Stefano 2020

Underway in Catholic moral theology is a total change of perspective and structure. As John Paul II taught[1], the Social Doctrine of the Church is part of moral theology, and hence it becomes fundamental to clarify the latter’s framework. This is the reason why the idea dawned on me to publish a series of brief articles on the following subject: the reform (or revolution) of moral theology underway. It could also prove true that the new framework of moral theology is of such a nature as to prevent the very existence of the Social Doctrine of the Church or call for it to somehow be surmounted. Created in such a case would be a rather worrisome short circuit: the framework that should give sense to the Social Doctrine of the Church would suffocate it instead, and be an obstacle to its having any life at all. Giuseppe Angelini had already argued this in a short chapter of an article he dedicated to Paul VI, quite significantly entitled: “Oltre la Dottrina sociale della Chiesa”.[2] In that chapter he points out how Paul VI acknowledges “the substantial refusal of the strong notion of social doctrine of the Church decreed by Vatican II in Gaudium et spes. In 1971, on the 80th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, he published the apostolic letter Octogesima adveniens, that corrects the doctrinal and strong conception of the Church’s social doctrine, replacing it with what could be called a weak version”.[3] This was a rather widespread view of Paul VI’s (limited) consideration for the Social Doctrine of the Church, rather simplistic if formulated in these terms, without, for example, taking into consideration other encyclicals of his, such as Populorum progressio, or the interpretation of this issue offered in the Caritas in veritate of Benedict XVI[4]. The fact of the matter is, however, that Angelini clearly expresses what is a dominant version in moral theology today: the encounter with the modern conception of knowledge makes the Social Doctrine of the Church as we have known it up until Benedict XVI obsolete and in need of being surmounted. Paul VI would remain in the middle of the road: on one hand he accepts the modern conception of knowledge, and on the other hand, has reservations even about that. He would therefore opt for a “weak” social doctrine of the Church instead of a “strong one”, but would not forge ahead towards surmounting that doctrine, which, according to Angelini, is what has to be done today.

I have referred to the article written by this well known moral theologian of the Theology Faculty of Milan as an example of a change: if moral theology changes, the social doctrine of the Church must change as well, and this to the point of fading away or being surmounted, which is the same concept expressed in a Hegelian form. It would also be possible to invert what we are saying. If we want to preserve the Social Doctrine of the Church as it has been, it is necessary to counter the changes taking place in moral theology, or at least assess them in a critical fashion, and not just take them as signs of the times. Quite naturally, the willingness to preserve the Social Doctrine of the Church as it stands is driven by the conviction that the framework of the moral theology in which it has thus far been situated is valid from the viewpoint of right reason and correct from the viewpoint of faith in revelation.

It is evident that coming once again to the surface in this way is the usual major issue of the Church’s relationship with modernity. It is not by chance that Giuseppe Angelini speaks about Vatican II as a moment of reversal in the comprehension of the Social Doctrine of the Church. In fact, he argues that “the evident weakening of the idea of social doctrine reflects two joint circumstances: the acceleration impressed upon the pastoral ministry by Vatican II, and Paul VI’s singular sensitivity”.[5] Both elements have to do with modernity since Vatican II placed the apostolate before doctrine with  a view towards dialogue with contemporary man understood, however, as dialogue with modern thought. In addition, Paul VI’s sensitivity was celebrated insofar as in harmony with such requirements, especially concerning the subject of conscience.

Once published, the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia  became the manifest and the endorsement of the change in the configuration of Catholic moral theology. A great part of the Church’s academic and institutional structures retained that in the wake of Amoris laetitia it is necessary to get down to work on the whole structure not only of matrimonial or sexual morals, but  of moral theology at large. Moreover, the five dubia raised by the Cardinals called on Pope Francis to issue a statement saying  whether the moral theology thus far established and taught was still valid or not.

These considerations reflect my intention to begin a series of thought-provoking and analytical articles on changes underway in moral theology in order to see if they are compatible or not with the Social Doctrine of the Church, if they really call for the latter to fade away, or if they, the changes, should fade away.

Stefano Fontana



[1] Laborem exercens, n. 41.

[2] G. Angelini, Paolo VI e il primato moderno della coscienza, “Teologia”, 44 (2019) 3, pgs. 337-360.

[3] Ibid, pg. 348.

[4] Caritas in veritate, chapter I.

[5] G. Angelini, Paolo VI e il primato moderno della coscienza cit., pg. 349.