The Social Doctrine of the Church: the new Manual by George J. Woodall

The destiny of SDC Manuals yesterday and today

Is time still ripe for Manuals of the social doctrine of the Church? The publication of such a Manual at this time is a fact to be flagged with a certain sense of both surprise and satisfaction. I am referring to George J. Woodall, Dottrina Sociale della Chiesa, Fede & Cultura, Verona 2018, now available in bookstores. This book is part of the series “Ecclesial Theology” directed by Prof. Rev. Mauro Gagliardi.

What do surprise and satisfaction have to do with this editorial fact? Well, simply because the current theological and ecclesial atmosphere, characterized by intense pastoralism and an approach to praxis that is outright skeptical and suspicious as far as doctrine is concerned, does not bode well for the Social Doctrine of the Church looked upon as a doctrinal “corpus”. Moreover, as I said above, Rev. Woodall’s work has been published as part of a systematic series of theology directed by Rev. Mauro Gagliardi. In this manner, the doctrinal corpus of the Social Doctrine of the Church is situated in the broader doctrinal corpus of the doctrine of the Catholic faith, as is both right and just. The doctrine of the Catholic faith is what ‘produces’ the social doctrine of the Church which, in its turn, sheds light on practical social issues to be resolved. Nowadays, however, people tend to reverse the order, moving from sociological situations and issues to the Social Doctrine of the Church, and from this to the doctrine of the faith. It is clear that a Manual would have no sense in such an approach.

At one point in time Manuals were replaced by Dictionaries. Nonetheless, I would like to mention two of the former: the one of the Catholic University of Milan published by Vita e Pensiero in 2004, and the one edited by Enrique Colom and Giampaolo Crepaldi and published by LAS in 2005. The latter  was well received and used by way of preference because of the importance of the two editors, and the fact that it was published under the hallmark if the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The Manual of the Catholic University was above all driven by the need for that university’s professors to do concrete work in the realm of Social Doctrine. I have nothing to say against the Dictionaries of the Social Doctrine of the Church, but it must be noted that their approach is fragmentary and not systemic. They are better suited to a culture of post-modern dispersion, and precisely for this reason fail to project in full the architectural character of the Social Doctrine of the Church which is not a total sum of thought-provoking items, but true and well presented knowledge.

During the 1990’s, an intense discussion took place among experts about the exact nature of the Social Doctrine of the Church: whether it was moral theology (as indicated in n°41 of John Paul II’s Sollicitudo rei socialis), social theology (the position argued by some professors at the Redemptor hominis Pastoral Institute of the Lateran Institute), or a self-standing category (as also asserted in the aforementioned encyclical of John Paul II). All those, including myself, who at that time resolutely supported the position that the Social Doctrine of the Church is to be a self-standing subject and hence specifically taught as such in theological faculties and seminaries, also pushed for the publication of subject specific manuals and not dictionaries.

By now, diatribes such as these have been forgotten and the Social Doctrine of the Church continues to be taught not as a self-standing subject, but as part of other subjects, such as social morality for example, and this when it it’s even taught at all, without any complaints whatsoever. This as well is a sign of the failure of John Paul II’s plan to relaunch the Social Doctrine of the Church, as acknowledged by Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi in his recent book (La Chiesa italiana e il futuro della pastorale sociale, Cantagalli, Siena 2017).

Inductive and deductive method.

One of the merits of Prof. Woodhall’s new Manual is his epistemological approach. What he says could have been said in even stronger terms, but worthy of positive note is the author’s placid equilibrium. In his opinion, the querulous discussion about the expressions “Social Doctrine of the Church” or “Social Teaching of the Church” that characterized the 1990’s in particular, was of no great value (pg. 20), nor was the underlying discussion regarding opposition between the deductive method and the inductive method (pgs. 20-23). In this regard, the author could have named names and pointed the finger at “guilty parties”. He mentions but one name in the bibliography at the end of the chapter, and this is Fr. Bartolomeo Sorge, but without any reference to his being “guilty”. What Rev. Woodhall has to say is very clear all the same, without becoming openly polemical. The replacement of metaphysics, dogma and morals – the principles and the norms – with the social sciences has subverted the method and imposed the so-called ‘inductive’ process that often surrenders to ‘sociologism’ (p. 20). As a result, magisterial documents have become imbued with a priori sociological assessments bereft of both cognitive and magisterial value. This creates confusion in the minds of the faithful, who think they owe obedience to the Pope’s private considerations about global warming or what the President of their episcopal conference has to say about migration phenomena, while issues such as these entail no obligations at all because they concern neither the faith nor morals.

