Below is a talk I gave at the recent conference on “ius” in St. Thomas at the Angelicum’s Thomistic Institute. It is a synthesized “slice” of my doctorate that I am working on. Enjoy!
-Eamonn Clark, STL
April 22, 2023
The year is 1824. Two young brothers, Giuseppe and Giacchino, had come to Rome to be present to their dying mother. The two boys, only adolescents, have been enrolled in the Collegio Romano, which had been reopened the autumn of that same year shortly after the re-establishment of the Jesuit order. The new rector is a Jesuit himself, Fr. Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio – an eclectic thinker with deep roots in the highly charged political scene of the Italian peninsula. Dissatisfied with the deeply “modern” curriculum at the seminary, the rector was scheming. In the evenings, outside of the normal curriculum and schedule, Taparelli would take Giuseppe and Giacchino – the Pecci brothers, Giacchino later becoming Leo XIII – into a small and semi-clandestine circle of likeminded students to read an all-but-forgotten author: St. Thomas Aquinas. The Neothomistic revolution was underway.
Taparelli’s career proceeded with various obstacles – first, he was sent out of Rome to Naples, then from Naples all the way to Palermo; he was not much of an administrator, and his decreasingly hidden affinity for St. Thomas, when combined with his controversial political thought and political significance due to family ties in Piedmont, left him vulnerable to being sidelined. In his “exile” in Sicily, he developed a course in something like moral and political philosophy for the novices there entrusted to him. Out of these lectures came a text – the “Saggio teoretico del dritto naturale appoggiato sul fatto” (“Theoretical wisdom of natural law resting on reality”). This was finished in 1843.
The “Saggio,” a somewhat frustratingly rhetorical text, presents a vision of society where realities matter, so to speak; that is to say, contracts do not make societies, people do, with all of the circumstances which make those people to have the powers which they actually possess regardless of any contract which they might enter into. For Taparelli, there is hierarchy written into the very DNA of human civilization – in fact, there is practically no equality among us at all, after basic human nature and sacramental dignity are accounted for. Wealth, strength, skill, virtue, family ties, health, human favor, intelligence – all of these are different in each one of us, and this matters for how our society will flourish. Classes form, and this is not something to work against but rather to embrace, as it is inevitable; furthermore, associations of those in various industries or with common social interests ought to be allowed to form under the higher associations of city, state, and nation. Not only should they be allowed to form, but their protection and empowerment is the very purpose for which the higher strata of social organization exists in the first place, and so on down the ladder to the family unit and finally the individual. To violate the legitimate autonomy of a lower stratum of society, for example, a town mayor who busies himself writing laws to rearranging people’s furniture in their homes, destroys what Taparelli called “subsidiarity.” Even if the mayor has a much better idea of where to place a table in a family’s home, it is not his prerogative to do so, unless it is somehow violating civic or moral order in some extraordinary way, for instance, it’s on the edge of the roof and is liable to fall onto the public street below where there might be pedestrians.
Rather than meddling in the affairs of the family home, or of the neighborhood council, or the various workers’ unions or other clubs and societies which exist in the town, the mayor and his administration have the task to equip those groups to fulfill their legitimate purpose. This empowerment of the lower strata by the higher strata by the normative legal order and even perhaps to some extent the act which flows from it is what Taparelli calls “social justice.” Taparelli went on to develop his economic and political thought in countless articles as a co-founding editor of La Civilta Cattolica, a project personally supported by Pius IX – it became the Pontiff’s unofficial means of publishing his ideas.
Some scholars say that this text is the earliest use of the phrase “social justice.” It is not. The first known significant academic usage of the term was by a different priest in the Italian peninsula, a contemporary of Taparelli – Blessed Antonio Rosmini-Serbati.
Alessandro Manzoni, the acclaimed author of the Italian novel, I promessi sposi, said that his friend Rosmini was the only contemporary author on the peninsula worth reading. Manzoni and Rosmini shared a dream, or a hope, for a united Italy under a liberal regime that yet preserved the flavor of the older ways. They were close collaborators and friends.
From what we can tell, it seems that Rosmini had actually inspired Taparelli to take an interest in St. Thomas, and for a while they shared some correspondence. However, as Taparelli grew more and more conservative, the relationship broke down. Rosmini ended up being the target of plenty of articles in the early editions of CC. Liberatore was his fiercest philosophical opponent, Rosmini’s metaphysics and epistemology being considered too much based on illumination, even though not as far “out there” as Fr. Vincenzo Gioberti, another friend of Manzoni, who was the head of the ontologist school and eventually became Prime Minister of Sardinia, during the uproars of the revolutions of 1848.
