Last night Professor Robbie George of Princeton University appeared on a panel discussing social justice on Glenn Beck’s television show. He offered the following comment about the confusion that’s often present in conversations about social justice:

In the Catholic tradition the concept of social justice has a long history, and an honorable history, and what it refers to is the fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of common life. But what has happened very often [is] … the concept has become corrupted and used as a pretext for advancing what is essentially a … socialist agenda. So I think Catholics have to understand that when you or when we are criticizing “social justice” we don’t mean it in the honorable sense in which it has been used in our tradition. We mean it in the corrupted sense that some people, not all people, use it.

Catholic thinker Michael Novak has expanded on the best way to pursue the kind of society that Professor George mentions. In a lecture at The Heritage Foundation last year, Novak discussed social justice in terms of “exercising the elementary skills of civil society.” Only through exercising the virtues of cooperation and association, says Novak, can citizens work together for ends that benefit the whole community.

To bring further clarity to an often confusing conversation, The Heritage Foundation has carefully laid out the proper role of civil society institutions and government in an innovative new resource called Seek Social Justice: Transforming Lives in Need. This six-lesson DVD and small group guide provides a framework for understanding the roots of human need and social breakdown. Viewers are introduced to real-world examples of families, churches, and businesses helping lift people out of poverty and transform their lives. Seek Social Justice can be viewed in its entirety, or ordered for the cost of shipping and handling, at

While the phrase “social justice” has been used in different ways to mean different things, there is an approach to helping people in need that is tried and true: people joining together freely in local groups and organizations to care for those in their community. Government should protect these groups—not try to replace them. A truly just society depends on the local, personal, relational ties that bind its members together.