The inductive method gives pride of place to the social sciences which often project ideologically biased data. Therefore, a large part of the actual texts of magisterial documents entail no obligations regarding the faith of believers. It is difficult to argue against this sequence. Therefore, what is the status of the extensive room dedicated by Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’ to ecological problems, and in particular to climate change and global warming? Prof. Woodall is quite clear about this: “It is necessary to clearly distinguish the social doctrine as such from a pope’s simple personal opinions about the extent of certain historical developments and scientific-technical assertions: both of these remain clearly outside the competence of the Magisterium of the Church which is limited to doctrines and teachings de rebus fidei et morum… Likewise extraneous to this doctrine are affirmations which seem to constitute a “papal confirmation’ of global warming which, however, remains a phenomenon to be verified” (pg. 22). Many people remark that the language used in magisterial documents when referring to environmental issues is the same as United Nations’ language, and this is the cause.

The relationship between “old” and “new”

Woodhall’s Manual is broad reaching, as is natural for a Manual, and in this review it is only possible to glean a  few of the points he makes. A most interesting one is the relationship between the old law and the new law, and therefore between the social dispositions in the Old Testament and those in the New Testament.  I’d like to recall the famous dialogue between Benedict XVI and a rabbi when the pope had said it isn’t possible to eliminate even the Old Testament from the social doctrine of the Church, and that the old law is to be followed and conserved. The scriptural sources of the Social Doctrine of the Church are examined both extensively and in depth in Woodhall’s Manual (chapter II and hefty chapter III), and the author always sustains the idea of continuity, while evident nowadays are aggressive trends to go Gnostic and replace justice with mercy. By way of example let’s take an  apparently secondary chapter dedicated to usury (pgs. 74-75). The author argues that the New Testament in no way rescinds or rejects the casuistic theses set forth in the Old Testament to protect the poor who ask for a loan. It would therefore be interesting to ask ourselves why the Magisterium has not condemned usury for centuries, and what may be the reasons for refraining from doing so. If the Social Doctrine of the Church more or less openly rids itself of the Old Testament, it no longer remains the same.

The principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church

The Manual sets forth the fundamental principles of the SDC in the section from pages 98 to117. Situated somewhat adventurously in first place is the dignity of the human person, but the author keeps the risks of personalism at bay. Most interesting is the insertion of a “new” principle: “the hierarchy of values”. This is interesting because it refers to an ontological order (value, in fact, expresses being as appreciable) that also sheds light on the other principles, preventing any subjective or relativistic assessment of them. This could be the case of the chapter on religious freedom: considering it to be a true principle proper to the Social Doctrine of the Church seems to be quite a bold position, but this is attenuated by the equilibrium of the author’s argumentation and the mutual compensation among the various principles which are complementary to one another. The chapter on the common good (pgs. 102-103) does not clearly specify the vertical nature of the common good, this being the centrality of God in the political sphere and the essential public role of Catholicism and the Church, but this shortcoming is compensated for by other considerations in other places. The principle of ‘legality’ (pgs. 115-116) is also new in comparison with the classical listings of the principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and this as well leaves the door open to possible erroneous interpretations that the author seeks to avoid. Contrary to what people have been doing elsewhere, the author takes a positive stand by not including the principle of the “preferential option for the poor” insofar as this remains an ambiguous principle.

As stated above, this new Manual is complete and rich in substance, balanced in projecting new developments that perhaps could have been dealt with in a more forceful way, and, in any case courageous,  albeit with argumentation that is ever placid and well reasoned. It is a reliable work and a sound point of reference dealing with front line issues, giving the impression of granting something to modern times in an effort to encompass such times in Catholic tradition without falling into modernism. It is not always easy to maintain this equilibrium. Interesting as well are the themes not always dealt with in Manuals, such as obedience, bioethics, sexual education, and communication.

Lastly, I would like to flag the considerable attention the author reserves to the works of Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, frequently cited in the footnotes, and hence to the activities of our Observatory.

Stefano Fontana