[Editorial to the current issue of our “Bulletin of the Social doctrine of the Church” – SEE HERE]


A curious interdisciplinarity: literature and the Social Doctrine of the Church

Readers may be surprised by the theme of this issue of our “Bulletin.” I do not believe the relationship between the Social Doctrine of the Church and literature has ever been dealt with before, and certainly this connection does not come to mind spontaneously, as may well occur with the relationship of the Social Doctrine with politics, economics or labor. The originality, as well as the importance, of the theme chosen, therefore, goes to the credit of the Editorial Board of the “Bulletin”, and in particular to Fabio Trevisan, editor in charge of this issue.

If one keeps in mind the profound nature of the Social Doctrine of the Church, however, the juxtaposition is not at all strange. Paragraph 59 of John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus annus (1991), states that it has an “interdisciplinary dimension”[1]. It is therefore natural that it also converses with literature. The origin of the Social Doctrine of the Church is natural law and Revelation. These two orders of truth are co-present in the Social Doctrine in their unitary distinction, in mutual cooperation, while maintaining the primacy of the supernatural plan over the natural one, an essential condition for the latter to remain faithful to itself. Literature also belongs to natural reason, since it is the human universal in a particular narrative. Truth is analogical, and there is also the truth of literature that allows it to relate to the Social Doctrine of the Church, which is interested in all kinds of truth. Literature is not irrational. It is the use of reason in literature, and therefore novels – the ones worthy of the name, of course – necessarily reflect a stand with respect to issues dear to the Social Doctrine of the Church, either directly or indirectly, either subverting its principles or confirming them. Dickens and Zola both speak of the world of work, but not in the same way, thus relating to the Social Doctrine of the Church in different ways.

This is evident not only when a novel deals with a theme specific to the Social Doctrine of the Church, such as  labor, but also and especially when it deals with “metaphysical” issues, that is, those that concern the meaning of human coexistence. Dostoevsky’s novel The Demons belongs to this category. It analyzes the problem of nihilism, a political and philosophical phenomenon in Russia at that time, and already addressed by Turgenev in Fathers and Sons.  Kirillov and Stavrogin, the two main nihilists in The Demons, represent a view of life and human relations antithetical to that of the Social Doctrine of the Church: “Everyone has been falling for a long time, and for a long time everyone has known there is nothing to hold on to.” The same can be said for Riccardo Bacchelli’s novel The Devil at Pontelungo, where illustrated is the thinking of the anarchists Bakunin and Cafiero and their followers. Again the relationship with the Social Doctrine of the Church is evident, although based on contrast: anarchy is in fact driven by the idea that “one must despair philosophically in heaven … in order to hope historically on earth.”

When literature remains literature and does not allow itself to be intimidated by ideology, does not place  itself at the service of temporal promises and utopias, and does no violence either to itself or to others … the subtle, discreet, and delicate relationship with the Social Doctrine of the Church emerges quite clearly. Not in the manner of a treatise, for novels are not treatises, but projecting an intangible message that goes to the reader’s soul and directly engages his intelligence and other faculties.

Literature has an enormous capacity for penetration; it touches many chords at the same time, convinces without explaining in great detail, draws readers in, and in so doing compels them to delve within themselves. Benson’s Master of the World explains the reality of our time better than any scientific treatise. Potock’s Davita’s Harp makes the difference between religion and communist political ideology clearer than any academic study on the subject. The alliance between literature and the Social Doctrine of the Church is therefore very important, because literary language can – when this is not done in a forced way – open avenues of understanding into the principles and values of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and disseminate them in lay circles. The Authors of the articles we present in this issue introduce us to some Catholic novelists of our time, some well known to the general public, others less so. They are very different from one another but share  the intent to portray the impact of Christianity in the world and what this means for the communal life of men in society. And this is precisely what the Social Doctrine of the Church also does.  

H.E. Msgr. Giampaolo Crepaldi

Bishop of Trieste

[1] On this topic see: G. Crepaldi e S. Fontana, La dimensione interdisciplinare della Dottrina sociale della Chiesa – Uno studio sul Magistero, Cantagalli, Siena 2006.

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Mons. Giampaolo Crepaldi

Vescovo Emerito di Trieste