Dublin's Archbishop on Compendium of Social Doctrine

«Not a Simple Scissors-and-Paste Job»

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MAYNOOTH, Ireland, JUNE 15, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Here is a text of the notes prepared by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin for a presentation of the Irish edition of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The presentation was Monday.

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St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth
13 June 2005

I remember well my first introduction into the world of international finance. It was in early 1987 and the then Pontifical Commission «Iustitia et Pax» had just published a document on the international debt question. As the newly appointed undersecretary of the commission, I was dispatched to meet with some senior figures from the international banks and to elucidate the text.

We met in Cardinal Hume’s house in London. I received quite a rough welcome. Bankers spoke forcefully about the difficulties with their text and about the complexities of the matter. They were surprised to be challenged by an examination of the ethical dimensions of the laws of international finance.

Just as I was leaving I was surprised when one of the more vocal participants — a rather cynical English banker — came to me and said that he hoped he had not been too forceful in his contributions. Then he said: You know, as a Catholic banker I have often been asked by my bishop for some advice on his investments and financial administration or by the local Catholic school about its finances. But this is the first time that I have been consulted by the Church on what I do all day, about my own professional commitment and its social consequences.

Today in Ireland when we talk about the role and the involvement of the laity in Church life, we tend to speak about participation and leadership in local pastoral structures. I believe that we still do too little in the formation of lay persons — women and men — for the «secular nature of their Christian discipleship,» their duty «to proclaim the Gospel with an exemplary witness of life rooted in Christ and lived in temporal realities.»

The Irish Church needs more active, articulate lay people who understand and assume their responsibilities as Christian believers in various aspects of society. Irish society and Irish democracy would benefit from a new generation of lay persons prepared and capable of informing public opinion on the contribution that can be derived from the message of Jesus to establishing the values which should inspire different sectors of a pluralistic Irish political and social life.

Undertaking the task

The idea of a catechism of the social doctrine of the Church was first mooted during the Synod of Bishops for America and was taken up in the apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II «Ecclesia in America.»

Within days of the publication of that pontifical document, the then president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Archbishop François Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân, wrote to the Pope stating the willingness of the pontifical council to undertake the task of preparing the document.

It seemed a reasonably simple exercise. The social doctrine of the Church had been developed well especially since «Mater et Magistra» of Pope John XXIII. It had been updated at the Second Vatican Council, especially in the pastoral constitution «Gaudium et Spes,» and then by Pope Paul VI. Pope John Paul II had written three social encyclicals: «Laborem Exercens,» «Sollicitudo Rei Socialis» and «Centesimus Annus.» The apostolic letter «Tertio Millennio Adveniente» on the theme and preparation of the Jubilee also touched on social questions and provoked renewed social reflection throughout the entire Church focused on the concept of Jubilee.

But it soon became evident to the working group which was charged with writing the document — of which I was chairperson in the initial period — that a compendium of the social teaching of the Church could not be a simple scissors-and-paste job.

Many changes had taken place in society which required a deeper look at the nature of the Church’s social teaching. In the last decades of the 1900s doubts had emerged about what exactly what was meant by the social doctrine of the Church.

Paradoxically, the concept of the social teaching in the Church seemed to enter into crisis in the years immediately after Vatican II. Gone were the days of Dublin’s mass Social Study Conferences. Organizations like the Christus Rex Society, linked with Maynooth College, went into hibernation and have yet to re-emerge. Many were unhappy with the term «doctrine,» preferring «social teaching» or «social reflection» or «social thought.»

Clash of visions

There was the feeling in many places that the social teaching of the Church should be rather a form of social ethic which could be shared by people of various viewpoints, religious or not. There were clashes with different visions of social teaching. The Cold War inevitably led to a polarization of ideologies in social and economic reflection of all types. Certain trends of liberation theology had assumed a methodology which was flawed by elements of Marxist analysis. In other cases there was confusion between social teaching and outright political manifestoes.

A further difficulty was linked to the change in the concept of anthropology which inspired the social sciences and the challenges that this presented in dialogue with the doctrine of the Church. This was particularly evident in reflection around themes of marriage and the family, but it also appeared for example in reflection on the nature of the liberal market economy and its relationship to solidarity. A strong stress on the empirical made it difficult to speak of openness to the transcendent.

