most anti-religious, even anti-Catholic, feminists and secularists seem unable to get enough of Francis in the media – the articles, interviews, questions, praise…. All wondering, what next.

Welcome to America, Pope Francis! We’re eager to hear what you have to say

The New Evangelization in Reverse?