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A CATHOLIC VISION OF THE GOOD SOCIETY
ARTICLE BY CLEMENS CAVALLIN ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF SCIENCE OF RELIGION AT UNIVERSITY OF BERGEN
To answer the second question (that is, why now?), it is necessary that we situate the Catholic Church in the context of (post) modern society with its special features and demands, because the Compendium is the fruit of a long history of interaction and struggle between modernity and the Catholic Church. But what is then modernity? The definition of modernity is, as the definitions of many other central notions of the social sciences, a contested issue, but modernity is usually described as a complex process beginning approximately at the time of the protestant reformation. It implies on the one hand a new way of thinking described as rationalisation, disenchantment (Entzauberung), individualism, a sharp distinction between being and ought, and on the other hand ‘hard facts’ as technological inventions for example the printing press, combustion engine and the computer. Thirdly, modernity refers to social processes as functional differentiation, urbanisation and industrialisation. To simplify things somewhat, we could say that modernity is characterised by a strong belief in the power of human reason, a commitment that is a cause of changes in technology, society and individual life. According to what we can call modernism, a notion referring to the ideological part of modernity, humans can (and should) with the help of unaided reason change nature and the human society, which is without interference from religious faith. The Swedish historian of ideas Sven-Erik Liedman writes in his book I skuggan av framtiden: Modernitetens idéhistoria (In the Shade of the Future: the History of Modernity)
The basic feature of the idea of progress is the conviction that humans consciously and by their own power – with the help of their reason, knowledge and enterprising spirit – can change nature and society.
This implies that humans also can change themselves, including reason, because men and women are (at least to some extent) parts of nature—a consequence of modernity, which has received special actuality through the achievements in the field of genetics.
Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to (moral) education is the overwhelming presence in our society and culture of a type of relativism that recognizes nothing as definitive…
It is also interesting to note that the person who headed the Congregation for Justice and Peace which had the responsibility for creating the Compendium was Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân, a remarkable man who was imprisoned for 13 years in Vietnam, daily celebrating mass in his cell with a drop of wine (his ‘stomach medicine’) and a morsel of bread in one of his palms. Once again, the concrete experience of totalitarianism can be seen to be an underlying current of the text. However, Cardinal François-Xavier died before the work was finished, and in the same way as the outdrawn incapacitating sickness of John Paul II this could be seen as a symbol of a new situation confronting the Catholic Church, and with it a new type of societies in an increasingly globalized world.
IT IS EASY to erroneously call the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church for the Catechism of social doctrine, due to the similarity of form with the better-known Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994). These two texts, nevertheless, together constitute a whole presenting the teachings of the Catholic Church in a systematic form. The major impetus toward presenting such a comprehensive program for the spiritual and mundane spheres of human existence came from the great reform council of the 20th century, the second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Ironically or timely, it has borne fruit in the 1990ies and the early 21st century at a time when ‘great narratives’ are considered as outdated or even intrinsically harmful.
The beginning and the finale of the text is made up by an introduction named “An Integral and Solidary Humanism” and a conclusion called “For a Civilization of Love”; between these two the text is organised in three parts. The first deals with the place of the social doctrine in the greater theological context of the redemption of man, and consequently the work of the Church. It also outlines the basic principles of the social doctrine as subsidiarity, the universal destination of goods and the basic concept of the human person as imago dei and its implications. The second part deals with social life in its concrete manifestations and begins with the family, moves through a consideration of work, to economy, politics, the international community, the environment and finally the question of peace. Part three, which is the shortest, outlines the role of the social doctrine in pastoral work and its significance for the lay faithful.
