Giuseppe Toniolo: A Possible Saint of
Catholic Social Doctrine?
Toniolo espoused all the social doctrine principles
we take for granted today.
Blessed Giuseppe Toniolo has the unusual
accolade of being the first economist in the history of the Church
to have received the honor of beatification. We might also call him
the patron beatus of Catholic Social Doctrine. He may, in fact, one
day become the patron saint of Catholic Social Doctrine or Catholic
Giuseppe Toniolo, an economist saint?
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic
Online): On April 29, 2012, at a ceremony at the Basilica of St.
Paul Outside the Walls, the Catholic Church beatified Giuseppe
Toniolo (1845-1918). Blessed Giuseppe Toniolo has the unusual
accolade of being the first economist in the history of the
Church to have received the honor of beatification. We might
also call him the patron beatus of Catholic Social Doctrine.
Giuseppe Toniolo, the first of four children, was born in 1845
in the town of Treviso to a middle class family with solid
religious grounding. As a young lad, Toniolo studied at St.
Catherine's School (later known as the Foscarini) in Venice.
Later, Toniolo studied jurisprudence at the University of Padua.
After obtaining his degrees in Civil and Canon Law from the
University of Padua in 1867, he continued his studies in
political economy, which studies were briefly interrupted by the
untimely death of his father. The studies were resumed and, in
1873, he was graduated from the University of Padua.
In 1876 he left Padua to accept a professorship in political
economy in at the University of Venice, and in 1878, he left
Venice to teach the same subject matter at the University of
Modena. From the University of Modena, he went to the University
of Pisa in 1882, and was there a Professor until his death in
Toniolo took his duties as a professor seriously. He saw his
students as an extended family. As he expressed it in a diary
entry, he saw them as a sacred deposit, as friends of his heart
to guide in the ways of the Lord.
As a Professor of political economy, Toniolo wrote many books
and articles. He was unashamed of the God question which he
answered ebulliently in the affirmative. "The economy," he
wrote, "is an integral part of the operative design of God, to
the extent that. understood properly, participation in it ought
to be considered a religious obligation, an obligation of
justice and charity to one's neighbor and to one's self."
Toniolo was an early proponent of Catholic social teaching at a
time when the Industrial Revolution had ushered in all sorts of
social problems. The Church was confronting these "new things"
in the light of the Gospel, and Toniolo contributed his
prodigious intellectual talents in arriving at well-founded
solutions to those social problems that fit with the Church's
understanding of man and of society.
As one of the vanguard of social justice and an expert in
socio-economic problems, Toniolo helped set the framework for
social teaching that eventually would become formalized in Pope
Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum, the foundational document
of Catholic Social Doctrine.
Toniolo espoused all the social doctrine principles we take for
For example, recognizing the problems arising between the
relationship of capital and labor, he advocated labor unions as
a means to equalize the relationship. But as an early Catholic
voice in support or labor unions, he resisted the
Marxist-Socialist inspired "red" unions, instead advocating
"white" unions that rejected aberrant Marxist and Socialist
Toniolo also fought against such social evils like the
exploitation of workers and child labor. He insisted that
employers pay their workers just wages, that they limit work
hours, and that they provide mandatory days for rest. He also
advanced agricultural reforms, promoting dairy cooperatives in
He was also an advocate of what today we know as subsidiarity.
In Toniolo's day, the principle was known as "corporatism," but
the concept was essentially the same. The principle of
corporatism-like the principle of subsidiarity-provided that in
social matters a higher corporate body should not interfere in
the internal life of lower order corporate body, thereby
depriving the latter of its functions. Rather, the higher order
should only support the lower order in case of need and help to
coordinate its activity within the activities of the rest of
society, and always with a view to the common good. The same is
true with respect to the individual, in that one should not
withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what the
individual can accomplish by his or her own enterprise or
One of Toniolo's distinctive characteristic was his partisan
independence. He transcended left and right. He saw clearer than
the liberals who based their teachings on Freemasonry, and he
saw further than the Traditionalists who simply refused to budge
from sclerotic formulas of another time.
