The Social Doctrine of the Church: what it is and principles of the DSI - CARF
Seleccionar página
Mr. Arturo Bellocq
26 May, 20

Expert Articles

The Social Doctrine of the Church: what it is and principles of the SDC

One might think that the DSI is of little use... and in a certain sense it is true: the principles of the DSI give us "quantitatively little" - they do not usually provide the solution to the problems, they do not save us the work of analyzing them and looking for the best solution - but they give "qualitatively much", especially in this confusing world with few points of reference, because they give this work of searching the right direction and the appropriate concepts

To know the Social Doctrine of the Church.

That is why it is so important to know it, to spread it, to learn to think in its terms, and then... to take seriously one's own "vocation as responsible builders of the earthly society" and to see what each one can do from his or her place.

In 1991 John Paul II wrote his social encyclical Centesimus annus to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first social encyclical, Leo XIII's Rerum novarum. At the beginning of the letter, the Polish Pope said that just as Leo XIII had written 100 years earlier, it was necessary to repeat at that time "that there is no true solution to the 'social question' outside the Gospel" (no. 5). One hundred years had passed and the slogan remained the same.

I think that intuitively we all agree: we see that there is a connection between social, economic, political, etc. problems with ethics and, basically, with the Gospel: if we all lived as the Gospel says, there would certainly be fewer social problems.

But this intuitive conclusion will certainly not satisfy people of action, who will immediately ask themselves: and what does it mean concretely that there is no solution to the social question outside the Gospel? What do we Christians have to do then? Do we put the bishops in charge of governing civil society as well? Do we make a confessional state that guarantees that some basic principles of politics, economics, social justice, etc. will never be violated? What principles? Who decides? Do we accept the relative freedom and stability that democracy and the free market give us and try to convince and educate people to do the right thing? How long will it take us?

But going deeper: does the Gospel have a political, economic, business or public transport model for a city that Christians should defend? If the answer is yes: what is it? If the answer is no: then what does the Gospel give us? How can we understand that there is no solution to the social question outside the Gospel?

As we know, the response of Christians has been very different throughout history: from the first community that had all its goods in common and many of them dedicated themselves professionally to preaching the Gospel in the midst of violent persecutions; to the union of Church and State when the Christian faith becomes a common good and politics protects it - but also controls it - and abuses occur on both sides; until today, when there is a relative independence between religion and politics, which at times is indifference or even opposition. But the very politics and economics on which social doctrine is based have also changed a lot, from the ancient world to the medieval world, to the mercantilist world, to the industrial revolution, to the capital markets, to the current ecological and social challenges....

So, on the one hand, we know that faith necessarily has to influence the construction of a society that is more just and worthy of man; but, on the other hand, we see that the realities that faith has to illuminate are so complex and contingent that we cannot expect from Christian faith -from the Social Doctrine of the Church (ISD)-the immediate solution to all social problems. Therefore, before explaining what ideas and orientations the ISD contains, it is important to explain what its nature is: in what way or at what level it can help us to regenerate public life; a level that is so basic or fundamental that sometimes we are surprised that the solution to the various social issues of our time absolutely depends on it.


What is the Social Doctrine of the Church and why does it exist?

At least since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has been fully aware of these three fundamental truths that define the nature of the SDC:

