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The social doctrine of the Church and the commitment of the lay faithful

on Sunday, 01 January 2006. Posted in Social Doctrine

On October 25, 2004, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace published the long-awaited "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church," which presents, in a systematic manner (330 pages of text plus a 200-page index), the principles of the Church's social doctrine in diverse areas of public life.

Here are excerpts from Chapter Twelve of this new Compendium, which explains the vocation of the lay faithful (and the ordinary way for them to become saints), which is to make society conform to the teachings of the Gospel.

Social doctrine and the inculturation of faith

521. Aware of the power of Christianity to renew even cultural and social realities, the Church offers the contribution of her teaching to the building up of the human community by bringing out the social significance of the Gospel. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Church's Magisterium systematically addressed the pressing social questions of the time, creating "a lasting paradigm for the Church. The Church, in fact, has something to say about specific human situations, individual, and communal, national and international. She formulates a genuine doctrine for these situations, a corpus which enables her to analyze social realities, to make judgments about them, and to indicate directions to be taken for the just resolution of the problems involved." The intervention of Pope Leo XIII in the social and political reality of his time with the Encyclical Rerum Novarum "gave the Church'citizenship status'as it were, amid the changing realities of public life, and this standing would be more fully confirmed later on."

522. In her social doctrine, the Church offers above all an integral vision of man and a complete understanding of his personal and social dimensions. Christian anthropology reveals the inviolable dignity of every person, and places the realities of work, economics and politics into an original perspective that sheds light on authentic human values, while at the same time inspiring and sustaining the task of Christian witness in the varied areas of personal, cultural and social life. Thanks to the "first fruits of the Spirit" (Rom 8:23), Christians become "capable of discharging the new law of love (cf. Rom 8:1-11). Through this Spirit, who is'the pledge of our inheritance'(Eph 1:14), the whole man is renewed from within, even to the achievement of'the redemption of the body'(Rom 8:23) ». In this sense the Church's social doctrine shows how the moral basis of all social action consists in the human development of the person and identifies the norm for social action corresponding to humanity's true good and as efforts aimed at creating the conditions that will allow every person to satisfy his integral vocation.

The lay faithful

541. The essential characteristic of the lay faithful who work in the Lord's vineyard (cf: Mt 20:1-16) is the secular nature of their Christian discipleship, which is carried out precisely in the world. "It belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will." (Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 31.)

By Baptism, the laity are incorporated into Christ and are made participants in His life and mission according to their specific identity. "The term'laity'is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in Holy Orders and those who belong to a religious state approved by the Church. That is, the faithful who, by Baptism are incorporated into Christ, are placed in the People of God and in their own way share the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ, and to the best of their ability carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world." (Ibid.)

543. It is the proper duty of the lay faithful to proclaim the Gospel with an exemplary witness of life rooted in Christ and lived in temporal realities: the family; professional commitment in the world of work, culture, science and research; the exercise of social, economic and political responsibilities. All secular human realities – both personal and social, including various environments and historical situations, as well as structures and institutions — are the context in which the lay Christian lives and works. These realities are places where God's love is received; the commitment of the lay faithful must correspond to this vision and is to be considered an expression of evangelical charity; "for the lay faithful to be present and active in the world is not only an anthropological and sociological reality, but in a specific way, a theological and ecclesiological reality as well."

544. The witness of the lay faithful is born from the gift of grace, recognized, nurtured and brought to maturity. This motivation makes their commitment in the world significant, and is opposed to the characteristics of action that are proper to atheistic humanism, which lack an ultimate basis and are circumscribed within purely temporal limits. The eschatological perspective is the key that allows a correct understanding of human realities. From the standpoint of definitive goods, the lay faithful are able to engage in earthly activity according to the criteria of authenticity. Standards of living and greater economic productivity are not the only valid indicators for measuring the total fulfilment of the human person in this life, and they are of even less value when considering the life to come, "for man's horizons are not bounded only by the temporal order; living on the level of human history, he preserves the integrity of his eternal destiny."

