A conference was held on 9 May 2019 at Udine in the Main Hall of Palazzo Belgrado for the presentation of the book: “Le chiavi della questione sociale. Bene comune e sussidiarietà: storia di un equivoco”. Edited by Stefano Fontana for Edizioni Fede & Cultura (Verona 2019), this book contains articles and essays written by the editor himself, Danilo Castellano, Rev. Samuele Cecotti, Fr. Arturo Ruiz Freites IVE, and Giovanni Turco. The speakers at this conference in Udine included the President of the Regional Council of Friuli Venezia Giulia, Mr. Mauro Zanin, who extended words of greeting to all present, and Professors Castellano, Fontana and Turco. Published below is the statement delivered by Stefano Fontana.


What I intend to do in these words of mine is highlight the need and the usefulness of this book we are presenting this evening. We are becoming increasingly aware there is a glaring lack of a common language in the Church as well. Terms and expressions of even daily use are understood in a very ambiguous way, and if a new Socrates were to walk the streets of our cities asking people what common good or subsidiarity meant, he would receive many outlandish replies. This book issues forth from the need to restore clarity to some fundamental concepts of public life in the light of both the Social Doctrine of the Church and recta ratio. Since one of the main reasons for the current conceptual confusion in both the world and the Church is due to an incorrect use of philosophy, and hence theology, considering the progressive moving away from “Christian philosophy”, we had the idea of projecting debate between the metaphysical realism of St. Thomas and the Social Doctrine of the Church, retaining that the former constitutes the philosophical and theological system for the latter, as affirmed by Aeterni Patris at the origin of the Social Doctrine of the Church, albeit called ‘modern’ in a manner to be specified. What does the Social Doctrine of the Church become once it has taken its distance from recta ratio and is placed in the hands of current philosophical pluralism which becomes theological pluralism, and inevitably ends up becoming doctrinal pluralism? A very complicated question, but with respect to which it can undoubtedly be said that being corroded is the sense of the conceptuality proper to the Social Doctrine of the Church and inherited from the deposit of faith and reason correctly used. In the two articles of mine published in this book[1] I sought to show how, in the documents of the Church’s social Magisterium, there has been a slow yet progressive corrosion of the theoretical substance of fundamental concepts of the Social Doctrine of the Church, beginning with that of the common good and that of subsidiarity. I can tell you now that in an analogous book we will present here next year, God willing, the same analysis will be carried out on the subject of law and right.

In order to illustrate this book’s (intellectual) appeal, and to avoid entering into matters  to be addressed by the following speakers, I plan to offer a series of observations at a level more elementary than theirs, drawing material from recent news in an effort to show how the aforementioned corrosion of sense has by now become daily life, air that we breathe, without even having to think about arguing the new reductionist attitudes.

First of all, I would like to point out that by now there has been an shift from the theology of what to the theology of how, [2]  with no regrets at all. This shift literally erases the Social Doctrine of the Church, dealing a death blow to the very possibility of its existence. In the face of the lacerating problems of social and political life, the Magisterium calls on us to welcome, integrate, mend, accompany, risk, not succumb to fears, build bridges and not walls, refrain from judging, dream, share, participate, forge shared solutions, concur, walk together. It is readily evident to one and all that these words or expressions are bereft of substance, indicate formal attitudes and procedures that can apply to anything, and hence decree the replacement of the what (and the why) with the how. In this context, the common good is a doing without a something to do, a something that may perhaps come to the surface in the process of doing, while the principle of subsidiarity is a procedural and operational solution.

