CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 - The Emergence of a Catholic Social Economics before Rerum Novarum

1 Catholic studies on political economy developed at the same time as, and with many features in common with, socialist theories. The common starting point for these theories was a real concern about the degrading situation of workers in Europe and a radical opposition to laissez-faire liberalism [2]. These works represent a magmatic and sometimes contradictory development of a unitary position of Catholicism in order to face the new problems posed by industrial society. In the literature we find good and detailed accounts of this development; for example in Duroselle (1951), Talmy (1963) and Misner (1991). These studies selected authors of this movement, taking as a reference the position of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891). Catholic scholars such as Pellegrino Rossi, de Tocqueville, Bastiat and Rosmini were selected by this historical interpretation. In fact, Catholic positions were more heterogeneous than those–nonetheless still conflicting–included in the category of Social Catholicism.

2 There are many reasons for this heterogeneity. Firstly, these have been tentative theoretical works aimed at developing a new economic and political position produced by a cultural milieu which has been previously crowded out by the Revolution. Secondly, authors were fundamentally influenced by the cultural perspective of the social class they belonged to. Bourgeois authors such as Périn, Rosmini, and Toniolo expressed some liberal-conservative perspectives. Aristocratic ones such as Villeneuve-Bargemont, Taparelli, von Ketteler, La Tour du Pin and Vogelsang expressed more progressive views. Actually, the approach that, thanks to Jesuits and to Leo XIII, came to be dominant in Social Catholicism is the political project of developing an alliance between the aristocracy and the proletarians, translating the typical historical political compromise of the agrarian periphery to the industrial center. Consequently, it is in the first stage of this magmatic stream of thought–when it could not yet be called a ‘movement–that we find the most original and interesting theorizations of the problem of the social question.

3 We should underline that the theoretical position of these scholars has often been misrepresented, with their thinking being associated with that of liberals (Smith, 1997). We would instead like to underline the particularity of this theorization, which took place in a moment of deep institutional change in European society and is focused on the embeddedness of economic processes within social institutions. A deep uncertainty existed regarding the appropriate institutional change in the new urban and industrial society, and Social Catholics supplied a ‘tentative’ interpretation which became a progressively more coherent (although conflicting) view of the foreseeable transformation of institutions. In particular, they offered an important contribution regarding the economic role of institutions.

4 We will focus on a few French and Italian scholars who worked from the 1830s to 1870s, highlighting similarities and differences and pointing out some interesting theoretical points of this ‘social philosophy’ on pauperism, as well as the evident weaknesses in both the analysis and the prospected policies. Firstly, we will concentrate on the definition of misery and, in particular, on the analytical grid which allowed the distinction of simple poverty from misery. Secondly, we will examine the explanation for the progressive impoverishment of the industrial population. Then we will specifically focus on the role of institutions in this process of pauperization. Finally, we will consider the policies sought by these authors. We will conclude on the notable, and still actually theoretical, points (which anticipate institutionalism) –and on the crucial utopian elements contained in their social philosophy, as well on the impact they had in the development of Continental institutions concerning labor regulation and social protection.

2 - The Overcoming of Traditionalism

5 The emergence of the perspective on socioeconomic issues based on the teachings of the Catholic Church can be traced to the third decade of the 19th century with the works of Charles de Coux and Alban Villeneuve-Bargemont. These writings broke with the conservative political theories of scholars such as Lamennais, de Bonald, de Maistre, Haller, Müller, etc. (who also touched on economic issues). These studies emerged when–with the democratic humanitarianism turn of Lammennais–a new theoretical elaboration of socioeconomic issues was developed, compatible with the contemporary scientific approach and open to innovative solutions for the newly industrializing society (Duroselle, 1951)  [3]. They obviously emerged as a reaction to liberalism and to the concept of man proposed by the Enlightenment. Villeneuve-Bargemont (1834), together with de Coux (1832; 1836) wrote the cornerstone of these Catholic economic studies oriented to oppose the hegemony of economic liberalism. Villeneuve-Bargemont opened his work arguing that he “s’expose à combattre des opinions et des systèmes accrédités” (those of liberalism, 1834: 1). Pauperism of laborers and the instability of capitalism were the problems around which any theorization was developed.

6 These authors, as well as those who would follow them throughout the development of Social Catholicism, tended to broaden the focus of political economy to include the role that structural elements, such as socioeconomic institutions, assume in assuring viable economic development. Without any doubt, they borrowed much from Simonde de Sismondi’s (1827) theoretical framework; nonetheless, they supplied an original interpretation of the reasons for diffusing misery in processes of growth. After this first generation of Catholic social economists (followed by Charles Périn in Louvain), we find a second phase, characterized by the involvement of moral philosophers in economic studies concerning the social question. In order to achieve a coherent view in accordance with natural law and with the gospel of the Catholic Church, scholars as Taparelli and Ketteler elaborated Thomistic thought based on Aristotelian practical science and applied it to economic issues. This produced a theory that was conservative regarding social institutions but was based on various forms of collective action from the economic point of view.

