Books Theology

A Catholic Wrestles with Modernity: Thomas Behr’s “Social Justice & Subsidiary”

Social Justice & Subsidiarity: Luigi Taparelli and the Origins of Modern Catholic Social Thought. Thomas Behr. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2019.

“In the midst of the revolutionary instability and paradigm interregnum of the times, Luigi Taparelli elaborated a science of economic, social, and political life based on natural law.” Who was Luigi Taparelli? Among modern political theorists, Catholics draw the short stick. Those who are studied, even at a distance, like Joseph de Maistre, serve only to advance the caricature of Catholic political thought as reactionary and ancient. Egoistic individualism reigns supreme in the two principal manifestations the misanthropic philosophies of the Enlightenment manifested themselves: atomistic libertarianism (or classical liberalism, faute de mieux) and collectivism (be it socialist, communist, or fascist). Yet Catholic social thinking in the nineteenth century flourished; and far from a reaction against modernity, much of the vibrancy of Catholic social and political writing defies the stereotype embodied by Maistre and his Throne and Altar ultramontanism: it offered a reconciliation with, and sanctification of, modernity without jettisoning the long intellectual tradition of Catholic thinking about man and the world.

The term “social justice” is all the rage. Yet the inventor of that term was a Jesuit political theorist named Luigi Taparelli. Its usage today is almost entirely devoid of its original meaning and seems to be a substitute for the collective redistribution of wealth orchestrated by an increasingly centralized and powerful government—the very things Taparelli feared and argued against. As the term social justice is part of the Christian inheritance, Thomas Behr’s book on modern Catholic social thought and its roots in a forgotten Jesuit polymath is deeply important.

It is especially important for those Christians belonging to the Catholic faith (and Christians more generally, especially since certain Christians regularly use the term for their own ideologically purposes). The debates and crises of the nineteenth century still play out today with liberalizing Catholics falling into the collectivist frenzy and self-righteous traditionalists waging their already lost war against modernity which borders on a self-righteous sense of live action role-playing (also common on social media apps). How interesting it is to note that some of the most vocal and obnoxiously loud Catholic writers in the United States today have begun sounding the bullhorn for Throne and Altar ultramontanism again and collectivist Catholics employ a term of the Catholic tradition originally meant to reject collectivism to advance collectivism. Against the falling away liberals and the sanctimonious live action role-playing of neo-traditionalists, Catholic social thought (hereafter CST) offered a middle path that sought to retain the conservative concerns for moral virtue and filial affections with the acceptance of the destruction of the agrarian and aristocratic orders that were so entrenched with Catholicism due to the circumstances of history leading to the advent of modernity.

If we have all heard the term social justice parroted by activists and writers in legacy media and social media, some of us may have also heard the term subsidiary though we tend to be fuzzy as to what it means. Taparelli saw social justice, subsidiary, and moral virtue as all interrelated—part of his science of realism grounded in natural law and human affections rather than theoretical abstraction which had gripped Enlightenment thinkers to the point of destructive despotism when trying to implement their phantasmagoric desires.

So what constitutes social justice from the creator of that term and outlook? It is “the protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness among individuals and in their multiple intermediary associations.” Not only do humans exist as individuals they also exist as social creatures, members of social associations both natural and voluntary, and the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness do not extend merely to individuals but also to the organizations that individuals find themselves members of or make themselves members to enhance their life, liberty, and happiness.

Thus, social justice is about assuring all—individuals, as well as social organizations like schools, churches, or unions to which individuals belong and flourish and are made happier by being members of—are not despotically destroyed by tyrants, bureaucracies, or centralizing bodies of governance and management be they of leftwing or rightwing conceptions of nation and government. Social justice has nothing to do with the redistribution of goods and services in society but has social individualist connotations that also demand the moral virtue and sensibility of individuals to recognize when fellow humans are being prevented their fundamental rights from external forces. As Behr summarizes, “Here it is fundamental to note that in Taparelli’s system it is clear that the common good of society does not consist of any particular arrangement or distribution of goods, but rather the term refers to the good—the end—that persons in society seek in common, the common purpose for which society is formed: that is, the protection, at the very least, of those natural rights of each person to pursue particular goods, with natural social happiness as the end toward which all temporal societies aim.” Taparelli maintained that the essence of man as both rational and social (loving) creature moved him toward associations seeking happiness and that he would be happiest in associations with the greatest degree of liberty possible without falling into relativism and doubt (which invariably leads to the disintegration of social relations and the need for some external force to impose a modus vivendi). Social justice is about our individual relations with other individuals in pursuit of the good life—I care about making sure others have the same freedom to pursue happiness as I do.

