All Commentary
Sunday, December 1, 1985

Book Review: Freedom with Justice: Catholic Social Thought and Liberal Institutions by Michael Novak


(Harper & Row, San Francisco), 1984 • 253 pages • $17.95 cloth)

No defender of liberty can regard with equanimity the abhorrence of the free market in a free and open society displayed by many mainstream church bodies and leaders. All such defenders of liberty are therefore indebted to Michael Novak for his volume, Freedom With Jus-

tice. While the work is self-contained, it usefully supplements Novak’s influential earlier work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,’ indeed, men and women committed to economic and political freedom, and anxious to promote a creative interchange of viewpoints with clerical opponents of these freedoms, would do well to have both volumes on their bookshelves.

Part I of Freedom With Justice explores the relationship between economics and religion, examines the tension between classical liberalism and Catholic social ethics, and relates these analyses to two much discussed issues in contemporary Western democracies: first, poverty and welfare, and second, the creation of employment.

In Part II Novak proffers a detailed exposition of Catholic social ethics and a no less detailed analysis of the thought of John Stuart Mill, described as “a quintessential Liberal.” In the third and final section of his volume, Novak addresses “some of the problems with which Catholic social thought is bound to be wrestling during the rest of (the twentieth) century”—for example, the amelioration of poverty, the protection of human rights, and the fostering of a sense of identity which, in a large and complex society, cannot be mediated through “society as a whole.”

Novak presents his readers with an abundance of precise and detailed documentation. Moral issues which no defender of liberty can ignore, and moral insights which all such defenders can welcome, inform almost every chapter of the book. No thinking person—religious, nonreligious, or antireligious; socialist, libertarian, or conservative—could responsibly shrug off the case Novak develops.

It is, however, unlikely that any reader of the work would agree with Novak’s stance in toto. Statist readers will be dismayed by Novak’s challenging of their dogmas. This reviewer found Novak’s analysis of human rights impressionistic, his defense of a “safety-net” welfare system unconvincing, and his surprisingly naive trust in “limited” interventionism incomprehensible. Contemporary reformulations of classical liberalism—for example, that developed by Robert Nozick—are, unfortunately, not discussed.

Novak issues a challenge to pro-socialist clerics, and provides defenders of liberty with ample ammunition to take the fight to local church communities. Agnostics might enjoy startling their neighbors by purchasing several copies of Freedom With Justice and presenting them as Christmas gifts to their community’s clerics! But all readers of The Freeman—religious or nonreligious—would do well carefully to study this volume.


  • The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE from April to October of this year.