7 The fundamental argument of these scholars was that the ‘modern’ political institutions produced by the French Revolution were unable to smooth out the economic instability caused by industrialization and laissez-faire, leading to class conflict. New institutions were consequently demanded, in order to regulate capital-labor relationships and solve the distribution problem. The solution was in part theoretical and based on the role of corporative institutions, and in part based on concrete experiences of Catholic circles that had developed an intense activity of mutual help and other experiments based on patronage[4]. Nonetheless, by the middle of the century, some progressive economic solution to the social question was proposed in the form of an organic collectivization of charity obligation (we will better explain the meaning of this concept in the sixth section).

3 - The Definition of Poverty, Misery and Pauperism

8 A precise definition and analysis of the concepts of poverty and misery in the Catholic tradition can be dated back to Innocent IV (1243-1254) in Apparatus in Quinque Libros Decretalium that principally dealt with the dangers of usury [5]. In the introduction of that work, poverty was defined as a scarcity of resources, while misery was conceived as a lack of necessary goods. Villeneuve-Bargemont (1834) distinguished poverty from pauperism. He stated that individual poverty is “la privation plus ou moins absolue des objets nécessaires à l’existence d’un homme ou d’une famille” (1834: 27); while pauperism is the “détresse générale, permanente et progressive des populations ouvrières”. Pauperism was considered the new problem brought about by an unbalanced development of industry.

9 Some years later, Charles Périn, in his De la richesse dans les sociétés chrétiennes (1861), supplied a clear exposition of the Catholic (liberal-conservative) approach to the theme of poverty and misery by suggesting a difference between these terms. Périn argued that inequality and poverty are constant facts in human societies. However, “si l’humanité est condamnée à subir la pauvreté, elle n’est pas condamnée à subir la misère” (1861: Vol. 2, 80). In fact, misery consists of a worsening of moral and material conditions, which are not necessary for poverty, and is due to a degrading institutional context. Poverty (état de gêne) is a condition where resources are strictly sufficient to cover basic needs (“mais à condition que ceux-ci soient renfermés par un acte continuel d’énergie morale, dans les limites plus strictes”). Poverty implies constant privations, but it does not limit liberty and dignity and it does not prevent moral joy. On the other hand, “La misère est une maladie du corps social et une des plus pernicieuses dont il puisse être affecté. Elle est la conséquence naturelle et dernière de toute violation grave et persistante des lois sur lesquelles Dieu a établi l’ordre de la vie humaine” (1861: Vol.2, 85). As a consequence, misery leads to a degradation of man from both the moral and physical point of view, so that the lack of resources interacts with the most intimate spheres of human life. Périn underlines that misery is always relative to a civilization. This is due to the different levels of wealth and ‘functionings’ (in contemporary A. Sen’s terminology) of living necessary to cope with the required standards. When misery hits entire social classes, we talk of pauperism. Misery feeds back into society with bad allocation of funding, leading to a persistent and diffusing state of depression. As a consequence, the view of Périn remains somewhat affected by Sismondi’s theorization–a dynamic view of an inverse cumulative causation argument.

4 - The analysis of causes

10 Contrary to liberal thinkers, Villeneuve-Bargemont (1834) argued that the problem of diffusing and growing pauperism is no accident, but the “forced condition of a large part of the population”, even if due to a “moment of violent transition” characterized by unregulated industry due to a lack of proper institutions. Liberalism, he said, fails in fact because it is unable to coordinate different and opposed interests. It eliminated tolls, dead hands, subsidies, guilds, privileges… but the economy continues to struggle. (Villeneuve-Bargemont, 1834).

11 In this work, the author endorsed one of the main theoretical strategies that would be adopted by Catholic scholars in the 19th century. This consisted of arguing that institutional changes are accompanied and driven by ideas on the nature of man and society and that the Enlightenment and liberalism were producing a negative societal change because they proposed faulty visions of man and society. For this reason, he affirmed that pauperism was born as a product of liberalism in the UK and from there had diffused to the continent.

12 In his view, liberals–who supported the ‘inevitable accident argument–refused to consider the structural change produced by industrialization which, unregulated by proper institutions, was systematically producing misery. He also considered Malthus’ and Ortès’ principles of population and discussed the causal link between excess population to misery. On the one hand, he accepted this possible source of crisis, while, on the other, he was reluctant to endorse it as a law because man has the possibility to modify his behavior. He preferred to look at the concentration of property: “ouvrez le marché de la terre à tous les prolétaires, vous n’aurez plus trop d’hommes, et vous verrez sans cesse croître rapidement une population aisée, contente, et par conséquent soumise aux lois” (1834: 212). Consequently, Villeneuve-Bargemont (1834), inspired by the early distributionist views of M. Morel de Vindé and Sismondi (1827), saw misery as a result of the uneven distribution of property [6]. Consequently, the main contrast to Malthusian views was the theory that growth of subsistence means could follow population growth if capital was well invested, with some synergy between agriculture and industry. The suggestion that there existed a ‘lack of coordination’ of investments also opened the way to some state intervention in terms of government regulation.

