Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is
By Michael Novak, Paul Adams

Social Justice

Isn't What You Think It is


What is social justice? For Friedrich Hayek, it was a mirage—a meaningless, ideological, incoherent, vacuous cliché. He believed the term should be avoided, abandoned, and allowed to die a natural death. For its proponents, social justice is a catchall term that can be used to justify any progressive-sounding government program. It endures because it venerates its champions and brands its opponents as supporters of social injustice, and thus as enemies of humankind. As an ideological marker, social justice always works best when it is not too sharply defined.

In Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, Michael Novak and Paul Adams seek to clarify the true meaning of social justice and to rescue it from its ideological captors. In examining figures ranging from Antonio Rosmini, Abraham Lincoln, and Hayek, to Popes Leo XIII, John Paul II, and Francis, the authors reveal that social justice is not a synonym for “progressive” government as we have come to believe. Rather, it is a virtue rooted in Catholic social teaching and developed as an alternative to the unchecked power of the state. Almost all social workers see themselves as progressives, not conservatives. Yet many of their “best practices” aim to empower families and local communities. They stress not individual or state, but the vast social space between them. Left and right surprisingly meet.

In this surprising reintroduction of its original intention, social justice represents an immensely powerful virtue for nurturing personal responsibility and building the human communities that can counter the widespread surrender to an ever-growing state.

Published: November 3, 2015


“I have read this book with real delight. Clear, profound, inspiring, and brilliant.”

Rocco Buttiglione
Italian Chamber of Deputies

“Adams and Novak write with compelling clarity and force. They make a rich contribution to our understanding of social justice and the policy implications that flow from it.”

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Philadelphia

“A profound treatise on a topic dear to the heart of political progressives and social work professionals. Those who have never given the meaning of social justice a second thought will be greatly rewarded with reflective insights and a new understanding. Those who think they know the meaning of social justice will be challenged to think again – and more deeply.”

Neil Gilbert
Chernin Professor of Social Welfare, University of California, Berkeley

“Elegantly, winsomely, and with telling examples, Adams and Novak show how Catholic Social Thought challenges conventional "liberal" and "conservative" approaches to social issues.  This is a terrific book for anyone who is prepared to look anew at the dilemmas facing a society that aspires to be both free and compassionate.”

Mary Ann Glendon
Professor of Law, Harvard University

“A distinctively caritas and catholic take on the concept of social justice that is rich in its originality, provocative, thoughtful in exposition, challenging us to transform our approach to social policy.”

John Braithwaite
Distinguished Professor, Australian National University

“This book presents an innovative vision of social justice as a preeminent, creative, and outgoing virtue deeply rooted in genuine Catholic social thought. It provides an indispensable guide for advancing the common good in a contemporary landscape plagued by a pervasive secularism and an extreme moral relativism.”

William C. Brennan
Professor, School of Social Work, Saint Louis University

“The challenge of writing about CST is that doing so expertly requires prodigious learning in not only the Catholic tradition, but also in so many contiguous fields – such as economics, politics, law, theology, philosophy. Thankfully, our authors are masters of their craft. And they have produced a marvelous restatement, and interpretation, of this important body of Church teaching.”

Gerard V. Bradley
Professor of Law, University of Notre Dame

“Before reading this book, I was suspicious of the phrase social justice. In Latin America, politicians and policy makers who use the social justice banner have committed many injustices. Acting supposedly on behalf of the general interest, the common good or the poor, government programs essentially concentrate power, bloat bureaucracies and often promote corruption. Adams and Novak surprised me when they distilled, from Catholic social thought and other sources, a definition centered on free individuals, as opposed to the Leviathan state. The Novak seal is evident because the definition emphasizes innovation, creativity and human flourishing. Here, social justice, like plain justice, is a virtue “that empowers individual persons to act for themselves, to exercise their inborn social creativity.” How much will societies improve when they embrace this paradigm of social justice instead of the statist conception?”

Carroll Rios de Rodriguez
Professor of Economics, Francisco Marroquín University, Guatemala

“Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is by Paul Adams and Michael Novak is a thoughtfully iconoclastic analysis and exposition of social justice as a virtue through the lens of Catholic social teaching – rejecting both individualism and collectivism and emphasizing the role of mediating social structures. Paul Adams, in particular, explores the application of social justice for Christians in professional social work. This book is an important resource for everyone interested in social justice and Christian practice.”

David A. Sherwood
Editor-in-Chief, Social Work & Christianity 

“No concept in ethical and political philosophy is more in need of clarification and critical analysis than that of “social justice.” This term is a relatively late arrival in Catholic vocabulary. Adams and Novak provide a careful, thorough analysis of the term and the ideas and approach that make it useful. They also explain the ease with which the term can be misused. This is a very welcome book, not to be missed by anyone at all concerned with public order and understanding.”

James V. Schall, S.J.
Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University

“Michael Novak and Paul Adams' new book places the important discussion of social justice squarely within the best scholarship of the Catholic intellectual tradition. By transcending ideological biases, reading and interpreting the pertinent encyclicals impartially, and avoiding all political agendas, this thought-provoking new book should be welcomed by both the left and the right because of its fair, balanced, and reasoned approach.”

John G. Trapani, Jr.
Professor of Philosophy, Walsh University

“The difficult and risky underground publication of Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in 1985 was widely circulated among the Polish democratic opposition and inspired many debates about how to shape the free Poland for which we fought. This new book will remind Poles of the breathtaking appearance of SDC 30 years ago. When small groups discussed with John Paul II Novak’s ideas, including those on social justice and others in the present volume, the pope several times said he considered Novak one of his best lay friends in the West. On those occasions when Novak was present, the pope listened with great attention.”

Rev. Maciej Zieba, OP
Author of “Papal Economics: The Catholic Church on Democratic Capitalism, from Rerum Novarum to Caritas in Veritate”

“Adams and Novak take on the hard task of defining social justice, which they identify as a personal virtue of a special modern type. Novak is unusually aware of abuses of the term by statists in former socialist lands like Slovakia, the country of his ancestors. Adams is especially good on the connection between charity and justice, and on the relation of marriage to both.  Here in Europe, this book does a great and original service.”

Juraj Kohutiar
Emeritus Director of International Affairs, Slovak Christian-Democratic Party, former anticommunist dissident and “Underground Church” activist

“I lived half of my life in Argentina, where the overwhelming majority adopted as a guiding policy principle a statist concept of social justice. I lived my other half in the United States, where many have practiced social justice as explained by Adams and Novak, building the institutions of a free and charitable society. Argentina was destroyed, the United States still has a chance. This immensely valuable book provides rich foundations for those who love liberty, justice, and a social environment conducive to human flourishing.”

Alejandro Chafuen
President, Altas Network, and 2014 winner of the Walter Judd Freedom Award