The Social Doctrine must be read and lived every day. Its key points come directly from the Gospel – the first and only source of inspiration of the Social Doctrine – and from there get to the key-words: person, subsidiarity, justice and peace, integral human development. These are the key words of the social presence of Christianity as well. Western civilization featured this presence. If the French Revolution was able to coin the motto of «freedom, fraternity, equality», it was because these words came directly from the Christian tradition – as John Paul II remembered several times during his pontificate. If nowadays human rights are a pivotal issue, we owe it to the Dominicans of the XV century school of Salamanca and to Bartolomé de Las Casas. The latter was the first – in his Brief account on the destruction of the Indias – to speak about human rights, also contesting on legal grounds the rights of colonization (encomiendas). Finally, if today there is a debate about both vertical and horizontal subsidiarity, it is because the Social Doctrine of the Church made several statements to support this issue.
Does complying with the principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church suffice to have a better future? Students at the Studium Aquinatis – a workshop on the Social Doctrine of the Church held in the Marian Sanctuary of Canneto, Southern Italy, July 21 to 23 – tried to give an answer to this question. A quick review of the discussions from the workshop allows us to understand two things: how much society is imbued by Christian values, even if nowadays nobody wants to define these values as “Christian”; and, secondly, that young people need to live out these values, and are searching for new reference points.
A new generation of Catholic politician. A glance at Europe
In Italy, this reference point has been for a long time the Democrazia Cristiana, i.e. Christian Democracy, a political party which for years represented the Catholic electorate. While not all Catholics supported Christian Democracy –which inherited the legacy of the Partito Popolare, the Italian People’s party founded by the Italian priest don Luigi Sturzo– the party offered a solid Catholic point of reference. It attracted the best people formed in Catholic associations. That of Christian Democracy was a 40 year-old story which came to a halt with the Tangentopoli scandal –the trial on the kickbacks that fed the Italian political system– and was never resumed fully. Nowadays, Catholics are said to be increasingly irrelevant in the Italian political landscape.
Benedict XVI has spoken –several times– of the need to give rise to a new generation of Catholic politicians capable of putting into practice the Social Doctrine of the Church. The Pope was not only appealing to Italians, but to peoples in all countries. There is a living Catholic family in the world whose struggles are far from parochial. The future of humanity itself is at stake in these struggles.
Just take a look at some European examples. In Finland, Timo Soini, a Catholic, has presided over a spectacular growth of his party. His political program was mostly focused on the economy. Soini did not defend the banks and the European Monetary System. He defended States and their sovereignty, even by accentuating Finnish Pride. His approach stood in contrast to that of the euro-bureaucracy and the Europe of technocrats. In fact, there are major differences between the European ideal early model and that of today.
In Hungary, the Fidesz political party won the elections with such an ample majority that it was able to push through constitutional reforms confidently. The new Hungarian constitution considers Christian values the roots of the Hungarian state, forbids abortion and euthanasia, and limits the arbitrary power of judges.
Yet, both Timo Soini and Fidesz Leader Viktor Orban have been characterized as excessively nationalistic and conservative. In Hungary in particular, the new balance of influence has occurred within the Church itself. The Hungarian Bishops’ Conference changed the name of its «Justice and Peace» commission to Commission Caritas in Veritate, a change later emulated by the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences.
Life in Christ. The principal factor of development
Caritas in veritate, however, is not the only encyclical which deals with justice and peace. It is one of the social encyclicals that -from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum on– has enriched in succession the history of the Catholic Church. The Social Doctrine is in some way a sort of summary of all the social encyclicals, each strongly influenced by the signs of their times. Caritas in Veritate itself, drafted in 2008, was strongly influenced by the global financial crisis that erupted that same year. The multiple revisions of the encyclical draft, with contributions also from people not involved in the Social Doctrine of the Church, underscored magnitude of the challenge.
Because many people contributed to it, Caritas in Veritate has been interpreted in several different ways. Its theological foundation, however, should not be underestimated. Drawing from Paul VI’s social teaching, paragraph 8 of Caritas in Veritate quotes the late Pope’s declaring how «life in Christ is the first and principal factor of development». This affirmation is revolutionary. It signifies a new hierarchy of predominant values. Go back to the Gospel and reinitiate your path from there, Benedict XVI has often said. Proclaiming Christ cannot be set aside, Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reminded the theologians of Liberation Theology who placed the poor, rather than Christ, at the heart of their doctrine. The Gospel cannot be set aside, Benedict XVI told the Church of Germany, underscoring the need for the Church to be less worldly, because a wealthy Church risks losing sight of the Good News announced in the Gospels.