13 However, the higher responsibility for pauperism is seen to be due to materialistic theories based on stimulation of ‘endless and multiplying needs’ and ‘limitless industrial production’ developed by liberalism. This was considered to cause early marriages, urbanization around factories, the abolition of Jurandes and Maîtrises, the enlargement of manufacturing towns and the weakening of religious principles (1834: 231). Machinery was not seen as a primary cause, but it worsened the situation by intensifying the problem of a bad institutional setup. Villeneuve-Bargemont cited De Coux, Droz and Sismondi on the problems of distribution and on the positive feedback (not negative as in liberalism) between falling consumption and reducing wages (under competition), confirming the development of a new perspective on political economy.

14 It is interesting to compare this perspective with that of Alexis de Tocqueville, who belongs to the ‘ethical liberalism’ faction with a robust Catholic inspiration [7]. Tocqueville clearly affirmed that “les pays qui paraissent les plus misérables sont ceux qui, en réalité, comptent le moins d’indigents, et chez les peuples dont vous admirez l’opulence, une partie de la population est obligée pour vivre d’avoir recours aux dons de l’autre” (1835: 7). He precisely documented the ratios of people living in misery in GB (about 1/6) relative to those in the Continent and to different French regions (1/20 in the continent). Tocqueville, in contrast to Catholic social economists, avoided speaking of ‘distribution’ of revenues. However, unlike liberals, he did not speak of indolence, casual misfortune or low productivity. In his view, misery did not depend as much on the wealth of society as it did on the fragility of the position of certain groups, which rose with industrialization and with the increasing complexity of economic processes [8]. What he called double movement meant the contemporary improvement of wealth, culture and comfort of a part of society and the increasing number of those who were not able to obtain a minimum level of income to satisfy their fundamental needs. The dependency on a monetary economy, seen as a more fragile and risky organization compared to agriculture, was considered a further factor of difficulty. Finally, in Great Britain, poverty was the result of an excess concentration of land (and other means of production) in a few hands, aided by high productivity, labor-saving technologies.

15 After these first works, the literature on pauperism rapidly developed. Le Play has been one of the most prominent scholars studying the state of the working class in the second half of the 19th century. His main work (1864: Chap.VI) is the result of a concern with the problem of rising inequality and, in his writings, we find a precise description of decision mechanisms leading to pauperism. Le Play (1864: Chap.VI) acknowledged that “l’abrogation des régimes de contrainte a donné une impulsion féconde aux individus vertueux, habiles et prévoyants ; et grâce à leur succès, plusieurs peuples modernes se sont élevés à un degré de puissance et de richesse que les peuples d’ancien régime n’ont jamais connu”. On the other hand, it has produced pauperism. However, he proposed no wide theoretical interpretation and most of Sismondi’s influence is lost, while there was a deep concern with immorality and depravation.

16 Charles Périn is the author who most clearly proposed an analysis of the causes of pauperism. According to Périn (1861: 155-300), the causes of misery can be grouped in four main categories.

17 • The general state of society. In particular, Périn long discussed the argument concerning the excess of population, as popularized by Malthus. Like most Catholics, he refused this ineluctable principle (a law), but, similarly to Villeneuve-Bargemont, he accepted it as a danger in the case of badly distributed property. He also included, in this point, the institutionalized excess duration of labor, which was responsible for both keeping people away from their families and for reducing the labor demand. Then he considered industrial and commercial crises in the presence of an excess competition, responsible for leading prices to too low a level, which, far from assuring a reequilibration of markets, tends to keep the economy in depression. Finally, going back to the responsibilities of liberalism, he identified separation, indifference and severance of people and, in particular, between masters and workers, as creating an unfavorable social environment.

18 • The conditions in which industry is exerted. Périn confirmed the dangers of the division of labor, as already listed by Adam Smith, stressing the fragility of specialization and the difficulty of retraining a labor force specialized in obsolete routines. He also included the practice of feminine and child labor as a cause of social and economic disorder. Finally, he argued that an excess concentration (or fragmentation) of property can be detrimental to the optimum functioning of the economy. Excess concentration leads to proletarization; excess fragmentation leads to insufficient capital (land is the example) to run an independent activity.

19 • The personal disposition of each laborer cannot be neglected as a cause of poverty, even if Périn denied that this was the only cause of misery, as stated by liberals. The main causes listed are ignorance, lack of providence, excess of luxury and misconduct.

20Accidental events such as wars and natural disasters are frequent causes of misery.

21 These distinctions are useful for separating institutional from individual and immediate causes, and open up a theorization of the relationships between technology and economic institutions, which was then developed by other authors. Périn’s discourse is limited to the argument that pauperism derives from the unfit institutions that frame industrialism.