It is important not to underestimate the significance of politics for understanding developments in theology and philosophy – the most cursory glance at the situation of Catholic thought in the 19th century will convince one of this. Rosmini’s greatest contribution to political philosophy actually comes to us in the form of a proposed constitution for the emerging Italian nation, “The Constitution Under Social Justice,” written in 1848 – the year of years, the year of revolution – a year so bad that the Italians call a large mess “un quarantotto,” a 48. While it was just a little too late to get to the hands of the Pope to be made use of, it marked Rosmini in the eyes of Pius IX as someone worth having close to him. He was offered the position of Prime Minister of the Papal States, which he declined. Nevertheless, the Pope took Rosmini with him in his flight to Gaeta just before the establishment of the short-lived Roman Republic. However, the papal court proved too unfriendly to Rosmini’s liberalism, causing him to retreat for some time to Naples. Upon his return, he found several of his works on the Index of Prohibited Books, including the “Constitution.” He was shattered, and went to Stresa. He was slightly rehabilitated during his life, but only in recent years have we seen a real vindication of Rosmini’s thought – in “Fides et Ratio,” and in a memorandum from Cardinal Ratzinger which defended his work. Taparelli, and his main protégé, Matteo Liberatore, had been attacking him as well, Taparelli on political economy and Liberatore on metaphysics and epistemology.
The doctrine of “The Constitution Under Social Justice” is, as all of Rosmini’s work, brilliant and engaging, even if one ultimately disagrees with it. For our purposes, I limit myself to the main topic, the role of “social justice,” which at this point in Rosmini’s mind has clearly changed to a definite formulaic principle which is easy to summarize: legislative representation proportionate to taxation on income from landed property. To Rosmini, it makes no sense to give the same control over the use of the public treasury to a man who pays little or nothing into it as to a man who pours enormous sums into it every year. This taxation is a flat tax – nothing else would be fair – and it is only drawn on property, not on mere wages; in Rosmini’s era, one who merely takes a wage would have normally been the sort of person who depends on his wage for his daily sustenance, hand-to-mouth. He would undoubtedly adjust this principle today, but I digress. This means that the poor and certainly the destitute do not get to vote on representatives in the legislature, as it would be unfair, seeing as they pay nothing into the treasury which the legislature makes use of. They do, however, get to vote on the representatives in the “political tribunal,” the organ which judges about fundamental rights, where all are equal before the law.
Don Bosco said he had never seen anyone celebrate Mass as reverently or devoutly as Blessed Antonio Rosmini. Quite an endorsement. Rosmini likewise founded a religious order, the Institute for Charity (better known as the “Rosminians”) dedicated to the service of the poor. It cannot be said that Rosmini lacked empathy or was unmerciful – he was simply a shrewd political thinker. He gives many reasons for why his system, resting on the principle of “social justice,” makes sense, putting it in special contrast with the universal and indiscriminate suffrage system of the hyper-liberal French regimes, of which there had already been over a dozen by Rosmini’s time of writing, a point he notes with searing derision. Unlike St. Jerome, when Rosmini makes fun of you, same as St. Thomas, you are certainly doing something wrong.
The birth of the Italian nation was finally complete with the capture of Rome on September 20, 1870, and the annexation of Rome and Latium into the Kingdom of Italy on October 2.
At this stage, we turn our attention to a then-13-year-old seminarian in Milan, who had grown up in the aftermath of the complex revolutionary tensions of that city and its surrounding area. His childhood had been rather peaceful, growing up early on in the small town of Desio, with his father running several silk factories and for a time a small hotel. The young seminarian was no doubt already developing his lifelong affection for the poetry and prose of Manzoni, whose work featured the area around the Brianza quite prominently, and soon he would be one of the major admirers of Rosmini’s person and thought as well. In his clerical formation, he ultimately came to favor two theologians above all others – St. Thomas, and Taparelli.
The seminarian is Achille Ratti, the future Pius XI.
In the years around Leo XIII’s attempt to implement the Taparellian program, both in terms of social doctrine principally through his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (which Liberatore drafted), and the study of St. Thomas through Aeterni Patris, Ratti came up in Rome, arriving the same year as the latter text was published (1879). He studied here under Liberatore at the newly created Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas which was then granting degrees – it was coincidentally inaugurated on the day Ratti arrived in Rome for studies. He was, together with one other student, its first graduate, and he scored perfect marks and was invited immediately to be a member of the Academy.
Ratti’s careers as a librarian and diplomat – and much less as a prolific alpinist – are not so relevant for us. What is relevant is his major social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, published in 1931. This was not the first time a pope used the phrase “social justice” – there had been a one-off usage by Pius X in his 1904 encyclical Iucunda Sane, lauding St. Gregory the Great’s virtue as a legate in Byzantium, and another usage earlier on in the acts of the Sacred Congregation of the Council, referring to the restitution of what had been stolen as an act of social justice. The real meat, however, is in Quadragesimo Anno.