The problem with modernity isn’t the political credo it espoused, it was in the false science of human nature it endorsed which ironically caused the proliferation of the technocratic statism that has all but subjugated individuals to it and destroyed all the intermediary associations humans once found meaningful participation in. Modern political aspirations were precisely what Taparelli wanted to sanctify: individual liberty, freedom of association, pursuit of happiness, etc. What Taparelli offered, then, was a social science rooted in the scholastic-natural law tradition of a social individual who found the greatest individuality not by cutting himself off from others but by becoming intimately engaged with others. It would also be impossible for the great hope of modernity— individual liberty, freedom of association, and the pursuit of happiness—to exist and flourish without man’s moral sense and virtue or an acknowledge of his social heart. For morality is not an isolative reality, it is a relational one and exists for our mutual coming together in social relations that produce happiness. The cause of liberty is a moral one, it is also one rooted in love.

The social dimension of human nature was forgotten by the Enlightenment misanthropes in all their various manifestations: Hobbes (fear of others), Locke (desire to be alone), Rousseau (freedom from others), Marx (liberation from others). Moreover, the Epicurean utilitarianism espoused by the materialistic visions of humanity necessarily led to chaos in social relationships (which humans cannot escape since they are, by nature, social creatures) which would demand the state to take despotic action to impose order. In doing so, those intermediary associations of human sociality would be deemed dangerous to state-sanctioned cohesion and violently dismantled until individuals had no other association than subservience to the centralized state by which their peace was guaranteed. Taparelli predicted as much, and the twentieth century bears witness to his foresight and the twenty-first century’s continued centralization and bureaucratic wars against those intermediary associations of civil society continues to bear witness to his foresight.

By offering a vision of moral virtue as compatible, indeed, necessary, for the flourishing of modern hopes, Taparelli carved out a new path for Catholics, one that could reconcile itself to the realities of the post-revolutionary world while retaining traditional Catholic understandings of the importance of the moral life, family life, and the intellectual life. In time, Taparelli’s “science based on fact” became the basis of the formation of CST as annunciated principally by Pope Leo XIII. Individuals, and societies, flourish best with maximum liberty within the bounds of social affections when there are many—and vibrant—intermediary associations which allow for human choice and happiness to emerge. This is the true responsibility of politics to ensure and protect: to maximize the freedom of associations in pursuit of happiness. (Not far removed from other illustrious Catholic thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas, the latter looming large in Taparelli’s thinking.)

Hence, subsidiarity is about decentralizing social relationships to those intermediary associations which exist for the social justice of individuals—their ability to freely choose and become members of social communities that enhance their desire for happiness in the company of others—rather than centralizing human relationships to the Leviathan however construed and manifested. We, too, find happiness in our solidarity with others that “leads to the obligation of social rights.” This is what human history and social science reveals. Humans do not seek to separate themselves as atomized individuals pursuing their own economic desires per the “economic naturalists” nor do societies form because of fear per Hobbes and his disciples, and neither does society form as a result of inequality in coercive relations per Rousseau and Marx. Rather, societies form to protect each other’s natural rights and to enhance human happiness in social relations. Our individual liberty and happiness is maximized by coming into social relationships with others. (The other great French Catholic thinker Frédéric Bastiat made similar arguments.)

Thomas Behr’s book is a much-needed antidote to the political and rhetorical malaise and verbosity that dominates discourse today. Moreover, it highlights how CST is not intrinsically reactive to modernity but seeks to save the best of modernity by reuniting modernity with what it rejected: social love and natural law. Catholics, especially, who find themselves dizzied by the maelstrom of a Church seemingly being torn apart should be able to see how modernists seeking individual freedom and traditionalists proclaiming the need for moral virtue and the resuscitation of the family find a common ground offered by CST which doesn’t pit the two visions against each other but sees them as intrinsically interrelated and interdependent on one another. (In this respect, as Behr regularly notes, Taparelli follows in the footsteps of that other great Catholic libertarian-conservative, Alexis de Tocqueville.)

Yet if Taparelli’s political theory is grounded in a “science based on fact,” why hasn’t the vision manifested itself? Is the “realism” offered by Taparelli real or just another form of abstracted idealism given a sense of false intellectual credence by constant references to Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and the classical tradition in philosophy? Has the totalitarian state in its despotism of misanthropy triumphed and altered human nature? What does that entail for the notion of human nature if conceded?

I must confess that I am deeply sympathetic to Taparelli’s vision and CST more generally; though I have my doubts as to how “realistic” the vision of CST is. Taparelli may have been a great prophet diagnosing the problems of modernity: alienation, centralizing despotism, and collectivist dreams in the wakes of atomizing individualism leading to social conflict which would result in greater state tyranny. His antidote, though seemingly good on paper, has yet to manifest itself. Not even in the Catholic Church. However, we all seem to intuitively agree with Taparelli: we are happiest and most fully ourselves (true individualism: the manifestation of personality) in the company of others; the purpose of freedom is not freedom but happiness—freedom is a means to happiness and not the end in of itself (the telos of freedom is happiness). That is what social justice, subsidiarity, and CST is about: maximizing freedom for individual, and social, happiness.

*This review was originally published at VoegelinView, 6 February 2022.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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