The new social ministry as an intermediation agency

This blog has already commented on the current recasting of the social ministry of the Church in Italy (pastorale sociale della Chiesa italiana). This second commentary on the same issue is driven by Fr. Francesco Occhetta’s article in the latest issue of  La Civiltà Cattolica  (“Pastorale sociale della Chiesa e conflitti”). The new pathway of the social ministry depicted in this article involves dialogue and discernment. The diocesan social ministry offices, as well as grassroots Christian communities, should be engaged in fostering “communion in differences”, a “reconciled diversity”, implementing “dynamics of community discernment”, “participation”, “democratic decision-making”, and civic mediation. The aim would be to tackle conflicts/disputes and resolve/settle them in “social peace”. Fr. Occhetta also gives some examples of such issues: the closing of the cement plant near Monselice (Padua), the pollution of water tables due to illegal dumping in parts of southern Italy, the stoppage of ENI drilling operations in the Piedmont region, and the involvement of the diocese of Taranto in the ongoing debate about the local ILVA steel plant.

What is there to be said about this new profile of the social ministry?

The first thing to be said is that Christ is not mentioned here at all. When a local church embarks upon a community endeavor of discernment it does something that any other authoritative social subject could do. It does so as a social subject and not as a religious subject, or least that is how such an endeavor is perceived. It used to be said that the social ministry is the announcement of Christ in temporal reality, the announcement of Christian salvation where people work, in school, or in society.  I’m not really sure that understanding the social ministry today as “conflict solving” or dispute settlement is in line with that tradition, and, above all, if it suffices.

The second thing to be said is that in social life not all conflicts can be resolved, and some diversities have to remain just that, diversities not able to be reconciled. In the face of a city or regional ordinance that increases the possibilities of abortion, what should the effort to resolve or surmount such a conflict entail? If the social ministry is understood as the announcement of Christ, we would find ourselves face to face with some diversities impossible to reconcile. Indeed, such situations are not even mentioned in Fr. Occhetta’s article. Would this be tantamount to saying that all conflicts can be reconciled or resolved?

The third thing to be said is that if the social ministry is no longer the announcement of Christ, but just the adoption of a style of social discernment and dialogue, Christians and the Church will no longer have “something of their own” to say”, but will be exposed to the world’s ideologies. In fact, Fr. Occhetta begins with the Greta Thunbugh “phenomenon” and the major “save the earth” protest marches held on March 15 last, without even referring to their ideological nature.

The fourth thing to be said about this all too horizontal and “human, all too human” social ministry is that it projects a vision of social conflict as something good in its own right. Conflict would be a dialectically useful moment for up scaling the situation to a better phase. The conflict would always have to be tackled in a dialectical manner in order to engage in mediation. This mediation, however, would not mean finding a ‘middle-of-the-road’ position, a balanced compromise, but rather dialectically surmounting the issue in question with a view to what would be better.  This vision of conflict is historicist (Hegelian, Marxist). In fact, there are legitimate conflicts such as confrontation between legitimate interests over issues that can exist in many ways, but there are illegitimate conflicts insofar as they disrupt the natural order of social relations. The latter have to be fought against, and not mediated. The social ministry of dialogue and discernment, however, no longer fights against anything, except maybe for ideological ends flagged by others. There are situations where no reconciliation can be found between good and evil, always fighting against evil and promoting good. Dialoguing with evil is completely out of the picture, and can never be classified as “mediation between reasons in conflict”.

In brief, this social ministry is Christ-less, downgrades the Church to a social agency, exposes it to ideologies, makes it concentrate on methods rather than substance, flattens its endeavors to a horizontal level whereby they become humanism and are no longer evangelization, always interprets conflict as something positive to be mediated, does not admit intrinsic evils with which there can be no mediation, collaborates with everything and everyone, and, in the search for unity in diversity, ends up accepting every diversities, even those unacceptable.

Stefano Fontana