This shift or passage is very evident, for example,  in the ways the Magisterium of the Church is now tackling the issue of migration and immigration. Nary a concept of the Social Doctrine of the Church is being used anymore, let alone the common good, because attributed to the attitude (of charity without truth) is a sense in itself as both attitude and praxis, without needing anything else. The concept of common good that could enlighten immigration policies if properly understood, is thereby reduced to a how bereft of both a what and a why. Note well that by removing the just mediation of the Social Doctrine of the Church that distinguishes levels while analogically connecting them with one another, the Church herself ends up engaging in direct politics, and this to the point of having the faithful pray during Mass for political intentions; for example the reopening of seaports by the national government of Italy. With the theology of how there is a sort of new clericalism, a new political theology in the sense developed by Metz in the wake of Rahner, a new and generalized undermining of the Church in praxis in light of the abandonment of the theology of what, thereby making judgment, assessment and orientation possible. Praxis (or the apostolate) becomes the transcendental horizon – in the sense of the modern transcendental – of the life of the Church and its announcement, and hence the distinctions between levels, for example between sacred and profane, fall by the wayside, and it becomes possible to hold political meetings in churches in preparation for elections, as is now happening as elections to the European Parliament fast approach, or as happened for the national referendum on the privatization of water or the one on the oil drills.

What is happening with respect to immigration policies is something we also see in what the Magisterium has to say about Europe and democracy. References to Europe with a view to the upcoming elections regard the European Union as a process worthwhile in its own right; a process from which the common good must emerge, not the other way around. Surprising is the current pro-European propaganda now being voiced by the official Catholic Church and its instruments, its demolition of the natural identities of peoples or nations which are rather merrily criticized as forms of pro-sovereignty egoism or shortsighted nationalism contrary to the common good, with the ensuing overlapping between common good and globalism and the abandonment of the principle of subsidiarity. The process of European unification is endorsed and celebrated as a process, and the concept of the common good is adapted to the needs of the process instead of guiding it. The how lays down the law for the what and the why.

The same may be said today about democracy that has always been sustained by the Church as a process for forging shared solutions; yes, a process issuing forth from which should be the ‘contents’ or tangible substance of the common good, whose hallmark of truthfulness should be represented by the sharing element. We see that contemporary moral theology increasingly argues that modern democracy can be the new historical condition illustrating the importance of synodality for the Church, and hence urges it to revisit its selfsame being. Prof. Giacomo Canobbio[3] and the entire Theology Faculty of Northern Italy in general sustain the following opinion: just as once upon a time the Church drew inspiration for its own structure from the monarchy model, there is no reason why it cannot draw inspiration today from the democratic model. Therefore, the “synodal conversion” explicitly called for by Pope Francis’ Evangelii gaudium would be the ecclesial form of a “democratic conversion”. Since the substance of modern democracy is the priority of how over what, this priority is also introduced into the Church through a concept of synodality understood in a manner similar to that of democracy, accompanied by no few theological issues. In fact, however, we can all note that now being added to the Church with a proclaimed synodality is, in fact, an oligarchic structure very much setting the agenda. The primacy of praxis (pastoral praxis as well) always has to be imposed in some way, since by definition it cannot be argued.

I’ve used examples of immigration-ism, Europe-ism and democracy-ism in the Church to show that the contents (the what) and the ends (the why) are subordinated to how, and this renders them radically embedded in history. The how is brought forth from the historical and circumstantial situation. Hence there can be no prior regulating contents, and each ‘rule’ must issue forth from that situation. Therefore, only in that manner may said ‘contents’ become historical and subject to change. To speak about the common good as a regulating principle in finalistic terms becomes impossible. If there is no norm issuing forth from the hermeneutics of the situation, each attenuating circumstance becomes an exception in moral terms, as we see in the Exhortation Amoris laetitia. Each existential situation would be a set of attenuating circumstances, but since the norm is historically the offspring of the situation, the attenuating circumstances turn into exceptions to the norm; in other words, into new norms. Returning to Amoris laetitia, this is why any attenuating circumstances of a remarried divorcee are no longer mere mitigating elements to be raised in the confessional, but give life to a new norm that permits direct access to the Eucharist. The norm is thereby changed not through normative channels, but by way of practice. This is nowadays the main sense of the priority of how over what. We recently had a maxi-confirmation of this in the plans for the reform of the Roman Curia, according to which the future dicastery of evangelization would be situated in a position over and above the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. First evangelize, and then, as things develop and all people are journeying together, what they are being evangelized to will be clarified.