22 By the middle of the century, these issues had begun to attract the attention of moral philosophers. The Jesuit Taparelli (1858, p.148), reacting to a paper by De Fontenay in the Journal des Économistes, reaffirmed the responsibility of the general societal conditions for the development of misery. He argued that the French (liberal) economists appeared to ignore the fact that pauperism was almost unknown in Catholic countries [9]. This idea frequently reemerged in Catholic writings, and also Pope Pius IX affirmed “che i poverelli e gli altri infelici si trovino presso di noi Cattolici in una condizione molto più mite che quella in che sono presso le altre nazioni” (Noscitis et Nobiscum, 1849) [10]. Moreover, Taparelli argued that it was not appropriate to simply refer–as liberals did– to the difference between real poverty and perceived property: actual social conditions matter. Liberal economists confused the appearance of wealth they could see in Great Britain with the ‘universal well-being’ that instead prevailed in Italy (Taparelli, 1858: 148) [11]. The relevant fact was not whether or not to perceive poverty, or whether or not to accept charity (alms): the fact was whether or not people starved (Taparelli, 1858: 150) [12]. The argument was weak; however, today it is difficult to say how much this fact was due to the context of the Christian morals or to the retarded industrialization that kept southern economies solidly anchored to agriculture.

5 - The relevance of institutions

23 In all Social Catholicism, production and distribution are strictly related and the change of the institutions framing production automatically impacts distribution of income. The solution, contrary to socialist theories, is not to radically reallocate property rights or to allocate resources authoritatively. Catholics hoped to develop institutions that helped people to naturally discover ‘just’ socioeconomic relationships. Collective action is, in this way, needed to develop a system of rules able to align economic interactions with the criteria of social justice.

24 The work of Villeneuve-Bargemont (1834) revealed the influence of Sismondi on the role of institutions, even if he defined the problem differently. Misery, for this author, derives from the lack of proper institutions, in particular from the banning or marginalization of Catholic institutions. The causes are wars, industry and liberalism (connected to its ideology contrary to traditional institutions). He affirmed that misery is not frequent in agrarian communities. It is industry and the lack of proper institutions regulating production that cause misery. However, he expressed less the need to regulate the industrial system and more the imperative to reject it altogether. He cited the works of Malthus, Sismondi, Droz and Rubichon to testify how, if industry contributed to the wealth of the nation, that it was at the “expenses of the well being, of sanity and morality and happiness of working classes” (1834: Vol.1, 15). The solution proposed by Villeneuve-Bargemont (1834) is not simple individual charity–traditionally proposed by the Catholic tradition–but also institutional change: the need for associative institutions that could frame Christian charity. There is some attention to institutions that frame and enable virtuous human behavior. State intervention is not excluded.

25 This solution is confirmed and further elaborated upon by Périn (1880) who highlighted the influence of costumes on institutions. Périn, who wrote in a period of corporatist revival, underlined the role of the abolishment of guilds by Le Chapelier law in France. Corporations were, according to this scholar, some “intimate, enduring, constant and durable relations” which helped the unfolding of charity. Périn, from his liberal-conservative position, particularly favored patronage relationships and mixed associative institutions. Patronage was perceived as being made of authority, moral ties and a hierarchical order in a professional community. Such associations helped to assure the dignity of a free man in establishing some collective action. Périn, as any Catholic scholar of the time did, attributed to the legacy of the French Revolution (and its introduction of individualism as a custom) the difficulty of building new institutions able to regulate problems resulting from industrialization. He stated that the liberal principle “chacun chez soi, chacun pour soi” easily became “chacun contre tous, et tous contre chacun” (1880: 54). He underlined the need to keep personal relationships–contrary to the exigency of the market impersonality–to spontaneously obtain justice and charity in economic processes. Finally, he saw a role for the state with the concept of ‘state patronage'; that is to say, the regulation to favor the birth of laborers’ associations and patronage in firms and local communities. Consequently, institutions should be able to allow individual virtues; they should not enact any explicit redistribution. This would remain the most liberal-conservative position of Catholics.

26 Similarly, Le Play (1864, chap.VI) reaffirmed the empty space left by traditional institutions: “les classes inférieures sont soumises à des causes permanentes de pauvreté qu’elles ne subissent point dans les régimes où elles sont protégées par la triple influence de l’autorité seigneuriale, de la famille patriarcale et de la communauté des biens”. He continued, saying that “cet état d’équilibre dans lequel le remède se produisait progressivement en même temps que le mal, a été brusquement détruit à dater de la fin du dernier siècle, et surtout depuis la paix de 1815, par l’extension subite du régime manufacturier. Il a tout d’abord neutralisé les deux causes préservatrices que je viens de signaler, en enlevant les populations au lieu natal, et en les accumulant dans des localités dépourvues des institutions qui auraient pu conjurer les effets du vice et de l’imprévoyance subite du régime manufacturier” (Le Play, 1864: Chap.VI). Industrialization eradicated people from their place and constituted a de-institutionalized environment. He also accused capitalism of offering false incentives, hiding the disastrous consequences of massification behind a monetary gain [13]. This anticipated Polanyi’s theory of the ‘double movement'.