He neither advocated the laissez faire capitalism of Adam Smith
nor the statism and socialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Steering between these two false philosophies-one based upon
atomistic individualism and the promotion of greed, the other
based upon the denial of private property and an overadulation
of the State-he espoused a middle position consistent with the
virtue we now call solidarity.
Toniolo was a model layman, in fact a lay activist, who
practiced the faith in the world, using his considerable talents
and his education to help promote the Gospel and incorporate it
into modern life.
He was at the forefront of the Catholic Action movement, and
insisted that Catholics be front and center in politics so as to
assure that the yeast of Christ would leaven the dough of
His commitment to the Church and to the Magisterium was
impeccable. "I desire and want, with the grace of God, to adhere
to the Holy See in every argument without exception." Would that
some of our self-styled "Catholic" politicians and advocates of
social justice adhere to Toniolo's authentic Catholic formula!
But for all his fidelity to Magisterial teaching and the Church
hierarchy, Toniolo was not a mindless mouthpiece for the clergy.
Along with his rigorous obedience to the Holy See was also an
active, dynamic, and engaging mind that sought to understand and
implement intelligently and honestly the social doctrines of the
Church in all the contingent circumstances Italy then faced.
Toniolo was also married, and his family life was exemplary. In
1878, he married Maria Schiratti, and together they had seven
children, three of whom died young. He had an unconditional love
for his family.
Toniolo's activities are indicative of his great contributions.
In 1870, he founded the beginnings of a Catholic university in
Milan, originally called the Institute of Superior Studies. This
germ of an institution eventually developed into the impressive
University of the Sacred Heart in Milan. He stated that for the
forty years of his life that he had devoted himself to Catholic
Action, he had suffered at not seeing a Catholic University that
would be the central nucleus, foundation, and sustenance of
In 1889, Toniolo founded the Catholic Union for Social Studies (Unione
Cattolica per gli Studi Sociali). In 1893, he founded the
International Review of Social Sciences (Rivista Internazionale
de Scienze Sociali). He was also the impetus behind the Catholic
periodical "Social Weeks" (Settimane Sociali) which helped
inform Catholics of social and economic issues.
In 1894, he penned the famous "Program of Milan," which was the
operative Catholic platform against the evils of socialism and
which promoted the notion of a Christian democracy.
For Toniolo, a rightly-ordered democracy was "a civil order in
which all social, legal, and economic forces, within the
fullness of hierarchical development, cooperate proportionally
to the common good, on the basis of liberty, fraternity, and
justice, with the intention of promoting the social role of
everyone, and in the last instance benefiting especially the
His vision of Democracy was different from the secular
liberalism of today. Democracy for Toniolo, was not just mere
procedure, but represented the concrete organization of civil
society in the light of the Gospel, its values, and its virtues.
After his death in 1918, Toniolo was buried at the town Pieve di
Soligo. But his body was not to lie unmolested for long. His
sanctity would not remain quiet.
The process of Toniolo's canonization began in 1951. Twenty
years later in 1971, Pope Paul VI declared Toniolo "venerable."
On January 14, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI authorized the
Congregation for the Cause of Saints to promulgate the decree
that certified a miracle attributed to Toniolo's intercession,
thereby setting the stage for Toniolo's beatification. (The
miracle occurred to a young man in his 30s named Francesco
Bortolini, who was cured of his serious injuries sustained as a
result of an accidental fall.)
On April 29, 2012, at a ceremony presided over by Cardinal
Salvatore De Giorgi, at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the
Walls, Toniolo was declared a beatus, the last step before his
Giuseppe Toniolo's beatification "comes at the most appropriate
moment," said Bishop Domenico Sorrentino, the postulator for
Toniolo's cause, when all Catholics "need to find their deepest
roots in bearing witness in society."
We might close with the prayer for Giuseppi Toniolo's
We thank you for giving us
your servant Giuseppe Toniolo, an
exemplary husband and father, and a
University professor who was a wise educator of youth.
He dedicated his life
entirely to your Kingdom,
witnessing to the Gospel
as the source of salvation
for culture and society.
Allow that his example
may impel us to love you
as he loved you, and
that his intercession
may support us and help us
in our need.
Give to the Church,
which he so loved and served,
the opportunity to honor him
as saint on your altars
on account of you,
as an witness of lay holiness
to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity.