Michael Novak’s recently-released book Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, co-written with longtime professor of social work Paul Adams, is an attempt to reclaim the banner of “social justice” from those who use it as a synonym for “a progressive policy I find desirable.” It’s a welcome corrective for them and for those who, following Friedrich Hayek, call the concept a “mirage.”

Novak seeks to rediscover the history and true meaning of “social justice” in the Catholic tradition, where the term originated and has its richest development. Drawing on philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, he critiques the emptiness of its contemporary usage, in which it can mean just about anything. “Under relativism, social justice loses all meaning,” says Novak, and it “can sometimes mask moral imperialism.” Recent scenes from New Haven, Princeton, and Columbia, Mo., would seem to bear that out.

A Habit of Free Persons

Without an authentic definition, how are we to even to classify it? Is it a theory? A vision? A policy agenda? None of the above, Novak writes. Social justice, rightly understood, “is in fact a virtue of individual persons.” It’s an individual virtue expressed socially, found in the voluntary associations lauded by Tocqueville. It is a “habit of the heart,” lived out in “free persons in their free associations, achieving the common good together.”

This definition has the advantage of placing a premium on individual agency, rather than blaming injustice on corrupt “systems.” But this stripped-down definition marginalizes the phrase’s prophetic, political edge evident even in his quotations from Pope Leo XIII, not to mention the writings of our current pontiff.

As a longtime leader in the effort to marry economic conservatism and Catholicism, Novak relies heavily on the work of Pope John Paul II and takes pains to minimize any statements that critique market-driven economies. Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on “Charity in Truth” is “not nearly so full in its veritas as in its caritas,” Novak jabs.

Novak argues that capitalism, for all its faults, “deserves gratitude for what it does,” and is more able to help the poor than any other economic system. The best way to bring about a true preferential option for the poor, he says, is through capitalism’s encouragement of creativity and entrepreneurship.

The argument is weakened by the authors’ attempt to downplay the real tensions between the social and economic strains of conservatism. Capitalism presupposes social capital, as Novak agrees. But what happens when it begins to deplete the social capital, to cannibalize the virtues and foundations that are the source of stability and social cohesion? When it comes to the accelerating breakdown of the family, negligent public policy has been a culprit, but big business certainly hasn’t helped.

If the family is the bedrock of society, and capitalism the best means of advancing society’s material welfare, pro-business conservatives should take great pains to support families, even at the expense of profits or efficiency. Novak acknowledges the need for “a modified version of the welfare state…in a large, continental, and mobile society such as the United States.” But at the same time, he worries that generous social welfare benefits could trap low-income families in the “honey pot” of dependency.

Mentioning corporations’ stingy maternity leave policies and unbalanced work-life expectations should be enough to illuminate the wide gap between capitalism and social conservatives in twenty-first century America. Last April’s contretemps in Indiana, when big business swooped in to press a reversal on a religious liberty law in favor of same-sex marriage, is even more vivid proof.

More Than a Personal Virtue

The last third of the book, written by Adams, starts with a full-throated defense of marriage, the decline of which is “the cardinal social injustice of our time.” He criticizes professional social workers for abandoning the idea of their trade as a virtue-based profession for one that forces social workers who defend traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality to undergo “values clarification training.”

A profession that was once criticized for being too disorganized has become too bureaucratized, Adams explains, with some Catholic Charities agencies acting more as arms of the state than authentic examples of the caritas of the Christian tradition. Like Novak, Adams decries “social justice” being used to turn the focus of social work from client self-empowerment to expanding and glamorizing the welfare state. Instead, he argues, our approach to ending poverty should be based in helping individuals feel a sense of autonomy through subsidiarity-based approaches to strengthen communities and families.

The examples of small-scale solutions he proposes have merit, and conservatives should champion bottom-up approaches. But the market-based global economy that tends towards homogenization and centralization would seem to stymie efforts to the sort of localized trial and error it would require. Pope Francis spoke about this during his speech at Independence Hall during his visit to the United States.: “If a certain kind of globalization claims to make everyone uniform, to level everyone out, that globalization destroys the rich gifts and uniqueness of each person and each people.”

One wouldn’t expect Novak and Adams to champion Francis’ anti-capitalist tendencies. But the book draws so heavily from a Polish pope writing as part of a global struggle against communism that it comes across—wittingly or no—as the in-house counsel for those who would argue vox commercio, vox Dei.

Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is is a serious, needed effort to resurrect a term that has been inflated beyond any real meaning. But their argument is weakened by their attempt to downplay the real tensions between the social and economic strains of conservatism. Ultimately, their new definition could be easily used to excuse or cover up unjust corporate or social practices by marginalizing social justice as solely a personal virtue.

Between the heresies of collectivism and individualism lie acres of unexplored territory that theologians and economists must continue to refine and discover. Novak’s attempt to rescue an authentic definition of “social justice” from a list of progressive public policy prescriptions deserves praise. But if social justice is surely not what campus warriors think it is, it’s not quite what Michael Novak thinks it is, either.

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) writes from Princeton, New Jersey. His writing has appeared in First Things, The Washington Times, and Public Discourse.