The Dogmas of the Catholic Faith, the Social Doctrine of the Church and the Political action of Catholics.

Verona, 15 April 2015

Church of St. Peter Apostle


The Social Doctrine of the Church is not in the best of health, the social engagement of Catholics uses it as a benchmark in a rather confused manner, its teachings are being secularized and reduced to the level of civic and constitutional propriety, and for some time its “relaunching”, so ardently willed by John Paul II, has come to a stop, as if it ever really began[1]. In the meantime the construction of society against God and man has taken giant leaps forward. When inaugurating the Academy of the Social Doctrine of the Church in Trieste, Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi pulled no punches when illustrating this dramatic contradiction: politics is institutionalizing the attack against human nature and the Creator, and Catholics are no longer present in politics.  

Among the many causes for this situation, one stands out as truly decisive: the relationship between the Social Doctrine of the Church and the dogmas of Catholic faith has changed. In the  past, the engagement of Catholics for the Church’s social doctrine was looked upon in terms of vital continuity with the dogmas professed by the faith and taught by the Church. Nowadays it must be noted that said relationship is understood in a different manner and is largely being forgotten. Hence, those teachings and the ensuing engagement has lost both believing sap and specifically Catholic theological substance.

This is why it would be important to refer to the bond existing between Catholic dogmas and the Social Doctrine of the Church at least in summary terms.

Dogmas and history

Underway today is a devaluation of dogmas, and the adjective ‘dogmatic’ has a very defamatory tone. A dogma is often understood as something abstract insofar as set forever and unchangeable. In order to avoid this alleged abstractness it is argued that dogmas are historical: since they have been identified by the Church in an historical and progressive manner, thus do they evolve in history, mature and undergo changes[2]. The stress brought to bear on the historical nature of dogmas is often developed in such a manner as to nullify their transcendence.

In 1907 St. Pious X published the Encyclical Letter Pascendi[3] in which he condemned two typical and closely connected modernist positions: the fact that revelation takes place in conscience and hence is ever in evolution, and the fact that dogmas evolve in history. Condemned in other words was the historicity of dogmas. In the Decree Lamentabili annexed to Pascendi, Pious X affirmed that Holy Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle, and as of that moment can only be handed down, but neither enriched nor changed.  

The dogma historicity advocates argue against this by saying that the knowledge and transmission of dogmas are historical facts in their own right and hence dogma changes. Therefore, the issue is whether a dogma is something stated once for all and to be transmitted in a manner absolutely faithful to its verbal and conceptual formulation, or if a dogma is a truth that matures with the passing of time. Stemming from the answer are two different concepts of Tradition.

The fundamental truths of the faith condensed in the Apostolic Symbol are also called dogmas insofar as they are established by the universal Magisterium of the Church as truths to be believed by all the faithful. Therefore, there is a nucleus of truths of faith that has always belonged to the apostolic Church, and this nucleus is called the deposit of faith. From the very outset this deposit came into being under the Magisterium, from the very outset it has been in relationship with Sacred Scripture (first the Old Testament, and then the New Testament), and from the very outset has been the expression of the faith of the Church, that is to say of tradition: therefore, the deposit is the set of these three elements.

The following question arises: down through history has the Church proclaimed new teachings with respect to the deposit of faith? Here it is necessary to understand what is meant by the word ‘new’. If new means “it wasn’t there before”, the answer is ‘no’, the Church cannot give new teachings. If new means it was always contained in the traditional deposit of faith and only now is defined in explicit terms, the answer is ‘yes’. In this latter case, however, the word ‘new’ seems less than appropriate. Other than the new coming of Christ at the end of time[4], there can be absolutely nothing new in dogmatic tradition. This is why the Church has condemned at length the positions of “Innovators” without ever mistaking them for ‘prophets’ (as often happens nowadays). A “new” dogma, for example, the Immaculate Conception of Mary or the Assumption, adds nothing to the deposit of faith because the Church has always believed in that truth testified to by Scripture.  Therefore, it is new insofar as age-old. The true Christian developments are such because they are age-old. An ‘Innovator’ is someone who wants to replace the age-old with the new. The prophet is someone who wants to trace the new back to the age-old.

Are dogmas historical? In the sense that the truths believed were also historical facts, yes. In the sense that dogmas make history in terms of producing civilization, yes, as we will see in greater length later on. In the sense that in history the Church can define “new” truths as seen above, that is to say in the explicit definition of what had always been part of tradition, by all means yes.

Those who speak about the “historicity” of dogmas, however, do not have in mind anything akin to what we said above. Ordinarily, as they see it, revelation takes place in history and therefore continues to take place. As a result dogmas undergo an evolutionary process and are not truths to be handed down as defined. In this sense, however, the historicity of dogmas is unacceptable.

The main reason ordinarily advanced to support the historicity of dogmas is that a dogma is both content and a believing conscience, and calls for a truth to be transmitted as well as an historical-practical[5] or vital way to know it. Dealing with it as content alone would entail overlooking that fact that there would be no dogma without the faith of the Church.

