THE PRESENCE OF PERSONALISM IN THE SOCIAL DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH. Introduction to the proceedings of the IV Montefiascone Conference

il diritto e i diritti

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The Montefiascone Conferences are dedicated to delving into the relationship between the metaphysical realism of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Social Doctrine of the Church[1]. This relationship was considered to be a very close one when the pontiffs proposed the Social Doctrine of the Church in the modern age, and continued to be so for a long time. After Vatican Council II, however, this relationship waned, became less evident, and was expressed in a more circumspect manner, but this does not mean it disappeared. Above all, it cannot be said that it disappeared because it cannot disappear, insofar as the selfsame substance of the Church’s social teaching demands said relationship since St. Thomas’ metaphysical realism represents the recta ratio indispensible for the moral theology discourse embodied in the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Coming to the surface at a certain point of time in the development of Catholic theology was the personalist perspective argued by Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier. Elements of much the same nature can also be found in the writings of Henri de Lubac and Romano Guardini, and, later on, in the work of Luigi Stefanini, Armando Rigobello and other scholars. People therefore began talking more about ‘personalisms’ than ‘personalism’. Perspectives of such a nature engaged in dialogue with the various schools of contemporary thought, merging with the philosophers of so-called “dialogue thinking” like Martin Buber or Emmauel Lévinas, or else with the various exponents of existentialism. Then again, if the term personalism is understood as humanism, the range extends beyond limits.

Especially through the works of Maritain, personalism had penetrated Catholic theology already back in the 1930s and 1940s, and certainly had an influence on Vatican II. The reason for this was that, due to its “pastoral” intent, the Council wanted to explore the category of “subject”, considered typical of modern thought, and contemporary sensitivities in an effort to dialogue with them. This, however, was an underestimation of the issue at hand.

In the articulated and complex context of ‘personalisms’, it proves useful to note that a school of thought going from Maritain to Rahner and Metz, developed personalism within a rereading of St. Thomas, thereby projecting it as being in continuity with the latter’s thinking. Rahner’s anthropological turning point which began in the doctoral dissertation he presented at the University of Leuven at the end of the 1930s, also claimed continuity with St. Thomas, who, according to the author, had been rediscovered and restored to himself[2]. As we know, Cornelio Fabro considered Rahner’s effort to be a sort of “depravation of Thomism”.

These are reasons why the in-depth study carried out by this Conference is important, because contemporary personalism, on one hand, lays an erroneous claim on relations with St. Thomas, and, on the other hand, has a profound influence on the Social Doctrine of the postconciliar Church, beginning as of the Gaudium et spes of Vatican II which, as we know, affirmed that the person is the beginning, the foundation and the end of society. These are concepts not to be found in the social encyclicals prior to the Council. Therefore, both sides of the issue at hand have to be clarified.

In order to do so, I feel it might be useful to begin from naturalism[3] which, in my opinion, is a modulation of personalism. As taught explicitly by Quanta Cura of Pious IX, Immortale Dei and  Sapientiae Christianae of Leo XIII, naturalism is the claim that the natural order is autonomous, self-sufficient, independent, and possesses all the means necessary to attain its own ends, and thus everything may take place in the natural order etsi Deus non daretur. In theological terms, we can say that naturalism denies original sin[4] and hence distorts the relationship between nature and super-nature. Philosophically speaking, it is an aspect of rationalism, which refuses the transcendence of being with respect to thought. Thereby assumed at its primary and most radical level is the “principle of immanence”. Many authors have highlighted the close link between rationalistic arrogance and original sin, because as of that moment the Christian faith could have been of assistance, but no longer indispensible for the natural order[5].

The section of Pascendi that Pius X dedicates to the philosophical aspect of Modernism[6] very well describes this choice of immanence proper to naturalism when arguing that human reason is limited to the field of phenomena, revelation passes through the conscience, and human nature has a right to the supernatural order. As Pascendi states, naturalism consists in the negation of any external revelation[7], and hence in the refusal to seek any sort of explanation outside of man. Thereby evident becomes the connection it established between modernism, naturalism and personalism.

