Social Doctrine's Role in the Church

Pastoral Priorities for Christians

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ROME, FEB. 19, 2005 ( The last section of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church explains the pastoral and ecclesial dimensions of the teaching in this area. The social teaching «offers above all an integral vision of man and a complete understanding of his personal and social dimensions» (No. 522).

Based as it is on a Christian anthropology the Church’s social doctrine sheds light on authentic human values, thus inspiring and sustaining the task of giving Christian witness in the world, notes the Compendium. It is also an aid in the task of inculturating the faith and helping the modern world overcome the rift between the Gospel and culture.

The Compendium also recommends that the social message of the Gospel be a guide in the mission of the New Evangelization. In this pastoral role the social teaching will not only help men and women discover the truth, but will also encourage Christians to «bear witness with a spirit of service to the Gospel in the field of social activity» (No. 525).

Social teaching also has a vital role in Christian formation, especially for those who have responsibilities in social and public life. But for this to be a reality, the Compendium urges that social doctrine receive greater priority in catechesis so that the faithful are better instructed on this subject.

This instruction should not be merely the transmission of abstract theory, the text adds. «In the context of catechesis above all it is important that the teaching of the Church’s social doctrine be directed towards motivating action for the evangelization and humanization of temporal realities» (No. 530).

The Compendium also notes that social teaching can be a useful instrument in ecumenical dialogue, and in dialogue between the Church and the civil world. Defending the dignity of the human person, promoting peace and helping the poor improve their lot are fields of action where cooperation with others can increase Christian unity.

Pastoral activity

All Christians have a role to play in the social sector, the text explains. Within the Church, bishops, assisted by priests, religious and the laity, are responsible for promoting the teaching of the social doctrine. In this context the Compendium calls for priests to receive suitable formation in the Church’s doctrine so as to be able then to help in the instruction of lay Christians.

The lay faithful also have a vital role in spreading the social teaching, starting with «an exemplary witness of life rooted in Christ and lived in temporal realities» (No. 543). This witness is rooted in the gift of grace, the Compendium explains, thus distinguishing it from a humanistic action that is limited to temporal considerations. «The eschatological perspective is the key that allows a correct understanding of human realities,» the Compendium insists in No. 544.

To help maintain this perspective the text calls upon the faithful to cultivate an authentic spirituality and to strengthen their moral lives. Deepening the interior life by means of an ongoing formation will help ensure greater harmony between everyday life and Christian faith.

The Compendium further recommends prudence for the lay faithful in the social field. Prudence is needed in three moments: studying and reflecting on the question in hand; evaluating the reality in the light of God’s plan; and deciding upon the action to be taken. Prudence, the text continues, is neither human shrewdness nor timidity in making a decision, but a virtue that helps to decide with wisdom and courage the course of action to be taken.

The establishment of ecclesial associations, which can guide the faithful in their actions in this field, is another step recommended by the Compendium. Groups and associations can play both a valuable role in offering formation to their members in this area, as well as coordinating pastoral activity.

A culture of service

In implementing social doctrine the Compendium suggests viewing it from the point of view of service. The credibility of Church teaching in this area, in fact, «comes more immediately from the witness of action than from its internal consistency or logic» (No. 551).

The commitment by the laity in the social area can be seen, the text continues, as a service to the human person. This service starts with an interior conversion of our hearts, and, in turn, this conversion leads to concern for the welfare of others.

The Compendium then goes on to outline a number of priority areas for action.

— Service to the human person, by affirming the inviolability of human life, from conception to natural death. Human dignity also requires freedom of conscience and religious freedom, as well as the defense of marriage and the family.

— Service in the area of culture, broadly intended. The Compendium notes the problems with a consumeristic lifestyle and the emphasis placed on superficial appearances. We need to recover the genuine sense of human growth, and develop our capacity to communicate and relate with others.

— Encouraging the participation of Catholics in social and political life is another priority. Involvement in public life is necessary in order to present in an efficacious way the proposals stemming from a Catholic vision of social life.

— Preserving the ethical dimension of culture is another important task. Culture can become sterile and decadent, or it can be a means to enriching people’s lives. Ensuring the latter requires people who are prepared to use their capacities «for self-control, personal sacrifice, solidarity and readiness to promote the common good» (No. 556).

— Specifically, within today’s culture, the Compendium outlines a number of fields where action is particularly needed: guaranteeing the rights of each person; ensuring a commitment to truth; working to ensure that the religious dimension of culture is respected; and using correctly the mass media.

— Service in the economy. The Compendium calls upon Christians to remember the centrality of the human person. It also urges a better harmony between the demands of economic efficiency and the requirements of social justice.

— Service in politics. Pursuing the common good in spirit of service should inspire the Christian laity, the text recommends. The text also insists on an adequate attention to the moral dimension in political life and for an increased Christian witness on the part of politicians.

A civilization of love

The closing pages of the Compendium are dedicated to the theme of building a «Civilization of Love.» People are searching for meaning in their lives, the text notes, and the Church responds with the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. Through faith in God and Jesus Christ, Christians can obtain inspiration regarding the principles that should order private and public life.

Bringing about a renewal of society to ensure justice and solidarity is no easy task, and we should not be led into thinking that there is some magic formula to solve problems. Our salvation does not lie in such a formula, but in the person of Christ, found in the Gospel and in the Tradition of the Church.

And even if believers know that there will never be an earthly paradise, their hope founded in Christ gives them confidence in the building of a better world. In this effort we should be guided by the principle of the primacy of love. Love, the Compendium adds, should permeate every social relationship and be the highest norm for all activity.

The commandment of love contained in the Gospel should be for Christians a message that transforms them and leads them to reject egoism, individualism and selfishness. This love in turn requires the practice of justice and inspires us to self-giving. Fitting words to close this synthesis of the Church’s social doctrine.

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