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This week marks the birthday of a man most folks have never heard of, although he coined one of today’s most ubiquitous phrases: Social Justice. Born in 1793, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio was an Italian Jesuit scholar who co-founded the theological journal Civilt Cattolica and served as rector of the seminary Collegio Romano.

Taparelli wrote frequently about social problems arising from the Industrial Revolution, and his influence was significant. Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclical Rerum Novarum , published in 1891, drew on insights from his former teacher, Taparelli.

Today, political activists often use the phrase “social justice” to justify government redistribution of wealth. In the mid-1800s, however, Taparelli prefaced “justice” with “social” to emphasize the social nature of human beings and, flowing from this, the importance of various social spheres outside civic government. For Taparelli, these two factors were essential in formulating a just approach to helping those in need.

He understood that human beings naturally join together in groups. “The social fact, considered at its maximum generality, presented us subjects as intelligent beings and human society as men, that is to say made of intelligence and sense,” Taparelli says, and because of his intelligence and sense, men are able to share common ideas which produces a “unity of will” to achieve various ends and this is “the essential idea of society.” Some of these societies, however, are more natural and intimate than others. We come together not just in cities and states, but first and most importantly in families, neighborhoods, religious bodies, clubs (or, in his day, guilds) and a variety of informal organizations. Through these natural associations, people strive to meet the basic goals and goods of life.

Taparelli believed that people have the right to freely form different levels of association and to interact through them to fulfill needs and accomplish necessary tasks. Each of these social spheres, institutions, or consortia has its own proper identity and purpose. According to Taparelli, “every consortium must conserve its own unity in such a way as to not lose the unity of the larger whole,” but at the same time “every higher society must provide for the unity of the larger whole without destroying the unity of the consortia.”

Indeed, he understood that a just society depends on these different forms of association each being able to do what they do best. He not only insisted on freedom for these various spheres, but especially for those closest to the ground: the associations that because people are most directly involved in them, encourage personal relationships and local responsibility.

His vision of social justice, then, emphasized freedom and respect for human beings and the small institutions through which they pursue basic needs. He held that true justice can’t be achieved without doing justice to our social nature and natural forms of association. Social justice entailed a social order in which government doesn’t overrun or crowd out institutions of civil society such as family, church and local organizations. Rather, they are respected, protected, and allowed to flourish.

Today, well-meaning policy makers and activists often do just the opposite as they try to overcome social challenges. Rather than viewing society as a network of smaller associations and communities, they mistakenly equate society with the state, centering its identity upon civic government.

As a result, these policy makers and activists conceive justice in terms of how much government directly addresses the needs of individuals. They too often bypass the web of intermediary institutions or deem those institutions irrelevant”or detrimental”in addressing and solving large social problems.

Take poverty, for example. Today, many of those who pursue “social justice” for the poor simply call for more government spending on welfare programs. Yet federal welfare programs continue to discourage marriage and work”the two most important factors for escaping poverty, as much research shows.

The kind of aid to the poor that does justice to the social nature of human beings and our basic social institutions seeks to strengthen rather than weaken marriage and family. And it makes gainful employment more possible.

Americans live in a different time and place than Luigi Taparelli, but we face many of the same challenges he faced. His outlook was shaped by the Italian unification movement; he witnessed the drive toward government centralization at home and throughout Europe. He fought resulting threats to local administrative structures, and he defended local guilds and charitable associations against inappropriate government interference.

We also live amid increased calls for the state to meet people’s needs. We ought to heed Taparelli’s warning about the tendency of centralized government to push local organizations from roles of public relevance: “Deprecating or weakening the inferior is to deprecate and weaken even the superior.” When we ignore, crowd out, or weaken nongovernmental institutions in the name of social justice, we hurt not only those institutions but the larger society as well. Those hit hardest, too often, are the very people Taparelli desired to help.

Ryan Messmore is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation , which produced the Seek Social Justice small group study. The quotations are taken from Thomas Behr’s Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio (1793“1862) and the Development of Scholastic Natural-Law Thought As a Science of Society and Politics


Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum .
Ryan Messmore’s Speaking of Social Justice .
Jeff Kemp, et al., Hope, Growth, and Enterprise: Social Justice Lessons from the Life of Jack Kemp .
Michael Novak’s Defining Social Justice .
Stefano Solari and Daniele Corrado’s Social Justice: A Controversial Concept .

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