It was thus decided to give the new Compendium an original character which would begin by focusing on the nature of the social doctrine and the fundamental dimensions and principles of that doctrine. Then it would look at the positions which had emerged in the social teaching around a number of key questions: the family, work, economic life, the political community, the international community and the promotion of peace. It is the first ecclesial document which dedicates a special and ample section to the theme of the promotion of the environment.

All of this is centered on theological reflection. The Compendium becomes a theological reading of the signs of the times. It examines the evolution of the revelation of God’s love in the history of salvation, especially the revelation of God’s Trinitarian love. This leads to a reflection on the centrality of the human person and to an anthropology which is not individualistic, but which reflects the fact the God, in the Trinity, is relationship and self-giving. It is in this context that the Compendium addresses the centrality of human freedom, dignity and rights.

Scriptural reflections

Certain principles emerge from this reflection such as the principles of the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity and the universal destination of the goods of creation, a principle which assumes a new significance in the era of globalization and in reflection on the responsibility for sharing the wealth of the earth, including the fruit of human genius. The principle of the universal destination of the goods of creation is in many ways the principle guiding line in the Compendium’s reflections on the economy and on globalization.

Each section is introduced by some reflections from Scripture, both from the Old and the New Testaments, which stress the religious nature of the social doctrine and the link between social teaching and the mission of the Church.

Such biblical reflections stress the originality of the Church’s thought and they illustrate the foundation for the Church’s interventions in society concerning the challenges posed by the social questions of the day. The specifically religious language of the Bible can at times be a surprisingly useful language for dialogue with a secularized world
, as for example the concept Jubilee showed during the year 2000.

The Compendium is not a handbook of ready-made answers to the social challenges of the day. It «offers a complete overview of the fundamental framework of the doctrinal corpus of Catholic social teaching.»

It presents a unified corpus of principles and criteria which draw their origin from the Gospels and which are applied to the realities of the times in order to form Christians to make their own personal responsible judgments on the best manner to stimulate the ideals proposed by the Gospel in contemporary culture.

Neither is the social doctrine fundamentalist. It requires a form of mediation by the reader, in dialogue with the social sciences, which brings the social thought of the Scriptures into dialogue with the dynamics of contemporary social life and culture.

An original way

The social doctrine of the Church is not a political manifesto and cannot be simply appropriated as the agenda of any political party. The social teaching is not a «third way,» it is an original way. Neither does it aim to foster unnecessary divisions or factions within the Church. The Church cannot impose as binding anything other than that which it can draw out of Scripture and authentic tradition. It recognizes that Christians may work in different ways in order to reach the same goal.

At the same time, the term «doctrine» draws attention to the fact that the Christian cannot simply decide that anything goes in terms of social conscience and that certain underlying principles of the social doctrine, especially those closest to the kernel of the Church’s teaching, have binding character in their own right.

The social doctrine of the Church is above all an instrument to guide the formation of the consciences of Christians, especially Christian lay persons. Even though the Compendium is addressed first of all to bishops, I would venture to say that the success of the social teaching is not to be measured in the number of episcopal statements on social issues it provokes — many of which of course may indeed be opportune — but in the maturity of the commitment and responsibility by which lay Christians involve themselves in the realization of a more just and loving society, coherent with Gospel principles.

I have drawn attention elsewhere to the author who noted that «Catholics have the bad habit of thinking of the Church as the hierarchy. This is a false equation theologically and a fatal equation politically. If the Catholic voice is merely the voice of the hierarchy — as eloquent and holy as they might be — the game is up. If the hierarchy is neither eloquent nor holy the game will not even get started.»

The social teaching of the Church serves to offer guidance to Christians, especially lay Christians, as they exercise their prophetic role in society. Lay Christians share in their own special way in the priestly, prophetic and kingly mission of Christ. The prophetic office is exercised in the manner in which Christian lay people commit themselves from within society to making that society a more just and loving society.

The Compendium is too important a document to be usurped by episcopal commissions or professional Church bureaucrats. There is a sense in which the real «translation» of any social encyclical or any document of the social teaching of the Church is written not by professional interpreters, but by the action of Christian lay people in the world in which they work as they try day by day to apply these principles in their life and commitment. The new Compendium will certainly be a most useful instrument for them in achieving this task.

[Text adapted here]

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