6 - The policies: charity vs. public intervention

27 Catholic scholars had hoped to control and limit the disruptive effects of industrialization by the more or less spontaneous unfolding of proper institutions, thanks to the moral actions of people and political bodies. The common position of Catholic social economists was that institutions have an ‘enabling’ function for individuals to perform charity [14]. Since the 16th century, owing to the work of Ludovico Vives (1525), they have realized how convenient it was to concentrate charity in an organization that would more effectively allocate it. This idea was reintroduced by Ducpétiaux (1858). However, Catholic scholars were reluctant to assign the task of redistribution to the state; that is to say, to replace a virtue with coercion. In the second half of the 19th century, with the development of the corporatist tradition, associative institutions would be asked also to perform some redistribution among their adherents. These intermediate institutions should have helped to regulate society in such a way as to avoid misery. As a consequence, after the first period (1830-1860), a series of studies on the harmonious self-regulation of society began, which were constantly inspired by the idealization of medieval society (Solari, 2010). However, they did not conceive of social mobility as a new situation to preserve. They, on the contrary, insisted on a hierarchical society, where the upper (noble) classes were made responsible for the redistribution of income. A second point was the hope that property would be better distributed, but no solution on the best way to achieve this was sought. The third point, which would be best developed later with Rerum Novarum (1891), concerns the minimum wage that would be obtained by labor regulation.

28 Villeneuve-Bargemont (1834: 131) pointed out the principles which were to remain the pillars of Christian political economy: charity, a better distribution of wealth and intelligence (education), and moderation of desires and needs (against the ‘no-limits’ philosophy of liberalism). The conception of a transition to a more equitable distribution with a more stable income was strongly affected by Burke’s virtues: patience, frugality, work, sobriety and religion. Villeneuve-Bargemont (1834) suggested that, on the one hand, religiousness helps redistribution, while, on the other, agriculture assures peace, welfare and safety. He cited Sismondi as a forerunner of Christian political economy, and he was certainly influenced by Sismondi’s structural view of the economy based on institutions, conventions and rights, as well as by his focus on distribution and by his ‘distributist’ ideals. However, he also proposed an original view of a balanced society with a crucial role for morality and spontaneous redistribution.

29 Some of these ideas were shared by the ‘ethical liberal’ De Toqueville. The latter directly analyzed the role of public charity and stated that it would be inevitably enacted because it supplies an immediate relief to the poor, while causing only indirect damage to society. He discussed the issue of ‘redistribution rights’ saying that “Il n’y a rien qui, en général, élève et soutient plus haut l’esprit humain que l’idée des droits. On trouve dans l’idée du droit quelque chose de grand et de viril qui ôte à la demande son caractère suppliant, et place celui qui réclame sur le même niveau que celui qui accorde.” (Tocqueville, 1835: 36). However, he had misgivings over the fact that the right to public charity would inevitably certify and make persistent the state of indigence; it would highlight and legalize this kind of inferiority. Therefore, he welcomed public intervention to establish some ‘rights’ in cases of child protection, old age insurance, health and sanity, but he thought that this strategy would be less beneficial in the case of poverty. On the one hand, private charity was insufficient; on the other, the ‘right’ to public charity was financially unbearable. The only means to prevent misery was the distribution of property and the incentives to save.

30 The studies of the social question, such as those by Buret (1840), Marbeau (1847), Béchard (1853) and Cochin (1854), based their reflections on the experience of English Poor Laws, which were criticized as ineffective and inducing dependency. Périn (1861: 415-440) still insisted on the role of charity that was conceived as a form of solidarity, which maintains freedom. It creates a community between the rich and the poor, and is part of the obligations connected to the possession and exploitation of property. This form of charity has to respect the freedom and dignity of the poor; that is to say, it should not become a formal right or obligation and should not make people dependent on it. It should be centered on the spirit of renouncement by the rich. Legal charity was not welcome because it was founded in coercion. Above all, it would have been difficult to decide who was morally deserving of it. The risk that it could become a subsidy to low salaries was also underlined. The arguments were similar to the classic liberal argument, but in the different context, they assumed a different connotation.

31 In Périn’s theorization, two principles emerge as the main solutions to the problems of his time: association and patronage. On the one hand, the isolated man cannot achieve much; on the other, the associated man needs guidance (1886: 57). The association assures laborers of their dignity as free men, organizing the supply of welfare insurance and managing apprenticeship and other forms of mutual help (but not beyond). Patronage assumes the role of ‘guidance’ of associated laborers, which should be ‘spontaneously supplied and freely accepted'. It is a durable bond characterized by a paternalistic authority relationship intended to solidify the ‘fraternal charity’ obligations of entrepreneurs (1886: 56). As a consequence, the corporation includes masters and workers in a solidaristic ‘family', which should reconciliate social classes. All emphasis was placed, and all probability of success resided, in the moral obligations of the ‘patron'. However, the extent of these factory-based corporations was limited. Périn affirmed that while old (politically extended) corporations may have fit an artisan society, but the industrial economy needed wider economic freedom. Consequently, the role of the state was to support the local, personal and continued action of entrepreneurs, while there was no scope for general regulation and for the formal structuring of these bodies.

