Thus does the Social Doctrine of the Chuch change.


A change is underway in the communication style of the Social Doctrine of the Church. A symptom of this can be seen in Pope Francis’ recent Message for the Day of Migrants and Refugees. To do what the national press did yesterday and argue that in this message the Holy Father takes a stand in favor of ius soli, and in particular the bill now under discussion in Italian parliament, is excessive. There is no doubt, however, that the Message itself does deal as well with many technical (and controversial) aspects of migrant reception policies. Laudato si’ had also done much the same thing regarding the scientific problems of global warming. Thus far documents have always avoided espousing a recipe or solution, well aware of running the risk of baptizing a biased position with holy water, betting on a horse with promising potential that will never go down in the history of horse racing, inducing people to think that a Catholic who considers other solutions to the same issue to be equally legitimate was no longer a Catholic, or perhaps an inconsistent Catholic, and above all taking the place of Catholics engaged in that realm of knowledge and action.

The Social Doctrine of the Church proposes principles for reflection, criteria of judgment and guidelines for action. It is therefore practical in nature. Nonetheless, since the Church has no packaged solutions to offer in social and political affairs, and does not have all the necessary competencies, as the Magisterium has asserted on countless occasions, its practical nature must above all be put into practice by laypersons, who do so under their own responsibility and not that of the Church.

Let’s be clear about this. The Magisterium can take a position on individual bills, warning against their approval if said bills undermine the fundamental principles of natural and divine morals and hence offend man and God. Conversely, it is not prudent to apply this principle to social and political issues which can stand on their own in various ways. Aristotle had said that the virtue of wisdom (Christian prudentia) had to be used in the case of problems such as these. Let’s state this in even clearer terms. If a law is detrimental for the selfsame natural basis of the family and hence inflicts damage on both the person and justice, the Magisterium has to take a clear position on that law so the faithful would not be mislead. Conversely, regarding a law regulating a complicated subject where the non negotiable principles are not at stake, it is prudent for the Magisterium to give basic guidelines for action and then leave it up to laypersons engaged in politics to act with due prudence.

The Ratzinger Note of 2002 on the commitment of Catholics in politics clearly distinguished these two types of endeavor. It reiterated the ambits where Christian conscience had no power of discretion, whose exercise meant losing any consistency between faith and life, and issues that could be tackled legitimately in many ways.  As the Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained, this happens either because it is a matter of complicated and articulated issues for which there is no univocal response, or because they entail numerous technical facets, or because they are open to a number of solutions which are all morally acceptable, or else they can be tackled on the basis of legitimately diverse principles of political theory. In all these cases the Magisterium leaves the liberty of decision up to the well formed conscience of the faithful.

Behind this doctrine is the distinction in moral theology between intrinsically evil (or absolutely negative) acts and good acts, and this was authoritatively reiterated and confirmed by Veritatis splendor of John Paul II. While intrinsically evil acts may never be performed, good may be done in many ways.

Coming to the case in point, migrant reception policy belongs to the second realm of issues: the indication to be receptive is a positive moral precept telling people to do what is good. This ‘good’ however can be done in many ways. Moreover, since it is a complicated issue with substantial technical features, the subject empowered to assess and decide is the well formed conscience of laypersons.

Something deserving in-depth study and consideration – but not here – is why there is a tendency on the part of the social Magisterium in general to refrain from clear indications in the presence of laws and policies so evidently contrary to the natural and divine moral order, while greater seems to be its commitment to leapfrog the laicity of issues and Christian laypersons themselves by speaking out on complicated matters whose very nature allows for numerous possible and legitimate solutions.  More and more often do Catholics active in society feel all on their own when they become engaged in favor of life and for the good of the family, while at the same time they feel encouraged by those “upstairs” when they open their doors to migrants or install solar panels on the roof of a rectory. Between these two ambits, however, the difference is tantamount to an abyss.

Personally speaking, I would like to offer the following food for thought about the nature of the social doctrine of the Church. It is a “doctrine” and is “of the Church”. The fact that it is a doctrine means it is nourished by ongoing thought, and is an articulated and organic corpus involving numerous competencies analogically linked with one another. It is for praxis, but is not praxis. If we are swept away by the thrust to praxis, to be in the trenches, to be firemen responding to emergencies because other-than-self is encountered in life and witness to Christ is borne in concrete situations, we would be acting as if the doctrinal corpus of the Social Doctrine of the Church just didn’t exist.

Secondly, it is “of the Church”, coming under a single yet articulated subject. If the Magisterium takes a public position in political choices it occupies the space of laypersons. And this, as we must acknowledge, is the strangest thing now happening. While people continue to celebrate the famous autonomy of the laity, and respect it even when it crosses the confines of what is licit, that is to say when it pursues evil and claims it is legitimate, the Magisterium steps in with concrete indications regarding individual laws and policies, depriving laypersons of their legitimate autonomy. All too clear in my mind are the many times laypersons were taken to task in the past for being too subservient to the hierarchy, and how much criticism there has been of action guidelines present in other encyclicals, looking upon them as a sort of toll paid by the Social Doctrine of the Church to ideologies, to be surprised in the face of this new passage in the style of the social Magisterium.

Stefano Fontana