Personalism is a form of naturalism insofar as it sustains that the synthesis of knowledge and revelation takes place in the human conscience understood as the producer of truth, or at least the co-producer thereof. Pascendi affirms that in the view of naturalism, the formulas of the faith “in order to be vital, must be and remain suited to both the faith and the believer”[8]. The person, in the sense of conscience, experience, sentiment, and the existence which sets the conscience in motion, is there the constituent element of the synthesis of truth, ever new insofar as part of a ongoing process in the dialectical sense of the expression. Therefore, personalism is not extraneous to the conception of dogma as something evolutionary. This was to be explained in the 1960s by new theologians as a synthesis to be forged in the historical conscience of persons between the Word of God and the situation at that time[9], so the Word would not remain abstract, but, as the modernists said, would become “vital”.

The Christian personalism of the XX century saw the light of day within the ambit of the Nouvelle theologie. The 1930s and the 1940s are to be understood as decisive in this sense. Chenu or de Lubac introduce the historical datum into theology, make dogma dialectical, and turn the world, in the sense of the historical situation, into the organic and essential interlocutor of the Church. This change of perspective opens the way to a Church not before the world, but in the world or even of the world, such that the synthesis of revelation becomes the person in his/her worldly conscience. In this way the worldliness or the secularity of the world becomes the new theological locus in the person, and secularization is taken on within the mainstream of the development of Christianity[10]. An important role was played by de Lubac’s works on the supernatural from 1946 to 1965[11], certain aspects of which were foreshadowed by Catholicism, social aspects of dogma (1938), which contains  a meaningful statement for our Conference: “Catholicism and Personalism are in accord and mutually strengthen one another”[12]. His negation of pure nature as such[13], that is to say nor originally involved through the essence of grace in its own economy, opens the way to a presence of grace in humankind as such, in each person and in each situation. Formally speaking, Karl Rahner neither embraced not endorsed this approach, but was to return to its underlying spirit in other ways. The anthropological turning point of his theology is based on a transcendental radicalization in the sense of the modern transcendental, much along the lines of de Lubac. Maritain’s Integral Humanism of 1936 comes within this same context.

It is interesting to note that personalism entails a change in the architecture of knowledge. Anthropology is proposed as the ‘starting-point’ science, the fundamental science, and the study of man is the beginning because the person is the synthesis, while in the past anthropology came into the picture after other metaphysical disciplines. Personalism therefore marks not only the dusk of ontology, but also that of theology as synthesis of knowledge. As proved natural, autopoietic anthropology that issues forth from itself is a non founded anthropology, and hence a fragile anthropology, despite its pretentiousness. Inevitably, therefore, it weakens in phenomenism and then in sociologism, as has occurred not only in Catholic theology, but often in the documents of the Magisterium, especially the most recent ones. When ‘the person’ is referred to in those places, asserted is the intention to use the anthropological perspective, but actually used are the social sciences. By now, the progressive steps involve going from the narration of the experience to the data of the social sciences, the teachings of the Church, and praxis. This is the evolution of the principle “see, judge, act”- Skipped altogether is not only the metaphysical level, but also the truly anthropological level in the philosophical sense. Then again, a similar approach was already embodied in what Pascendi, as we have already seen, called “remain suited [the formulas of the faith] to both the faith and the believer”. The dimension of the believer, in the sense of the conscience of a person, gradually assumes greater importance, ending up by dissolving the selfsame believer in a transcendental dimension, once again in the modern sense of the term, which nullifies its metaphysical consistency. Rahner says theology is anthropology, and in so saying he kills not only theology, but anthropology as well. An important and negative development occurred when an effort was made to subject the logic of sacrament to the logic of ‘person’, as is the case of the Exhortation Amoris laetitia[14].

From a strictly political point of view, personalism indicates the person as the foundation and synthesis of the life of the political community. Stemming there from is a separation between political life and religious life, between citizen and faithful believer, the impossibility to understand the common good in its proper sense[15], and a hiatus that personalism is no longer able to recover and which becomes separation between conscience and law, between rule and right..