  1. "The proper mission that Christ entrusted to his Church is not of a political, economic or social order. The end he assigned to her is of a religious order. But precisely from this same religious mission derive functions, lights and energies which can serve to establish and consolidate the human community according to the divine law." Therefore, "by virtue of its mission and nature, it is not bound to any particular form of human civilization or to any political, economic or social system. Although it undoubtedly contributes to this, the mission of the Church is not to govern the world, nor to achieve social justice, nor to correct the excesses of society by demanding "authority and judgment" in matters touching on the moral sphere, as the popes sometimes demanded in the 19th century.
  2. The mission of the State is not the sanctity of its citizens, and it has no competence in religious matters; therefore, it must give religious freedom and take care of the temporal common good of the nation. The State does not have to do what the Church says because it proclaims the true religion: the State is not competent to say what the true religion is. The proclamation of the faith (and of the DSI) will be imposed with the force of truth, passing through the freedom of the people who want to accept it.
  3. On the specificity of the Christian message in social matters, he declares the legitimate autonomy of earthly realities: "created things and society itself enjoy their own laws and values, which man must gradually discover, use and order. Therefore, faith does not teach everything we can know about society, economics and politics: its ultimate meaning and its fundamental principles, yes, but the "laws and values proper" to these disciplines must be discovered little by little by human reason. This is why it was said earlier that the Church is not bound to any particular form of political, economic or social system, but at the same time, that from her religious mission and her doctrine derive light and energy to establish the human community according to divine law.
    Inspired by these conciliar teachings, which were developed by subsequent popes in their contents and in the way of proposing the SDC, Pope Benedict XVI will give what in my opinion is the best explanation of what it is and why it exists. The Pope Emeritus affirms that the just order of society and of the State - the construction of an earthly city worthy of man - is a principal task of politics, not of the Church. The Church cannot and should not substitute for politics, because that is not the mission assigned to her by her Founder, and because the message she proclaims does not contain a particular political or economic synthesis, so as to be able to indicate it with the authority of faith.

This does not mean, however, that the Church has nothing to offer in the struggle for a society worthy of man, or that she is indifferent. Its role is absolutely necessary, because building a just society is the work of human reason, but not of technical reason - as if it were a question of building a machine that works - but of practical or ethical reason, which must determine how to achieve justice here and now: how to organize the health system of this country, the transportation system of this city, the wages of this company, the claims that this union will make, the exchange rate for this currency, etc. And man's practical reason is fragile, and is always threatened by an "ethical blindness", "which derives from the preponderance of interest and power that dazzle it" and in some way make it incapable of discovering and realizing here and now a justice that is often contrary to personal interest because it is an arduous good that "always demands renunciation". And this is where faith comes in: because in the face of the temptation to make selfish interest the ultimate criterion of decision, the message of faith - which "starts from God's perspective" - reminds us that justice must prevail, and recalls the great truths that underpin the construction of a society worthy of man. Benedict XVI calls this function of faith - of the SDC - "purification of reason", because it is not intended as an external imposition on reason and the reasonableness of things, but as an aid to reason so that it can function well and have the right points of reference: so that it can see justice beyond selfish interest.

Pope Francis returns to the urgent need for conversion with his social encyclical, Laudato Si'. As the etymology of the Greek word metânoia indicates, "to convert" means to change the mind, the ideas on which we build our reasoning, make our decisions or evaluate the consequences of an action. In Francis' analysis of the human roots of the current crisis, he discovers a logic that has become a culture and that dominates social relations, generating violence and injustice; it is the logic of those who seek to satisfy immediate interests - generally selfish, such as power, greed, etc., characterized by having more rather than being more - by arbitrarily instrumentalizing everything that serves to satisfy them: physical nature with all its resources, other people, institutions, or whatever. The conversion he proposes does not consist in a few technical measures - which are also necessary at his level - but in recalling the great truths about God, man and the world that should be present in the reasoning of politicians, businessmen, international organizations, etc., and yet often are not.


Priests, God's smile on Earth

Put a face to your donation. Help us form diocesan and religious priests.

The principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC)

What, then, are these great truths that guide the analysis of problems and the search for solutions to build a society worthy of man? At first glance, we find that the Church's social magisterium is enormous, scattered in many documents from different periods, many of them saying different things. However, whoever studies it will see that it is a complex, but organic and well-structured corpus. More than 100 years of experience of social doctrine and of reflection on its evolution give to this discipline The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which was published in 2004 and sets out its contents in a synthetic and reasoned way, reflects this maturity in a way that is reflected in the Compendium. The reader will find there what the Church teaches on various social issues: the family, work, economic life, the political community, the international order, the environment. From this official teaching-which it is essential to know, at least in its essential outlines, and which we will only briefly describe here-the popes and bishops of each era authoritatively teach how to understand and apply this teaching. doctrine in its time. It is important, therefore, to keep in mind that in this organic and structured corpus there are three levels of discourse.

