The Social Teaching of the Church: As a Compass for Young Generations
Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation
“Economy and society. International Award Ceremony”
Palazzo della Cancelleria, December 16, 2021
S.E.R. Cardinal Pietro Parolin
Secretary of State
Eminent President and Members of the Jury
Ladies and gentlemen
1. Each historical epoch has generated its own specific myths. Ours too is not exempt from this sort of law of social evolution. I intend to refer here to three myths in particular. They are certainly not the only ones, but they are the ones that I think add complication, in a special way, to the situation of youth today and tend to exacerbate the problems connected with education. As we will see, the intertwining of these new idols has an effect in which the future is perceived more as a threat than a promise. If yesterday, we were encouraged to look to a future that was believed to be better than the present – in this was the force that fed the positive energy towards what was not yet – today the future tends rather to scare: hence the reduction of that positive energy.
One of the primary tasks of the Social Doctrine of the Church is intervening in the debate, primarily cultural, to show the irreducible falsehood of these myths. This is important in order to set up an educational process capable of engaging today’s challenges and promoting a credible covenant between generations. There is a novelty, indeed, which characterizes the current historical phase, and which has no equal in previous eras. It is the acceleration with which changes occur, an acceleration that causes a shrinking of the time of experience, that is, the reduction of the opportunities to create wisdom from experience.
The “time of haste” – as most of the neuro-psychological research confirms – causes the growth of those forms of psychopathy that do not correspond either to psychosis (because the psychopathic personality is not de-structured) or to neuroses (because the disorder does not originate from some conflict). Rather, they are due to the fact that, in order to make wise, and therefore rewarding, decisions one must have somehow experienced the terms of the choices; but it takes time to gain wisdom from experience. What we mean is that, while yesterday the res novae happened within a time frame that left room for adaptation, even psychological and emotional adaptation, today novelties arise with such rapidity as to provoke, on the one hand, effects of overlapping and on the other, displacement. In short, the Heraclitean river of history has always flowed; but today it flows faster. And this poses a problem, above all and in the first place for young people.
The contribution that the social teaching of the Church can make, together with the witness of commitment and joy of many young believers, is truly remarkable.
2. The first of the myths referred to above is what we can call technological: everything that is possible must be achieved because it generates or increases value. As if to say that everything that can be done must be done. That this is a myth is revealed to us by the fact that the notion of possibility does not include only the technological possibility, but also extends to morality. Whenever there is a decision to be made, a doubt arises, and the doubt can “petrify”, as the story of Medusa’s head illustrates: cutting off the head (the verb to decide comes from the Latin verb caedere, “to cut”) is what is necessary to avoid being paralyzed. Now, as long as indecision concerns the choice of the most convenient means to reach the goal, reason, assisted by technology, is able to unblock the situation. However, the case is different when the problem of choice concerns the very ends of the action. In such situations, that is, when it comes to choosing between alternative ends, reason and technè are no longer a sure remedy for paralysis; indeed, they can aggravate it.
This is the root of the current “discontents of civilization”, to use an expression that refers to the famous book by Sigmund Freud published in 1930. Intelligence, in fact, instead of allowing us to compare and choose the best from various value options, is paralyzing us. Unlike their ancestors who did not have to choose continuously and whose most consequential decisions were made once in a lifetime – when they were not even predetermined – today’s young people are subjected to continuous decisions that affect virtually all areas of life: choice of studies and profession; emotional relationships; politics; integration into civil society; purchases and consumption. It is this situation that creates the paradox of choice: when we talk about choice we seem to refer to a space of freedom, but at the same time we are increasingly forced to choose. Choice, a situation that postulates freedom, becomes a sort of necessity.
This is the central point of what we want to say: when the problem of choice consists in deciding between alternative means to reach a certain end – when, that is, in Kantian terms, the question awaiting an answer is of the type “what should I do to get what I want?” – recourse to technical reasoning is in itself sufficient. We ask technical reasoning to give us an algorithm to solve the problem. But when the question becomes: “what is the good that I want”, that is to say when it comes to choosing between different ends, it becomes indispensable to have a choice criterion based on the category of value judgment. No technological progress can ever provide me with the criterion of value on the basis of which I choose how to spend my life. We now understand the extent of the pitfall that the technological myth is spreading, making us believe that the advancement of technical-scientific knowledge is sufficient to solve every problem of choice. And therefore, after all, everything can be resolved with waiting. We know instead that this trap has a sad outcome: the whole of existence becomes without purpose and without meaning. Hence the danger that everything becomes indifferent, the danger of the Sartrean conclusion “of the indifference of all possibilities”.