32 The work of moralists helped to make a step further in the legitimization of public intervention, leading to what we can define as a ‘collectivization of charity'. Taparelli (1862a: 170), who integrated moral philosophy to social economy, gave Social Catholicism a coherent framework by connecting it with the philosophy of law in a Thomistic epistemological framework [15]. Taparelli, in 1862a, wrote an essay in Civiltà Cattolica[16] attacking the voice “Bienfaisance publique” of the Dictionnaire d’économie politique, written by Cherbuliez. At the time, liberal economists blamed Christianism (responsible for introducing the concept of alms) for having ‘created’ a class of beggars. Taparelli turned the accusation upside-down, arguing that the Reformation, which abolished Catholic charities, created a state of need that Queen Elizabeth had to tackle with ‘poor laws’. He affirmed (1862a: 169) that some institution is inevitably needed to tackle the problem (after having understood causes and principles of poverty). The mistake of liberalism is the absence of intermediate institutions, a gap which then has to be filled with state intervention. In particular, Taparelli reacted to the liberal idea that misery, as a punishment for the lack of providence, acts as an incentive to work and that the elimination of alms could reduce unemployment and poverty. On the contrary, Taparelli observed that poverty diminishes providence and prudence because of the reduced saving (this was already noted by Villeneuve-Bargemont), which feeds misery. He denied that wages were low because of an excess supply of labor. He admitted that some rigidities existed in the apprenticeship and that it was the excess of competition in the product market that induced entrepreneurs to diminish wages. In this view, Catholic morals, based on moral obligation and not on interest, had to represent a regulating factor able to grant both the laboriousness of employees and the charitable spirit of the rich, while neutralizing the problem of material incentives.

33 Taparelli was also against state charity, in particular that provided by the central state. He cited the work of Ducpétiaux (1858), La Question de la charité en Belgique, where the author argued that charity had to be private, as far as possible, and not legally imposed. He opposed the “Christian agape to the pagan annona” because he clearly understood the unmanageable implications of defining welfare ‘rights’ in the form of claims against the state. If charity had to be financed through taxes that transformed charity into a formal general duty, that would have crowded out the communitarian dimension of society and individual virtues. Public assistance should have been a supplement, holding a subsidiary role when the spontaneous initiative was lacking. Taparelli, in fact, is the first theorist of the subsidiary role of the state. In his view, charity and public assistance would find some synergy, conjugating the freedom of establishing charitable associations and foundations with the order assured by the government. As a consequence, state intervention is mainly conceived as based on regulation stimulating individual virtue. Moreover, acknowledging the need for an organic organization of charitable institutions, Taparelli accepted a first step towards the collectivization of the redistribution problem, bringing forth the ‘public interest'. This position, however, given the insufficient extent of private charity, opened to a wider public intervention.

34 A fundamental point, which would be best developed by the second generation of Catholic scholars, was that social charity can be performed only by associations that are in as close as possible contact with the citizens. This would limit the ‘collectivization’ of rights and duties in communities, without crowding out personal relationships. Taparelli criticized pagan philanthropy, which replaces the neighbor with the similar. It is the neighbor that should provide the natural help to those in need. The neighbor is understood by moral, and not physical, criteria; it is defined by ‘voluntary and knowledge relationships'. Morals, being based on universal and eternal principles, constitute a more intimate and constant relationship compared to citizenship. Similarly, the municipality is the most suitable institution to manage charities because it is the closer to the people.

35 Society was conceived as a multitude justly ordered to its truly common good by the governing authority. Therefore, charitable acts also had to be ordered by the government to obtain an organic society (Taparelli, 1862a: 645). This would have conjugated freedom and order, preventing ‘despotic centralism’ of bureaucratic welfare. The multitude has a moral duty to contribute with suitable means to improve the situation of those in need [17].This involves a duty of collaboration and a duty of subordination to the ordering authority. As a consequence, we find a private right (to be assisted) and a duty (to contribute), a spiritual authority that clarifies the charitable duty and a legal authority that orders the behavior of the multitude. However, since the state and the Church have no rights to the property of people, the private citizen has to freely dispose of his goods in favor of charitable activities, receiving from authority an address which is necessary to obtain an ordered society and is a complement to freedom (Taparelli, 1862a: 648) [18].

36 Taparelli also underlined the difference between guilt and misfortune, to distinguish the role of justice from that of charity. Justice repairs indigence caused by guilt; charity repairs that caused by misfortune. Charity could not give justice to the poor; that task belonged to the public bodies that assured rights to all associated citizens. When misery was due to the failure to respect a certain right, the government had the duty to intervene and understand the causes of the situation.

7 - Conclusion: strength and weaknesses of the Catholic position

37 The most interesting insight provided by Catholic social economists of the first half of the 19th century concerns the definition of the causes of pauperism; that is to say, the extended misery of the working classes. We have considered the sophisticated distinction made by Périn between poverty and misery. In this conceptualization, we find an original view of the role of institutions for the regulation of the economy. This idea was not new, since Sismondi laid down the fundamental pillars of this structural and dynamic view of the economy. Catholic scholars, however, further developed it to understand the distributive and equilibrating role of socioeconomic institutions, magnifying the role of morals. As a consequence, they developed a framework, which was later improved by other socioeconomists, such as Karl Polanyi. They understood the need to prevent the total individualization of society, affirming the unbearable costs for state intervention that would result from an atomized society. They also anticipated the theorization of the synergy between technology, economic organization and institutions, which would be best developed by Schumpeter and by historians such as Chandler.

