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 to 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.
|Msgr. Luigi Aloysius Taparelli d’Azeglio, S.J.|
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.
|Pope Pius XI|
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.)