OPINION: The Catholic Origins of Social Justice

By Daniel Verner

    You’ve heard the term relentlessly in American culture for years now, but do you know where the origins of the term “social justice? The earliest known usage of the phrase “social justice” occurs in 1843 by the conservative Italian Jesuit scholar, Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio. Taparelli founded the theological journal Civilt Cattolica, which was first published in 1850 with the intent to spread and defend Catholicism. Just after this time, social justice came in three distinct varieties: Taparelli, the conservative who formulated it; Catholic Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI, who expanded on Taparelli’s writing; and finally, English Christian socialists who adopted it.
    Taparelli and his Civilt Cattolica did not prescribe to a particular worldview, but they did seek to protect what he termed “natural authority” in regards to the makeup of human hierarchies. In his view, this authority was something that naturally occurs in human society because some are more competent, more bold, and more naturally fit to be leaders. Taparelli did not mean “social” as in groups determined by characteristics of birth, but rather, intended to split the State from organizations and families, which were created by the choices of individuals and served as a counter balance to state power. According to Taparelli, “…social justice should therefore level all men in regard to the rights given with their humanity.”

    Taparelli’s thoughts on the role of the individual are further extrapolated from the published writings of his student, Pope Leo XIII. In 1891, Pope Leo published Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor which set out to defend individuality against the rising tide of socialist thought taking place. According to Pope Leo, responsibility works in concert with inalienable rights, and Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor sets each out clearly. While the worker has the right to the fruits of their labor and deciding themselves where it’s best spent, and the employer cannot treat their charges in an inhumane way, the worker must not use violence or engage with “hucksters.” Pope Leo XIII goes on to decry socialism as it “…can only result in envy, a disincentivizing of labor, and nothing else but equal misery.”

Forty years after Leo XIII’s Encyclical Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor, Pope Pius XI released in 1931 his Encyclical On Reconstruction of the Social Order. The Catholic church were looking to answer doubts concerning the correct meaning of Pope Leo’s work and how it applies to new needs and conditions of the world at that time. Pope Pius argued that for peace to be achieved within the state itself, a balance must be struck between individualism and collectivism. To Pope Pius “…when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service. He goes on to say the state “…does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them.” Pope Pius XI did not argue for state enforced redistribution of the fruits of labor accrued in the hands of capital holders. Rather, he advanced the thinking that man had a moral obligation to freely disperse his excess capital, while the laborer had the moral duty of practicing frugality and thrift to acquire property and capital.  
    As to “fair and just wages” Pope Pius goes on to determine that workers deserve “a wage sufficient to support him and his family” while considering it unjust to demand excessive wages that would ruin their employers, and those doing so seen as guilty of a grave wrong. Essentially what they were speaking on was voluntary labor contracts that weighed the needs of the family with the health of the business. Pope Pius continues with “it is contrary to social justice when, for the sake of personal gain and without regard for the common good, wages and salaries are excessively lowered or raised.”
    This attempt to find balance between labor and capital manifested itself as the need for harmony between the individual and the state. This ran completely counter to early Christian Socialists like Frederick Denison Maurice who in 1850 joined with Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes to form the “Christian Socialist Movement.”
    The theological basis of Christian Socialism was Maurice’s book The Kingdom of Christ published in 1838. In it, Maurice argued that politics and religion were inseparable, and that the church must address social questions. The Christian Socialists rejected laissez faire capitalism as they saw competition as a moral failing. They outright abandoned individualism in its entirety and suggested a socialist alternative. In 1853 Maurice published Theological Essays and soon after was dismissed from King’s College for heresy due to his Appendix “Note on the Athanasian Creed.” This dismissal subsequently led to The Christian Socialists going inactive from 1854 to the late 1870s. The movement revived in the 1880s, and many Christian Socialist groups were formed soon after.  Established in 1893, The Independent Labour Party was dominated by Christian Socialists. Not to be confused with today’s Labour Party, the ILP reconstituted itself as the pressure group “Independent Labour Publications” within the Labour Party in 1975. The new ILP were free and positively encouraged to join the Labour Party.
    Elsewhere across Europe, the early Christian Socialists had their ideas take hold in France and then Germany in the late 19th century, where it became associated with violent anti-Semitic actions by court preacher Adolf Stoecker, founder of the Christian Social Workers Party..
    The Christian Social Workers Party came into being in 1878, where in that year’s election they saw 1% of the vote. Soon after, the CSP shifted their focus to anti-capitalism and linked it with hatred toward the Jews of Germany, propagating conspiracy theories that the Jewish population of Germany was planning an extermination of the German people. In 1918, nine years after Adolf Stoecker had died, most members of the party stepped over to the German National People’s Party after World War One. The DNVP from 1929 onward began to form a cooperative partnership with the rising NSDAP in Germany.
    The NSDAP, or the Nazi party, was rising fast in Germany. Nazism rejected the universal concept of equality of individuals, and grouped people together by inherited characteristics of birth. Nazis were socialist in theory and practice, and attempted to create a new hierarchy with ethnicity given the highest value. “Völkisch equality,” or social justice for Germans, was the concept written into law that excluded all those of “impure blood.” Volksgemeinschaft roughly translates to “people’s community.” Introduced in WWI to rally Germans to the war effort, it was appropriated by the Nazi party and given inherent racial connotation. The individual was subservient to the will of the collective. Nazi theories put into practice were immoral and inhumane.

Although many adopters arose from Taparelli, Christian Socialists were the dominant and largely the only remaining ideology from the original three offshoots. The Reverend Charles Edward Coughlin is a prime example. Coughlin was an American radio host in the 1930’s who during this time lambasted the evils of capitalism, Soviet communism, and supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president. By 1934, Coughlin had a large following and organized a political group: The National Union of Social Justice. The publication “Social Justice” began its run in 1939 as an anti -capitalist, Roman Catholic, national socialist and anti-communist magazine. “Social Justice” published many anti-Semitic articles blaming the “Jewish conspiracy” for Germany’s actions during World War II, and printed a copy of the virulent “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” In 1938, Coughlin had changed their organization’s name to “The Christian Front,” but still published their periodical entitled “Social Justice” until 1942. When the crimes of the Nazi Party became well known, Reverend Coughlin’s defense of Nazi Germany ran counter to the shift in popular opinion and government propaganda.
    Since World War II, attempts have been unsuccessful to extricate “social justice’ from the grips of Socialist ideology. Pope Francis today seems more concerned about the state of inequality and environmental degradation, inserting the Catholic church into matters of politics, rather than the individual’s role in society. Authors Michael Novak and Paul Adams co-authored Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is in 2015. The theory, according to Novak, is “…not one of public affairs but private virtue.” Social justice in the Catholic tradition is best embodied within charitable acts of individuals. Charity is neither too far individualistic or collectivist, synthesizing the individual and the common concerns of the community. The hijacking of the term “social justice” by Socialist ideologies, has left us bereft of the role the individual should have in civilized society. Each one of us has a role in shaping our selves, our families, our communities, and hopefully the world… Towards what is right and just.