For maybe a few weeks or so during the Advent and Christmas seasons and into the New Year, many people take Charles Dickens’ message in A Christmas Carol to heart. It’s a good message.
Dickens’ neatly sums up his message to the world when Ebenezer Scrooge says to Marley’s ghost, “you were a good businessman,” and Marley’s ghost replies, “Mankind should have been my business.”
Unfortunately for many of us, all too soon Christmas is over and it’s back to the daily grind. The message begins to lose its importance. By the end of January, for far too many, the message has diminished in importance. And for some it’s even been forgotten altogether.
Then and Now
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 and it was an instant hit. The first edition printing went on sale on December 19, 1843, and all 6,000 copies were completely sold out by Christmas Eve. Within two months eight different stage plays of the novella were in production. The following year an additional 13 editions were printed and sold.
As with most of Dickens’ works, A Christmas Carol was a commentary on society and human nature. By 1840 the Industrial Revolution had brought about sweeping cultural and economic changes in England, the U.S., and much of Europe. As a result, life was getting better for the new and growing middle class. But for the working class and the poor, conditions were pretty pathetic, especially in large cities.
Today, most people are familiar with the story thanks to the many film and television productions – everything from musicals to animated versions. Two particularly American versions of the story were even produced (An American Christmas Carol, and Scrooged). But the three ‘classical’ versions that are now aired most often are the 1951 movie version starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge, and the 1984 and 1999 television versions that feature George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. Regardless of which version you prefer, however, the message is the same.
Fr. Luigi Taparelli
Around the same time that Dickens was working on A Christmas Carol, a Catholic Jesuit priest and scholar named Fr. Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio was also taking a critical look at society and social issues. Unlike Dickens, however, Taparelli is relatively unknown today.
Taparelli didn’t do book tours or readings of his work, like Dickens did, and no one would ever call him a literary genius. Taparelli’s work is, however, no less important than Dickens’.
Working in Palermo, Italy, Taparelli wrote Saggio teoretico di dritto naturaleappoggiato sul fatto (A Theoretical Treatise on Natural Law Resting on Fact). Taparelli’s treatise is a lot longer than Dickens’ novella. It became the foundation for Catholic social teaching, and in it Taparelli coined the term ‘social justice.’
Like Dickens’ story, Taparelli’s tome was a response to the socio-economic changes taking place. Like many scholars and philosophers before and after him, Taparelli was trying to come up with a solution to the problem of how to create a more just society. We are still grappling with this problem today, but maybe we would not be if more people adopted Taparelli’s views, which are actually reflected in A Christmas Carol.
According to the late Thomas P. Burke, professor of religion at Temple University, three different versions of social justice eventually emerged during the mid-1800s: Taparelli’s conservative version, a classical liberal version, and a socialist version. Unfortunately, the socialist version won out over the other two. This is the version – the redistributive version of social justice – that is being pushed today by socialists and progressives.
The Father of Catholic Social Teaching
But Taparelli’s version of social justice did not simply die an ignoble death. As Burke wrote in an article in the Spring 2010 issue of Modern Age:
“Taparelli has a good claim to being the father of Catholic social teaching. One of his students was the Jesuit Matteo Liberatore, who wrote the first draft of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes), the first papal statement on “the social question.” Leo himself, as we have noted, had been a student of Taparelli’s, his collaborator at the Civiltà Cattolica, and seems to have been influenced by him. Pius XI used to recommend the study of Taparelli’s works in conversations with his friends and colleagues. One of Liberatore’s students was Oswald von Nell-Breuning, S.J., who wrote Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, which officially adopted “social justice” as part of Catholic doctrine . . .”
Taparelli’s concept of social justice says that in order to achieve a just society we must first accept a basic truth. We must accept the idea that while all me are created equal, as in equal rights, all men are not created equal in terms of skills, intelligence, physical traits, motivation, character, etc. The trick is for society to figure out how to deal with this simple but undeniable truth.
Taparelli’s ideal economic system, as described in Saggio, injects morality into economics. He posited that a wide open, laissez-fare type of economy would inevitably result in unbridled competition. Such competition would end up being more harmful than helpful to society. On the other hand, an economy governed by honor, honesty, virtue, ethics, and sound moral principles would be more likely to benefit the common good.
Taparelli was also a major contributor to the concept of subsidiarity which he promoted in an 1848 essay entitled “Legge fondamentale d’organizzazione nella società.”
The principle of subsidiarity has also become part of Catholic Social Teaching. It says that social programs should be undertaken at the lowest possible level of society. In effect, this means social welfare and charity need to take place at a community level – where local businesses, associations, and organizations would know best how to help the community. Social programs should be about people helping people, not the state (i.e., the federal government) helping people.
As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in the encyclical Centesimus Annus (CA) in 1991, in paragraph five, section 48:
“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the social assistance state leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need.” [Italics added.]
St. JP II hit the nail squarely on the head with CA. He echoes the words of Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006). Friedman once quipped, “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand.” There are just some things a large, bureaucratic central government cannot do well.
Catholic Social Teaching
Dickens probably did not realize it, but his wonderful story reflected Taparelli’s perfect socioeconomic system and Catholic Social Teaching. At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge the businessman has an epiphany. He comes to the realization that people should come before profits. Scrooge even puts subsidiarity into practice. He makes what seems to be a sizable pledge to the two gentlemen soliciting donations for a local charity.
Dickens could have made his Scrooge character a politician who decides government needs to do more to help the poor. But he didn’t. Dickens made Scrooge a wealthy but miserly businessman. Near the end of the tale Scrooge comes to the realization that we’re all in this together (solidarity). He also realizes and that it’s up to the more fortunate to help the less fortunate in the community (subsidiarity).
Practice Almsgiving This Year
Almsgiving is a practice that is mainly associated with the Advent and Christmas Seasons. But it is really a year round activity. And opportunities to give alms and help others abound. This year, we can make the world a better place if all of us try, as Scrooge vowed, to honor Christmas all year long.
Some of the information is this article first appeared in another article by Gene Van Son entitled “Conservatism and Social Justice,” published at AmericanThinker.com on December 29, 2013.