It must be pointed out that all modern thought understood as a philosophical category has been much like a major replacement of what with how, beginning from when the issue of method – the haw – was placed in the forefront. As far as theology is concerned, modernism was the replacement of what with how, and, with the “anthropological turning point” of Karl Rahner[4], the penetration of this perspective increased exponentially in both diffusion and depth in the Church, including among its most senior exponents.

The process of secularization[5] is also one of the consequences of the priority of how over what, and it is easy to understand why. How is relative and subject to change, and hence, taken as a substantial point of view, it corrodes the absoluteness and universality of sense. This process of corrosion is ceaseless by its very nature since there will always be a sense to corrode on the basis of a new situation.  In fact, if we take a close look at the concept of common good, as well as subsidiarity, we can see how in the evolution of the documents of the social Magisterium from Rerum novarum to our present day and age, these concepts have gone through a process of secularization. Clearly evident in the articles and essays published in this book is the fact that the common good is a substantial, analogical and vertical concept. When looking at the Church’s documents, however, we note how these features have gradually been expressed in a less precise manner. This is especially true about the third of them – verticality – which implies the need for the Utmost Good for the common good, with a whole series of consequences now being overlooked or abandoned; for example, the authority that comes from God, or the duty of politics towards the true religion. The recent document of the International Theological Commission entitled “Religious Freedom for the Good of All” assumes religious freedom as foundational for the common good, rather than the other way around. The Libertas Ecclesiae would depend on freedom, while Libertas Ecclesiae founds and sustains true freedom as the ultimate aim of commitment in society and politics and is essential for the common good. At this point, by virtue of secularization, the Church now proposes the multi-religious society as the ultimate end of engagement in society and politics, replacing the common good. The principle of freedom of religion led to Pope Francis’ recent affirmation when in Abu Dhabi [6] , saying that the plurality of religions would not be a consequence of original sin, but would have been willed by God. In order to sustain that the common good calls upon politics to comply with its duty towards the true religion would be tantamount to mounting opposition against God’s designs for humanity, which is quite the contrary to what the Social Doctrine of the Church has been saying so far.




[1] Cfr. S. Fontana, La nozione di bene comune prima e dopo il Vaticano II, in Id. (a cura di), Le chiavi della questione sociale. Bene comune e sussidiarietà: storia di un malinteso, Fede & Cultura, Verona 2019, pp. 21-31; Id.,  La deformazione operativa del principio di sussidiarietà, in Id. (a cura di), Le chiavi della questione sociale. Bene comune e sussidiarietà: storia di un malinteso, Fede & Cultura, Verona 2019, pp. 111-120. Cfr. anche: S. Fontana, Paradigma metafisico e paradigma ermeneutico: le variazioni del Magistero sociale post-conciliare, in “Fides Catholica”, XIII (2018) 2, pp. 389-403; Id., Les mutations du bien commun, “Catholica”, n. 143 (2019), pp. 85-89. .

[2] Cfr. S. Fontana, Il grosso guaio del primato del come sul cosa, http://www.lanuovabq.it/it/il-grosso-guaio-del-primato-del-come-sul-cosa

[3] Cfr. G. Canobbio, Sulla sinodalità, “Teologia”, XLI (2016) 2, pp. 249-273.

[4] Cfr., S. Fontana, La nuova Chiesa di Karl Rahner, Fede & Cultura, Verona 2017; M. Gagliardi, La critica di Cornelio Fabro al pensiero filosofico di Karl Rahner e alcune conseguenze teologiche, in “Angelicum”, 94 (2017), pp. 709-740.

[5] Cfr. S. Fontana, Il demone della secolarizzazione: ci dimenticheremo di esserci dimenticati di Dio?, in Id., Chiesa gnostica e secolarizzazione. L’antica eresia e la disgregazione della fede, Fede & Cultura, Verona 2018, pp. 42-56.

[6] Si veda in proposito: B. Dumont, Dialogues et convergences. Observations a propos de la Déclaration d’Abu Dahbi, “Catholica”, n. 143 (2019), pp. 4-13.

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Stefano Fontana

Direttore dell'Osservatorio Card. Van Thuận