Spirituality of the lay faithful

545. The lay faithful are called to cultivate an authentic lay spirituality, which they are reborn as new men and women, both sanctified and sanctifiers, immersed in the mystery of God and inserted in society. Such a spirituality will build up the world according to Jesus'Spirit. It will make people capable of looking beyond history, without separating themselves from it, of cultivating a passionate love for God without looking away from their brothers and sisters, whom they are able to see as the Lord sees them and love as the Lord loves them. This spirituality precludes both an intimist spiritualism and a social activism, expressing itself instead in a life-giving synthesis that bestows unity, meaning and hope on an existence that for so many different reasons is contradictory and fragmented. Prompted by such a spirituality, the lay faithful are able to contribute "to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially by the witness of their own life... they must manifest Christ to others" (Lumen Gentium, 31.)

546. The lay faithful must strengthen their spiritual and moral lives, becoming ever more competent in carrying out their social duties. A deepening of interior motivations and the acquisition of a style appropriate for their work in the social and political spheres are the results of a dynamic and ongoing formation directed above all to the attainment of harmony between life, in all its complexity, and faith. In the experience of believers, in fact, "there cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called 'spiritual' life, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called 'secular' life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social relationships, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture." (John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifidelis Laici, 59.)

Bringing faith and life together requires following the path judiciously indicated by the characteristic elements of Christian living: the Word of God as a reference point; the liturgical celebration of the Christian Mystery; personal prayer; the authentic experience of Church enhanced by the particular formational services of discerning spiritual guides; the exercise of the social virtues and a persevering commitment to cultural and professional formation.

Social doctrine and lay associations

549. The Church's social doctrine must become an integral part of the ongoing formation of the lay faithful. Experience shows that this formative work is usually possible within lay ecclesial associations that respond to precise "criteria of ecclesiality". "Groups, associations and movements also have their place in the formation of the lay faithful. In fact they have the possibility, each with its own method, of offering a formation through a deeply shared experience in the apostolic life, as well as having the opportunity to integrate, to make concrete and specific the formation that their members receive from other persons and communities." The Church's social doctrine sustains and sheds light on the role of associations, movements and lay groups that are committed to the Christian renewal of the various sectors of the temporal order. "Church communion, already present and at work in the activities of the individual, finds its specific expression in the lay faithful working together in groups, that is, in activities done with others in the course of their responsible participation in the life and mission of the Church."

Service to the human person

552. Among the areas of the social commitment of the laity, service to the human person emerges as a priority. Promoting the dignity of every person, the most precious possession of men and women, is the "essential task, in a certain sense, the central and unifying task of the service which the Church, and the lay faithful in her, are called to render to the human family." (Christifideles Laici, 37.)

The first form in which this task is undertaken consists in the commitment and efforts to renew oneself interiorly, because human history is not governed by an impersonal determinism but by a plurality of subjects whose free acts shape the social order. Social institutions do not of themselves guarantee, as if automatically, the common good; the internal "renewal of the Christian spirit" must precede the commitment to improve society "according to the mind of the Church on the firmly established basis of social justice and social charity."

It is from the conversion of hearts that there arises concern for others, loved as brothers or sisters. This concern helps us to understand the obligation and commitment to heal institutions, structures and conditions of life that are contrary to human dignity. The laity must therefore work at the same time for the conversion of hearts and the improvement of structures, taking historical situations into account and using legitimate means so that the dignity of every man and woman will be truly respected and promoted within institutions.

553. Promoting human dignity implies above all affirming the inviolability of the right to life, from conception to natural death, the first among all rights and the condition for all other rights of the person. Respect for personal dignity requires, moreover, that the religious dimension of the person be recognized. "This is not simply a requirement `concerning matters of faith', but a requirement that finds itself inextricably bound up with the very reality of the individual." The effective recognition of the right to freedom of conscience and religious freedom is one of the highest goods and one of the most serious duties of every people that truly wishes to ensure the good of the individual and of society. In the present cultural context, there is a particularly urgent need to defend marriage and the family, which can be adequately met only if one is convinced of the unique and singular value of these two realities for an authentic development of human society.

Service in culture

554. Culture must represent a privileged area for the presence and commitment of the Church and individual Christians. The Second Vatican Council sees the separation of Christian faith and daily life as one of most serious errors of our day. (Gaudium et Spes, 43.) Without a metaphysical perspective, the loss of a longing for God in self-serving narcissism and the varied means found in a consumeristic lifestyle; the primacy given to technology and scientific research as ends in themselves; the emphasis placed on appearance, the quest for an image, communication techniques: all of these phenomena must be understood in their cultural aspects and placed in relation to the central issue of the human person, of integral human growth, of the human capacity to communicate and relate with other people, and of the constant human search for an answer to the great questions that run throughout life. It must be kept in mind that "culture is that through which man, as man, becomes more man,'is'more, has more access to'being'."

