What already happened for his predecessors is already happening for Pope Francis. When he speaks about the economy there are those who say he is left wing, that is to say against the free market, while others say he is right wing because he would like to moralize the market in the sense of ‘lubricating’ it better. There are also those who argue that he doesn’t understand anything about the economy and should refrain from addressing such matters. When Centesimus annus was published way back in 1991, John Paul II was accused of neo-capitalism insofar as he praised entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs, and affirmed the goodness of profits. In the wake of the publication of Caritas in veritate in 2009 numerous economic policy circles in the United States criticized Benedict XVI for just the opposite reasons: rhetoric of gratuitousness and limited attention to economic institutions. As Sandro Magister recently illustrated in his blog, something quite similar is also happening for Pope Francis.
From a certain point of view this is even obvious. These approaches assume a particular perspective and project it upon the encyclical letter in question. Those who argue their positions therefore look upon the encyclical in a partial manner. More often, however, the reason is much deeper: people do not know what the Social Doctrine of the Church actually is, and therefore distort it by not taking it for what it is. This, however is not only the fault of hasty and tendentious interpreters.
The Social Doctrine of the Church is first of all the announcement of the public dimension of the Catholic faith, the proclamation of the salvation of Christ which also concerns the temporal order – hence justice and peace – since Christ came for the salvation of the whole man. The social doctrine claims that present in the apostolic faith is something fundamental relative to the organization of human life on this earth insofar as the vocation to salvation is unique and at stake in this life are absolute values that will shine in all their splendor in eternal life.
The Social Doctrine of the Church is precisely that, “of the Church”, and therefore connected — not as a simple appendix – with the doctrine of the faith, the sacramental and liturgical life, and the apostolic tradition at large. Since it concerns the ‘doing’ of Christians in the world both as individuals and as ecclesial community, it belongs to moral theology, but is not the property of moral theologians. It is “of the Church”, and as such is a self-standing category.
This horizon is never to be forgotten when examining the political, economic or social indications set forth in the documents of the social Magisterium. In fact, when this is forgotten people end up sustaining that the pontiff in question is neo-capitalist or neo-socialist. The Social Doctrine of the Church also contains elements of pure reason as well as principles and orientations of natural law that can be shared by all, also by non believers. But this does not mean that these neither dogmatic nor doctrinal elements do not receive their full light from the Catholic faith in its wholeness; hence the possible emergence of misunderstandings on the part of those who disregard this much broader context. In other words, non believers as well should not approach the Social Doctrine of the Church as if it were not “of the Church” and did not imply the Catholic faith in its entirety; a difficult endeavor, but not an impossible one.
Then again, this is what often transpires when interpreting this social doctrine are Catholic faithful, and the structural reason for this is simple to explain. The texts of the Magisterium have to be accompanied and mediated by a patient educational effort. It does not suffice to organize an evening’s presentation and discussion on the latest encyclical. Needed is a consistent process beginning from the documents of the Magisterium – actually long before that as well – and reaching general commitment indications with sound formative criteria. On one hand, however, this has never occurred because never launched has been a true social ministry worthy of that name, and, on the other hand, even when it does happen, it does so through disturbing and deviating theological and philosophical perspectives. In this case it generates more damage than good.
The crucial points of such a formation endeavor (absent but necessary) are essentially two. The first one was underscored in the Note on some aspects of Evangelization issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 3 December 2007: the purpose of the Social Doctrine of the Church is evangelization and not the participation, full employment and fiscal equity that may stem forth as consequences thereof. The second point is the issue of the collaboration of Catholics with other philosophical and theological schools of thought. This collaboration must never be naïve. There is no doubt that even the Leoncavallo (a social action squatter movement in northern Italy) will find something positive in some of the phrases and expressions used in Evangelii Gaudium, but then contextualizes them in a deforming manner. Catholics cannot go hand in hand with everyone.
In closing I would like to recall another aspect. In order to prevent the deformations we are speaking about it is good for the texts of the Magisterium to be clear and refrain from venturing all too easily on to slippery ground not proper to them. I recall that in the Message for the World Day of Peace in 1990 John Paul II wrote against “the progressive destruction of the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect . . .following the constant increase . . .in the consumption of energy”. Such a stand was perhaps all too dependent on scientific developments at that time, which, in fact, were no longer reiterated in such detailed terms. In documents of the Magisterium it is not good to borrow concepts and evaluations from sociology and contemporary science which are less than certain. Moreover, not to be excluded is the fact that nowadays as well, in the drive to communicate, some expressions taken all too swiftly from economic or political news may then lead to inappropriate interpretations.