The Origins of Social Justice: Taparelli d’Azeglio - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Origins of Social Justice: Taparelli d’Azeglio

THOMAS PATRICK BURKE is President of the
Wynnewood Institute in Wynnewood, PA

“Social justice” has been mainly a religious
conception, in the sense that it
originated in religious circles, underwent a
large part of its conceptual development in
official statements of religious authorities,
and has been adopted most enthusiastically
by the members of religious organizations.
Since 1931 it has been part of the official
teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
Philosophers seem to have come to it late:
only since the publication of John Rawls’s
A Theory of Justice in 1971 does it appear
to have received much explicit attention
from them.2 Rawls’s theory, which
describes itself as a theory of social justice,
though it has occupied the center of the
philosophical stage since that time, represents
only one, idiosyncratic version of the
idea. The idea has had a history, which
has led it through numerous permutations
of meaning.

Originally, when the idea of “social justice”
was first developed in the 1840s, it
was a formal concept rather than a material
one. By this I mean the term was taken
to signify simply a branch of the ordinary
concept of justice, analogous to “commutative
justice” or “criminal justice,” and did
not imply any particular content, philosophy,
or view of the world. There could
be, and was, a conservative conception of
social justice, a liberal conception of it, and
a socialist conception of it, all equally entitled
to call themselves “social justice.” In
other words, the concept of social justice
was initially an extension of the existing,
traditional idea of justice into a new area,
that of society as a whole, so that it did
not require developing any content new
to the idea, but just new conditions for its
application. This is what we find with the
earliest users of the idea: Luigi Taparelli
d’Azeglio, the conservative who inaugurated
it, Antonio Rosmini, the classical
liberal who publicized it, and the English
Christian Socialists. Since the Second
World War, however, “social justice” has
come to mean something very different.
The socialist conception of it won out over
its rivals and gained solitary possession of
the field. The term now stands for a very
particular view of what is right and wrong
in society. It has become a material concept
rather than a formal one. My aim in
these pages is to begin to describe the process
by which the concept itself originally
came about. First it will be helpful to say
something about the historical circumstances
out of which it arose.

“Social justice” owes its origin as a distinct
concept3 (giustizia sociale) to the Italian
Risorgimento of the nineteenth century.
It was first used, to our knowledge, by
the Jesuit philosopher Luigi Taparelli
d’Azeglio in 18434 in the debates over the
beginnings of the Risorgimento’s effort
to unify the Italian peninsula politically.5
Despite its many dialects the peninsula had
long been recognized as a cultural unity,
a fact attested to, among other things,
by the 1523 founding of the Accademia
della Crusca in Florence, whose mission
was to study the vocabulary of the entire
peninsula. But in 1840 the territory was
divided between a number of different
powers, including Austria, which held the
north, Piedmont in the northwest, the Papal
States across the middle, and the kingdom
of Naples. Napoleon, however, had occupied
the entire mainland, and, although
he divided it up into a number of republics,
which he subsequently converted into
“kingdoms,” he named one of them the
“Kingdom of Italy” and treated the peninsula
in some respects as an administrative
unity. For example, the Code Napoleon
was introduced everywhere. After Napoleon’s
fall, the Congress of Vienna in 1815
largely restored the earlier political entities
that had preceded Napoleon. But Napoleon
had left behind him the vision of a
unified Italy, which in the wave of romantic
nationalism that swept Europe in the
nineteenth century possessed great inspirational
power, especially for the educated
and liberal middle classes. It was not long
before agitation began with the aim of
bringing about unification. Revolutionary
movements such as the Carbonari sprang
up throughout the territory, but soon
failed. In January 1848, revolution broke
out in Sicily, leading to war between Piedmont,
which aimed at unification, and
Austria, which successfully resisted it.
Eventually, through Cavour’s efforts in
Piedmont, Garibaldi’s in the south, and
others’, the unified Kingdom of Italy was
established in 1870.

