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  • Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is by Michael Novak & Paul Adams with Elizabeth Shaw
  • John Francis Burke
Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is. By Michael Novak & Paul Adams with Elizabeth Shaw. New York: Encounter Books, 2015. 336 pp. $27.99.

Without a doubt, the most notable name in articulating a free-market version of Catholic social teaching in the United States over the past three decades has been Michael Novak. In this volume, Novak with Paul Adams, a social work scholar at the University of Hawaii, recasts social justice as a virtue to be practiced and Adams then makes applications to the practice of social work. [End Page 80]

Novak and Adams seek to promote a nonpartisan articulation of Catholic social teaching and specifically, one that moves beyond such binaries as conscience v. social justice, individualism v. collectivism, charity v. justice, informal associations v. state-run programs, and subsidiarity v. solidarity. Unfortunately, Novak’s reflections over the first two thirds of this volume still sides with the first term in each of these binaries. He repeats his longstanding insistence that the economic, political, and cultural spheres of life need to be in organic balance and that too much government squelches intermediate associations and suppress the creativity that emerges in private-sector initiatives.

As much as Catholic social teaching since Vatican II emphasizes structural sin, Novak counters that social justice is a personal virtue to be cultivated and realized in association with others. Frederick Hayek’s activism in intermediate associations, Abraham Lincoln’s defense of invention through patents, Pope John Paul II’s articulation of a collaborative capitalist democracy, and Niebuhr’s critique of utopian thinking Novak cites as emblematic of this undertaking. Curiously, only one of these four figures is Catholic. In turn, Novak praises Pope Francis’s critique of Latin American crony capitalism, but he does not let Pope Francis speak in his own terms as much as he does Pope John Paul II. Still, Novak’s narrative provides a valuable counterpoint to more structurally focused texts such as Daniel Groody’s Globalization, Spirituality, and Justice and J. Milburn Thompson’s Catholic Social Thought.

In the final third of the volume, which could be used in a stand-alone fashion, Adams provides very incisive reflections on the challenges faced by social workers trying to pursue their work with a sense of caritas: 1) conflicts between the consciences of social workers vis-à-vis coercive government norms, 2) virtue-centered practices necessary to sustain marriages and families, and 3) collaborative grassroots initiatives such as the Grameen Bank, the Patch social work model, and Family Group Conferencing. Adams’s arguments are quite valuable for curricula dealing with the ethics and norms in nonprofit [End Page 81] administration, public administration, business administration, and church management.

Overall, as much as Novak contends (and Adams implicitly) that Catholic commentators render social justice as a “social regulative principle, and ignore the virtue,” Novak and Adams do just the opposite – reduce social justice to the cultivation of virtue (91). At a plenary political science conference talk in 1993, the political scientist, Theodore Lowi, indicated he had read Novak’s rendering of Centesimus Annus as stressing how much personal creativity and initiative are essential for capitalism to realize a common good. Lowi then paused and exclaimed: “what nonsense, capitalism is about greed.” Novak, in this volume, is much better at pointing out the problem of envy generated in state-run or socialist schemes, than he is about pointing at the temptation of greed which is generated in capitalism. Instead, Catholic scholars and practitioners need to seek and articulate a common good that deals with both envy and greed through virtue formation in tandem with critical engagement of social structures.

On the other hand, Novak’s and Adams’s emphasis on the importance of prayer and liturgical practices, manifested in works such as Dorothy Day’s The Duty of Delight, for sustaining social justice engagement is valuable. Especially institutions and programs dedicated to heart-felt engagements of social justice would do well to heed this prayer-full insight. Ultimately, as much as Novak seems incapable of understanding the insights of the...


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