The italian Church and the future of the Social Apostolate

Now available in bookstores is the new book-interview (with Stefano Fontana) of Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi entitled “La Chiesa italiana e il futuro della pastorale sociale” (Cantagalli, Siena 2017) . In the text below the archbishop himself highlights the essential points in his new book.


Does the social apostolate still need the Social Doctrine of the Church, and, if yes, how is the latter to be understood? The history of the social apostolate tells us it was revived in the wake of Vatican Council II precisely in the light of the Social Doctrine of the Church and in close relationship with it. This was not immediately evident with Paul VI, but certainly not because of presumed hesitations on his part in this regard. When commemorating Populorum progressio of Paul VI in the encyclical letter Caritas in veritate, Benedict XVI quite opportunely dismissed the version of a pope uncertain about the relationship Church-world and the validity of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The revival was more evident in Paul VI’s successors, beginning with John Paul II, who dispelled any residual doubts about the importance of the Social Doctrine of the Church when he attended the CELAM assembly in Pueblo shortly after his election. Ever since then the social apostolate has always been understood as complementary to the Social Doctrine of the Church on the basis of three indispensible elements. The first is that the Social Doctrine is “of the Church”, which means to say that all ecclesial subjects are active stakeholders in it insofar as it belongs to the very mission of the Church. The second is that the Social Doctrine is to be understood as an organic doctrinal corpus that sheds light on and guides the life-action of the Church. The third is that the Social Doctrine of the Church is an instrument of evangelization and is hence addressed to the world for the salvation of the world which needs justice and peace, but cannot give them to itself all on its own.

These considerations were the inspiration that lead to the drafting of the Social Apostolate Directory “Evangelize Social Reality” by the Italian Episcopal Conference in 1991. This was an important step because indicated therein were the what, the who and the how of the social apostolate. Moreover, it clearly affirmed the structural linkage of the social apostolate with the Social Doctrine of the Church. Pastoral praxis had to be enlightened by the Social Doctrine which was not to be looked upon only as a social “teaching” or “discourse” on the part of the Church, but as corpus, certainly subject to changes regarding some of its aspects, but likewise faithful to its own tradition in the tradition of the Church as regards other aspects of a fundamental nature. If the social apostolate needed the Social Doctrine, and if this was to be known to and incarnated by all ecclesial stakeholders, and particularly by laypersons, the question of formation arose as a core issue, and the Italian Church invested considerable resources in this regard.

There were the experiences of the Social and Political Formation Schools, those of the social weeks of Italian Catholics, those of the discussion groups of Catholics engaged in politics, and that of the spirituality encounters for Catholics active in the political arena. The bonding element of all these experiences was supposed to be the cultural horizon of the Social Doctrine of the Church, with the need for widespread and organic formation also at the grassroots level.

This overall plan also clashed head on with difficulties. The process of secularization had become more intense in the meantime, vocabulary and linguistics used when referring to social issues had become all the more fragmentary, while manifestations of behavior and conduct conflicting with traditional morals increased. Pluralism spread also within the Church, where some people challenged the existence of natural law and natural moral law as one of the sources of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The relationship between reason and faith weakened and many doubts arose about the characteristics of the Church’s public role. A conceptual idea of laicity as neutrality saw the light of day, and this meant indifference towards any religion. Politics refused to compete with the truth of religion, thereby moving away from the truth of politics as well. The idea of continuity in the life of a believer between his faith and his public presence waned considerably despite the numerous calls of the Magisterium.

For all these reasons, and others I cannot evoke here, the organic use of the Social Doctrine of the Church in the social apostolate is making its way with no little difficulty. It certainly isn’t helped by a theological framework unwilling to admit that the Catholic religion and the Church have a public function of purifying social and political life. If secularization is accepted with no discussion at all and unto its extreme consequences, there is no longer any space for the Social Doctrine of the Church.

The danger is that the response to the social fragmentation now underway might assume the form of a fragmentation of the Social Doctrine of the Church as well, or else an enfeeblement of it in direct pastoral terms. It is not possible to forgo the linkage between social apostolate and the Social Doctrine of the Church. Otherwise the end result would be guaranteeing a presence, but a presence bereft of quality. Nor is it possible to forgo giving the Social Doctrine a completely ecclesial dimension, that is to say a dimension specific to all the components of the Church, albeit in different ways according to charisms. Nor is it possible to eliminate natural reason as one of the sources of the Social Doctrine, because otherwise lost is the linkage between reason and faith. The current situation, however, compels us to take note of the fact that the social apostolate of the future will be from the grassroots up since lacking are the conditions for any planning from the center. It is a question of truly ecclesial formation, and therefore not limited or niche-like formation, in order to prepare and nourish creative and committed communities to tackle the new challenges of the public sphere with reference to the doctrine and the living tradition of the Church. It is time to once again propose and project the Social Doctrine of the Church in its completeness and continuity integrated in the doctrine and in the life of the Church, but beginning from small Christian communities by networking them.

+ Giampaolo Crepaldi