38 Regarding what concerns policies, the scholars of this period did not reach a coherent set of solutions. The study of this stage of theorization is, in any case, interesting because it allows a view of the fundamental role attributed to collective action for the solution of the problem of extended misery. It also shows the interdependence between the path-dependent process of collective choices and the development of ideas on the legitimate means and ways of intervention that eventually led to the development of social insurance. This fact is symbolized by the resistance of social Catholics to transform charity from an individual duty into a right. This reluctance was due to a–not totally unjustified–pessimism on the individualization of society and weakening of basic social institutions induced by a ‘right’ to assistance. As a consequence, these debates on the dangers brought about by the collectivization of rights and duties of social protection (symbolized by English Poor Laws) help to understand the deep changes that welfare states have made of our society. Having said that, the intervention of moralists in the second part of the century –we have seen Taparelli, but Lehmkuhl, Costa Rossetti, Liberatore and others followed him– was crucial in weakening this reluctance.

39 Regarding the policies prospected at that stage, we have highlighted the overemphasis on virtues and moral behavior against interest-driven choices. The attention paid to education of rights (which will be supported by pragmatism) was still underdeveloped. Moreover, any form of collective action was welcome with the exception of the state. However, these scholars clearly understood the relevance of proper institutions enabling virtuous behavior as a crucial and effective means to assure redistribution. The more or less implicit presupposition of a static and hierarchic society, however, limited the effectiveness of this important insight.


  • [1]
    Department of Economics, University of Padua.
  • [2]
    All works anchored their arguments on the empirical problem of the rising pauperism of working classes in industrial areas and on the unsatisfactory results of the English Poor Laws. However, in the continent there was a general distrust of poor laws (Smith, 1997).
  • [3]
    Lamennais himself paid a particular attention to working class poverty which he defined the ‘new slavery’.
  • [4]
    As that of Léon Harmel in his factories in Val des Bois and reported in his Manuel d’une corporation chrétienne.
  • [5]
    Formerly Sinibaldo de’ Fieschi. Usury was condemned for it caused involuntary poverty. Also the advent of the monetary economy was seen as a cause of worsening of involuntary poverty. See Spicciani (1990: 49-59).
  • [6]
    The lack of small property later will become the target of Christian Democrat policies.
  • [7]
    He cannot be classified as a Social Catholic and he remarked his different views relatively to Villeneuve-Bargemont (Tocqueville, 1835: 9).
  • [8]
    “…plus les nations sont riches, plus le nombre de ceux qui ont recours à la charité publique doit se multiplier, puisque deux causes très puissantes tendent à ce résultat : chez ces nations, la classe la plus naturellement exposée au besoin augmente sans cesse, et d’un autre côté, les besoins s’augmentent et se diversifient eux mêmes à l’infini ; l’occasion de se trouver exposé à quelques-uns devient plus fréquent chaque jour.” (Tocqueville, 1835: .24)
  • [9]
    “sembra ignorare che il pauperismo è una piaga ignota in que’paesi appunto, ove la Chiesa prevale, ove l’eterodossia mai non ebbe il sopravvento”.
  • [10]
    “That the poor and other unhappy people are in a far milder position in our Catholic countries than in other nations”.
  • [11]
    “Sembra confondere il luccichio del lusso, che certamente splende maggiore in Inghilterra, coll’agiatezza universale del sostentamento, che dà all’Italia nostra un immensa ed evidente superiorità in ciò che è saviezza d’economia sociale.”
  • [12]
    “Non si tratta di sentire o non sentire la povertà, di accettare o non accettare l’elemosina: si tratta di morire o non morire per l’eccesso di povertà.”
  • [13]
    “Mais cette limite fut bientôt dépassée : les manufacturiers, en offrant sans cesse un salaire élevé, en excitant l’esprit d’indépendance qui se développe si aisément, déclassèrent également les masses imprévoyantes qui jusque là avaient trouvé le bien-être dans la vie rurale.” Le Play (1864: chap.VI)
  • [14]
    Obviously charity does not simply consist of giving alms. It includes every act oriented to improve somebody else situation or the achievement of the common good.
  • [15]
    “Dunque la scienza economica sociale è inseparabile dalla morale e dalla politica, anzi ne forma una parte.”
  • [16]
    Civiltà Cattolica is the review of Jesuits which he co-founded in 1850.
  • [17]
    Taparelli cites also Béchard De l’état du paupérisme en France and Cochin who underlined the need of cooperation.
  • [18]
    18 “Ma poichè né Stato, né Chiesa non sono padroni assoluti della roba dei sudditi, vogliamo che l’individuo e il privato disponga liberamente dei suoi averi nelle opere di beneficenza, ricevendo spontaneamente dalle due autorità quelle direzioni, che essendo necessarie all’ordine sono compimento della vera libertà” Taparelli (1862: 648).