This project of unifying Italy, drawn out
over several decades, produced fierce debate
about fundamental questions of political
and philosophical theory. On what foundation
does the state rest? What is the origin
of its power? By what right does anyone
possess the authority to govern others? Is
political authority created simply by military
power and received by inheritance
or conferred by a contract, as Locke had
argued? Unification was a liberal project,
for the aim of most of its supporters was to
sweep away the existing powers, still essentially
feudal and absolute, and replace them
with constitutional governments guaranteeing
personal liberties. But nationalism
was a conservative emotion, and associated
with the debate over unification were
other debates over whether the new form
of government should be federal or centralized,
a republic or a monarchy, and
here also there was room for conservatism.

Catholic opinion was conservative,
especially under Pope Gregory XVI (r.
1831–46), and explicitly condemned both
liberalism and democracy. Until the American
Civil War and the Emancipation
Proclamation, for example, Catholics generally
supported the institution of slavery
in principle, since it seemed to have been
accepted by St. Paul in the New Testament.
Gregory’s successor, Pius IX, however,
initially looked upon liberalism and
democracy more favorably.

During the events of 1848–49 many
of the Italian states obtained constitutions
from their sovereigns. These were uniformly
modeled on the French constituion
of 1789. Like their model, however, they
proved to be unstable. This was the immediate
context that gave birth to the concept
of “social justice.”

Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, S.J.

It is one of the ironies of history that the
quintessentially “liberal” idea of “social justice,”
as it was to become (in American terminology),
should have been originated by
an ardent conservative. Prospero (his baptismal
name) Taparelli was born in Turin
into an aristocratic but nationalistic family
that would play a prominent role in the
Risorgimento. His father, Cesare, Marquis
of Azeglio in the Piedmont, was a soldier
and devout Catholic who took his family to
Tuscany to escape Napoleon’s armies and
there published the nationalist newspaper
Amico d’Italia (Friend of Italy); his mother,
Cristina, the Countess Morozzo, was the
sister of Giuseppe Cardinal Morozzo. His
younger brother Massimo, after writing a
series of nationalistic novels, first turned
to politics as a nationalist pamphleteer and
later became premier of Piedmont; to this
day he remains an honored name in Italy.
Prospero’s cousin, Count Cesare Balbo,
published a book Delle speranze d’Italia (On
the Hopes of Italy), which aroused a strong
sense of Italian nationalism. 6

The young Prospero studied at first the
secular thinkers prominent at the time,
such as Condillac, famous for his sensationism,
a form of extreme empiricism,
and also for his advocacy of free trade, but
then discovered the French traditionalists
Lamennais, Bonald, and de Maistre. When
Pope Pius VII summoned the Society of
Jesus back into existence in 1814 (it had
been dissolved by Clement XIV in 1773),
Prospero joined it without delay, taking
the name Luigi in honor of St. Aloysius
(“Luigi” in Italian) Gonzaga. He was
ordained a priest in 1820, made rector of
the novitiate in Novara in 1822, then in
1824 of the Jesuit house of studies in Rome,
the Collegio Romano, later to become the
Gregorian University.

As a thinker his chief concern from the
first was with the state of political society,
which he wished to influence in a conservative
direction, especially towards the
preservation of papal authority, which was
then not only spiritual but also temporal,
since the popes ruled the Papal States. But
he realized that the intellectual reputation
of the Church at the time left much to be
desired and was a serious obstacle to its
effective influence. The Church needed a
philosophical renewal. In Novara his attention
had been directed to the medieval
Scholastics, in particular to the works of
St. Thomas Aquinas. In Rome he now
seized on Thomas as the key to intellectual
reform, and in 1827 and 1828 laid down a
curriculum for the Collegio Romano on
Thomistic lines.7 Through these writings
Taparelli became one of the originators
of neo-Scholasticism and neo-Thomism,
although he does not seem himself to have
studied Thomas very intensely. He subsequently
spent many years at the Vatican’s
journal Civiltà Cattolica, where one of his
collaborators, on whom he had much
influence, was Gioacchino Pecci, a former
student of his, who became Pope Leo XIII.
His 1879 encyclical, Aeterni Patris, canonized
Thomism as the official philosophy of
the Roman Catholic Church.

