Back in 1991,  the Italian bishops published a Directory of Social Pastoral Care entitled ‘Evangelizing the Social Sphere’. Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, who had edited the document at that time as director of the national office of the Italian Episcopal Conference for Social Issues and Labour, recalled its content and reviewed its evolution in his book-interview “The Italian Church and the Future of Social Pastoral Care” [see here ]. A Directory is a document in  which the Magisterium indicates what is to be done and who is to do it. At that time, the Social Doctrine of the Church was considered part and parcel of the selfsame mission of the Church, and therefore all the ecclesial ministries were involved in their own specific ways. Hence, the need for a Directory.

“Evangelizing the social sphere” was a recurrent expression in the 1990s. It projected John Paul II’s vision of the Social Doctrine of the Church which, as archbishop of Krakow, he had already set forth in a long interview granted to Vittorio Possenti and published several times in following years. This vision was then developed with the solemnity of the papal Magisterium in his three major social encyclicals. The expression had a ‘missionary’ meaning and was linked to another notion very much used at that time: ‘new evangelization’. The adjective “new” had the meaning of “re-evangelization”: society had to be re-evangelized because it was no longer ‘evangelized’, that is to say because Christ no longer had a place in public, a concept taken up and developed by Benedict XVI, who has always spoken out for the creation of a place for God in the public sphere.

In today’s Church, the idea of “evangelizing the social sphere” has faded away. The only thing that can still be referred to now in the Church is “humanizing” the social sphere, but the idea that the proclamation of Christ should be part of the social endeavors of Catholics is no longer evident, indeed, it is definitely neglected or even contested. Even the Social Weeks, such as the one recently celebrated in Taranto, discuss  energy and the environment, but not Christ [see here ]. If we then consider Francis’ speeches, this becomes all the more evident.

There are many reasons for this “paradigm shift”, and they were already plying for pride of place back when John Paul II spoke of “new evangelization”. In fact, they were at the basis of non agreement with that line of thought on the part on both theologians and bishops. Let us consider a few of those reasons.

The notion of “new evangelization” calls for a metaphysical conception of the relationship between the Church, which evangelizes, and the world, which is evangelized, just like the relationship between form and matter or soul and body. A merely existential and historical conception is not sufficient, because in this case the Church would have to be satisfied with “accompanying” the world and not saving  it. Today, however, that metaphysical conception is rejected outright.

The notion of “new evangelization” requires that all social life may be evangelized, including the social presence of other religions. This implies that the Catholic religion is understood as true and unique, as “truly unique” and “uniquely true”. But this is no longer the case today.

The notion of “new evangelization” needs to be extended not only to the consciences of the persons being “evangelized”, but also to social, economic, juridical and political structures as such. Nowadays, however, this is denied because it is considered a form of fundamentalism. However, if this aspect is missing, the Church becomes an agency for social animation and God’s place is fully guaranteed only in consciences, but not in the public sphere. This was the error of the Christian personalism of Maritain and others.

The notion of ‘new evangelization’ needs to restore the relationship between reason (politics) and faith (Catholic) in the right way so that it leads not to a form of theocracy, but to the distinction of the levels in their essential connection, and the primacy of faith over reason. Benedict XVI had begun this work, which was then interrupted. In this way, in order to avoid fundamentalism and theocracy, one falls into laicism and secularism.

I have dwelt briefly on four elements that are missing today and hence prevent us from reviving the concept of “evangelization of the social sphere” and “new evangelization”. There would also be other reasons. From these four elements alone, however, it is clear that we are faced with a true “new paradigm” that replaces “evangelizing” with “humanizing”, without really succeeding in doing so, because without Christ, man is also lost, and from “humanization” we easily fall into “de-Christianization”.

Stefano Fontana

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Stefano Fontana

Direttore dell'Osservatorio Card. Van Thuận