The what has always had the pride of place over the how in the Social Doctrine of the Church. The contents of revealed truths have always been in the forefront with respect to how they are known and how they are expressed. How they are known and how they are expressed depend on what they are; the cognitive how and the expressive how must be congruous with what they are and not determine what they are. By way of the most famous example: the how in the form of Greek philosophy did not Hellenize Catholic doctrine, but rather the Christian faith Catholicized Hellenism. When Benedict XVI states that the encounter between Greek philosophy and Christianity had been providential, he means to say that in this case the what found its proper how.
For some time, however, we have been seeing an emancipation of the how from the what. Initially, the two of them are placed on the same level, and it is argued that the how has as much of an influence on the what as the what has on the how. How something is known would have as much influence on knowledge as the content known. How something is expressed is just as important as the content communicated. This position of equality between the how and the what was later surmounted and it was argued that the how even contributes to the construction of the what, in the sense that the contents of the knowledge are not independent with respect to how they are known, but actually depend on it. In brief, in the thing known the knower also knows something about himself since the thing remains unknowable in itself. All we know are constructs and no longer realities, interpretations and no longer truths. This was what the Jesuit Fr. Sosa wanted to say when speaking about the tape recorder Jesus didn’t have to vouch for His precepts regarding matrimony. Modern philosophy at large is marked by the passage from the what to the how. The emancipation of the how with respect to the what becomes complete with the clear subordination of the what to the how, and this to the point that people now only speak about the how, and no longer about the what, with this proudly being called “the end of metaphysics”.
From a theological point of view this is called the primacy of pastoral endeavors over doctrine, in morals it is called the primacy of conscience over norms, in metaphysics the primacy of existence over essence, in epistemology the primacy of hermeneutics over metaphysics, and in politics the primacy of participation over programmes.
For some time I have been writing in La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana about this passage also on the part of the Magisterium, both pontifical and episcopal. The invitation is to participate, without saying with which contents; to receive, without saying for which purposes or ends; to integrate, without knowing where; to vote, without saying for what; to dialogue, without indicating the criteria and contents of dialogue; to mend tears, without taking a close look at who caused them and what type of mending to do; to go out, without saying where; not to let hope be stolen from us, without saying hope in what, and to dream, without saying what to dream about.
This attitude is contrary to the Social Doctrine of the Church and surpasses it, excluding it from possible discourse. This attitude makes it useless. In fact, the Church’s social doctrine proposes principles for reflection, criteria for judgment and directives for action: the how comes last and is preceded by the what. Making what depend on how means to be: rationalists, voluntarists, existentialists, sheer practitioners, historicists. . . .all these positions hold that a “doctrine”, such as we what have in the expression “Social Doctrine of the Church”, does not exist unless it is structurally determined by something located elsewhere entirely.
This passage from the what to the how proper to the new theology is the consequence of a long journey dating back to Blondel, Fr. Chenu, Rahner, Kasper. . . .as well as a long series of innovative theologians. All of them consider theology as always being “the second act” coming after “the first act” which is life, praxis, experience, and existence, or, as academic experts say, the “Sitz im Leben”.
This cannot be a reference model for the Social Doctrine of the Church, and the prevailing presence of this model in the Church’s magisterium is the reason why the Social Doctrine of the Church is in difficulty.