At the first and most fundamental level are the principles of reflection, which are the most important and always valid: they are properly those great truths of reason and faith that must be at the basis of any reasoning about the structure of society and its functioning. As will be seen, they are all closely related to each other.

  • The first principle of the ISD is the primacy of the person.. Social life exists, in the last analysis, for the good of persons, of each and every person in his or her unique and absolute dignity. Hence it is essential for social life to respect the rights of the person, but also to promote his or her freedom and responsibilities. In order to know what rights and responsibilities are involved - because today there is a great variety of ideas about the rights that should be promoted - faith offers the definitive understanding of the human person, an image that does not contradict that of reason, but shows all its fullness: a person who is the image and likeness of God, with infinite value, whose happiness does not consist only in making money or having a good time, but in developing the virtues, loving others and helping others to be happy and building happiness in this life and in the next.
  • The second is the common good, that set of conditions of social, political and economic life that make it possible for people to develop, and to which we must all contribute by overcoming our selfish interests. The common good has a content and a structure of institutional justice that we must be aware of: it implies promoting certain public goods-justice in social relations, peace, the protection of human rights, health, education, work, etc.-but promoting them in accordance with the proper image of the human person. Therefore, if on the one hand it is necessary to recognize fundamental equality and offer equal opportunities to all, on the other hand it is necessary to respect and promote their freedom, capacity for initiative, etc., and therefore excludes authoritarian welfarism that seeks to equalize everyone by force.
  • Solidarity, by which we are aware of having a common destiny in which we are all responsible for all: God has entrusted us to other people so that we can help them from our place, according to our abilities. This principle is related to the common destiny of goods and private property, by which we know that God created the earth for all and with sufficient resources, but entrusted to us the task of administering the resources of the world so that all can live well, which in general is done through work and private property, but taking care that the freedom with which we apply ourselves to work and to the production of wealth is always a freedom of solidarity and not selfish. This is why the Church has always linked solidarity with the preferential option for the poor, on which Pope Francis insists so much: the thermometer to measure the quality of the heart of a person or of a society is how much it is concerned that the most needy improve their situation, which obviously can be manifested in many ways: giving alms, giving work, doing good politics, even giving classes of DSI....
  • Subsidiarity, by which a higher order body should not do what the lower one can do, but should respect its competencies, promote its freedom of initiative, help it so that it can. This implies that families and companies are not at the service of the State, but the other way around: the State at the service of companies and other intermediate associations, of families, and these of people, to serve them as they want and deserve to be served, and not as the politician of the day sees fit according to his ideology. This requires instances of dialogue, diversified solutions according to the cases, etc. and excludes some authoritarianisms - unfortunately so frequent - that try to suffocate the realities that do not bend to the dominant ideology.

In addition to these fundamental principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the following are also fundamental principles of the Social Doctrine of the ChurchThe reflection on the main social concepts, carried out by the Magisterium, theology and philosophy, is placed here to explain to today's world the complete truth of these realities. Thus the family is not just any union of persons, but only that which promotes all the family and personal goods; as development is not just the increase of the GDP, but the development of the whole man - also in his spiritual dimension - and of all men; work is not just a force of production or a means to make money, but the primary activity of man with which he develops his deepest capacities and improves the world that God entrusted to him; nor is the company just a means to make money in an organized way, but a community of persons who seek to offer something to the common good while growing integrally. And we could go on talking about the State, the market, technology, peace, etc., all concepts that are on the lips of politicians and on our own lips every day, but whose complete truth we often forget. And that truth is the polar star when it comes to diagnosing problems and offering solutions, if we want them to be authentic solutions.

