Judging from current literature, lectures, and what-not, “social justice” is just another name for socialism. Is that really the case, though, given that, e.g., the Catholic Church has been extremely supportive of social justice, but “down” on socialism? Are socialism and social justice really just different names for the same thing?
|Pope Pius IX|
Let’s go back to the early nineteenth century, when socialism was making great gains under the label “the democratic religion” (socialism only got called socialism in 1833 or 1834, and the term only got applied in a non-pejorative sense in the 1840s), and was considered a replacement for traditional concepts of religion, both Catholic and Protestant. “Neo-Catholicism” and “New Christianity” were euphemisms for socialism throughout most of the nineteenth century. That was bad enough, but then the revolutions of 1848 really disrupted the social order.
Faced with a situation in which needed reforms were impracticable due to the instability of the social, economic, political, and religious situation — especially in light of the advances made by socialism and the Neo-Catholic movement — Pius IX realized he needed something new. That was a philosophical approach which, with Aristotelian-Thomism as its foundation, would be adequate to address the “new things” of the modern world, a counterpart to Alexis de Tocqueville’s “new science of politics . . . for a new world.” This the pope found in the work of Monsignor Aloysius Taparelli d’Azeglio, S.J. (1793-1862).
|Msgr. Aloysius Taparelli|
Having joined the Jesuits in 1814, by 1825 Taparelli had become convinced that only a revival of Aristotelian-Thomism had the potential to counter the subjectivist philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650) and other philosophical innovators. Ideas spread by people like Saint-Simon, Fourier, and, especially, de Lamennais in his recently published Essai, persuaded Taparelli of the need to reorient modern thinking to be consistent with the natural law and offer an alternative to moral relativism and irreligious rationalism.
As Taparelli argued, mistakes by scientists in the natural sciences could have no effect on how nature operates. Mistakes in philosophy, politics, and theology, however, have far-reaching consequences in human society. The Revolutions of 1848 confirmed him in his opinion.
It was in the late 1840s that Taparelli, a leader in Gregory XVI’s Thomist revival, developed the idea of “social justice” as an alternative to the socialist democratic religion and Neo-Platonism of the socialists, particularly de Lamennais. The socialist, modernist, and New Age principle is that all things, including the natural law, are subordinate to whatever is desired, especially the amelioration of social conditions. This accounted for the multiplicity of proposals de Tocqueville noted during the disturbances in Paris.
In contrast, Taparelli’s social justice principle was that all things, even (or especially) social improvement and the general welfare, must be subordinate to the natural law as understood in Aristotelian-Thomism. There are thus absolutes — natural rights inhering in each human person, such as life, liberty, and private property — that must remain sacred and inviolate, regardless of the needs of individuals or society as a whole; it is not “expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation perish not.” Where socialism relies on changing human nature, social justice relies on changing human institutions.
Taparelli did not take his concept of social justice further; he appears to have construed it as a general justice, a variety of legal justice more closely aligned with Christian morals and doctrine than Aristotle’s concept. His idea was that, in addition to a general intent to benefit the common good when practicing the classic virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, there should also be a general intent to conform to Catholic doctrine and Christian values, the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
|Alexis de Tocqueville|
This concept of social justice, while an advance on the socialist rejection of moral absolutes, was still vague. Taparelli tried to fit social justice within the existing framework of the classic individual virtues. This led to confusion as to where, exactly, social justice fell in the classic understanding of the particular individual virtues of commutative and distributive justice.
Construed as a form of legal justice, a general virtue, Taparelli’s concept of social justice gave no guidance as to how it worked, other than that people should be individually virtuous and be guided by the precepts of the Church, especially charity, in exercising the natural virtues. It was clear, however, that the supernatural virtue of charity should not either be redefined as the natural virtue of justice, nor should charity replace justice, as the socialists and liberal Catholics demanded.
Together with the pope’s own interest in reviving Thomism, Taparelli’s work gave Pius IX something to counter socialist proposals and present a theory of social amelioration consistent with precepts of natural law. In 1850, to promote social justice, Pope Pius IX gave Taparelli and Father Carlo Maria Curci, S.J. (1810-1891) permission to found the journal La Civiltà Cattolica to explain the new idea and prepare the way for sustainable social reform.
Two other Jesuits, Matteo Liberatore (1810-1892) and Gaetano Sanseverino (1811-1865), joined them in the effort. Taparelli, Liberatore, and Sanseverino had earlier collaborated in founding Italy’s first scientific journal, La Scienza et la Fede.
So, is “social justice” just another word for socialism? Hardly: the concept was developed specifically to counter socialism . . . but the term was so good that the socialists coopted it, and have managed to control it in many cases down to the present day.
 De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Author’s Introduction to Volume I.
 John 11:50.
 Paradoxically, Taparelli was opposed to universal suffrage, as essential to the functioning of a just social order as widespread capital ownership, which he appears to have ignored. Rommen traced this to Taparelli’s erroneous genealogy of universal suffrage, which Taparelli claimed derived from the Reformation. Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought, op. cit., 110, 437.
 The answer is that social justice and all other social virtues do not fit into the classic individual framework in which individuals act only as individuals on their own behalf. As Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D. (1905-1985) explained, social justice, in common with the other social virtues, affects individuals only as members of a group, that is, institutionally, not individually, on behalf of the group as a whole. See Ferree, The Act of Social Justice. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1942, © 1943; Introduction to Social Justice. New York: The Paulist Press, 1948.
 Rommen, The Natural Law, op. cit., 193.