It is true that a dogma is always to be lived anew. It is likewise true that a dogma is to be deepened. The reason for this, however, is its inexhaustible sense, not the relativity of our points of view that orient the interpretation thereof in one direction or another as may seem fit. From the very outset a dogma requires the faith of the Church, but this is a ‘knowing’ and not just an ‘interpreting’. It is a knowing of the meta-historical truths which therefore do not change. This last point – regarding meta-history – is ordinarily denied by those who sustain the historicity of dogmas, which would therefore have no absoluteness at all.

In order to understand this point in simple terms we can join Karl Löwith in asking ourselves the following question: Can the Church of today say it has understood Christ’s message “better” than the apostolic Church?  Mr. Löwith wasn’t completely wrong when he sustained that there can be no ‘progress’ in Christianity. A Catholic cannot be “progressive”[6].

Dogmas make history

One of the reasons why in a certain sense we can say a dogma is historical is because dogmas have made and continue to make history. They are not abstract or purely symbolic truths as people think. This are glimpses of very real divine life that providence has willed to reveal to us. They show us how things stand in heaven and on earth. Their content is a content of being[7].

During the great crises of humanity the Church has reacted with its dogmas more so than with contingent measures. And what saved humankind from degeneration and destruction was reference to dogmas. In this sense it may be said that history is made by dogmas.  

Each dogma always has real content and may not be relegated to the status of a myth. Dogmas nourish the Church, and the Church is the Body of Christ in history, Body which remains for eternity.[8] Between dogma and Body there is an inseparable unity, and hence a dogma is not present only in the consciousness of a believer, but by virtue of its selfsame nature becomes real history and hence civilization. It is the realism of the Catholic faith.

With its dogmas defined at its dogmatic Councils and in the definitions of the Petrine Magisterium, the Church has molded western Christian civilization. Nowadays there is a sort of general underrating of doctrine in the life of the Church and much more of an emphasis on pastoral praxis, which risks overshadowing the former. In this regard I would like to offer two examples taken from history.

The first example has to do with Gnosis. The condemnation of Arianism and the definition of the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ belied Gnosis, the expression of Hellenistic rationalism. This entailed a lengthy process involving other Councils as well, along with the work of the Fathers and great Doctors of the Church.  This ‘match’, however, has yet to be won since alongside the Gnosis of the early Christian centuries there is an “eternal Gnosis”. Nonetheless, the battle waged by Christian dogma against Gnosis preserved human civilization from the catastrophes of Catharism, from the refusal and contemporary exaltation of matter, from the destruction of matrimony and the family, and from the refusal of political authority. It produced fruits of civilization in the just consideration of evil and suffering, and defended against nihilism. The defense of the Old Testament against the Gnostic attacks made it possible to preserve the positive vision of creation and the historical-social dimension of the Christian faith.  The baptism of children, prayers for the deceased, priestly celibacy, the worship of images: what benefits were reaped by western civilization as a result of such points, all of which would have been eliminated if Gnosis had prevailed! What damages would have been caused by pauperism, pacifism, and Gnostic-type radical purism if they had been able to spread without limits! When commenting on the battle of Muret fought on 13 September 1213 when Simon of Montfort, after having attended Mass celebrated by St. Dominic, led a thousand soldiers and put to flight the Aragonese army which supported the Albigenses with 40,000 soldiers, Jean Guitton affirmed: “Muret is one of those decisive battles where decided was the lot of a civilization. Strangely enough, most historians disregard this fact”[9].

The second example has to do with Pious IX and the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854. The definition of the dogma stemmed forth from a theological reading of the events of the liberal revolution. According to Pious IX, all the contemporary errors were a consequence of the negation of original sin, and hence the incompatibility between God and sin.  The end purpose of life had to be the progress of man and the world; modern man had to become autonomous and self-sufficient, liberating himself from the tutelage of the Church; religion was useful for purposes of civic progress and had to be subordinate to it. Having denied original sin, however, there is no longer any room for Christ, the Church and grace.

In the face of this vision of things Pious IX wanted to reiterate the incompatibility between God and the sin of the world, and the fact that the essential and main end of the world and history is not the celebration of human progress, but the glory of God. And he did so by proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, “the glorious victor over heresies”.

The violent events Pious IX had to witness were part of the plan to emancipate the natural order from the supernatural order. He was of the opinion that it was not possible to come to terms with this plan, not possible to ‘Catholicize’ it. Hence the genesis of the Encyclical Letter Quanta cura and the Sillabo, which are not to be seen separately from the profound theological meaning of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but, together with Vatican Council I, looked upon as Pious IX’s response to modern sin. Not by chance did all three of these take place on 8 December: the proclamation of the dogma in 1854, Quanta cura and the Sillabo in 1864, and the opening of Vatican Council I in 1869 [10]. A few years later, as we know, in the grotto of Massabielle, our Lady said to Bernadette: “I am the Immaculate Conception”.

Dogmas helped construct western civilization. Dogma was the principal source for thwarting the apostasy of the west from Christianity, an apostasy which by then had become dogmatic. Born of dogmas, the Catholic movement has always taken this into consideration. I would like to recall that 8 December – the feast of the Immaculate Conception – has always been the feast of membership in the Catholic Action Movement, that is to say the moment with Catholic militancy in society makes an explicit and liturgical reference to this dogma.

