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Recovering the historical roots, true meaning of “social justice”

A review of Thomas Behr’s Social Justice and Subsidiarity, which explores the work of Luigi Taparelli, a Catholic thinker who advocated an approach to politics based in Thomistic natural law argument.

What can Catholic social thought tell us about how to order our political and economic relationships?

Ever since at least Quanta Cura (1864) and Rerum Novarum (1891), Catholic social teaching has been reacting to and commenting on the “revolutions” that the world has been undergoing, from industrialization to globalization to the rise of finance capitalism and the consumer society. These topics have taken on increased urgency in light of the populist movements sweeping Europe and the United States, which are forcing a reconsideration of the liberal order, at least as it has existed for the last half-century. The current pandemic has only intensified the urgency of these questions.

But the English-speaking Catholic world has been somewhat at a disadvantage in these debates. Much of the work surrounding the nineteenth-century social encyclicals is not in English and is hard to find. But terms such as “social justice” and “subsidiarity” have a history, and Thomas Behr recounts part of that history in his important book on Luigi Taparelli, a Catholic thinker who advocated an approach to politics based in Thomistic natural law argument. “Taparelli was the first Catholic theorist to explore the relationships between natural right and subjective rights,” writes Behr, “identifying the origin of the latter in the moral compunction resulting from the former, as applied in concrete social reality.”

Taparelli (1793-1862), an Italian Jesuit, was a co-founder of the Vatican newspaper Civiltá Cattolica and the influence of his work is evident throughout the papal social encyclicals, including his elaborations of social justice and the principle of subsidiarity. His major work, the Theoretical Treatise of Natural Right Based on Fact, has never been translated into English.

Behr places Taparelli between the natural-rights thinkers including Hobbes and Locke on the one hand, and the theorists of democracy such as Tocqueville and Raymond Aron on the other. Looming, of course, in the background were the aftershocks of the French Revolution, just at its height when Taprelli was born and which inaugurated the rise of the secular state, hostile to religious belief. For Catholic social thought, the social contract theorists who divined absolute rights from a state of nature were mistaken.

The Catholic understanding of rights is different because it is based in a different understanding of the person. We do have rights from our nature as human beings, but Catholic thought sees rights as ordered to higher goods. Our entitlement to exercise our rights is bound not just by our historical circumstances and those of our particular society, but also by conscience and “the clarity and utility of a chosen action in relation to the pursuit of the highest good. … The more directly related it is to the highest good, the stronger the claim of right. That is why certain rights are ‘inalienable’ – they are ineluctable requirements of order, of the orientation of the intellect to truth, and of the striving of persons within society for the ultimate good.”

In other words, we have rights in order to do something, not simply to exercise those rights in whatever way we subjectively may wish and desire.

Thus, for Catholic social thought, the political community is not a place where we each enjoy our own individual political goods, protected by a “neutral” state to which we surrender our personal right to violence against others for infringing our rights in exchange for protection in those rights. Rather, “[s]ociety has as its purpose the perfection of the individuals who compose it, a purpose that is the common good of all associations, from the family to the state.”

The role of “associations” is crucial here, and Behr carefully examines Taparelli’s analysis of the concept of subsidiarity. Following Aristotle and Aquinas, Taparelli began with the fact that humans are social creatures. Taparelli was a critic of the “absolutist, centralizing, bureaucratizing modern state” and thought the defense of “lower” associations was both necessary and a part of a just political order. This kind of political structure would protect goods such as religious freedom and private property. But he worked those protections into what he called a “hypotactical society,” which has been rendered as “subsidiarity”.

Subsidiarity first appears in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931), and it means that more direct forms of association should handle matters within their authority, unless they cannot and must be escalated to a higher authority. This understanding is derived directly from Taparelli’s work and Behr explains how Taparelli saw all associations in a society, public and private, working together for a common good. This principle echoes both the “little platoons” of society described by Edmund Burke, and Tocqueville’s wonder at the varied democratic institutions he saw forming in America. These institutions at their best protect people against rampant individualism—since we have overlapping obligations to our various groups—and statism, since so much can be done at a local or private level. This is also how we should understand social justice, a term that Behr credits Taparelli with coining. It too is ordered to the common good, and empowers each citizen to use their own abilities to “freely exercise their natural rights for the good of each and for the common good of the whole … [and] to more fully pursue their material, moral, and spiritual perfection.”

The nineteenth century saw a number of European Catholic thinkers who worked to ponder and adapt Catholic teaching within modern industrial and political conditions. Behr has provided a welcome and sound introduction to one of the most important.

Social Justice and Solidarity: Luigi Taparelli and the Origins of Catholic Social Thought
By Thomas C. Behr
The Catholic University of America Press, 2019
Hardcover, 259 pages

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About Gerald J. Russello 8 Articles
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman ( and editor of two volumes of work by Christopher Dawson.


  1. Thus wrote Mahatma Gandhi: “The human voice can never reach the distance that is covered by the still small voice of conscience.”

