Summorum Pontificum had instilled hope in many of those active in the realm of the Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC) and who continued to attend the Mass of Paul VI. The SDC, in fact, is not alien to the liturgy. In the ancient Mass, the centrality of God, including His social kingship, is more evident than in the Novus Ordo. Francis’ latest motu proprio, instead,  goes in the direction of a “new” SDC where the divine recedes and the Church’s primacy over the world disappears.

Francis’ motu proprio Traditionis custodes has many aspects that can be considered lacking in forethought. Some are already coming to the surface, and others will do so in the future. In the meantime, it may be appropriate to point out one aspect that has to do with the Social Doctrine of the Church.

In 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI issued the motu proprio Summorum pontificum that reconfirmed the ancient rite of the Mass as an albeit extraordinary expression of the Roman Church’s unique lex orandi, many committed to the Social Doctrine of the Church were pleased. Mind you: many who would have continued to participate in the celebration of the Mass according to the Novus Ordo even after Summorum Pontificum. Their fidelity to the Mass of Paul VI did not prevent them from being grateful to Benedict XVI for this step. They knew well, in fact, that the Social Doctrine of the Church is not alien to the liturgy, since nothing in the life of the Church and of each Christian is alien to the liturgy. This is the meaning of the motto Lex orandi-lex credendi.

The attitude just described requires an explanation. Why did many Catholics committed to the Social Doctrine of the Church so hopefully welcome the opening of Benedict XVI to the ancient rite? What connection did they see between this step and the promotion of the Social Doctrine of the Church?

The Social Doctrine of the Church has a close relationship with tradition: in fact, it belongs to the tradition of the Church, since it was born not in 1891 with Rerum novarum, but with the Gospel. John Paul II made this relationship very clear in his encyclicals, and especially in Laborem exercens of 1981. If the Social Doctrine of the Church had lost this intimate connection with tradition, it would have lost its nature as the proclamation of Christ in temporal realities and would have assumed the guise  of a generic new humanism of solidarity. In other words, it would have headed towards its own sunset.

Inside the Church, alongside the pontiffs who wanted to keep the Social Doctrine of the Church within tradition, especially John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there were other schools of thought that wanted to lead it towards its sunset, transforming it into social ethics and the promotion of humanness insofar as related to the human being. According to the first version – the traditional one – the Church had an ultimate word to say on political life, which only it could say, and without which political life could not stand alone on its own two feet. Hence her public role was religious, and not just ethical and humanistic alone. For the second version, on the other hand, the Church could not have taken interest in the political dimension of community life without descending to the level of brotherhood and ethical solidarity, leaving out the religious dimension.

One understands then why those committed to the traditional line of the Social Doctrine of the Church viewed Summorum Pontificum with interest. In the Vetus Ordo liturgy, the centrality of God Almighty and his lordship over creation, including his social kingship, were more evident than in the Novus Ordo. In the Novus Ordo, not only because of cases of abuses and farfetched practical interpretations, the anthropological dimension comes most especially to the forefront, and the relationship between the Church and the world appears more as being on equal terms rather than characterized by the primacy of the Church over the world. Humanness becomes the criterion for the divine. The public role of the Church is understood more as helping the world to be the world, rather than saving it, and the Church’s role in social relations and affairs takes on more and more the features of charity, sometimes neglecting the truth.

Simplifying with an example, we can say that a supporter of the “anthropological turning point” of theology inaugurated by Karl Rahner can also read Paul VI’s Mass as an application of the aforementioned turning point and conforming to it. Certainly, he would not say the same thing about the ancient Mass. Between the two there is Christian personalism, if not precisely the anthropological turning point in its own right.

I believe this is how one can explain the sympathy for the Summorum Pontificum of Benedict XVI on the part of a certain Catholic world committed to the Social Doctrine of the Church, and its disappointment with the new motu proprio of Francis. While saying he wants to preserve tradition, the latter gives way to those who have long wanted to insert the Social Doctrine of the Church into a “new tradition” characterized by the divine falling far into the background and humanness assuming pride of place.

Stefano Fontana


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Stefano Fontana

Direttore dell'Osservatorio Card. Van Thuận