Marcel De Corte’s critique of Pacem in terris and the dangers of personalism.

The Belgian philisopher Marcel De Corte penned a very strong critique of John XXIII’s Pacem in terris that calls for some serious reflection. He did this in his book entitled “On Justice” initially published in 1973, and republished in 2012 by Cantagalli in the series “The Christian Classics”.

The critique as such is to be found in chapter entitled “Change in the Social Doctrine of the Church”, and its consequences are then developed in the ensuing shorter chapters all the way to the end of the book.

In order to comprehend the issue at hand it would be useful to note that according to De Corte, the common good stands not before us, but behind us and precedes us. It is the object of the general justice that deals with the relationships of persons with other persons within the context of the wholeness to which they all belong. The common good is the order of the reality and the social reality by which we are nourished as persons, and to which we must morally correspond with our adhesion and contribution to it. We are gauged on the common good, and not it on us. It is an objective order, the ordered coexistence of persons, families, groups and societies. “The common good is the being together of all the parts that constitute the whole and the concord of all the aspects of their union. An order, a reciprocally ordered beingness of their parts among one another that permits their exchange, their mutual assistance and their complementarity” (pg. 26).

The concept of common good therefore belongs to the metaphysical order; “The destiny of the civitas will depend on its institutions to the degree that the latter will be based on a conception of man, the world and their principle, on a metaphysics and a religion consistent with reality” (pg. 37).

This being his view of the common good, De Corte argues that society is not ordered to the individual, but that the individual is ordered to society. He also retains that this has always been the view of Catholic theology embraced by the Magisterium, and which can be summarized in the well known words of St. Thomas: “The whole man is ordered as his end to the whole of the society to which he belongs” (S.Th., II-II, 64, 1).

According to De Conte, it is precisely on this point that the shift or change takes place in the Social Doctrine of the Church, as endorsed in the Pacem in terris of John XXIII, where we read: “For contemporary thought this resides especially in the safeguard of the rights and duties of the human person. Hence, the role of governments consists above all in guaranteeing the recognition and the respect of these rights, their mutual conciliation, their defense and expansion, and therefore in facilitating for each citizen the fulfillment of his respective duties”. According to De Corte this is “the exact contrary  of the contemporary social philosophy accredited by the Church” (pg. 107). He also holds that this line was then pursued by Paul VI and that Vatican Council II endorsed this in that famous phrase of Gaudium et spes: “the person is. . .and must be the principle, the subject and the end of all institutions”. As De Corte sees it, “personalism” thereby polluted Catholic doctrine in this regard, transferred the rights of society to the individual, and naturalized the supernatural.  According to our author, the consequences are ecclesial in nature as well as social. In fact, people started thinking that the Church herself was constituted not by the salvific Love of Christ, but by the aggregation of the individual faithful.

I do not believe the importance of the problems raised by De Corte can be denied, and it is therefore appropriate to dedicate some serious thought to them.

It is necessary to acknowledge the fact that obfuscated to a great degree within the Church has become the awareness of the authentic wealth of the expression “common good”. Nowadays, unions among persons of the same sex are included by Catholics among the components of the common good insofar as forms of “love” and attention towards other-than-self. De Corte’s observations, therefore, serve a purpose in the sense of helping us recover the true depth of the concept, naturally including its foundation in God: “There is no society without the bond of transcendence and without religion” (pg. 51).

Nonetheless, what may happen “in the Church” is not “of the Church”. When closely examining the text of Pacem in terris and Gaudium et spes, it must be acknowledged that the traditional concept of common good is embodied therein in no uncertain terms.

It is true: sustaining that society is finalized to the person and not vice versa can open spaces for liberal individualism and transform politics into the guarantee of forms and expressions of individual egoism. Nor may we exclude the fact that substantial parts of the Catholic world has aligned themselves with this position: the common good would consist in rights, democracy, liberty and public welfare. However, it can also have – and does have – another meaning: the individual is not able to be instrumentalized by any political power because he is finalized to God alone. In the aforementioned excerpt St. Thomas asserts that the individual is ordered to the political community as a whole, and in an equally well known excerpt he affirms that: “Man is not ordered to the political community according to all his being or all his having, but everything man is and everything he may have and has is ordered to God” (S.Th., I-II, 21, 4). I believe that when the Magisterium of the Council and after the Council highlights this aspect it does so in order to defend the individual from the arrogance of political power by virtue of his “transcendent dignity” bestowed upon him by his coming from God and being ordered to Him.  God is the supreme Common Good. The philosopher Francesco Gentile was wont to say that the common good consists in seeing the Good in common.

The phrase De Corte takes from Pacem in terris is not a complete expression of the Church’s position. Readily evident when reading this encyclical letter is the idea that the common good corresponds to an order founded on God. As so well underscored by Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, the encyclical begins with the reference to “the divinely established order”  (n. 1); “the order among human beings living together is moral in nature”(…). The moral order – universal and absolute in its principles – has its objective foundation in God” (n. 20). Pacem in terris can therefore affirm that “the common good” must somehow include the reference to God and cannot be understood only in a horizontal sense as the material organization of ordinary life: “the measures that are taken to implement the common good must not jeopardize his eternal salvation; indeed, they must even help him to obtain it” (n°59).  [I’ve taken these observations from: G. Crepaldi, Introduzione a M. Roncalli-E. Malnati, Pacem in terris, l’ultimo dono di Giovanni XXIII, Cantagalli, Siena 2013]. These and other excerpts from the encyclical indicate with all due certainty that there is no reductionism of the traditional concept of common good, as might seem to be the case on the basis of the single citation by De Corte.

The aforementioned phrase from Gaudium et spes deserves distinct attention in its own right. Taken all on its own, this phrase stating that the individual is principle, subject and end of political institutions is misleading because it can give the impression of being personalism without God. However, as I have written elsewhere (cf. S. Fontana, Il Concilio restituito alla Chiesa. Dieci domanda sul Vaticano II, La Fontana di Silone, Turin 2013), the sense of this phrase is completed by other excerpts from the same document, as well as by other Council texts. The phrase in itself does raise not a few problems, but it has to be completed. This also means it cannot be projected as an example of a “turning point”.

Having made these clarifications, and also in the wake of De Corte’s sharp-edged observations, I think we are duty bound to take note of the fact that the Catholic reductionism of the “common good” is both under way and widespread, and that personalism has often sought to interact with certain currents of modernity, but in so doing has ended up being engulfed. It is likewise important to realize that when some benchmarks of Catholic doctrine regarding society and politics are lost from sight, there is a sort of backwash within the ecclesiastical community with the possibility that modified may be also be the categories with which to think both the faith and the Church. The last few chapters of De Corte’s book highlight this very well.

Stefano Fontana