On September 12, 2016, Michael Novak was awarded the prestigious Abraham Lincoln Literary Award by the Union League Club of New York City. The Lincoln Literary award, which was established in 1977 and last bestowed in 2007, is given to “outstanding American authors” – past recipients have included John Updike, Neil Simon, Tom Clancy, Garrison Keillor, Tom Wolfe, Michael Crichton, Stephen E. Ambrose, and James Michener, among many other illustrious writers.Read More
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.Read More
We normally encounter morals through the language of moral codes and commandments. Do this, Don’t do that. But it is much more illuminating to approach ethics and morals through stories and narratives. The reason narrative is more helpful than a code or set of commandments is that it brings into play imagination, manner, style, and even tonal quality. For example, the Commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother.” But the Commandment does not tell us in what manner, with what tone of voice, with what degree of gentleness and/or firmness, or whether with renewed devotion or simply by routine.Read More
The Johnstown native is working on a fictional book that is, in part, set against the backdrop of the May 31, 1889 flood. It tells the story of a young Slovak immigrant – a character based on his grandfather – who lived in the area at the time of the disaster. The plot then moves forward to the character's granddaughter working as a reporter in Europe, covering the fall of the Berlin Wall.Read More
One of Novak’s key themes is a reflection on the notion of “social justice.” He intends to rescue the concept from an ideological trap and tries to define it using four criteria: 1. It must be consistent with the tradition of the social teaching of the Church; 2. It must contain in itself the lead features of democracy and liberalism: the principle of representation and the rule of law; 3. It must stand up under the criticism of those who consider it logically inconsistent (Hayek); 4. It must be inclusive and non-partisan, making sure that everyone can contribute to the common good: local communities, nations, and the international community, both in the public and private spheres.Read More
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.
Copyright © 2013 EWTN News, Inc. All rights reserved.
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
What is Social Justice
By George J. Marlin on The Catholic Thing on February 20, 2016
The 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.
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.
What “Social Justice” Really Means
By Rev. James V. Schall in Crisis Magazine on December 17, 2015
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.
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.
As 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.