The most conspicuous feature of the text and also the uniting thread of all particular argumentations dealing with such diverse topics as Child labour and Globalization is the concept of the human person, i.e. a special form of personalism. In this we can clearly see the imprint of John Paul II for whom this was a favourite theme. This particular catholic view of the human person and its constitution and fundamental rights, is the basis for the Christian humanism which John Paul II called the culture (gospel) of life in contrast to the culture of death. It is precisely in this personalism that we find the foundation of the most hotly contested issues between the Catholic Church and the post-modern western world — mostly questions dealing with human life and sexuality. It seems, therefore, best to present the basic features of this view of the human person and the concept of natural law which is based on it, and then move on to deal with the controversial individual issues in detail and finally to discuss the possible future of the Compendium. This approach could be criticized for focusing on the sensational instead of presenting the basic outline of the social doctrine and thereby giving more space to such topics as subsidiarity. However, I believe that the future of the Compendium, and thereby also the future of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, is put to the test exactly on those controversial points in which it decisively differs from the surrounding civil and political culture. As we will see the hottest topic for the moment, the question of whether it is legitimate to define marriage as independent of the gender of those wanting to enter into matrimony is a question touching the fundament of the social doctrine, and which secondarily has repercussions for the questions of religious freedom and secularization.
THE HUMAN PERSON
THE BASIS FOR HUMANISM, both secular and religious is a conception of what a human person is and what it ought to be. The natural point of departure of the catholic view is found in the biblical narrative of the creation of man and woman in the image of God; an act that links humans to God as privileged creatures are related to their creator, thereby giving humans a transcendent character. That is, their supernatural origin and divine imprint make the human being ultimately unsatisfied with what is transient and contingent:
The whole of man’s life is a quest and a search for God. This relationship with God can be ignored or even forgotten or dismissed, but it can never be eliminated. Indeed, among all the world’s visible creatures, only man has a “capacity for God” (“homo est Dei capax”). The human being is a personal being created by God to be in relationship with him; man finds life and self-expression only in relationship, and tends naturally to God. (Compendium 2005: 50)
This transcendent character of the human person is also the most basic difference between a religious and a secular humanism, the latter which can only offer the human race a natural (material) origin and consequently an immanent quest and destiny. An important position which follows from this basic feature of catholic personalism is the rejection of individualism, and the insistence upon that the human person is social by its very nature and therefore cannot realise its true potential except in relations. The first relation that is necessary in this sense is that between the human person and its creator; but also interpersonal relations are considered essential for human self fulfilment, as God himself is defined as built up by a Trinitarian relationship, which was externally realised in the creation of man and woman in the image of God.
Secondly, according to this view, the dignity and value of a human person is inalienable (in a sense divine), and consequently no human society has the right to disregard this basic value, “A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person. The person represents the ultimate end of society, by which it is ordered to the person…” This entails that the human person has certain fundamental rights which no society has the authority to infringe. At this stage of the unfolding of catholic humanism, we come across the first major clash with the secular humanism of the contemporary western cultural sphere:
The first right presented in this list is the right to life, from conception to its natural end, which is the condition for the exercise of all other rights and, in particular, implies the illicitness of every form of procured abortion and of euthanasia.
In many modern societies, the line indicating when a human person begins to exist and when it ceases to be human has become fuzzy: to be a person seems to be a quality which one can acquire and loose, thereby introducing a decisive difference between the body and the person. And as a secular humanism cannot depend on an idea of a spiritual entity, as the soul, it turns toward the mental as the criterion for being human and not merely a body. The catholic humanism of the Compendium has surprisingly a stronger connection between the living body and personhood, as it conceptualizes the person as a union of soul and body, the soul being the form of the body. Mental life is thereby not in the same manner decisive for the conferring of human status.
ANOTHER BASIC FEATURE of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church is the notion of a natural law. This means that there are certain basic moral principles which are built into the very nature of the human person, that is with the catholic version of what a human being is, certain rights and duties also follow which are common to all men and women. This means that all positive law, i.e. all those rules and regulations that are ratified in a state, has to be evaluated against these more basic laws. As we could see above, the first and primary right, which arises from the personalist doctrine, is the right to life, which entails the rule that it is not lawful to kill another human being. In Nazi Germany for example the extermination of Jews did not break existing German laws, but when the perpetrators were condemned in Nürnberg after the war, they were convicted for crimes against humanity, the judges thereby appealing to more basic laws inherent in human nature itself. The universal declaration of human rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 could be said to rest on a similar way of thinking.