To give rise to a new generation of Catholic politicians, the starting point must be the Gospel. «The rejection of the common or social good can lead to all kinds of sins». This admonition from Saint Thomas Aquinas dates back to the XIII century, yet it is extraordinarily pertinent to the present times. There has been a long debate on the role of Catholics in political organizations, and periodically there are parties that claim to be inspired by Christian values. Thomas Aquinas inverts paradigms, underscoring that it is not sin that brings about rejection of the common good; it is the rejection of the common good that leads to all kinds of sins.
What are the distinctive features of a politically and socially committed Catholic? How can this man/woman put into action this distinctiveness? These questions still beg answers. Occasionally, someone will propose a formula. Other times, the principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church will be presented in purely «secular» terms, as if the exponent would be afraid to affirm his own identity. As if it all amounts to just words, ultimately.
Look no further than to Thomas Aquinas
We need to look no further than to Thomas Aquinas and his «integral humanism» –as philosopher Jaques Maritain defined it– and more deeply into the heart of Catholicism to realize that being a Christian in society is simple and at the same time difficult, just as following Jesus is simple at the same time difficult. The starting point is the heart of the human person, an awareness of having been created in His own image. This new persona then sets into action in history, relating to others in a spirit of fellowship. Are these «secular» terms? No, they are not. They are simply Christian terms. To embrace these dynamics is quite different from merely becoming a professional politician. It essentially means living the Gospel truly.
When Benedict XVI talked about a new generation of Catholic politicians, he is calling for a new generation of people committed in civil society and conscious of the challenge of the Gospel. This appeal risks but must not be misunderstood. Often, the emphasis is on appearances and not enough on life itself. For example, in Italy, groups on the Social Doctrine of the Church are established, and local and international special events around the Social Doctrine are organized, feeding an endless search for the right formulations that increasingly lose sight of teaching the Gospel.
A new commitment of Catholics in the public sphere
These were the key issues that Msgr. Mario Toso, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, addressed to the students of the Studium Aquinatis who listened attentively to prominent speakers during the three-day workshop. Toso focused on the Gospel and the importance to start again from the Gospel. Then, he underlined the need for a new commitment. It can be a political party, but not necessarily. It can take the shape of a new project. How this «venture» will take form is not crucial. What is most important is to begin in the heart of the human person, which is ultimately at the core of the Social Doctrine of the Church and the heart of the Gospel. Starting again from the Gospel, and learning to apply it to everyday life, and thus to society. Only thus the common good will not be discarded.
A new venture can only take off from two places: families and parishes. One must start from our immediate surroundings and work our way to the international arena, to live the Gospel also there. That is how we make a U-turn in the misguided political path of the present and inaugurate a different kind of politics.
This new political season can begin from the grassroots. Father Francesco Occhetta, SJ, a regular contributor and editorial staff member of Civiltà Cattolica –the oldest magazine in Italy, whose drafts are reviewed, before printing, at the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican.– shared three fascinating insights with the young participants of the workshop. First of all, he talked about a personal experience: when he was in Chile doing apostolic work, he was asked to celebrate a funeral for a woman who died in an isolated village in the desert. He thought no one would attend the funeral. But when he got to the church, a crowd was there. That woman had committed her life to resolve conflicts in his parish and in her village, from a place and position that was essentially a center of power. The people acknowledged her commitment, celebrating her funeral as if it were that for a Head of State. «What kind of justice model do we want for ourselves?» Father Occhetta asked the students, challenging them to fundamentally change the prevalent political mindsets of today. He did not seek practical answers, but rather to stir a fruitful reflection.
Justice and reconciliation are two pillars of the Social Doctrine of the Church. «From South Sudan to the Middle East, from Latin America to Congo, from Colombia to the Philippines, the Catholic Church is a powerful force of peace, freedom, justice and reconciliation. But this impressive and courageous commitment to peace-building of Catholic communities is often not acknowledged, it is hardly studied, and it is not valued», Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, wrote on the Osservatore Romano.
There have been many justice and reconciliation commissions that have built peace in countries, especially in Africa. The students of Studium Aquinatis considered this model for Italy, but concluded that each country must set its own path, based on its particular experience and identity. For Italy, they proposed other venues of reconciliations. For example, the project Cesare deve morire (Caesar must die) of the Rebibbia prison in Rome – where prisoners are encouraged to be part of theatrical plays that in some ways re-enact the crimes they committed. More broadly, the students noted that reconciliation is fully meaningful from the certainty of the punishment applied, and also that the rights of the inmates should be fully restored after sentences are fulfilled.
Father Occhetta highlighted the importance of the education dimension. Nowadays, everybody uses overtly technical and specialist vocabularies, hindering our collective capacity to define the horizontal landscape of reality. Even politics – father Occhetta said – has become technocratic, losing sight of achieving development in the medium term. Politics have also fallen to the power of the mass media, which now controls consensus building in society.
Solutions and practices
Fortunately, in the midst of these problems –which were identified in Caritas in Veritate– there are also solutions and best practices about how to live the Social Doctrine of the Church. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace shed light on some of these best practices last May, during a conference to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra.
Centers for the Study of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church rise up in very difficult conditions –just think of the Institut des Artisans de Justice et de la Paix in Benin and the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection in Zambia. While in Mexico anticlericalism is going through a sort of revival, the Imdosoc (Istituto Mexicano de Doctrina Social Cristiana) continues to facilitate networks, train social entrepeneurs, and teach the Social Doctrine. In Brazil, a popular initiative supported by the Episcopal Conference brought about the approval of the Ficha Limpa national law, which sets standards for the eligibility of candidates who run for public office.
Is this enough? The «diplomatic path» of Catholic Church has its sight on the long term, favoring a reform of the United Nations. «Justice – Msgr. Toso says – must be founded on the acknowledgement of the universal human good. Social conscience must be applied and advanced within the market economy. A world governance based on cooperation among nation is needed. It must be a true ‘world authority’, able to take objective decisions. A new economic, political and financial architecture is required». Above all, the primacy of politics over the economy must be restablished. What is now missing is a “Catholic laity” capable of assuming and advancing Christian values. There must be politicians Christianly trained, who can grasp the positive challenge to embrace the Social Doctrine of the Church. Confronted with world imbalances, this Christian laity must be capable of specifically contributing to greater equality». The time has come for the Social Doctrine of the Church to take action.
Unchain the Social Doctrine
There is also a need to unchain the Social Doctrine, as the last «Van Thuan Observatory» Report on the Social Doctrine of the Church states. What are the shackles of the Social Doctrine of the Church? There are external shackles – the report says – i.e. «the aggressive lay culture that violently mobilized to secularize society not only from religion, but also from ethics and finally from the sense of the common good. At the international level, these forces are planning a brutal and sustained attack on life and family, by using huge sums of money to have all countries adopt laws that favor abortion and destroy the family. These forces are the cultural agencies that impose unilateral views on individual freedom, relations among sexes, and procreation. They are the strong economic interests, and the absence of a Christian and ethical perspective regarding business administration and finance resulting in poverty and sufferance». And then, there are the internal shackles, i.e. «the disregard for the Pope’s teachings, which are often considered, sadly, as just one among many different perspectives» and even «not applying to the Social Doctrine of the Church the hermeneutic criteria that Benedict XVI suggested with respect to the Second Vatican Council, and instead continue to speak of two Social Doctrines, one pre-Council and one post-Council. By doing so, the faithful are deprived from having a Social Doctrine of the Church in its integrity and fully inserted in tradition».
The way in which the Social Doctrine is followed, ignored, or contrasted in different parts of the world is addressed in the second section of the report. Among the issues discussed are the work of U.N. agencies, and the change of vocabulary that is masquerading the emergence of worrisome changes in the world. Silvano Maria Tomasi, the Holy See Permanent Observer at the UN in Geneva, has talked about the change of the U.N. vocabulary several times. Most recently, Tomasi appealed the international community to defend the «universality of Human Rights», that already «foresees and provides for the prevention of discrimination. To propose particular rights [for specific groups] weakens the principle of the universality of rights».
The drafters of the report conclude its introduction stating that «we think that the salient need evident in 2010 is the urgency of witnessing, sanctifying and martyrdom of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Our suggestion for the future is not to separate the diverse aspects of the Social Doctrine of the Church, but to keep them together in the authentic Christian life of the Church. Witnessing, sanctity and martyrdom remind us of this need. Without it, the Social Doctrine of the Church would surrender to the ferocious secularization currently under way, and would lose sight of the primacy of God».
Ultimately, there is the need to free the Social Doctrine of the Church for it to become the path to peace.