People ordinarily think the Social Doctrine of the Church “originates” from Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum. In your book, however, you go much further back in time. Why is this so?

Because, like the Word, truth is ab aeterno, from eternity. The Social Doctrine of the Church expresses the revealed truth about man as a college of three or more persons and, indirectly, the truth about God. College, because people gather together – from the Latin cum legere. Three, because the minimum for a college is three persons, both in reference to the Holy Trinity and to the family. The college, the society, can also be of two persons in the case of a barren family, but the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is the love between the spouses, that is to say a third divine Person, must always be considered.

However, it is also important to note the birth of Social Doctrine as a theological and magisterial discipline in the 19th century thanks to Leo XIII.  In order to counteract error or misunderstanding, the truth of Revelation usually needs to be defined – de fide definita, precisely – through the pronouncements of Councils or popes.

You are a scholar of Patristics and Monasticism. What importance have these two religious macro-phenomena had for the Social Doctrine of the Church?

The theology and the Magisterium of the pre-medieval Holy Fathers of the Church is based on the personal God, who reveals Himself to be One and Triune. Insofar as the One and Only God, the Creator moulds from the earth individual persons, individuals, who will be judged individually. Thus the Messiah is one – the Christ – though never separated from the other two Persons. In this sense, the history of salvation is all in the ‘singular’. And yet the Creator is Triune and moulds man male and female, that is, He moulds the family which is the first and fundamental society. The Social Doctrine, therefore, even before becoming manifest in the creature, has always been in the bosom of the triune-personal God. It is more accurate to say, then, that the history of salvation is ‘pro’ individual, who, however, is saved with the necessary help of his neighbor. In the Fathers of the Church, the universal-particular, multitude-individual tension is a constant factor, precisely because of the reality of God and things.

Medieval monasticism – the Benedictine form in  particular – is perhaps the most successful historical expression of a social doctrine applied to everyday life. Looking at the Benedictine phenomenon, it is very easy to get a true idea of what Social Doctrine is. Saint Benedict succeeded in the synthesis of the universal and the individual: this is the secret of his success, his understanding and transmission of the truth about God and creation. The saint from Norcia had no problem with flight from the world and men, while continuing to live together with men and the fruits of creation. He knew that the social and cenobite aspect was not a break away from the individual hermitic aspect, nor was he ever scandalized by the union of social and individual teaching. In him, hermitage and coenobium coexisted, because God is hermitage and coenobium.

In the book, considerable space is dedicated to Giuseppe Toniolo. Today this author is either forgotten or has been transformed into a progressive, whereas he was a proponent of intervention in society according to the spirit of Leo XIII and Pius X. What can you tell us about him?

I particularly appreciated Toniolo the writer for his clear and systematic style. Toniolo writes in an understandable way about subjects about which he is always original. His brief history of socialist doctrines, which I sketched in my book, is more like a history of the world, so universal are its themes. Toniolo seemed to me an unexplored mine of treasures. Work, economics, politics: these are the main themes of his studies. Work, economics and politics are often discussed, but Toniolo’s brilliant intuitions much less so. His is more social science than sociology. It should not be forgotten that Toniolo is Blessed. His figure as a social saint is important as a layman and family man.

The title of a chapter in his book is unusual: “Death and the Social Doctrine of the Church”. It is a subject that is never dealt with. What is its importance?

It should never be forgotten that doctrine or social teaching is included in the entire teaching of Jesus Christ, which ranges from life to death and has no parts, only aspects. Truth, immobile in itself, is however oriented within the bosom of the Holy Trinity. There is an exitus, which goes from the Father to the Holy Spirit, and a reditus for the return. Almost a divine breath. Exitus and reditus pass through the medium – the Son – so that truth has a source, a pronouncement and a fulfillment. Likewise, the Social Doctrine proceeds from the eternal truth pronounced by the One who reveals Himself as Alpha and Omega. More than death, Social Doctrine has in itself not only the source and the logos, but also the fulfillment, the consummation, the end. Societies – be they families, social bodies, nations or states – have an efficient cause, but also a final cause, which is to attain perfection, that is, to render glory to God and achieve bliss in individuals.

Death is important not only as a moral and social category (“do not kill”), but also as an eschatological reality, as a return to the origin, as abandonment of the earthly city and entrance into the city of God. Death can simply and carnally be thanatos, or it can take on an otherworldly pathos that, although terrible, ignites life and hope in the heavenly Jerusalem.

You also focus on Maritain. Did Christian personalism help the Social Doctrine of the Church or create difficulties for it ?

My considerations on Maritain and personalism must be read within the framework of a series of works by the Van Thuân Observatory, of which I am a member. The question, in our view, is very simple. Anthropology, the science of man, and the study of the person, are marvelous disciplines if they are observed, however, from God’s point of view, with God at the centre. Twentieth-century anthropology and personalism are spurious, following the ‘anthropological shift’ which put man at the centre and God, if not on the periphery, at least in an unspecified place. This is basically the issue at hand: an anthropology or a personalism alien to metaphysics and Christian philosophy lead to ambiguity or to an erroneous concept of man and the person. Erroneous with respect to the Magisterium.

My criticism, in particular, is of the early Maritain, the author of Integral Humanism. In this work, Maritain writes with the intention of evoking the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas, but in fact he disregards the latter’s anthropology and social science, initiating the well-known phenomenon of the fracture between the sacred and profane spheres of Catholics in politics. In Integral Humanism there is also a critique of the Christian Middle Ages, considered naive by Maritain and too theocentric, too sacral. On the basis of this type of anthropocentric theology, which Maritain shared with other twentieth-century authors, a concept of a weak person was consolidated, a person divided and in disagreement with himself, split in action and uncertain in thought.

How do you assess the use of the Social Doctrine of the Church in today’s Church?

For a great number of reasons, today’s social doctrine has ended up embracing the suggestions of the anthropological shift and personalism in a weak sense. John Paul II, with his ontological personalism, tried to reverse the trend, reaffirming the man of Genesis in the image and likeness of God. The personalism of Pope Wojtyla, although influenced by French and German thinkers of the twentieth century, has its own original theory of the human act, which reveals the person. The essential importance of the act, among other things, emerges clearly in his encyclical Veritatis splendor. The person performs the act with the body: through this theology of the body, Wojtyła submits the creature to the Creator of the body, therefore to God.

This return to God by John Paul II (later supported by Benedict XVI) or, at least, this attempt to return to theocentricity has not been very successful in confronting the spurious personalism that has never waned. Contemporary Social Doctrine is mortified because it has once again become anthropocentric, whereby man’s acts and thoughts are ‘relativized’ to history rather than ‘absolutized’ in God. But in this way we are actually leaving the Social Doctrine rather than just mortifying it.

Stefano Fontana



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Membro del Comitato di Redazione

Stefano Fontana

Direttore dell'Osservatorio Card. Van Thuận