Taparelli’s aim, however, to which neo-
Thomism was meant to contribute, was
to develop a conservative and specifically
Catholic theory of society that would be
an alternative to the liberal and laissezfaire
theories of Locke and Adam Smith.
In 1833 he was transferred to Palermo
and remained there for sixteen years, during
which he wrote his principal work in
five volumes, Saggio teoretico di dritto naturale
appoggiato sul fatto (A Theoretical Treatise
on Natural Law Resting on Fact). The
phrase “sul fatto” gives perhaps the most
distinctive feature of his approach. The
Lockean idea that political authority arises
out of some kind of contract is absurd, he
argues, for such a thing has never actually
happened. The facts of history are that the
right to govern has been obtained through
the “natural superiority” of the ruler and
of the ruling class: through their superior
valor, knowledge, and wealth. This is the
actual system created by divine providence.
Whoever brings order into a society has
the right to rule it. By “order” I take him
to mean peace and the day-to-day administration
of justice.

Taparelli gives a parallel account of the
dominance of some countries over others.
Empires and hegemonies are created, not
by virtue of any contract, but through the
natural superiority of a race or a people
over others. This superiority establishes
its power directly or indirectly, creating a
hierarchy of relationships between the different
nations. It is a power independent
of particular wills, he remarks, and imposes
itself on individuals and peoples. In speaking
of this superiority as “natural,” Taparelli
means, not “nature” in the sense of a species,
for he considers that “all men are equal
in nature,” but that superiority of character,
knowledge, and wealth just mentioned.
Men are “unequal in their persons.”

The Creator has implanted in all men a
natural tendency to seek the supreme good
and therefore to seek the lesser goods that
lead to it. Men do this more effectively by
cooperating with one another, and therefore
it is God’s will that they should live
together in societies. But no society can
survive without some authority to establish
order. “A society cannot exist without
an authority that creates harmony in
it.” This has been true since the beginning
of human history. Therefore it is God’s
will that there should be “natural authority,”
the authority that naturally arises in
human society because some men are naturally
braver, more competent, more intelligent,
wealthier, or better endowed with
the qualities of leadership than others.

When a particular authority grows so
strong that it has no superior it attains to
sovereignty, and if it exists in a stable territory
it becomes a state. The right to govern
the state, as we have just noted, belongs to
the person who has established order in it.
This right is not given to him directly by
universal human nature, but is the result
of his personal qualities and achievements.
No one else has a true right to govern, and
all others in the society are therefore subject
to his rule:

Here in a few words is the theory of
social existence based upon the facts
of history, and likewise confirmed
by those facts. The existence of associations
of men united by nature,
equal to one another in their nature,
unequal in their persons, free in their
power of choice and therefore in
need of a principle of unity: these are
the chief facts of history to which we
have applied the universal principle
of duty. The results of this application
are that man needs always to be
governed, and so he is, in point of
fact; that he who governs is stronger
and at the same time possesses
authority, and so he actually is; that
subjects are not sovereigns, and in
point of fact they are not. . . . Compare
this theory of the facts of history
with the hypotheses of the social
contract where man is by nature free
but in fact is in chains; by right is sovereign
but in fact is a subject; creates
the society, but in fact is created by
it; confers authority, but in fact has
no part of that authority; has made a
pact, but did no negotiating; did it to
secure all his rights, and meanwhile
gave them away; believes every state
to be a republic, yet sees there are
monarchies; believes all men are
equal, yet sees everywhere a hierar
chy of classes; believes it gives consent,
yet sees things happen despite
it; believes it gives laws, yet sees that
it receives them. . . . Compare these
two doctrines, I say, and judge which
of them is true! 8

The liberal theories of society are nothing
more than theories, mere speculation. They
are not drawn from history and are insufficient to explain the realities of history.

Taparelli makes a distinction, which
was to become influential in Catholicism,
between “the large society,” the State, and
“the small societies,” the family and the
local organizations and authorities that men
create to further their local purposes. The
foundation of society is not the large society
but the small ones. The large society is built,
not from the top down but from the bottom
up out of the small ones. Therefore the large
society is in an important sense subordinate
to the small ones. Each of these smaller societies
has its own end, its own authority, its
own principles of action, and its own rights.
Like individuals generally, they have an obligation
to work together for the common
good. Each lesser society must preserve its
own inner unity without threatening that
of the whole; and every larger society must
maintain its unity without destroying the
unity of the lesser societies.

