Catholic Social Doctrine always needs updating

On the occasion of the celebration of the 127th anniversary of the publication of Rerum Novarum, on May 15, 1891, by Pope Leo XIII, Dom Reginaldo Andrietta of Jales (SP) , who is responsible for the Brazilian bishops (CNBB) National Worker Pastoral, discusses the encyclical that began to the systematization of the social thought of the Church.

In Dom Reginaldo’s view, the social doctrine of the Church is intimately integrated with its evangelizing mission, which determines important developments in his practices, especially in the poorest countries.

In this interview, in addition to talking about the modern social thought of the Church, Dom Reginaldo states that it is today’s challenge for the institution to show more clearly that the human being is essentially relational and therefore social. “In each of his essential relationships (with God, with the other, with the world, with creation and with himself), Jesus Christ reveals to man the path of love, as a way of salvation,” he said.

Read the full interview below.

On May 15, it will be the 127th anniversary of the publication of Rerum Novarum, an Encyclical which many regard as beginning the systematization of Catholic social thought, later known as the Social Doctrine of the Church. What is there in this Encyclical, that we can say remains valid for the present day?

The Church, in the context that Pope Leo XIII wrote the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, had timidly begun a dialogue with modernity, recognising the importance of analysing economic, political, social and cultural issues, and to stand before them in a more lucid and efficient.

Thanks to this openness, it began to analyze societal issues in an ever more systematic way, positioning itself officially in the face of diverse questions that emerged according to the different historical contexts. It nevertheless retained its focus on two main issues, as pointed out by Rerum Novarum: the relation between capital and labor and the relationship between private good and the common good.

These two intertwined issues became benchmarks in the development of the Church’s Social Doctrine, explicitly present or underlying in the many papal documents that continued to address social issues, several of them commemorating Rerum Novarum anniversaries .

What other documents that are part of the modern Social Doctrine of the Church do you regard as important?

The Social Doctrine of the Church, understood as a set of writings, messages, letters, encyclicals, exhortations, pronouncements and declarations that compose the Catholic magisterial’s thought about the so-called “social question”, is very important as a whole.

The Church, from its origins, has always been confronted with this question. Although its doctrine was socially agreed only from the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, it can not be said that social problems were absent from their previous positions, much less from their practice. In fact, the Social Doctrine of the Church has its source in the Holy Scriptures.

References to the situation of the poor from the standpoint of liberation and social justice in the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the early centuries of Christianity and throughout the Catholic tradition, are plentiful. The confrontation between human justice and divine justice is one of the fundamental axes of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The inspirational source is the very identity of God, as Trinity, or perfect community. The human being is, by nature, relational, destined to be his image and likeness.

Hence the questioning done in the Holy Scriptures, in particular in the book of Genesis, to human self-sufficiency. Human existence is in reality coexistence. The quality of relationships between human beings and of these with creation and with God is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The contemplation of the Trinity itself, says St Augustine, is obtained by charity, that is, by the dimension of communion and solidarity among human beings.

The Social Doctrine of the Church, as such from the Rerum Novarum, is the fruit of this historical-theological construction that is always updated. Many papal documents followed the treatment of social questions, such as: Pius XI’s Encyclical Quadragésimo Anno (1931); Radio Messages by Pius XII (1941 and 1951); Encyclical Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963) by John XXIII; Encyclical Populorum Progressio (1967) and the Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (1971), by Paul VI; Encyclicals Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) and Centesimus Annus (1991), by John Paul II; Benedict XVI’s Encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009); Apostolic Exhortation Evangelli Gaudium (2014) and Encyclical Laudato Si (2015), by Pope Francis.

The 1971 Synod of Bishops on Justice in the world and the numerous pronouncements of national and continental Episcopal Conferences, addressing specific social problems in each country and continent, have also become important references in Catholic social thought.

In summary, the Catholic Church considers that its Social Doctrine is closely integrated with its evangelizing mission, which determines important developments in its practices, especially in the poorest countries. It was from the social concerns of the Church that, for example, the various contexts of Liberation Theology developed, as well as the Ecclesial Base Communities and many social movements, pastoral and Church entities.

The translation of Rerum Novarum, from Latin to Portuguese, means “of New Things”. What needs to be renewed today when we speak of the social thought of the Church?

The preponderant model of society and development promoted in modern times is economistic. The Church needs to address this question with a more scientific approach, ensuring an up-to-date theological outlook. Paul VI already warned in his Encyclical Populorum Progressio: “Development is not reduced to mere economic growth. To be authentic, it must be integral, that is, promote all human beings and the human being as a whole. ”

This view is based on Christian anthropology founded on the premise that the human being is only fully realized as relational, opening up to all the dimensions that constitute him as a person and his transcendence. Called to be realized, the person only achieves this goal, transcending himself in the relationship with God, with the other and with the world. When a human person closes him or herself to any of his or her relations, he or she moves in the opposite direction of his or her becoming, thus becoming self-sufficient, therefore, paradoxically, less human.

Individualism, in its postmodern form, denies relationality. In the present times, individualism is lived to the extreme under the “rules” of the neoliberal market and under the ever greater influence of techno-scientific reason. In this context of narcissistic hyperindividualism, the human being is disoriented, seeking a paradoxical happiness, resulting in disappointment more often than not.

Consistent with Populorum Progressio, it is only in the integrated perspective of his or her personality, that is, integrating all its constitutive dimensions, that the human being can achieve full realisation. Despite this clarity, the search for the full realisation of the human being will remain a mystery. In this respect, the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes says that the mystery of the human being is only truly clarified in Jesus Christ, because Christ reveals the human person to him or herself and reveals his or her sublime vocation to live worthily in divine love.

In short, the social thought of the Church today faces the challenge of showing more clearly that the human being is essentially relational, and therefore social. In each of his or her essential relationships with God, with the other, with the world, with creation and with him or herself, Jesus Christ reveals the way of love, as a way of salvation.


A Doutrina Social da Igreja é uma construção histórico-teológica que se atualiza sempre (CNBB)

Translation: Google Translate and Stefan Gigacz