In the encyclical, written by a young German Jesuit, Fr. Oswald Von Nell-Breuning, another student of Liberatore, social justice is a heavy theme. Unfortunately, while it would be satisfying to have had a nice bow to tie together Rosmini and Taparelli under the auspices of perhaps their most significant promoter, admirer, and interpreter, more questions than answers come to us out of Quadragesimo Anno. It is not so clear if social justice is a personal virtue, or a state of affairs in society. It is not clear if social justice is supposed to be part of already pre-existing Thomistic categories – which we would think that Ratti, a hardline Thomist would want – or if it is supposed to be something else entirely, something that doesn’t quite fit into either commutative, distributive, or legal justice.
There is no clear way out. Instead of trying to pick apart various lines from the encyclical, I wish to present briefly my own synthesis, which, while perhaps not providing for every usage, I think manages to gather together most threads in a sensible way, or at least serves as an axis around which most usages can turn.
I do, with most interpreters, including the great Cardinal Höffner, whose work on this topic is mandatory reading for anyone interested in the subject, take the view that social justice fits into “legal justice.” Legal justice, unlike distributive and commutative justice, is a general virtue for St. Thomas, This means that it is present in every virtue. The object of legal justice is the common good. One’s virtuous acts are acts of legal justice simply insofar as the virtuous act is done for the sake of the common good, whether explicitly willed as such or not. This is the “social ius,” one might say, not the ius proper to distribution (hierarchical acts of giving what is due to individuals as such) or to commutation (transactions merely among equals).
The common theme which cuts through the basic usages of Rosmini, Taparelli, Pius XI, and, indeed, even modern post-Rawlsian usages of the phrase “social justice” which one finds on signs at left-wing marches, is a kind of empowerment of a group by some kind of help given which that group is due somehow from society in general rather than from some particular individual. The Taparellian foil of subsidiarity all of a sudden becomes very striking – it gives us a framework for seeing how far such help should go, as seen earlier with the example of the furniture. Not every kind of group having difficulty is owed help by society simply because they are having difficulty.
However, we can already see a shift away from the idea of “legal justice” as a broad category. It seems that legal justice has several species, of which social justice is one. Social justice is the species of legal justice which proceeds from above to below. It is a general virtue, present in all virtuous acts, which has for its object the common good as liberating others beneath oneself precisely insofar as oneself owes others, not based on a commutative debt but based on the welfare of the social whole that cannot provide for its own natural flourishing to such a degree that it is not merely charity to assist, as with almsgiving, but it is actually justice. That is to say, if one is not acting generally in favor of the empowerment of those who require help “from above” to pursue their ends as individuals and especially as groups, one does something unjust. This position is strengthened by the point which Thomas makes about legal justice in the person of the ruler, who he says possesses it as a kind of “master craft.” It belongs most especially to the one with the care for the whole community. Yet those who have superior natural means, whether economic, intellectual, social, physical, and so on, are in a secondary and informal sense “rulers” over those with less of the same goods, insofar as they are higher than those with less according to the very good which is unequal, and so they are in some sense able to help those with less. God, lest we forget, made creation a hierarchy of beings, and He wants hierarchy in human civilization – it is not a product of the Fall, a fact which St. Paul’s exegesis of the creation of Eve so bluntly informs us of. Those are engaged in social justice who are engaged in any virtuous act at all, insofar as it redounds in any way towards the liberation or empowerment of others to pursue basic human ends as individuals, such as basic education, housing, food, and what are, in my opinion, unhelpfully labeled as “human rights,” or to pursue basic ends as groups, such as forming associations to begin with, or administering their own goods, or engaging in intragroup communication, or intergroup communication. Those who are more consciously and intentionally working on such things are simply acting more like the ruler acts with general legal justice – they are taking it up more as a master craft.
There is yet more to articulate, more distinctions to make, and alternative positions to consider, especially in light of the forest of ideas connected with this phrase “social justice.” Unfortunately, I must end my reflections here. But I believe that this paradigm of social justice as a personal but general virtue pointing toward the social ius, specifically being a species of legal justice which has for its special object the common good as liberative of those who are lower and in need of assistance to pursue their basic ends as individuals and as groups, both protects the strong anti-egalitarian spirit which both Rosmini and Taparelli possessed and makes sense of the more structural treatment of justice which we find in Pius XI’s use in Quadragesimo Anno and which we find in later usages, however distorted they may have become in the past 90 years. The primary question which those who wish to use the phrase “social justice” for their “cause” must then be – “How does this program correspond to the true common good as empowering and liberating for the sake of others pursuing what is truly good without replacing others’ own responsibility for themselves?”