This teaching eventually gave rise to the
Catholic doctrine of the principle of subsidiarity,
i.e. that social functions that can
be performed adequately by local authorities
such as the family or the town should
be assigned to them, not to higher or more
remote authorities such as the national government.
It should be noted that this principle
is distinctly conservative, although it is
often not recognized as such.

Taparelli’s Conception
of Social Justice

Taparelli discusses justice and social justice
against the background of the French
Revolution of 1789 with its cry of equality
and brutal treatment of kings and aristocracies,
and also of the revolution of 1830
that installed Louis Philippe. The question
at issue for him, although Taparelli does
not formulate it precisely in these terms, is
something like this: how should a society
treat its traditional rulers? Is the existence
of an aristocracy unjust? For “distributive
justice governs public administrators in the
distribution of the offices ( funzioni) of the
society.” His answer is that social justice
requires us to accept inequality.

Justice, he argues, is the habitual inclination
to level or balance accounts. Distributive
justice equalizes proportions in
the common good. Social justice is justice
between man and man. But what proportions
exist between man and man? Considering
man in the abstract endowed
solely with the qualities of human nature,
between man and man the relationship
that exists is one of complete equality,
for “man and man” signifies here nothing
other than humanity replicated twice.
What proportionate equality could be
greater? Social justice should therefore
level all men in regard to the rights given
with their humanity, since the Creator has
equalized them by nature; man fulfills the
intentions of his Maker by acting according
to the norm of this justice.

But this is only half the picture in Taparelli’s
view. Actual men are not simply
instances of abstract human nature but
concrete individuals with particular qualities,
and on the level of their individuality
they are unequal. For social justice, their
social rights and duties, that fact is decisive:

But slow. Where is this abstract man,
this replicated humanity, the notion
of which has suggested to me the first
lineaments of social justice? If there
exist men associated with other men,
they always exist in the concrete, always
individuated, always endowed with
forces possessing definite qualities.
But when I consider men from this
new perspective, where is the equality?
Compare age with age, intelligence
with intelligence, strength with
strength, etc.; everything is disparity
between men: a disparity, furthermore,
that derives from nature, since
it is nature that forms the individual
as it does the species; or rather, let us
say nature forms individuals, man perceives
species. I conclude correctly,
then, that all individual human beings
are naturally unequal among themselves
in everything that pertains to their
individuality, just as they are naturally
equal in all that pertains to the species.
And so the activity of man will be just
when it is appropriate to the different
rights of those with whom one
is dealing. Everything in individuals is
inequality, even though the likeness of
their natures be total.

This individual inequality does not
contradict their equality of speciesnature,
for the qualities of the individual
in relation to those of the
species are an addition, and if you add
unequal quantities to equal ones, are
not the sums unequal? For example,
add to the species-property of man
the individuality of son, and you will
find it in regard to the father in a relationship
of debtor. For to be a son
means to have received one’s existence,
and to be a father means to
have given it. Now if the giver and the
receiver considered themselves only as
endowed with humanity, they would
be equal and they would not owe one
another anything reciprocally; but if
their accounts are to be in balance in
light of the fact that one of the two
in becoming an individual has received
from the other, this other has a right
to a repayment. Justice demands, then,
that the son render to the father an
equivalent of the existence he has
received from him.9

Not only does individual inequality
not contradict species-equality, but it is a
product of it. The demand that accounts
be balanced, and therefore that individual
differences be taken into account, comes
from their species-equality.

But why does justice demand that the
accounts be balanced? Precisely because the
equal humanity in both of them requires
the equalization as its right. The inequality
between the rights of the two individuals
we are considering, far from standing in
contrast to their species-equality, is rather
a necessary consequence of it. The speciesequality
is the basis of all their inequalities
as individuals, just as the one nature is the
basis of all the different individualities.

The consequence is that justice has very
different requirements for private goods
and common or social goods. In the one
case it requires a quantitative equality, but
not in the other.

If an individual receives so much
from another to whose goods he
had no previous right, he must
give as much in return if he wishes
to settle accounts according to justice.
Justice between equals consists
therefore in a quantitative balancing
or leveling; nor can justice be lessened
on one side by increasing the
other, since the right of the person
who gave extends precisely to the
thing he gave, neither more nor less.
Therefore this right is satisfied by an
equivalent. But suppose instead that
two or more individuals all seeking
a common good (many sailors,
for example, seeking to discover an
unknown land, or many associates
running a public educational establishment)
compete with one another
to obtain a preeminence or an office:
does the rule of justice require you
to balance accounts between the two
of them?10 But no, that is a ridiculous
thing even to say, impossible to
execute. But then what does equality
mean here? Equality consists here
in equalizing the office to the person’s
capacity, the recompense to the
merit, punishments to demerit, and
the real order to the ideal proportions
of means to end. And each person
should be content to make the
same contribution as every other to
the common purpose.

On the basis of this natural equality
and natural inequality, which represent in
his view indubitable facts of our historical
experience (the fatto of the subtitle of the
book), Taparelli considers it is possible to
give a valid account of the particular social
rights and duties that apply in particular
societies in a way that will show they arise
equally from human nature and the facts of
historical experience. The first principle of
morality applied to social existence commands
us to procure the good of others
and therefore to abstain from impeding it.
This implies a correlative right on the other’s
part to procure his own good without
being impeded by us, so long as he does
not pose an obstacle to ours.

From this brief account certain important
things should be clear about Taparelli’s
conception of social justice. Unlike
the conception of social justice generally
accepted in our society at the present
time, which is socialist and difficult,
if not impossible, to harmonize with our
ordinary conception of justice, Taparelli’s
conception 1) is simply the ordinary and
traditional conception of justice applied
in a new area, namely the constitutional
arrangements of society, 2) does not apply
to states of affairs in society that could
exist independently of human actions, 3)
constitutes a defense of societal inequality,
and 4) is conservative.

Taparelli’s conception of social justice
has been forgotten. But it, and indeed
his entire political philosophy, is a serious
contribution to conservative thought
that ought to be better known than it is.
Instead, he was to exert an influence on
history through something entirely different,
which he never labeled “social justice,”
and which scarcely corresponds to
anything that might be known under that
name today, but which would nevertheless
come to be known by that name: his conception
of morality in economics.

Taparelli on the Economy

When Taparelli was writing in the 1850s, the
Industrial Revolution, which had begun in
England around 1770, had not yet reached
Italy. Indeed, it is a common opinion among
economic historians that properly speaking
it never did, at least not until after the Second
World War. Rather, Italy experienced
only something “analogous” to an industrial
revolution. Until the country was unified
in 1870, the methods of production in
the various separate states were uniformly
labor-intensive, and trade was governed by
guilds and restricted by heavy regulation
and high tariffs. Protectionism reigned.
The dominant industry remained agriculture.
Until the end of the century, when
the banking system was reformed, there
was little or no indigenous capital. However,
the free-trade doctrines of Adam
Smith and David Ricardo were known,
as were the beginnings of the Industrial
Revolution in France.

Taparelli opposed in principle the
entire liberal project, both political and
economic, which he sometimes summa
rized under the two names, John Locke
and Adam Smith. A collection of his essays
bears the appropriate title Tyrannous Liberty.
The reason for this opposition was
that he saw liberalism as a product of the
Protestant Reformation, which exalted
private judgment over the divine authority
of the Roman Catholic Church and thereby
replaced the Catholic sense of community
with an emphasis on the self-interest
of the isolated individual. He distinguishes
between the “heterodox” or non-Catholic
economy, then in the process of being
introduced throughout Europe as the freetrade
doctrines of Adam Smith took hold,
and the Catholic or ideal economy. The
theory of the secular economists such as
Smith elevates the self-centered search for
utility as the governing force of human
life, he argues. The consequence of this
individualism is that “society is in a perpetual
antagonism where each one offers
the minimum in order to obtain the maximum.”
Because of competition, “society
is a war of all against all: war among the
producers, war of the producers against the
buyers, war of one nation against another
in order to absorb its wealth by means of
customs duties.” Since the wealth of the
government depends on the wealth of its
citizens, which it takes through taxes, “the
government must inject itself into all private
enterprises, in order to press all its citizens
to work for the public wealth.” The
logical outcome of the society created by
individualism is a demand for redistribution,
and so communism. At bottom the
individualistic economy is just anarchy.