  2. Misunderstanding of the development of the concept of social justice to counter the “new things” of socialism, modernism, and the New Age is pervasive in our day. Briefly, many people confuse the act of social justice with measures directed to the good of individuals, not the common good. The act of social justice is not, however, a substitute or supplement for individual justice or charity, but a corrective intended to restructure institutions to make it possible for the individual virtues to function so that individuals can meet their own needs through their own efforts.
    Having observed the damage done by mistakes in philosophy, politics, and theology by acceptance of the “new things,” Monsignor Luigi Aloysius Taparelli d’Azeglio, S.J. (1793-1862) developed a principle of social justice to correct the errors of the socialists, modernists, and New Age adherents. In 1840 he published Saggio Teoretico di Dritto Naturale — “The Theoretical Essay of Natural Law” — to explain his principle.
    Socialist “social justice” can be summarized as “the end justifies the means.” Even the principles of natural law, the capacity for which defines human beings as human beings, can — according to the New Christian prophet Henri de Saint-Simon — be set aside to achieve the goal of a better society.
    In contrast, in Taparelli’s principle of social justice, the end does not justify the means. Everything, even (or especially) social improvement and the general welfare, must be subordinate to the natural law as understood in Aristotelian-Thomism, i.e., in Catholic belief, to God. (Heinrich A. Rommen, The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy. Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1998, 45.)
    This, however, was not a true social ethics, but individual ethics with a good intention toward the common good. (Rev. William J. Ferree, Introduction to Social Justice. New York: The Paulist Press, 1948, 10.) What Taparelli developed was a new principle of social justice as an application of traditional virtues meant to benefit individuals directly, but with a general intention to benefit the whole of society indirectly.
    As Aristotle explained in the Nichomachean Ethics and the Politics, this is sound guidance for the bios politikos, the life of the individual citizen in the State. It does not, however, address specifically social problems, such as flaws in our institutions that inhibit or prevent the exercise of individual virtue.
    Most (if not all) of the confusion over social justice results from generations of scholars and advocates attempting to resolve the socialist and the Taparelli versions of social justice and synthesize a consistent definition. Obviously, however, a theory of social justice that says the natural law is subordinate to the will of the people (socialism), and one that says the will of the people is subordinate to the natural law (Taparelli) can never be reconciled. Any attempt to do so, or even define it in any meaningful way, can only result in contradiction.
    Essentially, Taparelli’s work did no more than restate traditional moral philosophy. As such, it was no more effective at countering socialism and the other new things than papal condemnations had been. Social justice remained, by and large, a euphemism for socialism, and people continued to be alienated from society at an accelerating rate.
    There are only two known Curial uses of the term social justice prior to the pontificate of Pius XI, and they were consistent with Taparelli’s notion of social justice as a principle applying individual virtues rather than a particular virtue directed to the common good. These were in 1894 in a reference to the demand for reparation when another is harmed (Acta Sanctae Sedis, 1894-1895, 131) and by St. Pius X in a 1904 encyclical when he stated St. Gregory the Great was a defender of social justice (Iucunda Sane, § 3).
    Pius XI’s achievement in moral philosophy was to identify “social justice” as a particular virtue with a defined act, not merely a principle as Taparelli did. (Rev. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., The Act of Social Justice. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1942, © 1943.)

  3. Thank you for such a specific and detailed comment and your brilliant, solid, historically based, conclusion: “Pius XI’s achievement in moral philosophy was to identify “social justice” as a particular virtue with a defined act, not merely a principle as Taparelli did”. I’ll take Pius XI, with boatloads of Holy Spirit Wisdom, over Taparelli’s “amazing” musings any day. When “social justice” is monstrously morphed from a particular virtue with a defined act into an overarching, suffocating, smothering, tyrannical “principle”, all bets are off and Hell’s Doors are open for business.

    Like the Church’s Wisdom has affirmed for so long, all you need to create a despicable vice is to take a virtue and push it as viciously hard as possible to the EXTREME. That’s why the first and foremost Social Justice Warrior is the one who said in Genesis: “You will be like gods!”, (Genesis 3:5). De facto, this fallen angel after being tested by the announcement of the Incarnation of Jesus, viciously flipped it to the EXTREME, from: “God will divinize you humans through Jesus” to “You humans will divinize yourselves!”. From a God of Endless Love to a god-of-endless-wrath, the latter which you can clearly see in the always tight, angry faces of SJW’s endless SELF-RIGHTEOUS WRATH.

    This Demonic Wrath disguised as ultimate “self-holiness” is the Ultimate Cosmic Drug, and has even affected in one way or another, more or less, our most recent Popes on from Paul VI (you know, the one who started to mention the “smoke of Satan” in the Church). Today’s ultra-popular Social Justice Warriors are 100% Demonic/Marxist based, whether they are fully aware of that or not. That smoke is now in the open, everywhere and we are being suffocated by it. Like cigarette smoke, it stains and stinks everything.

    True Catholic Social Justice will stand in ULTRA-SHARP contrast and TOTAL opposition to Demonic/Marxist “social justice”. Unless we are willing to engage in this most epic battle, with Jesus-God in the lead, there never will be a shadow of TRUE social justice for all in this world at this time or for our descendants. Jesus was very wiling to die for it. So WE must!! Justice without God is another definition for HELL. Justice with God is Heaven and very much worth dying for. No screaming on people’s faces, threats, judicial tyranny or Marxism is needed.

  4. The term social justice has been so distorted to accommodate political aims that it would best be disposed of. The founders of this country did a pretty fair job of trying to establish fairness in society without using the term. The overlooking of slavery was corrected ninety years later, again without resorting to such babble. The comprehensive term “justice” seems to serve quite well and would remove one more excuse for the control freaks to try to exercise their version of societal control.

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