The Reading Room

How a liberal Constitution became a forbidden book

The old world ended with a bang, not with a whimper. After the Bastille, no political thinker could escape the haunting ghost of the French Revolution - and indeed students of politics still cannot. Antonio Rosmini (1787-1855) was an Italian priest and the founder of a religious order. A man of almost unfathomable erudition and knowledge, he wrote on ethics, ontology, theology and metaphysics - but on political philosophy too. 
His last political book is The Constitution under Social Justice, which is, indeed, the text of a possible constitution for Italy, accompanied by a detailed comment, article by article. Such commentaries are a primer in Rosmini’s political philosophy. The book was written in another revolutionary year par excellence: 1848, and landed in the Index librorum prohibitorum on May 30 1849. So began a wandering in the wilderness for Rosmini’s works and memory.
Rosmini was critical of Constitutions “of the French kind”. The French Revolution had been exported thorough Europe, but generated unstable political regimes. There was an ongoing conflict of legitimacy and – although the legacy of the French Revolution had shaken the old hereditary principle – democracy did not always have the upper hand. Madame de Staël once observed that a problem with constitutions is that their writers regularly fall victim to a sort of authorial frenzy. Like novelists, they want to be original and to have such originality recognized in the constitutions which bear their names. Rosmini thought that the problem of the constitutions inspired by the French system was that they were the product of “improvisation of audacious and imaginative minds, too much infatuated with too general and too imperfect theories”. Such general theories tend to assume that human beings can be perfected by laws, rather than trying to cope with their imperfections. Applying constitutions “essentially of one mould” to different governments and countries wasn’t wise. The sixty years after the French revolution proved these imported constitutions to be “fragile and ephemeral”.
Political wisdom demanded something different: a “thorough study of the centuries”, that could lead to make the most of human imperfection instead of rushing towards utopias bound to be turned into their opposite. In his Political Philosophy, Rosmini attacked what he called “perfectism”: a “system that believes perfection to be possible in human things, and which sacrifices today’s goods to an imaginary future perfection. . . . [I]t consists of arrogant prejudice, for which human nature is judged too favorably.” This is why, to the contrary, Rosmini admired constitutions that were “acted before being written”, like the one of the Venetian Republic and the English constitution.
But the Italian territories lacked a unitary history, hence a constitution for them ought to be written before being enacted. Rosmini did so, distilling in the same book his reflections of years. “In the hour of their regeneration”, Italians needed a written constitution and it better not be a French one.
A cornerstone of Rosmini’s political thought had always been the importance of private property. He maintained that the “concept of freedom does not exist if completely deprived of property”. Property is a projection of the profound individuality of the individual, its “social representation”.
This affected Rosmini’s view of political representation. Rosmini maintained that the franchise should be proportioned to the amount of taxes paid, and thus to the property owned by each member of a society. This he meant rather literally: article 53 of the Constitution explained that “deputies are elected by electoral colleges, each one electing one deputy” and article 54 mandated that “once the total sum of the direct taxes is divided by the total number of the deputies, the quota is represented by an electoral college”. Then, take article 55, “the major property owners gather in sufficient number to form a college, which pays the quota represented by the college to the state… If only one property owner pays the established quota to the state as a direct tax, then only he elects a deputy and can even elect himself”. This was representation in the most stringent sense: a principal appointing an agent responsive to herself.
Rosmini thought that, to the contrary, unqualified franchise was a slippery slope towards redistribution and redistribution was bound to corrupt politics. In a rather prophetic sentence, he pointed out that “the deputies of the people elected through a universal franchise are not much adverse to loading the state with debt”. He likewise saw the nationalization of businesses as a consequence of the electoral system: with universal franchise, politicians would be tempted to substitute government for private business, in order to keep their voters employed no matter what. Rosmini thought that was the lesson of France’s ateliers nationaux which offered government funded jobs. He was certainly prescient in that too.
Hence, in his perspective, a proportional franchise was not a way to limit the recognition of individual rights to the wealthy. Resolving matters of individual, as opposed to patrimonial, rights is something Rosmini entrusted to what he called the political tribunal. The name sounds a bit sinister but it was in fact the highest court, whose job however was not to enforce the laws passed by Parliament but to hold “the natural and rational right against all other powers of the states”. Such tribunal consisted of a jury elected by universal franchise. This institution was meant as the guardian of everyone’s rights, and as an instrument to scrutinize positive laws.
Rosmini’s constitution still remains an interesting document, particularly for classical liberals. Rosmini digs deeply into fiscal issues (aiming for something similar to a flat tax), decries industrial policy, defends economic freedom as an essential part of liberty. “We believe that the mission of a wise government is not that of surprising citizens with cunning, by squeezing money out of their pockets in any which way so long as the citizens do not complain”. Hear, hear.
Why was this book banned? Why did the Church get mad at this liberal thinker, who also happened to be a Catholic priest? His ideas look hardly more extreme than other liberal works. Nor was Rosmini attacking the papacy or its temporal power. 
People tend not to remember that Pius IX, before 1848, was considered a Pope of liberal sentiments and potentially the leader of Italian unification. But in 1848 his prime minister, Pellegrino Rossi (an economist), was assassinated and the Roman republic was briefly established, with the Pope fleeing to Gaeta. Rosmini had gone to Rome to nudge the Pope to distance himself from Austria-Hungary, follow their shared liberal sentiments, and endorse Italian independence. The Pope, who admired Rosmini’s intellect and wanted to make him a cardinal, flirted with the idea of appointing him prime minister. But his liberal sympathies were wiped away by the uprising and the star of Rosmini declined.
At the same time he sent to the presses The Constitution under Social Justice, Rosmini published a little pamphlet he wrote a few years before: The Five Wounds of the Church. This was a forceful denunciation of the five plagues which, in his opinion, afflicted the Church. Rosmini did not take position against the temporal power of the Papacy, but he chastised the ignorance of the priesthood and the bishops’ cronyism with political power and economic potentates. 
Though he was born in Rovereto, an Austrian dominion, Rosmini was also an advocate of Italian independence and friendly with part of the establishment of the Piedmontese Kingdom, which was at the forefront of the national unification efforts. He was not short of enemies within the Roman curia. Hence the banning of The Five Wounds of the Church, and of the Constitution under Social Justice with it. They ended up in the Index together with works of Gioacchino Ventura, a Sicilian priest that endorsed the 1848 uprising in Sicily, and Vincenzo Gioberti, the former chaplain of the King of Savoy and his prime minister in 1848-1849. The idea was to send a message, so to say, to liberal Catholics whose nationalist efforts were supposed to be damaging to the Church. Be quiet.
Rosmini submitted himself to the banning “con pienezza di cuore” (a full heart), thinking it was “un atto doveroso per ogni figliuolo della Chiesa” (a dutiful act for any child of the Church). But he died with this bitter disappointment.
After his death, Rosmini had to face the hostility of the Jesuits. In 1887 the Holy Office condemned with a decree, “Post Obitum”, 40 propositions from his work. To be rehabilitated, Rosmini had to wait the second half of the 20th century and in particular the second Vatican Council. It was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to clear his name in 2001. In 2007, Rosmini was officially beatified (a first step towards the recognition of sainthood) and before that, he had been mentioned approvingly by John Paul II, in the encyclical letter Fides et ratio.(1998).
His condemnation had consequences. It certainly impacted negatively his followers, within the Church, but also deprived for years Catholics of a voice that was mature and critical, and liberal on political matters. One may just speculate about such matters but, had they considered Rosmini more sympathetically in the late 19th century, perhaps Catholic priests and scholars would have better understood liberalism too.