The position of the Catholic Church is that these natural laws are transparent to human reason, that is, in principle divine revelation is not necessary for humans as they try to discern these basic moral rules. The Church nevertheless considers the Decalogue as a concise summary of natural law, given because human sinfulness had obscured human reason and weakened human will power.
On the other hand, a radical post-modern position would reject any notion of human nature and argue that humanness is artificially constructed with the aim of promoting certain agendas. There can therefore be no universal rights of human beings and consequently no natural laws to appeal to when judging crimes as those of the Nazis. It is, according to such a view, the prerogative of the victors to judge the vanquished and write the history books.
THE FAMILY AND SEXUALITY
AFTER HAVING PRESENTED the two basic concepts of the Compendium, that is the person and natural law, we can move on to those issues where these concepts and their implications are most vehemently challenged by modern lifestyles and ideologies. As is clear to all, these hot topics concern predominately the question of the constitution of the family and its natural foundation: sexuality. However, we should not forget that these topics are connected to the broader question of human life as in the case of abortion and euthanasia.
In the Compendium, the family is looked upon as a natural minisociety; its naturalness derived from the nature of the human person, which created as man and woman are exhorted by God to join together for the creation of new life. The argumentation of the Compendium repeatedly connects the family to the person:
The family is a divine institution that stands at the foundation of life of the human person as the prototype of every social order.
The family has central importance in reference to the person. It is in the cradle of life and love that people are born and grow…
A society built on a family scale is the best guarantee against drifting off course into individualism or collectivism, because within the family the person is always at the centre of attention as an end and never as a means.
The main threat toward this view of the family as a natural unit was in the fascist and communist systems foremost collectivism, that is the state wanted to take over the duties and rights of the family, but also those of individuals, for an idea of the common good. An example of such an attitude is the stance that it is primarily the state that should educate the children and not the parents. The other challenge, which is more prevalent in the west, is that of individualism, which has as one of its consequences that the state through its legislation consider the family as a temporary contract between individuals for the gratification of sexual pleasure. This entails that openness for procreation ceases to be a criterion for marriage, that is, one has effectively separated sex from the creation of new human life. This in its turn has as its outcome the conviction that two persons of the same sex, forming an intrinsically sterile sexual relation, could enter into matrimony. The topic of “the legal recognition of unions between homosexual persons” is addressed in the Compendium and three main arguments against it are presented:
1. “It is opposed, first of all, by the objective impossibility of making the partnership fruitful through the transmission of life according to the plan inscribed by God in the very structure of the human being.”
2. “Another obstacle is the absence of the conditions for that interpersonal complementarity between male and female willed by the Creator at both the physical-biological and the eminently psychological levels.”
3. “If, from the legal standpoint, marriage between a man and a woman were to be considered just one possible form of marriage, the concept of marriage would undergo a radical transformation, with grave determinant to the common good.”
The first argument is directed to the central function of the family, the creation of new life, which is impossible in a homosexual relation. This argument is from the nature of the human being, but the Compendium argue in a theological way by referring to the intention of God as it is revealed by the physical complementariness of male and female, which is necessary for new life. The first argument thus blends into argument two that also argue from the design of God, but that add a psychological twist to the complementary nature. In a thorough secular society, the first argument looses some of its power as the notion of God as creator is not generally accepted. The prevalent view is instead that the human body is a raw material for human reason and desire, a stuff that can be transformed and manipulated (see the discussion of modernism above); gender is therefore not considered as an unalterable biological fact but something which can be changed. The thesis of complementariness, however, retains some force also in an atheistic context, mainly in its psychological aspects, which could be seen as derived from the biological complementary nature of man and woman.
