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Religion and Society

For True Secularity, One needs the Doctrine

Author: Angelo Scola


Title: La dottrina sociale della Chiesa: risorsa per una società plurale


Publisher: Vita & Pensiero, Milan 2007



Many books on the social doctrine of the Church have one of the following two characteristics: either they limit themselves to repeating the Magisterium, with varying degrees of faithfulness, and commenting upon it, without, however, managing to adequately illustrate its hermeneutic capacity as regards the problems of the present, or they deal with the problems of the present but re-read the Magisterium in the light of some ideological pre-understanding. The first merit of this short and valuable essay, which was born on the occasion of the inauguration of the University Centre for the Social Doctrine of the Church of the University of the Sacred Heart of Milan, is that it does not fall into these two traps.



Indeed, in the introduction, which is of an epistemological character, Cardinal Angelo Scola warns the reader about two dangers: deductivism, the attempt to apply in an extrinsic way the contents of Christian faith, which are abstractly understood, to the study of society, and the absorption of the doctrine of the human and social sciences. In the first case, this is a matter of remembering that ‘the social doctrine always arises from the normal missionary involvement of communities with human and social reality, it becomes critical and systematic reflection in social theology, which implies philosophy and human sciences, and finds in the pronouncement of the Magisterium its guarantee’ (p. 30). In the second case this is a matter of remembering that ‘the task of Christian doctrine faced with the challenges of contemporary society…is not its application or its updating but its development (in Newman’s sense)’ (p. 31). The social doctrine is called to unceasingly explore and demonstrate the anthropological, social and cosmological implications that arise from the mysteries of Christian life.



Beginning with these two epistemological assumptions, to which are added others inherent to social ontology, such as the rehabilitation of the meaning of belonging and social ties and the rediscovery of the relational nature of the person, the author explores the role of the Church in Italian society. In this case as well one should be on one’s guard against two dangers: a ‘cryptodiaspora’, a Christianity that withdraws from the public sphere and takes refuge in the private sphere, and ‘civil religion’, a Christianity that is reduced to being a support of the social and political structure. In both these cases one loses something that is essential: the missionary and bearing-witness nature of Christianity and its going beyond any social system. Politics is called to recognise the irremovable desire, which dwells in every man, to pursue an ideal of the good life, to this, however, ‘the truth of political action’ must be ‘directly proportional to awareness of its own limits’ (p. 51).



Within a framework of new secularity (on these subjects the author has recently also published Una nuova laicità. Temi per una società plurale; Marsilio, Venice, 2007), the state, although it does not make its own a specific vision of the good life, cannot be totally indifferent from an ethical point of view either: it must be at the service of the person and make its own those values that provide a foundation to democratic co-existence itself, such as the civil and political freedom of the person and intermediary bodies. Christians are called to provide proof that an experience of lived faith can indirectly be beneficial as well to the building up of a free and plural civil society that is able to become aware of its own social subjectivity.



The presence of Christians in society cannot be configured in utopian terms or terms that are hegemonic or involve ideological militancy, but in terms of witness. The content of witness, as is made clear in this essay which brings a breath of fresh air into studies of the social doctrine and into those on the secularity of the public sphere, is ‘the freely given and spontaneous communication of a life changed through grace which reaches, in the accurate distinction of domains, to the social, the civil, and the political’(p. 58).