I would like to conclude by pointing out that naturalism is the claim that nature is independent from super-nature. In the long run, however, the only thing naturalism could do was destroy the very reality of nature. It is inevitable that the paradigm of history takes the place of the paradigm of nature, as we see in much of contemporary theology. Personalism brings to the forefront the conscience of the person, and hence his existential situation as the condition for the self-communication of God: God is encountered in man[16], but, as people say, the conscience of man is historical and subject to change. As a result, nature becomes dissolved in history. Naturalism ends up eliminating nature, just as personalism ends up eliminating the person.

Stefano Fontana



[1] The Montefiascone Conferences have taken place annually ever since 2016. The Acts thereof are available for purchase in the two published volumes edited by S. Fontana: AA.VV., Le chiavi della questione sociale. Bene comune e sussidiarietà: storia di un equivoco, Fede & Cultura, 2018; AA.VV., Il diritto e i diritti. Il senso della legge e le leggi senza senso, Fede & Cultura, Verona 2019.

[2] Cf.. S. Fontana, La nuova Chiesa di Karl Rahner, Fede & Cultura, Verona 2017; Id, La teologia di Karl Rahner e il suicidio della teologia cattolica, in Id., Chiesa gnostica e secolarizzazione. L’antica eresia e la disgregazione della fede, Fede & Cultura, Verona 2018, pgs. 95-104.

[3] Cf. M. Liberatore, Il naturalismo politico, edited by G. Turco, Ripostes, Giffoni Valle Piana 2016.

[4] Cf. S. Fontana, Il peccato delle origini e il problema politico della modernità, in AA.VV., La persona al centro del Magistero sociale della Chiesa. Omaggio al Rev. Prof. Enrique Colom Costa, by P. Requena e Martin Schlag, EDUSC, Roma 2011, pgs. 115-132.

[5] Augusto Delo Noce’s reflections on this theme are wide-ranging and important.

[6] S.S. San Pio X, Pascendi dominici gregis. On the errors of modernism,  Introduction by R. De Mattei, Foreword by  L. Negri, Cantagalli, Siena 2007, pp. 49-58.

[7] In fact, K. Rahner argues that it is impossible today to presuppose proof or arguments of credibility. (Corso fondamentale sulla fede. Introduzione al concetto di cristianesimo, 1976), San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo 1990, pg. 26.

[8] S.S. San Pio X, Pascendi dominici gregis op.cit., p. 58.

[9] Cf. W. Kasper, Per un rinnovamento del metodo teologico, 1967, Queriniana, Brescia 1969: “Nowadays, dogma may no longer appear other than a relative and historical greatness, with none other than a functinal sense. Dogma is relative insofar as in relationship with the original word of God whose purpose is to indicate the problematic issues of a given time, and thereby help to achieve an exact understanding of the Gospel in concrete situations” (pg. 37).

[10] New pro-secularization trends understand the public presence of Christianity as participation and discussion among hermeneutics.: G. Villagrán, Teologia pubblica. Una voce per la Chiesa nelle società plurali, Queriniana, Brescia

[11] H. De Lubac, Surnaturel, Etudeds historiques, Seuil, Paris 1946; Id., Le Mystère du Surnaturel, Aubier, Paris 1965 (Il Mulino, Bologna 1967).

[12] Id., Cattolicismo. Aspetti sociali del dogma, Jaka Bo9ok, Milano 1992, pg. 256.

[13] Cf. Card. G. Siri, Getsemani, Ed. Fraternità della Santissima Vergine Maria, Roma 1987, pp. 53-66. For a review of the debate about pure nature, cf. F. Gianfreda SAI., Il dibattito sulla  natura pura  tra H. de Lubac e Karl Rahner, Pizzini editore, Verucchio (Rn) 2007.

[14] S. Fontana, Esortazione o rivoluzione? Tutti i problemi di Amoris laetitia, Fede & Cultura, Verona 2019.

[15] Cf. S. Fontana, Il personalismo di Maritain e la secolarizzazione del bene comune, in Id., Chiesa gnostica e secolarizzazione cit., pgs. 82-94.

[16] “The God we confess in Christ is exactly where we are, and only there must He be found” (K. Rahner, Corso fondamentale sulla fede cit., p. 294).