Published for your reading is the editorial writen by Archbishop Giampaolo for issue 2 (2017) of the Bulletin of the Social Doctrine of the Church dedicated to “The Luteran Reformation in the Light of the Social Doctrine of the Church. This issue offers articles written by Miguel Ayuso, Samuele Cecotti, Omar Ebrahime, Stefano Fontana, Ermanno Pavesi, and Guido Vignelli. For further in formation, purchases and subscriptions.
The main subject of this issue of our “Bulletin” was in a certain sense imposed by the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation being celebrated this year, 2017. We do not speak here about the Reformation out of deference to the anniversary itself, but because we are convinced that rotating around it are many of the nodal elements of a correct or incorrect vision of society, politics, and law. This is therefore a propitious opportunity for a renewed analysis of the Reformation as such, as well as its relations with many aspects of social and political life to which the Social Doctrine of the Church, the core of our Observatory’s commitment, is dedicated. I’m referring in particular to modernity, secularization, the relationship between the Church and the world, or else the relationship of authority or the role of individual conscience in matters of public life. Reappraising the Reformation calls for a broad reaching approach in light of its links with many dimensions of public life. Even if 500 years have passed, its influence is very present, and perhaps even more so than before since many virtual elements have become manifest only with the passing of time. Some attentive observers had already glimpsed them back then, but now they are there for all to see: it suffices to want to see them.
In keeping with the nature of the ‘Bulletin’, the essays and articles published in this issue are mainly social and political in nature. In other words, they do not delve into ecumenical or strictly theological arguments. Nonetheless, while not being able to overlook them entirely, they are only referred to in an indirect manner. These arguments may not be overlooked because likewise issuing forth from the Reformation’s new and volatile theological contents are the social and political consequences focused upon in this issue’s material. Note well: this concerns not so much the interior and personal situation of Martin Luther the monk, but rather what stems forth from the new vision of sin and grace, from nature and the relationship with God. The personal experience of the monk of Erfurt is certainly of great importance insofar as the trigger and driver of the process, but the Reformation as such has to do with unorthodox theological assertions and not Luther’s individual intentions. This too is dealt with in this issue, especially so in an article by Ermanno Pavesi, but the focus has to be on the conceptual contents of the Reformation.
Stemming forth from Luther’s vision of the relations between nature and grace, his conception of justification not as an imputation of our sins by Christ rather than purification of corrupt yet not annihilated nature, his idea of original sin as corruption without any possibility for the intimate redemption of human nature, and his vision of faith as an act of blind entrustment are new ways in approaching the social and political issue at large: for example, the concept of authority as bare power, the invincible depravation of the social man and the doctrine of power as what overcomes evil with evil, the separation between the public life of a Christian and his interior life of faith since liberty can only be lived in this latter dimension, the impossibility for the Church to have any public and visible presence insofar as being nothing more than an interior and spiritual reality, the dialectic between the submission of evil man to political power on one hand, and the affirmation of the liberty of personal conscience flowing from the principle of non assessment by other-than-self which explains how Protestantism was able to give birth to both totalitarian regimes and liberal democracies bereft of sense, etc. All these topics are well developed and argued in this issue.
Among all these arguments I would invite readers to dwell on a point I consider to be of core importance in the conceptual essence of the Reformation. I am referring to what some authors date back to a Gnostic approach, and that is a sense of distain for reality and the superimposition of human will upon it. Numerous and profound on this point are the analogies between the Protestant Reformation and modern thought. For modern thought, method comes before content, knowledge before being, doubt before truth, and conscience before reality. Since the point of departure is the doubt that cancels all truths in a sort of radical skepticism, each successive truth has to be ‘posited’. Augusto Del Noce, Cornelio Fabro and Joseph Ratzinger agree in arguing that modern thought is the offspring of an undemonstrated ‘assumption’ impossible to demonstrate, this being that known is not being, but one’s own conscience. It may also be said that this is the offspring of a ‘dogma’ whose value resides solely in being ‘posited’ by free will. Therefore, likewise behind modern rationalism would also be voluntarism and vitalism. In other words, the primacy of praxis.
Now, this approach is also characteristic of the Protestant Reformation. The practical element in Luther’s thinking – feeling saved – has the upper hand over the theoretical and contemplative element: knowing who Jesus Christ is. This to the degree that the demythization that would be pursued in the mainstream of Protestant theology especially by Rudolf Bulktmann was already implicit in the original positions: of interest is not what Christ is in Himself, but what He is for me. What counts is not the real Christ, but the Christ of my conscience. Thus is the ‘principle of immanence’ transposed from (modern) philosophy to (Protestant) theology, and the primacy of conscience reigns supreme unto our day and age. Through the link with individual conscience, faith is disassociated from reason.
I said earlier that some observers see a sign of Gnosis in this approach. I too believe this is an important aspect to be studied in depth. Gnosis is present in many forms in the Protestant Reformation. What I wish to underscore here is but one aspect which I deem to be a principal one: present in the refusal of reality and the clear pride of place assigned to individual conscience is the Gnostic project, anticipated from the very beginning in original sin, to rid oneself of reality, truth and order in order to mold and shape them anew according to human criteria, according to our criteria. This is the project to replace philosophy and theology with ideology; ideology which, given the prevalence of will and practical intent mentioned above, becomes praxism in a more consistent manner, becomes action for the sake of action unto itself and bereft of sense. Augusto Del Noce was quite right when demonstrating that Marxism – that is to say the primacy of praxis – marked the coming to age of modernity, and he foresaw its final outcome in Nietzsche. In the meantime, after Del Noce’s death, the outcome also went well beyond Nietzsche, but his prediction was correct.
It is of utmost interest for our publication to consider the relationship between the Protestant Reformation and the Social Doctrine of the Church. In light of what has been said above and the considerations offered in the essays and articles in this issue, I think I can say that the Protestant Reformation renders the Social Doctrine of the Church impossible. Not only because there is no Church, not only because there is no doctrine, but also because the Church does not relate to the world through the avenue of reason and truth. The world must only be kept at bay because it is the victim of evil and the Christian faith cannot be the source of any type of improvement. As Karl Löwith, a Protestant philosopher of history, was wont to say, from the viewpoint of human progress we are still at the times of the Vandals. Faith is inefficacious for human history and counts for souls alone, while works have no value or are even devilish temptations.
+ Most Rev. Giampaolo Crepaldi
President of the Observatory