The first generation of Catholic social economists, which also included some moral philosophers, put forward a coherent view of economic problems, according to natural law and to the Gospel of the Catholic Church. They studied the causes of the increasingly unequal distribution of income in the processes of industrialisation and identified the need for regulatory institutions to limit the misery of the working class. They considered charity and personal relationships as the main remedy to the problem of misery, but they became progressively open to state intervention to insure a more coherent regulation of the bodies responsible for organising redistribution.
JEL : B19, D63, J83, Z12


  • Poverty
  • misery
  • Pauperism
  • social question
  • natural law
  • social Catholicism
  • paternalism


  • Bechard Ferdinand (1853). De l’état du paupérisme en France, et des moyens d’y remédier. Paris: Librairie de C. Douniol.
  • Buret Eugène (1840). De la misère des classes laborieuses en Angleterre et en France. Paris: Paulin.
  • Cochin Pierre S. Augustin (1854). Lettre sur l’état du paupérisme en Angleterre. Paris.
  • Coux Charles de (1832). Essais d’économie politique. Lyon: Sauvignet.
  • — (1836). Cours d’économie politique. Institut catholique de Lille, manuscript (chapter 8/iii translated in Roggi, 1977).
  • Tocqueville Alexis de (1835 [1999]). Sur le Paupérisme. Paris: Allia (first and second unpublished Mémoires sur le Paupérisme, written for the Société Royale Académique de Cherbourg, 1835).
  • Ducpetiaux Édouard (1858). La question de la charité et des associations religieuses en Belgique. Brussels: A. Muquardt.
  • Duroselle Jean-Baptiste (1951). Les débuts du catholicisme social en France (1822-1870). Paris: PUF.
  • Lamennais Félicité R. de (1839). De l’esclavage moderne. Paris: Garnier.
  • Le Play Frédéric (1855). Les ouvriers européens. Études sur les travaux, la vie domestique et la condition morale des populations ouvrières de l’Europe. Paris: Imprimerie impériale.
  • Online— (1864). La réforme sociale en France déduite de l’observation comparée des peuples européens (5th ed.1874). Tours: A. Mame et Fils.
  • Marbeau Jean Firmin (1847). Du paupérisme en France et des moyens d’y remédier. Paris: Comptoir des imprimeurs-unis.
  • Misner Paul (1991). The Predecessors of Rerum Novarum within Catholicism. Review of Social Economy Vol. XLIX (4): 444-464.
  • Périn Charles (1849). Les économistes, les socialistes et le christianisme. Paris: J. Lecoffre.
  • Online— (1880). Les doctrines économiques depuis un siècle. Paris: J. Lecoffre.
  • — (1886). Le patron. Sa fonction, ses devoirs, ses responsabilités. Paris:J. Lecoffre.
  • Pocquet Barthelemy (1877). Essai sur l’Assistance publique, son histoire, ses principes, son organisation actuelle. Paris: A. Marescq.
  • Sismondi Jean Charles L. Simonde de (1827 [1975]). Nouveaux principes d’économie politique (2nd ed.). Paris: Calmann-Lévy.
  • Smith Timothy B. (1997). The Ideology of Charity, the Image of the English Poor Law, and Debates over the Right to Assistance in France, 1830-1905. The Historical Journal Vol. 40 (4): 997-1032.
  • Solari Stefano (2007). The Contribution of Neo-Thomistic Thought to ‘Roman Catholic’ Social Economy. American Review of Political Economy Vol.5 (2): 39-58.
  • — (2010). The Corporative Third Way in Social Catholicism (18301918). European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 17 (1): 1-27.
  • Spicciani Amleto (1990). Capitale e Interesse tra Mercatura e Povertà nei Teologi e Canonisti dei Secoli XIII-XV. Rome: Jouvence.
  • Talmy Robert (1963). Aux sources du catholicisme social. Tournai: Desclée & Co.
  • Taparelli Luigi (1839[1852]). Saggio Teoretico di Diritto Naturale Appoggiato sul Fatto. Rome: Civiltà Cattolica.
  • — (1854). Esame Critico degli Ordini Rappresentativi nella Società Moderna. Rome: Civiltà Cattolica.
  • — (1857). Analisi critica dei primi concetti dell’economia sociale Civiltà Cattolica first part Vol.VIII: 546-59; second part, Vol. XI: 17-34.
  • — (1858). L’economia eterodossa alle prese col pauperismo. Civiltà Cattolica serie III, Vol. XI: 144-160.
  • — (1862a). La beneficenza sociale secondo le dottrine degli economisti. Civiltà Cattolica serie V, Vol.II: 166-184; 641-651.
  • Taparelli Luigi (1862b). Influenza dei governi nella beneficenza sociale. Civiltà Cattolica serie V, Vol.V: 529-547.
  • Villeneuve-Bargemont Alban (1834). Économie politique chrétienne, ou recherche sur la nature et les causes du paupérisme en France et en Europe, Paris: Paulin.
  • Vives Juan Luis (1525[1973]). De Subventione Pauperum, (reprint in Latin). Florence: La Nuova Italia.
Stefano Solari [1]
  • [1]
    Department of Economics, University of Padua.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 12/01/2017
Distribution électronique pour L'Harmattan © L'Harmattan. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait