The 19th of April marked the 24th anniversary of Benedict XVI’s election to the See of Peter. His was indeed a most bountiful and rich pontificate, also for the Social Doctrine of the Church, with one special feature: the importance of his contribution to the social doctrine is due not that much to teachings directly addressed to that subject, but rather to the way he clearly explained the selfsame foundations of the Church’s social teaching. I would like to specify this point which is ordinarily highlighted to a limited degree.
The Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas est (2005) contains a lengthy paragraph – n°48 – which may be considered a mini social encyclical. Caritas in veritate (2009) was an encyclical commemorating Paul VI’s Populorum progressio, and may legitimately be considered a social encyclical in its own right. His Messages for the World Day of Peace during the eight years of his pontificate also embody important social teachings. Moreover, there are also memorable speeches, such as, for example, the one he gave to the German Parliament in 2011 with the focus on power and human rights. Nonetheless, and without lessening the importance of these contributions in any way, Pope Benedict’s major merit resides in his having deepened, perhaps more so than any one of his immediate predecessors, those very foundations that make the Social Doctrine of the Church not only possible, but also due, right, and proper. I would like to try of offer a brief illustration of at least three of these foundations which I consider most important.
The first of these foundations may be seen in the way the pope, with remarkable philosophical and theological sagacity, reiterated the relationship between nature and super-nature in the mainstream of the most perfect Christian tradition. By way of example, let us consider the speech delivered at the Collége de Bernardins in Paris (2008). In that speech Pope Benedict XVI explained that seeking God (Quaerere Deum) must be the first commitment of the Church, as it had been for the medieval monks, and then stemming there from was the just organization of the world: caring for barbarous souls paved the way to reclaiming marshlands and planting crops. Teachings such as these – and the magisterium of Benedict XVI abounds with them – are of great importance for the Social Doctrine of the Church. In the pope’s speech delivered there with his typical feature of intellectual agility and good taste, he reiterated that without the ultimate things, there are not even penultimate things; without God, there is not even man, and hence the social doctrine ceases being evangelization, without being human promotion either. The primacy of God confirmed here also entailed a place for God in the world, in public as well, because if the entire civitas does not seek God, politics does not achieve its ends. This was the great theme of the primacy of grace over nature in order to avoid any form of Pelagianism and political naturalism.
A second point of utmost ‘architectural’ importance is the theme of truth that makes it possible to link reason and faith to one another. Catholicism is the religio vera which enters into a relationship with reason by virtue of the former’s truth, and renders reason true in its own right. Other religions, however, are not able to bring reason to grips with the problem of its own truth, and to request that of reason, since these other religions do not embrace the full need for truth as does the religion “with a human face”, that is to say Catholicism. This is the religion of the Logos, and not the myth, and hence it is the religion that liberates. Since what is more cannot come from what is less, it is not possible that order and human intelligence were born by sheer chance or as a result of determinism, but had to stem from the ordering Wisdom of God. Benedict XVI thereby reiterated the importance of the natural moral law and natural law, themes to which he dedicated so many teachings, both autonomous in their own right and at the same time in need of the religio vera, without which human intelligence loses any trust in itself.
A third ambit of great importance is the teaching about the correct concept of laicity. This is also a fundamental theme for the Social Doctrine of the Church because it defines relations between politics and religion. On many occasions Benedict XVI clarified that born in the western world for the first time in history was a culture that was not only independent, but likewise against religion. This occurred above all with the Enlightenment. It therefore became impossible to think about laicity as something neutral regarding religions: such laicity would soon turn into something anti-religious. It’s like saying that a moderate or open laicity is impossible, but that modern laicity is always laicism as well. Hence, the most important conclusion of this discourse: a world without God is a world against God, which brings us to the provocative challenge posed to laypersons: live as if God wasn’t there. The logical sequence to this is the idea that when politics throws God out of the public sphere, it transforms itself into a new religion. It makes itself God.
The three points I have illustrated so briefly are more than sufficient grounds for rereading and correcting many trajectories of Catholic theology that have gone off track, many Catholic theories about politics, and much of the practical conduct of Catholics in the public sphere. This is the reason why Benedict XVI’s magisterium is and remains fundamentally important for the Social Doctrine of the Church, and must not be forgotten in any way at all, even if we were prevented in so many different ways from recalling it.