The absence of God in the public sphere Benedict XVI’s Essay: an important clarification on the role of the Social Doctrine of the Church

This ‘essay’ written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offering a series of ‘notes’ on “the Church and the scandal of sexual abuse” provides substantial food for thought regarding the Social Doctrine of the Church as well. On behalf of our Observatory I would like to present some thoughts in this regard, thereby confirming the importance of what he has written.

First of all, it is necessary to acknowledge the fact that this summary evaluation of the itinerary travelled by moral theology during the twenty years from 1960 to 1980, an itinerary that in Benedict XVI’s opinion led moral theology to its “collapse”, is also confirmed as far as the Social Doctrine of the Church is concerned. This is why the reflections voiced on moral theology in these ‘notes’ are also very valuable with a view to assessing the ensuing consequences for the Social Doctrine of the Church which, according to the new moral theology, was also on the verge of collapse. This was not at all the case for either authentic Catholic moral theology or for the Social Doctrine of the Church, but that was what had been decreed by the de facto rampant currents of theological thought during those decades. Nor was John Paul II of this opinion, as he wrote in Veritatis splendor (6 August 1993) in order to “set these things right again” – as Benedict XVI quotes in his ‘notes – and as he resolutely worked for the relaunching of the Social Doctrine of the Church, specifying its character as a discipline of “moral theology” in paragraph 41 (a fundamental paragraph) of Sollicitudo rei socialis in 1987, and confirming that in Centesimus annus promulgated in 1991, just two years prior to Veritatis splendor. The Social Doctrine of the Church and moral theology therefore shared one and the same destiny since the “collapse” of moral theology could not help but have devastating effects on the Social Doctrine of the Church.

In his Essay, Benedict XVI also indicates the precise point on which moral theology had concentrated its attention: the rejection of any natural law perspective. This also applies to the Social Doctrine of the Church. In this latter sphere, just like in the more general ambit of moral theology as such, the intention was to found the social and political engagement of Catholics, and in more general terms the selfsame ‘practical’ Church-world relationship, on Scripture alone. The Social Doctrine of the Church had always considered natural law and Revelation among its essential foundations. Theology, and moral theology in particular, were looked upon as organic knowledge epistematically founded on the truth of the faith and the truth of reason (or recta ratio) in a harmonious relationship. In the final analysis, this relationship was founded on the relationship between nature and  ‘above-nature’ according to the classical principle of Catholic theology of ‘above-nature, which perfects nature but does not deny it. The ‘Biblicism’ used in moral theology in general, and in the Social Doctrine of the Church in particular, disrupted this relationship and downgraded morals and natural law to forms of ideology that would have frozen the kerigma in abstract doctrines. Benedict XVI, on the contrary, asserts exactly the opposite: without the substantial linkage with morals, the truths of the faith have no connection with the concreteness of life: “there is a minimum set of morals which is indissolubly linked to the foundational principle of faith and which must be defended if faith is not to be reduced to a theory […]”. This reverses the judgment expressed by the new moral theology: the linkage with morals and natural law is essential in order to prevent the faith from becoming an abstract theory, this being a danger the new theology attributes precisely to said linkage. Ever since then – the phenomenon continues today as well – absent from handbooks on the Social Doctrine of the Church is any reference to natural law as one of its foundations. Readily evident in this broad ranging phenomenon is the influence of Protestant theology over Catholic theology, as well as the process whereby ‘Biblicism’ split asunder the unity between faith and reason, and handed over the theme of right and law to positivism.

Benedict XVI refers anew to the encyclical letter Veritatis splendor of John Paul II in his ‘notes’ and singles it out as an essential point of departure for a return to moral theology correctly understood. This ‘return’ to  Veritatis splendor is likewise very important for the Social Doctrine of the Church. This encyclical reiterates the role of natural reason for the knowledge of natural moral law, denies the validity of forms of consequentialism and ethical proportionalism whereby – as Benedict XVI writes in these ‘notes’ – “morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action”, therefore situates the conscience where it rightly belongs as opposed to its state of hypertrophy in the new moral theology, and reiterates that the first element when assessing moral action is the matter of the act itself, and not the intentions of the agent involved. Moreover, he confirms the existence of absolute morals (negative ones) in the sense of acts never to be performed that is the basis for the doctrine of the “non negotiable principles” which, on the contrary, the new theology has always opposed and continues to do so. Our Observatory has always considered John Pau II’s Veritatis splendor and Fides et ratio to be two fundamental encyclicals for the Social Doctrine of the Church because they depict the framework of relations between faith and reason within which the Social Doctrine itself is situated, and outside of which it would hasten to its own collapse. To use the words of Benedict XVI himself, “the outcry against the Magisterium of the Church” has had to do with the aforementioned encyclicals, and, not by chance, and much in a parallel manner, the Social Doctrine of the Church as well.

There is also another point in the pope emeritus’ ‘notes’ that deserves to be emphasized because of its importance with respect to the Social Doctrine of the Church: “A society without God — a society that does not know Him and treats Him as non-existent — is a society that loses its measure”. The public meaning, and hence the fully political and not just the social-speak meaning of these words is confirmed in a following phrase: “Western society is a society in which God is absent in the public sphere and has nothing left to offer it”. This is something Benedict XVI oft repeated when he was “in a position of responsibility as shepherd of the Church”, and is reiterated here in order to  “send out a strong message”. Quite evident is the importance of this reading of reality for the Social Doctrine of the Church which is often understood in a sort of horizontal political sense, while John Paul II proposed it as the announcement of the Savior in temporal realities. “We prefer not to talk about God”, remarks Benedict XVI, and it cannot be denied that this is what happens not only in the public sphere, but has been codified by many decades of new theology. “God has become the private affair of a minority”, and this nullifies the sense and the selfsame possibility of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Far from liberating the Church from the limits of politics and saving it from ideology, “the Church today is widely regarded as just some kind of political apparatus”. This observation is true also as a result of the Church’s use of the Social Doctrine: timid when speaking about God in public, when the Church does speak about God in public, it ends up using the language of the world. This too is an important point in these ‘notes’: “conciliar attitudes were understood to mean having a critical or negative attitude towards the hitherto existing tradition, which was now to be replaced by a new, radically open relationship with the world”.

We feel that with these ‘notes’ Benedict XVI has given the Church a fundamental contribution also with respect to the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Stefano Fontana

Director of the Observatory Card. Van Thuân

on the Social Doctrine of the Church