The importance of Doctrine for catholics active in politics.

This is the text of an essay by Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, Bishop of Trieste and President of our Observatory, published in the February issue of the monthly review “Il Timone”.


The “Social Doctrine of the Church”, as the expression itself reads, is a “doctrine”. For a long time, however, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s, many were those who contested this word and sought to replace it with others, for example, the social “teaching” of the Church, or the social “discourse” of the Church. People argued that the word ‘doctrine’ was not the right one for properly expressing the concept.  The main argument underlying this critique was that the word “doctrine” was considered abstract, theoretical and deductive, while social and political life was considered concrete, ever new, and inductive. The use of the word “doctrine” continued conveying the method of beginning from ‘on high’ and not ‘from below’, from principles in themselves far removed from concrete reality, from intellectualism to formulas. The process should have been just the opposite. It was necessary to begin from human situations, needs and the historical conditions of injustice and poverty in order to develop new doctrinal horizons able to make the praxis of justice and peace forge ahead. This approach was supported by various theological currents of though which argued that the relationship between theory and practice had to be turned around, otherwise, — it was sustained – the Christian message is not understandable precisely because it is lowered from high into a human situation extraneous to it.

At the end, however, all such efforts led to no results. Considering their instrumental nature, the words “teachings” or “discourse” were abandoned, the magisterium continued speaking about the social “doctrine” of the Church, and this now remains the expression used by all, even by those who in the meantime haven’t lost the habit of challenging it. What has happened instead is something new. Nowadays no one suggests replacing the expression containing the word “doctrine”, but people act as if that word was not there. It is no longer contested directly, but is indirectly circumvented, bypassed. No one any longer denies its rightful legitimacy, but it is eluded in actual practice.  

This is especially evident in the sphere of the teaching of the Social Doctrine of the Church where it is still being taught. Doctrinal references serve as a simple prelude before immediately focusing on practical discernment regarding concrete problems, before immediately engaging in praxis. Or else a brief reference to doctrine is followed by an analysis of de facto situations with the support of the social sciences, and then emphasis on praxis. This is ordinarily referred to as an “inductive” method which would like to bring doctrine into the picture at a later stage, but actually leaves it aside. Another way to bypass the obstacle of doctrine is to begin from the person, not from God, but from man, and then move on to praxis. This making do without doctrine, however, is no longer openly declared because it would be a new form of doctrine practiced de facto. This is why the expression “Social Doctrine of the Church” is formally respected nowadays, but denied in practical terms.

Nonetheless, I feel it necessary to clarify what I mean when using the word “doctrine” within the ambit of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The Social Doctrine of the Church is “theology” (and not primarily anthropology, sociology or praxis). Moreover, it is integrated in the tradition of the Church insofar as an essential part of its mission. As such, the Social Doctrine of the Church embodies everything in the richness of the revealed faith; its viewpoint is not “the ethics of the situation” but the apostolic faith. Catholic dogma is therefore the background and the substance of the Social Doctrine of the Church. This is what I understand by “doctrine” since founded thereupon in its totality are “the principles of reflection, “the criteria for judgment”, and also “the action guidelines” of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Teaching it on the basis of the sociological situation and going directly to praxis is therefore an error, because left out of the picture are its foundations.

The social documents of the Magisterium have no doubt whatsoever that the Social Doctrine of the Church is for “practical use”. But they do retain that this practical use must be enlightened by doctrine and not vice versa, since there can be no such thing as pure (or blind) using or doing. They also feel that doctrine must not be understood as abstract or theoretical like a premise of a syllogism or an axiom of geometry. Those who criticize doctrine often make this mistake. Action is life, but doctrine is also life and is so to the utmost degree insofar as practical use or action itself takes on life from it, from doctrine. Doctrine makes it possible to see the concreteness of reality better than the selfsame social sciences. Doctrine is what enabled Leo XIII to take a deep look at the social realities of his time; it wasn’t a series of sociological surveys. Doctrine is what enabled John Paul II to see in depth the changes linked to the collapse of the Berlin Wall; it wasn’t the analyses of political experts at that time. Doctrine tells us what reality is, the supernatural reality God has providentially revealed, and hence the natural reality illuminated by it. Jesus Christ is the Doctrine of the Church. He, who is Truth, has given us truths and shown us our duties, not as unbearable yokes, but as expressions of His plan of love. Moreover, He has given us the spiritual support we need to bear and live them. Doctrine is alive and gives life.  

Evident nowadays is a considerable lack of practical unison in the political commitment of Catholics. Praxis which begins from praxis and not from doctrine disjoins Christian commitment into countless trickles which, at times and unfortunately, are contradictory with one another as well as being inconsistent with the premises of the faith. In what they do Catholics often fight the battles of others and not their own, battles which are even waged against the Church. We note things like very distressing errors of religious and moral assessment, militancy in armies fighting under other flags, positions inspired by consolatory theories of “lesser evil”, collaboration with others with a view to short term ends while not even considering long term ones, and the underestimation of evils and dangers for the faith.

In brief, it is easy to understand that when there is no framework of complete and organic sense constituted by doctrine, practical deeds also lose any unison of intent and outlook. There is no longer any strategy. Minds concentrate on taking action on a single, grave and emerging problem rather than working on the long term and on different levels in order “to construct” a human community according to the plan of God.  People think Catholics are around in order to plug gaps, stitch up open wounds and medicate, but are no longer able to act in an organic manner and then take action in that same way. If stemming from faith is praxis alone, a Catholic must work here and now in responding to needs without spending time asking why, but if stemming from faith is doctrine, a Catholic has a way of looking at reality that enables him to act in order to restore it to its overall functional capability. The Social Doctrine of the Church is for practical action, but understood in this sense, not short term but long term, not extemporaneous but constructive. This is why it cannot cease being social “Doctrine” of the Church.