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Historian Explores Origins of Modern Catholic Social Thought

Thomas C. BehrHistorian Dr. Thomas C. Behr delves into the subject of the intellectual roots of modern Catholic social thought through the analysis of author Luigi Taparelli’s (1793-1862) theories. Taparelli, a Jesuit priest, is known to have had a significant impact on Catholic social teaching, with some scholars referencing him as the founder, nonetheless his works have remained largely unexamined.

Behr’s book titled, Social Justice and Subsidiarity, Luigi Taparelli and the Origins of Modern Catholic Social Thought was released in December by The Catholic University of America Press.

Social Justice and Subsidiarity

Catholic Social Justice teaches us that all people are made in the image of God and so possess an equal and inalienable worth. Because of this essential human dignity, each person has a right, in the abstract, to all that is needed to allow him or her to live their full potential as intended by God. Taparelli’s insight is, that in practical terms, serving social justice means defending and facilitating the exercise of the human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Subsidiarity is a principle of social organization that holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution—and this is the realm, of rightful human associations, in which social justice sets the bar, from the family up to the global fraternity of nations.

“Taparelli’s conceptions of social justice and of subsidiarity are fundamental to modern Catholic social teaching,” Behr said. “Taparelli’s theories of the just society and ordered liberty, are as timely nowadays for reasoned political and ethical discourse as ever.”

Behr Explores Taparelli’s Articles

Behr first came across Taparelli’s many articles when he was researching the roots of Catholic Social Thought. Behr’s doctoral dissertation focused on the life and ideas of Taparelli, tracked backwards from the influence of his protégés over the writing of the magna carta of modern Catholic social teaching, Rerum Novarum (1891), to his co-founding of the journal, Civilità Cattolica in 1850, to his natural law social scientific treatise of the early 1840’s, and ultimately to his “conversion” to the scholastic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas in the early 1820’s—St. Thomas had long been out of favor and ignored by most Catholic thinkers of the “Enlightenment” era. Civiltà Cattolica is the oldest Catholic journal published in Rome by the Jesuits today and still serves as “a quasi-official think tank of the Vatican,” Behr says.

Making Taparelli’s Theories Accessible

Taparelli’s neo-Thomistic approach to social, economic and political sciences grounded in an integral conception of the human person as a social animal but also as a rational truth seeker, became a hallmark of Catholic social doctrine. But his eclectic philosophical orientation and polemical writing style had been a considerable stumbling block to scholars. In the book, Behr gives an accessible introduction to Taparelli’s social theory.

“For the first time in English, we have a scholarly book on Taparelli’s social philosophy,” Book Reviewer Dr. Russell Hittinger, University of Tulsa, said. Hittinger notes that “Behr helps us to understand this formative period of Catholic social theory and how the philosophical terms of art continue to reverberate in contemporary debates about natural rights, social justice and subsidiarity.”

In addition to teaching history, Behr serves as the Director of Liberal Arts degree programs at University of St. Thomas.

Behr earned a PhD in European Intellectual History from The State University of New York at Buffalo in 2000, his MA in History in 1991 and a Juris Doctor in Law in 1987.

The book is available on Amazon.