Service in the economy

563. Faced with the complexity of today's economic context, the laity will be guided in their action by the principles of the social Magisterium. It is necessary that these principles be known and accepted in the area of economic activity itself; when they are ignored, above all the principle of the centrality of the human person, the quality of this activity is compromised.

The commitment of Christians will also be translated into an effort of cultural reflection aimed at a discernment of the current models of economic and social development. Reducing the question of development to an exclusively technical problem would deprive it of its true content, which instead concerns "the dignity of individuals and peoples."

564. Economists, those working in this field, and political leaders must sense the urgency of rethinking the economy, considering, on the one hand, the dramatic material poverty of billions of people and, on the other, the fact that "present economic, social and cultural structures are ill-equipped to meet the demands of genuine development." (John Paul II, Message for the 2000 World Day of Peace, 14.) The legitimate requirements of economic efficiency need to be better harmonized with those of political participation and social justice. Concretely, this means that solidarity must be made an integral part of the networks of economic, political and social interdependence that the current process of globalization tends to consolidate. In this effort of rethinking, well organized and destined to have an effect on the way economic realities are seen, associations of a Christian inspiration active in the economic field — organizations of workers, business leaders and economists — have a precious role to play.

Service in politics

568. The lay faithful are called to identify steps that can be taken in concrete political situations in order to put into practice the principles and values proper to life in society. This calls for a method of discernment, at both the personal and community levels, structured around certain key elements: knowledge of the situations, analyzed with the help of the social sciences and other appropriate tools; systematic reflection on these realities in the light of the unchanging message of the Gospel and the Church's social teaching; identification of choices aimed at assuring that the situation will evolve positively.

569. A characteristic context for the exercise of discernement can be found in the functioning of the democratic system, understood by many today in agnostic and relativistic terms that lead to the belief that truth is something determined by the majority and conditioned by political considerations. In such circumstances, discernment is particularly demanding when it is exercised with regard to the objectivity and accuracy of information, scientific research and economic decisions that affect the life of the poorest people. It is likewise demanding when dealing with realities that involve fundamental and unavoidable moral duties, such as the sacredness of life, the indissolubility of marriage, the promotion of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman.

In such situations certain fundamental criteria are useful: the distinction and, simultaneously, the connection between the legal order and the moral order; fidelity to one's own identity and, at the same time, the willingness to engage in dialogue with all people; the need, in the social judgment and activity of Christians, to refer to the observance of three inseparable values — natural values, with respect for the legitimate autonomy of temporal realities; moral values, promoting an awareness of the intrinsic ethical dimension of every social and political issue; supernatural values, in order to fulfil one's duty in the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

570. When – concerning areas or realities that involve fundamental ethical duties – legislative or political choices contrary to Christian principles and values are proposed or made, the Magisterium teaches that "a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political programme or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals." In cases where it is not possible to avoid the implementation of such political programmes or to block or abrogate such laws, the Magisterium teaches that a parliamentary representative, whose personal absolute opposition to these programmes or laws is clear and known to all, may legitimately support proposals aimed at limiting the damage caused by such programmes or laws and at diminishing their negative effects on the level of culture and public morality. In this regard, a typical example of such a case would be a law permitting abortion. The representative's vote, in any case, cannot be interpreted as support of an unjust law but only as a contribution to reducing the negative consequences of a legislative provision, the responsibility for which lies entirely with those who have brought it into being.

Faced with the many situations involving fundamental and indispensable moral duties, it must be remembered that Christian witness is to be considered a fundamental obligation that can even lead to the sacrificing of one's life, to martyrdom in the name of love and human dignity (Christifideles Laici, 39). The history of the past twenty centuries, as well as that of the last century, is filled with martyrs for Christian truth, witnesses to the faith, hope and love founded on the Gospel. Martyrdom is the witness of one who has been personally conformed to Jesus crucified, expressed in the supreme form of shedding one's blood according to the teaching of the Gospel: if "a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies... it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24).

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