By contrast, the “Catholic economy”
represents order. It is founded on belief in
God, submits to divine revelation, maintains
respect for the human person and for
the Christian ideals of charity and selfsacrifice, and is alone capable of explaining
what actually happens in economic
life. As against the “iron law of wages,”
for example, Taparelli argues that in practice
an employer must pay wages sufficient
to support not only the individual worker
but his family, and furthermore that this
is the right and Catholic thing to do—an
argument that was to become a founding
doctrine of official Catholic social teaching.
But the Catholic economy as Taparelli
understands it is by no means one that pursues
economic equality. Taparelli does not
believe in social equality, either in political
life or the economy. He believes, as we
have seen, that there is a natural hierarchy
among men, and leadership in all spheres
goes rightly to those who create order.
“[T]here is a big difference between the
broom wielded by the humblest workers
and the pen held by the higher employees”
of the divine Master. The Catholic spirit
of cooperation in place of competition in
the economy “adds to the sentiment of
civic equality respect for the hierarchical
subordination which is so natural between
those who serve the same Master.” In the
Catholic economy, the highest value will
be given, not to the search for money and
pleasure, but to honorable and honest conduct.
“Hobbes’s war of all against all will
give way to the universal cooperation of
individuals, who are equal in regard to
their species-nature, but hierarchically
coordinated in their labors under the
supreme Master.” In a true Catholic economy,
those who carry out the functions
of government will do so at their own
expense, as a public service performed out
of love for their country; they will not be
paid salaries out of the public purse.

The difference between the Catholic
economy, together with a Catholic discipline
of economics focusing on morality,
on the one hand and the heterodox economy
with its purely scientific economics on
the other is mainly, however, a difference
in motivation. It is not a difference in public
policy. In the Catholic economy legal
restraints on the economy will be minimal,
as numerous quotes from Taparelli show,

“Many of Bastiat’s observations in
favor of liberty of commerce square
with the teachings of Catholic economics.”
“We should not judge that
it is useless for a Catholic government
to investigate the doctrine of the heterodox
economists on the production
and distribution of wealth. This
science of production will always be
necessary as an auxiliary to the Catholic
science of ordering.” “So a treatise
on the Catholic economy is only
a treatise on just economic liberty.”
“An honourable liberty is the goal
and utility is merely the means for
every good government.”

The Catholic economy does not impose
restrictions on the liberty of its citizens
in order to enrich the government, for it
is the freest economy that produces the
wealthiest government. The role of justice
and charity is not to restrict liberty but
to perfect it. “Liberty is more perfect in a
state where crime is repressed and honest
people are protected than in one” dominated
by the Camorra. In regard to public
policy Taparelli is essentially a liberal.

In the Catholic economy taxes will be
minimal, and government will be careful
not to adopt measures that injure capital.
Government should know what kinds of
taxes will weigh least heavily on capital,
what are the cheapest kinds of taxes,
how to make the best use of capital not
invested, and how to use wisely the money
necessary to buy the instruments of commerce.
The poor will find themselves free
to lift themselves up to wealth. Taparelli
does not place care for the poor among the
duties of government, but of individuals.
It is the duty of those who have the goods
of this world to care for those who lack
them, and this should be reflected in the
theoretical account of how an economy
works successfully:

If economic science . . . wants to
show us how, through the power of
self-interest, wealth distributes itself
between the proprietor, the capitalist,
the worker, and the tax collector, it
ought also to show us that where
Catholic charity reigns, the shares of
the capitalist and the proprietor return
to a large extent into the hands of the
worker as a balm, leveling through
generosity the inequalities of fortune.

For economics in his view is essentially a
moral science, that is, one subordinated to
moral considerations.

The role of government, for its part, is
to bring moral order or justice. It is “to
protect weakness against force.” Justice,
together with humane feeling (“tenderness”),
is called to protect the order of
society both against the cruelty of the
powerful who crush the poor and also
against the communism of the poor who
rise up against the powerful.