The third argument does not
argue from the God-given nature of the human person, but from the
of detaching marriage from the consideration of gender. Implicit in
argument is the notion of the family as the basic cell of society, and
it is destroyed then the larger society will not be able to function in
which will benefit its members. The basic thought is that one cannot
natural order without introducing disorder. Against this stands the
interpretation of the word ‘nature’ which do not connect it
to an essence
(human nature), but to nature as contrasted with culture, that is
material which we as humans decide what to do with, that is to
making what is only nature into culture. Only the future can tell if
societies that now introduce same sex marriage legislation, as for
traditionally catholic country
As we could see above, the clash between the Catholic Church and the modern western world regarding homosexual marriages goes deeper than the mere question of homosexuality. We are in fact led back to the issue of the human person and thereby to the nature of sexuality itself. The opposition to homosexual marriages on the part of the Compendium becomes incomprehensible if we do not proceed to this more basic level. For the Catholic Church and its vision of social life is at this point in a significant way at odds with dominant trends in the contemporary culture climate of the west. As I argued above the basis for the promotion of homosexual marriages is the distinction between sex (as pleasure) and procreation. This separation is made possible in heterosexual relations by contraceptives and abortion, also those controversial questions. The argument in the Compendium is that a sexual act between man and woman is by its nature open to life and, therefore to take away this intrinsic dimension with artificial means (to separate sexual pleasure from procreation) wounds the integrity of the act. It is, therefore, vital for the Compendium to uphold the unpopular ban on contraceptives, because from the separation of the sexual act and its natural fruit, the child, comes for example with logical necessity the legitimateness of homosexuality, a kind of sexuality which makes this distinction absolute.
The argument could at this point be made that we are focusing not on the social any longer, but are venturing too much to the level of the individual and its choices. This is, however, incorrect, because the issue at stake is the family, and if this institution falls then the whole system of catholic social doctrine falls with it. This clash over human sexuality between late modernity and the Catholic Church thus takes place at the very basis of the Church’s vision of social life. To illustrate this, it is important to note that the topic of homosexuality not only has become a question of private sexual morale or a theme vital for the question of what a family is, but it has also become connected to the issues of religious freedom and secularization, two important topics in the social doctrine of the Church.
The link between the issues
of homosexuality and religious freedom (freedom of speech) has been
certain countries by increasing the level of legal protection of
persons qua homosexuals and of
homosexuality in general against hate speech and defamation, thus
legal question whether preaching that homosexuality is a sin, is a
most famous case so far is that of the Swedish Pentecostal pastor
Åke Green who
was convicted at one level of the Swedish legal system and acquitted at
higher level. One can, however, argue that
particular case it was certain formulations of Åke Green that was
court especially the sentence that “Sexual abnormalities are a
tumour in the entire society.” For
the Catholic Church this legal balancing act between freedom of speech
protection against defamation will if the Swedish model becomes
constitute a further serious threat against its position. Not only will
implementation of a traditional family policy be challenged by laws
marital status to homosexual relations, but the theological opposition
against such a development could in principal be criminalised. On a
level, this has been actualised in EU, but then perhaps primarily
the question of secularisation. The case is that of the Rocco
was the Italian candidate for the European Commission in 2004; intended
the portfolio of Justice, Freedom and Security. Being a devout catholic
a university professor and politician led him into deep problems,
questioned he defended the view expressed in the Compendium on the
consequently on homosexuality. He thus said for example that
homosexuality is a
sin but denied that he considered it a crime, and he further declared
saw procreation as a vital role for the family. Bottiglione was in the
forced to withdraw his candidature, and in that way a clear signal was
that to endorse the views of the Compendium (this affair more or less
with its publication) is a serious obstacle for obtaining a higher
the European Union. This means that influential groups within the EU
mere privatisation of religious beliefs not sufficient, but in order to
properly in the higher echelons of the European Union it is demanded
also privately adhere to the majority stance of western late modern
questions of sexuality and family. This constitutes a radical thesis of
secularisation, which will, if it becomes generalised, direct the EU
collision course with the vision of the Compendium. We have to connect
the earlier decision to not include a reference to Christianity in the
for a new constitution of the EU: a symbolical defeat for the official
position, which sees
The rejection of Buttiglione
is not only serious for the Catholic Church as a precedence for future
but Bottiglione is also intimately connected to the legacy of John Paul
he has written an early analysis of the former pope’s philosophy:
Karol Wojtyla — The thought of the Man who
became Pope John Paul II. In this book, he analyzes in a positive
Wojtyla’s book Love and Responsibility that deals with
and he comments on the book The Acting
Person that deals with personalism. In a way, we can therefore say
with Buttiglione the Compendium itself suffered a defeat, before it
started to have any influence as a systematic presentation of catholic
A UTOPIA OF NO CONSEQUENCE OR A RADICAL CHALLENGE TO LATE MODERNITY?
