Johannes Messner

Johannes Messner resting on a hike.

I was recently chosen to serve on the board of the Johannes Messner Geselschaft in Vienna, a society formed to promote the work and the memory of a great Austrian social ethicist. We have a new website now, to which I have added a section in English.

My own professor of Catholic Social Teaching in Heiligenkreuz was a student of a student of Messner’s, and often quoted Messner in his lectures. I found Messner’s carefully formulated descriptions of various social realities a bit of a bore at first, but they have grown on me since. He was very widely read, and tries to synthesize the insights of various intellectual traditions in understanding the functioning of modern society: Austrian Catholic social ethicists such as Franz Martin Schindler and Ignaz Seipel; the social teachings of the popes especially Leo XIII and Pius XI; the scholastic and Aristotelian foundations of those teachings; the sociology of Max Weber and his school; classical liberal political economy; the Marxist critique of political economy.

Messner’s synthesis has some weaknesses. His understanding of the common good is somewhat vague, and would have benefitted much from a reading of Charles De Koninck’s work. And his idea of existenzielle Zwecke, which anticipates in some ways the “basic goods” of the New Natural Law school is problematic. But his work is exemplary in its careful attention to the real workings of modern society.

A highpoint of his political influence was the the chancellorship of Engelbert Dolfuß in the 30s. Dollfuß often consulted Messner. But after World War II his ideas were arguably an influence on the post-war Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) the successor of the old Christian Democratic Party, and thereby on the more “corporatist” elements of post-war Austrian society.

I had the opportunity to talk to someone who knew Messner well recently. And I was struck by how the character of his life mirrored that of his writings. He followed an extremely set routine. In the mornings he would get up, pray the office, celebrate Mass, and then read and write until lunch time. Except on Fridays, he always ate pork and boiled potatoes for lunch. He then took the street car out to the Leopoldsberg North of Vienna and took a walk. On returning, he had some tea and chocolate. The rest of the afternoon was devoted to teaching classes and receiving guests. In the evening he had a supper of bread and cheese with mint-tea. He kept this routine up for decades.

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