So far as I have been able to discover,
Taparelli never used the term “social justice”
with reference to economic questions.
Social justice for him is the constitutional
justice of a society, the justice that defends
right order in the constitutional arrangements
of the society. Its task at that juncture
of history, he believed, was to defend
the inherited rights of the existing powers,
the Church and the aristocracy, against
the rising tide of democratic equality. But
many of those who read him, including
Pope Pius XI, leaving Taparelli’s constitutional
views and his doctrine of inequality
entirely aside, focused instead on his
economic doctrine and applied his term
“social justice” to that. Under that name,
a concept of economic equality he did not
espouse was to be his paradoxical legacy to
his church and the world.

Taparelli’s Reach

Taparelli has a good claim to being the
father of Catholic social teaching. One
of his students was the Jesuit Matteo Liberatore,
who wrote the first draft of Pope
Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum
(On the Condition of the Working Classes),
the first papal statement on “the social
question.” Leo himself, as we have noted,
had been a student of Taparelli’s, his collaborator
at the Civiltà Cattolica, and seems
to have been influenced by him. Pius XI
used to recommend the study of Taparelli’s
works in conversations with his
friends and colleagues. One of Liberatore’s
students was Oswald von Nell-Breuning,
S.J., who wrote Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical,
Quadragesimo Anno, which officially
adopted “social justice” as part of Catholic
doctrine, but as an economic doctrine
notably stronger than Taparelli’s: “[T]he
right ordering of economic life cannot
be left to a free competition of forces. For
from this source, as from a poisoned spring,
have originated and spread all the errors of
individualist economic teaching.” In 1932
Franklin Delano Roosevelt quoted this
encyclical in a campaign speech before a
large crowd in Detroit, saying it was ” just
as radical as I am” and “one of the greatest
documents of modern times.”


  1. The author wishes to express his special gratitude
    to Roger Scruton and Alberto Mingardi
    for their advice and assistance and the Earhart
    Foundation for its generous financial support.

  2. Unless we except John Stuart Mill’s brief references
    to it in Utilitarianism.

  3. Edward Gibbon
    speaks of “social justice,” but in a sense indistinguishable
    from ordinary justice in reference to
    the punishment of crime. “Every crime which
    is punished by social justice, was practised as
    the rights of war; the Huns were distinguished
    by cruelty and sacrilege; and Belisarius alone
    appeared in the streets and churches of Naples
    to moderate the calamities which he predicted”
    (Decline and Fall, ch. 41). According to Hayek this
    was an occasional usage of the eighteenth century
    (Mirage, ch. 9, n. 2).

  4. Saggio teoretico di dritto naturale
    appoggiato sul fatto, 5 vols. (Palermo, 1843).

  5. It is true that some commentators consider the
    term “justice” to be used in the sense of “social
    justice” already by Pope Clement XIII in his
    1758 encyclical, A quo die, where he remarks that
    “[a]mong the fruits of justice, mercy to the poor
    should certainly be considered the most important.
    That justice which comes from faith belongs
    to Jesus Christ . . . [the poor] require our generosity
    as their principal right.” Certainly the letter
    stresses the importance of mercy and generosity
    towards the poor. However, the pope refers to
    these qualities not as justice, but as “fruits” of justice.
    The New Testament uses the term ” justice”
    (dikaiosune) for the right relationship of the soul
    to God, which the context here would support.
    The statement that the poor have a “right” to
    generosity is a hapax legomenon that can be understood
    in the sense that they have a claim to it; it
    is something we ought to do because of Christ’s
    teaching. “Social justice” would have to wait till
    the Risorgimento.

  6. Charles F. Delzell at http://;Walter
    Maturi, “D’Azeglio,” Dizionario biografico degli Italiani
    (Rome, 1962).

  7. “Osservazione sugli studi
    del Collegio Romano;” “Abbozzo del Projetto
    di Ordinazione intorno agli Studii Superiori.”

  8. The Saggio teoretico seems never to have been
    tranlated into English; the translations given here
    are by the author.

  9. “But in this case justice will
    never be rigorously satisfied, it being impossible
    for the son to render back to the father the existence
    he has received from him.”

  10. “Torrete per
    regola di giustizia l’altrettanto?”

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