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.”

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

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

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

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

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

But can this kind of social justice produce any social good? Yes, Paul Adams argues, in the book’s second half. Adams offers an exceptionally good example of how the free, creative coordination of social services with an aim to the common good can do real work:

On visiting a house to inspect for code violations, the housing inspector … found some frayed electrical wiring. In the past this would have been the extent of her professional concern. But she also noticed a single mother, new to the neighborhood, with several children and only one piece of furniture, a sofa. She reported this to the [locally based integrated services or “patch”] team, which sent out an MSW [master of social work] practicum student and a child-protective services worker to talk to the woman. They put her in touch with a local church which set her up with needed furniture, and they invited her to join a moms’ group that the team had initiated. Thanks to “a little help when needed,” what might have become in a few months a formal case of child neglect never became an official case at all.

Thus social justice is a virtue, not a preconceived state of affairs, and it works—but not by supplying coercive rhetoric to big government politicians. Social justice as a virtue promotes very real and helpful associations.

So far, so good. But the book makes stronger claims. Let’s consider two. First, “Hayek had derided ‘social justice’ wrongly understood, but then he turned around and put into practice what might be called ‘social justice rightly understood.’” This difference elicits the following exclamation: “A delicious irony in intellectual history!” This reviewer would ask: Is the book right to make Hayek the focus of a delicious irony?

Second, Novak and coauthors claim consistency with Catholic social teaching. A recent book by Patrick Burke provides the foil. “Working from a strong libertarian perspective,” Burke “sees social justice, rightly understood, as a personal virtue,” as Novak and company do, but “unlike us, he places blame for the term’s socialistic misuse squarely on the popes from Pius XI on[ward].” Declares Adams in the introduction: “In the name of justice, Burke’s book makes a decisive break with Catholic social teaching, whereas ours is consistent with it.”

Is it?

First, let’s talk about the delicious irony in intellectual history. Novak says Hayek “ripped to tatters the concept as it is usually deployed,” and he identifies three “diverse intellectual traditions: socialist, social democratic, or Catholic,” in which the term was or is used. For Novak to introduce (or reintroduce) a competing definition to that common understanding and call Hayek’s position ironic seems odd, at the very least. If there’s irony here, it’s not to be borne by Hayek, but by Novak. Hayek, the atheist, had to criticize some of the official social justice teachings of Novak’s church to help Novak formulate a better definition for that church.

To wit, “Hayek’s demolition of false understandings of social justice,” Novak writes, “was necessary before a better concept could come to light, a concept he himself lived out in practice before it could be thematized.” So it’s not that Hayek inadvertently adopted a concept he denied; instead, he demolished that concept to such an extent that those that want to keep the phrase (for whatever reason) have to do so with a different meaning.

Second, the book’s selective treatment of encyclicals leaves the question of its overall consistency with Catholic social teaching unanswered. Consider Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, an encyclical referenced only in passing, but a social justice love letter for Progressive Catholics. When discussing that encyclical, Novak writes:

I think it is best to recognize that Catholic social thought is not now—and maybe never should be—a fully coherent and consistent body of teaching, framed like a book of logic in ‘eternal’ principles. True enough, in Catholic circles more than in secular or Protestant circles, enormous care is taken to agree (or at least be consistent) with papal predecessors. Moreover, different factions among Catholics tend to pick the starting place that best fits with the argument they want to make. It is perhaps inevitable that those on the left like to emphasize Populorum Progressio, whereas those less state-inclined tend to find Centesimus Annus much more empirically minded and, on the whole, wiser.

But if Catholic social thought isn’t itself “fully coherent and consistent,” then competing definitions of social justice can be equally consistent with it but not with each other. That’s not a problem, to be sure, if the goal is simply to show consistency with select (and rival) documents. So long as they’re not mutually exclusive, a Progressive Catholic could add Novak’s rival formulation of social justice without abandoning the Progressive one: Let’s have state redistribution and individual virtue!

If that’s the case, then you don’t get Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is. You have, instead, Conservative Catholics Can Use the Language of Social Justice, Too—They Just Mean Something Different by It. Perhaps the authors would respond that a conservative Catholic conception of social justice is somehow more faithful to the rest of church teaching. If that’s the argument, it’s one their book doesn’t make.

And making this argument, frankly is an uphill battle. When the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses the virtues, the word “social” does not make an appearance, and Novak’s definition of “social justice” is eerily similar to the catechism’s definition of “justice.” That’s a problem for Novak, because the catechism separates what Novak unites. It offers specific thoughts about social justice, and the focus there is not on virtue but on societal conditions. Inequality, which plays no role in justice (or Novak’s social justice), comes to the forefront in the catechism’s social justice:

Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.

And that’s not even the low-hanging fruit for Progressive Catholics. In Laudato si’, perhaps published too late for consideration, Pope Francis questions those that believe “the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth,” lamenting their lack of “interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth.” Francis even says that “social peace . . . cannot be achieved without particular concern for distributive justice”—without it, he adds, “violence always ensues.” No justice, no peace!

Judged by its stated goals, I did not find Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is persuasive. But in other ways—especially Novak’s careful discussion of certain papal encyclicals—I found the book quite helpful. I also appreciated Novak’s refreshing candor:

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