Heresy and history

What we have said thus far may also be reversed in a negative sense. Forgetfulness regarding dogma today goes hand in hand with the underrating of heresy. Heresy would be just as abstract as dogma. Condemning heresy is nowadays looked upon as the condemnation of freedom of thought. If dogma evolves historically, heresy is the necessary spring for its dialectic evolution. Heresy is the negative critical element necessary so what is positive may be attained. Surprising indeed is the degree to which Catholics today no longer consider the real repercussions of the evil, the sufferings and the historical and social disorders that heresies entail. The cohabitation of dogma with heresy, truth with error, is today considered normal and even desirable, even within the Church.

This observation brings us to a dogmatic aspect of fundamental importance, and this is original sin. Since this will be the object of specific consideration in the future, let’s just refer to it, doing so in relationship with Mary. Marian dogmas are of singular importance among Catholic dogmas: She is creation as the Creator had divined it; She is the woman, the man, the family, and hence the human society as in the mind of the Creator; She is re-created humanity as in the mind of the Savior.

In his book “Memory and Identity”, one of the latest great books of the theology of history, St. John Paul II speaks of Mary in a quite singular manner. With original sin “man had remained alone: alone as creator of his own history and civilization, alone as he who decides what is good and what is bad, as he who would exist and work as if God did not exist”[11]. It is evident how this situation described by John Paul II is specific in particular terms to man of modernity. Deriving there from are all the ideologies of evil and “this happens because God has been rejected as Creator, and hence as wellspring for the determination of what is good and what is evil”[12]. The limit posed upon evil is Redemption: “”Only the measure of the good introduced by God into history through the mystery of the Redemption is of such magnitude as to correspond in full to the truth of the human being. Radiant in the Gospel is a light that shines on all of human existence in its temporal dimension and therefore reflects on the created world. Through His resurrection, Christ has, as it were, justified the work of creation and in particular the creation of man in the sense that He revealed the just measure of the good intended by God at the beginning of human history”[13].

Now, Mary meditated upon all this in her heart. Mary’s maternal memory is also the maternal memory of the Church, the Tradition (175) giving birth to its essential identity. This memory is also the memory of man, and “the Catholic Church preserves within itself the memory of the history of man from the very beginning. . .the Church is mother, who, resembling Mary, cherishes in its heart the history of its children, making all the problems innate to that history its own problems”[14].

[1] CREPALDI, Giampaolo (con Stefano Fontana), La Dottrina sociale della Chiesa. Una verifica a dieci anni dal Compendio (2004-2014), Cantagalli, Siena 2014, especially chapter II: “La Dottrina sociale della Chiesa in difficoltà”, pp. 25-46.

[2]For Karl Rahner revelation coincides with the history of revelation and this coincides with the history of salvation (RAHNER, Karl, Corso fondamentale sulla fede. Introduzione al concetto di cristianesimo, San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo 1990, sezione V). In some of his writings dating back to the early 1960’s Joseph Ratzinger had also placed stock in the historicity of dogmas: RATZINGER, Joseph, Il problema della storia dei dogmi nella teologia cattolica, in ID., Natura e compito della teologia. Il teologo nella disputa contemporanea. Storia e dogma, Jaka Book, Milan, 2005 (second edition), pgs. 109-130; ID., La storicità dei dogmi, Ibid, pgs. 131-142.

[3] PIO X, Pascendi dominici gregis. Sugli errori del modernismo, Introduzione di Roberto De Mattei, Prefazione di Luigi Negri, Cantagalli, Siena 2007.

[4] “Compared with the absolute newness of the unique event of Christ there can be nothing effectively new”. (LÖWITH, Karl, Significato e fine della storia. I presupposti teologici della filosofia della storia, Il Saggiatore, Milano 2010, pg. 193).

[5] ANGELINI, Giuseppe, EvangeliiGaudium. La conversione pastorale e la teologia, “Teologia” XXXIX (2014) 4, pg.495: «Supposing that the essence of the Church has always been known and that it is therefore a matter of just applying it to external and changing situations is naive. The Church is a mystery never suitably known. It becomes manifest through the historical and practical forms of its coming to be”

[6] LÖWITH, Karl, Significato e fine della storia cit., pg. 134.

[7] GARRIGOU-LAGRANGE, Reginald, Il senso comune, la filosofia dell’essere e le formule dogmatiche, a cura di Antonio Livi e Mario Padovano, Casa editrice Dante Alighieri, Rome 2013.

[8]Ratzinger, Joseph, Fede Verità Tolleranza. Il cristianesimo e le religioni del mondo cit., pg. 74.

[9]Guitton, Jean, Il Cristo dilacerato. Crisi e concili nella storia, Cantagalli, Siena 2002, pg. 166.

[10]CfR. de Mattei, Pio IX e la rivoluzione italiana, Cantagalli, Siena 2012.

[11] JOHN PAUL II, Memoria e identità, Rizzoli, Milan 2005, pg. 21.

[12]Ibid, pg. 23.

[13]Ibid, pg. 37.

[14]Ibid, pg. 178.