At the second level, the ISD proposes some criteria of judgment, which are the general declinations of the principles according to the different areas of social life, and which allow us to judge the goodness/evilness of different situations, structures, actions. They derive from the principles, but also depend on the concrete social reality. For example: in the educational system, the freedom of parents to choose their children's school must be ensured. It is a criterion that comes from the dignity of the person, from respect for the rights of the family, from subsidiarity, etc., but it assumes the existence of many different schools accessible to a family, and will include a theory on the educational function of the State, on its obligation to make schools accessible, its real capacity to do so, etc. As can be seen, the criteria of judgment and their application in concrete judgments already depend a little on the historical situation and the concrete case.

Finally, at the third level are the action directives, which are indications of what should be done to improve a given situation. They go in the direction of applying the general principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church, after having judged a situation according to the criteria of judgment.. They range from the most obvious and general (promoting human rights, generating access to work, avoiding wars, etc.) to the most circumstantial and concrete (not supporting this abortion law, making trade unions confessionally Christian, taxing financial transactions, giving citizenship to those born in a country, etc.). Obviously here the degree of contingency and dependence on the concrete historical situation is much greater and the directive of action is almost never directly deduced from principles and judgments, but is mediated by a political or economic conception that is generally debatable and debatable in terms of these sciences. For this reason, they are increasingly infrequent in the Magisterium, since it is necessary to be very careful not to forget the three principles of the Council mentioned at the beginning of the article, pretending to indicate in the name of faith concrete economic or political solutions that are debatable in the field of the social sciences.

As Cardinal Carlo Caffarra wisely pointed out, in order to arrive at a concrete solution, ordinarily the principles of faith are not enough, but it is necessary to add a certain interpretation of the political or economic system, so that logic will say that the conclusion follows the weakest part of the reasoning, and therefore the conclusion can be open to opinion. This does not mean that everything the Church says on social issues is opinionated, nor that she does not have the right to give her moral judgment on some realities. But we do have to distinguish well between what is of faith and what is of social sciences, always bearing in mind that the objective of the SDC is not to solve the problems of the world, but to teach how to think about social problems based on some fundamental truths that should be present in the reasoning of those who analyze the problems and propose solutions, but often are not. That is why I think that, in general, social problems are not problems of DSI: they are economic, political, educational; and rather than theologians, they need good politicians, economists, jurists, businessmen, etc. That is: with reason purified of selfishness thanks to the faith.

In this sense, the DSI maintains that the proposals for concrete action are a task not of the Magisterium, but of the lay faithful, who do not act in the name of the Church, but under their responsibility as citizens. Their lay vocation - what God expects of them - demands, as a fundamental part of the vocation to holiness, responsibility for the justice of the society in which they live, that is, it demands doing everything possible to promote the common good from the place where each one is. Neither faith nor the Church will tell the laity what to do concretely to improve social conditions, because this is the realm of right reason, and because the SDC does not offer precise solutions. But this is not a relief for the laity, who would then have a mission that remains diffuse and left to the good will of some enlightened people and who also have time for social concern. It is not a relief but a greater responsibility, because it means that if each one, in the place where he/she is and according to his/her capacities, does not take the trouble to analyze the causes of the problems - small and big - that he/she finds around and to propose solutions that can solve them, nobody will do it. And this demands sacrifice, creativity, autonomy, responsibility; in the end, to seriously believe that building the world that God and mankind dream of does not depend so much on the Pope and the bishops, but above all on the laity. Not only to carry it out effectively, but above all to decide what to do concretely, because it is not written anywhere.

And then one might think that the ISD is of little use... and in a certain sense it is true: the principles of the ISD give us quantitatively little - they do not usually give us the solution to problems, they do not save us the work of analyzing them and seeking the best solution - but they give us qualitatively much, especially in this world that is so confused and with so few points of reference, because they give this work of searching the right direction and the right concepts. That is why it is so important to know it, to spread it, to learn to think in its terms, and then... to take seriously one's own".vocation responsible builders of the earthly society" and see what each one can do from his place.

Mr. Arturo Bellocq
Professor of Moral Theology and
Social Doctrine of the Church
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Rome)

Priests, God's smile on Earth

Put a face to your donation. Help us form diocesan and religious priests.

Related articles