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Compendium of Social Wisdom


In spite of the limited media coverage of Monday's publication of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the event was an important moment. The compendium gathers, for the first time in the Church's history, magisterial teachings on social issues.


The introduction of the volume explains that the text is intended to be "an instrument for the moral and pastoral discernment of the complex events that mark our time" (No. 10). It is intended to help inspire the attitudes and choices of individuals and organizations in a way that will enable them to "look at the future with greater trust and hope."

The text starts by explaining the basis for the Church's interest in social matters. At the dawn of the third millennium the Church continues to preach the name of Christ as the way of salvation.

Such salvation is not only achieved in the new life after death, "but it also permeates this world in the realities of the economy and labor, of technology and communications, of society and politics, of the international community and the relations among cultures and peoples," the Compendium says in part No. 1.

The salvation offered by Christ is of the whole person in all dimensions, personal, social, spiritual and corporeal. This salvation is also universal. Thus, there is a link "between the relationship that the person is called to have with God and the responsibility he has towards his neighbor in the concrete circumstances of history" (No. 40).

Fundamental orientations

The opening section of the Compendium deals with a number of underlying themes that are at the foundation of Catholic social teaching. For a start the text points out that efforts in social matters are not just motivated by mere philanthropic concerns or political interests. "Discovering that they are loved by God, people come to understand their own transcendent dignity, they learn not to be satisfied with only themselves but to encounter their neighbor in a network of relationships that are ever more authentically human" (No. 4).

The Christian love that should transform human relations spurs people on to take an interest in the problems of those around them, the text states. This love has its source in the Trinity, and it was love that inspired Jesus' ministry. The commandment of love contained in the Gospels "must inspire, purify and elevate all human relationships in society and in politics" (No. 33).

Another important spiritual foundation of social action is overcoming sin through a transformation of the human person. Personal and social life, notes No. 41, is threatened by sin, but Christ gave us an example we can follow. Transforming ourselves by following the model given to humanity by Christ "is the necessary prerequisite" for transforming our relationships with others (No. 41).

Finding the correct balance between spiritual and temporal realities is another theme addressed in the first part of the Compendium. The text, in No. 45, quotes the Second Vatican Council constitution Gaudium et Spes which acknowledges the autonomy of earthly affairs in their own laws and values. At the same time, this autonomy should not lead us to think that creation can be used without any reference whatsoever to God.

If mankind insists on reducing itself to an exclusively earthly vision, this refusal of transcendence will lead to an alienation that also damages the solidarity between people, note the Compendium, citing John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus.

Religion and politics

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Establishing the correct view of what the Church's role is in social matters is another of the opening points dealt with by the Compendium. The Church is serving the Kingdom of God through the proclamation of the Gospel values. However, "this temporal dimension of the Kingdom remains incomplete unless it is related to the Kingdom of Christ present in the Church and straining towards eschatological fullness" (No. 50).

Therefore, the Church must not be confused with a political community and it is not bound to any political system. "Indeed, it can be affirmed that the distinction between religion and politics and the principle of religious freedom constitute a specific achievement of Christianity and one of its fundamental historical and cultural contributions" (No. 50).

The coming of the Kingdom of God, explains the following number, cannot be found in a particular social, political or economic organization. "Rather, it is seen in the development of a human social sense which for mankind is a leaven for attaining wholeness, justice and solidarity in openness to the Transcendent as a point of reference for one's own personal definitive fulfillment."

Within the mission

The Church is involved in social matters as part of its role in sharing the joys and hopes, anxieties and sadness of men and women of every place and time (No. 60). In this context the Church seeks to proclaim the Gospel because society is not just a worldly reality, but made up of men and women who are the way of the Church (No. 62).

This concern for social matters does not mean the Church is straying from its mission. The redemption which is part of the saving mission of the Church is certainly of the supernatural order, notes the Compendium. However, the supernatural is not something that begins where the natural ends, but is a raising of the natural to a higher plane. "In this way nothing of the created or the human order is foreign to or excluded from the supernatural or theological order of faith or grace, rather it is found within it, taken on and elevated by it" (No. 64).

Therefore, notes No. 66, social doctrine forms an integral part of the Church's evangelization. In fact, the plan of redemption touches questions of justice and charity. However, there are limits to social doctrine. The Church, notes No. 68, does not intervene in "technical questions," nor does it propose systems or models of social organization.

The Compendium also defends the Church's right to proclaim its teaching on social matters. This proclamation is part of the role of the Church as a teacher and the truths in its content stem from human nature itself and from the Gospel. The Church has a right, and a duty, to proclaim "the liberating word of the Gospel" (No. 70), to the world.

A work in progress

The Compendium observes that the Church's social doctrine has gradually been formed over time, through a series of statements on diverse issues. This helps to understand that over time some changes have taken place regarding its nature and structure.

This process is still under way. In No. 86 the Compendium refers to social doctrine as a "work site," in which "perennial truth penetrates and permeates new circumstances, indicating paths of justice and peace."

But this teaching cannot be reduced to a socioeconomic level. Social doctrine is theological in nature and has its foundation in biblical Revelation and in the Tradition of the Church (Nos. 72-4). In this sense faith interacts with reason in a process whereby "the mystery of Christ illuminates the mystery of man" (No. 75). Along with Revelation and Tradition, social doctrine is also enriched by philosophy and the social sciences.

In his presentation of the Compendium last Monday, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, stated that the document "is now made available to all Catholics, other Christians, people of good will who seek sure signs of truth in order to better promote the social good of persons and societies." A task more necessary than ever.


Order the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, here.




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