If the consequences of modernity are important for the success of view of the Compendium in the long run, then the question of contraception is fundamental for the internal mobilization in the shorter perspective, because different polls suggest that the magisterium of the Catholic Church has grave problems with the attitude of its faithful, as for example polls in USA suggest that as many as 70 percent of Catholics consider it ok to use artificial birth control. The most politically wise strategy would therefore be to focus on questions such as abortion, which can gather a higher percentage of support from the catholic faithful, but Benedict XVI has recently signalled that he will follow the line of John Paul II and thus the vision presented in the Compendium:
Pope Benedict, in his first clear pronouncement on gay marriages since his election, on Monday condemned same-sex unions as fake and expressions of «anarchic freedom» that threatened the future of the family.
The Pope, who was elected in April, also condemned divorce, artificial birth control, trial marriages and free-style unions, saying all of these practices were dangerous for the family.
In a clear reference to contraception, the Pope said couples went against the nature of love itself when they «systematically shut off» the possibility of «the gift of life.»
The crucial question is if this tough line will cause a more manifest split in the Catholic Church along the lines of traditional/liberal attitudes, as Benedict cannot fall back on a charismatic personality in the same way as John Paul II. The future of the vision of the Compendium is therefore intimately connected with the outcome of this interior division within the Church.
Behind the emotionally charged issues of sexuality and the family, there lies the more elusive question of what a human person is and hence what kind of humanism that will decide the future of mankind. For what we see is basically a fight between on the one hand a modernity confident in its technological advances opening up vertiginous possibilities of genetic engineering and of the construction of cyborgs, part man part machine; a (post) modernity which at the same time is radically sceptical toward the possibility of objective truth and absolute moral norms; On the other hand we see a position advocating a personalism based on the transcendence of the human person, its God-given nature being the basis for the naturalness (essentiality) of its gender-ness, social life and basic rights. In one sense, we could say that the future of the Compendium is ultimately decided by the outcome of the struggle between the ideal of the manmade man and that of god made man.
Catechism of the Catholic
Compendium of the Social
Doctrine of the Church, 2005,
Evangelium Vitae (1995)
Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907).
Syllabus Errorum (1864)
Boileau, David, 1998,
“Introduction” in Principles of Catholic
ed. David Boileau,
Buttiglione, Rocco, 1997, Karol Wojtyla: The thought of the Man who became Pope John
William Eerdmans Publishing Company,
Bruce, Steve, 2002, Religion
in the Modern World,
Eklund, Lars F., 1995, Personalismen och Naturrätten: Två essäer om kristdemokratisk politisk filosofi, Timbro, Stockholm.
Liedman, Sven-Eric, 1999, I skuggan av framtiden: Modernitetens idéhistoria, Albert Bonniers Förlag, Stockholm.
Maritain, Jacques, 1996, Integral Humanism, Freedom in the Modern World, and a Letter
Weigel, George, 1999, Witness to Hope,
Wojtyla, Karol, 1979, The Acting Person, Reidel,
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