The Living Tradition
Man and Society in the Light of the Gospel

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church was published recently. Human existence in society and in the international context, in the light of the faith and the Church’s tradition. Four fundamental points: the dignity of the person, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity

by Andrea Tornielli

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published recently by the Holy See and presented last October by Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, took five years of preparation, and collects together over a century of the Church’s social teaching. It presents "in a complete and systematic manner, even if by means of an overview, the Church’s social teaching, which is the fruit of careful Magisterial reflection and an expression of the Church’s constant commitment in fidelity to the grace of salvation wrought in Christ and in loving concern for humanity’s destiny."

The main aim

The Compendium explains firstly the nature of social doctrine, which “is not an ideological or pragmatic system, intent on defining and forming economic, political and social relationships, but a category in itself. It is the accurate formulation of the results of an attentive reflection on the complex realities of human existence, in society and in the international context, in the light of the faith and of Church tradition.” Its main aim is therefore to “interpret these realities, examining to what extent they conform with the lines of the Gospel teaching.” It is not a manual of politics, therefore, but a teaching “for guiding personal behavior.” The Church’s social doctrine, the document tells us, has a twofold duty: to proclaim “what the Church has of its own: a global vision of man and of mankind, at not just a theoretical, but a practical level” and the “duty of denouncement, in the presence of the sin of injustice and of violence, which, in various ways, spreads throughout society and takes shape in it. This denouncement becomes a judgment and a defense of rights that are not recognized and are violated, especially the rights of the poor, the small, and the weak.”

The root of rights

The first part of the volume explains the basic principle of the social teaching, that is to say the “intangible dignity of the person” and the awareness that “ a just society can be brought about only in respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person.” In this dignity, the Compendium explains, lies the root of human rights.” Therefore, the ultimate source of human rights is not situated in the mere will of human beings, in the reality of the State, or in public powers, but in man himself and in God his Creator,” and, “The first right is the right to life, from conception until its natural end, which conditions the exercise of every other right and implies, in particular, the illicitness of every form of procured abortion and euthanasia.” As well as the dignity of the human person, the other three hinges of the social doctrine described in the text are the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. Amongst the implications of the common good are the principles of the universal destination of goods and the preferential option for the poor.

Family and work

The second part of the Compendium gives ample space to the questions of family and marriage, which “is not a creation due to human conventions, but owes its stability to divine order” and therefore “no power can modify its characteristics and its finality.” The document then addresses the theme of work and its dignity, “essential expression of the person,” and “superior to every other factor of production, in particular to capital.” The violence of child labor is condemned “in its intolerable forms.” The right to strike is acknowledged and the importance of trades unions “called to act in new ways” so as to safeguard “not only the traditional categories of workers,” but also “workers with untypical contracts” and immigrants. Speaking of economics, the Compendium explains that this has “a moral connotation” and that a relationship between economics and morality is needed. The Church’s social doctrine judges capitalism positively if understood as “an economic system that acknowledges the fundamental and positive role of enterprise, of the market, of private property and the consequent responsibility for the means of production, and of free creativity in the economic sector.” It judges it negatively, however, if it is understood as “a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not situated within a solid juridical context that puts it at the service of integral human freedom and that considers it as a dimension of this freedom, whose center is ethical and religious.”

The death penalty,
politics, and war

In dealing with more properly political themes, the Compendium criticizes the death penalty, affirming that the cases in which it is “absolutely necessary to suppress the guilty person are nowadays very rare, if not actually inexistent” and hints at “ethical relativism” as the sickness of present-day democracies. Wide space is given to problems of international politics. “In order to resolve conflicts that arise between different political communities,” it says, “it is indispensable to refer to common rules entrusted to negotiation, renouncing definitively the idea of seeking justice through recourse to war.” After a chapter dedicated to the safeguard of the environment, the Compendium deals broadly with the theme of peace, which “is a universal value and duty” and is “the fruit of justice and love,” whereas “violence never constitutes a right answer.” The Holy See condemns wars of aggression and repeats the “rigorous conditions” for the use of force. It explicitly criticizes “preventive war”. It says, “As to preventive acts of war, launched without evident proof that an aggression is about to be set in motion, this cannot but arouse grave questions from the moral and juridical points of view.” Terrorism is also condemned very clearly, and the blasphemy of terrorism carried out in the name of God: “No religion can tolerate terrorism, much less preach it.”
The new Vatican document is therefore a useful and systematic instrument for drawing on the Church’s doctrine on social questions. As always, the problem is to make these teaching effective. “The social Magisterium can send out wonderful documents,” Civiltà Cattolica comments, “but if there is no one who sees that they are put into practice, these documents risk ending up in the huge cemetery of archives, for the use of future Church historians.”
For the Common Good
edited by A.T.

“It is an effective synthesis of the whole social doctrine of the Church.” Girolamo Grillo, Bishop of Civitavecchia-Tarquinia, Italy, and a scholar of social doctrine, is happy with the document produced by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. “It is a very useful tool that, thanks to the large analytical index, finally allows one to find the essential points of papal documents on this subject.” For Bishop Grillo, the Church’s social doctrine is a teaching of extreme importance. “It deals with all the great problems of today, with the social and political questions that regard our daily life.” The challenge of the preparation of this text was not an easy one. “There were no precedents in the history pf the Church,” the Bishop affirms, “and it was not easy to give the document a unitary and universal dimension, given the thousand aspects and infinite diversities in which the social reality of the world is expressed. We had to offer a teaching that could last in time in the historical phase we are living which is characterized by rapid and radical changes.”