Is it therefore surprising that – as the news tell us – many young people tend to carry out ritual practices (disco; alcohol; drugs) whose raison d’etre is to obtain an “emotional stun”, which functions as an ecs-tasis, that is, an exit, momentary relief, distraction and then disinterest in everything that concerns the world or the discourse of values? On this front, the contribution that the social teaching of the Church can make, together with the witness of commitment and joy of many young believers, is truly remarkable.
3. The second myth I referred to above is the well-known one of homo oeconomicus, a myth that can be explained as follows: since the behavior of human beings would be driven solely by self-interest, the only way to ensure a free and economically advanced social order is to intervene with incentives. In other words, from the assumption – obviously implausible – according to which relationality has no value in and of itself, we can deduce that if you want an individual to do something, there is no better way than to offer them the incentive appropriate to the situation. (Of course, the incentive does not necessarily have to be material or monetary). But why is the use of incentives in the educational process devastating? An incentive scheme always hides a power relationship, a relationship that is certainly preferable to that associated with coercion: it is always better to offer incentives than to coerce the will of others. However, there is persuasion, demonstration, that is, an intervention on the subject’s motivational system. Now, the point to underline is that the use of incentives always leads one to think, in some way, that there are no pre-existing good reasons for doing what has been requested, so that the consent to act must be “bought”. Indeed, the incentive is a form of exchange, albeit sui generis. If an employee is rewarded for being honest at work, others will no longer attribute a moral value to honest behavior. With the result that, in the long run, the use of incentives tends to produce a displacement effect for people’s intrinsic motivations.
The question arises: why is the tendency to use a tool such as incentives, which in the long run can generate perverse outcomes, so widespread even among those who work in education and formation? The answer that I think I can suggest is that the culture of homo oeconomicus has now entered, in our societies, areas of life (family, school; politics) that are not constitutively equipped to resist to it. The novelty, certainly not a small one, of this era lies in the tendency of market logic to include every human being’s need, every activity and every moment of their life within a single form of thought, that of relationship exchange between equivalents, which – as we know – is the paradigm that governs market exchanges.
And yet, paradoxical as this may appear, the hegemonic influence that the culture of homo oeconomicus is exercising not only on the cognitive maps of young people, but also on their emotional lives, continues to be not grasped and understood in its consequences on society. The market has now become a vital world for young people: advertising, induction and manipulation of needs, consumption as a way of communication increasingly affect their life choices. And today’s young people – contrary to those of past generations – are discovering that they are important from an economic point of view, even if they are not in a position to fully understand the significance of their decisions. They live in a world saturated with “economic noise” which, rather than helping them decide, may astound them. Yet, it has become rare to hear about the need to educate young people about the spiritual dimension of life, about how to remain free from the pitfalls of money, when money is no longer a servant but has become the master. John Locke, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, had already shown how money is an instrument that “constitutes an irreparable separation between persons”.
4. Let us now turn to the third of the myths mentioned above. A sign of the times, typical of the current historical phase, which deserves a more careful reading, is that insistent appeal to ethics, which has been replacing that equally insistent appeal to politics, typical of the 1960s. However, as can be seen, the convergence on the primacy of ethics ceases at the very moment in which one sets out to reason about concrete ethical questions, and therefore does not lead to ethical consensus.
I believe the Social Doctrine of the Church, (We owe the expression “Social Doctrine of the Church” to Pius XII, when he said, in his radio message of June 1, 1941, for the celebration of the 50 th anniversary of the encyclical Rerum Novarum, that the masterful document of Leo XIII is “the fruitful seed, from which Catholic social doctrine takes place” (n. 5).) under a specific condition, can constitute the main way today to favor a convergence between the many approaches to the ethical question in both the economic and socio-political spheres. The condition I am referring to is that the Social Doctrine of the Church is seen not as just another moral theory compared to the many already available in literature, but as a “common grammar” to all of these, as it is based on a specific point of view, that of taking care. Indeed, where the various contemporary ethical theories lay their foundation either in the search for rules (as happens with the multiple versions of positivist natural law, according to which ethics is borrowed from the legal norm), or on the theme of action (think of utilitarian and contractualist theory), the Social Doctrine of the Church embraces the idea of “being together” as its main point. Ethics, even before dealing with enunciating principles and suggesting rules, is a dwelling, a “house” in which one takes care of oneself, and of others; in a word, where one takes care of the human good.
The focus of the ethics of the common good, which is the proprium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, is that in order to grasp the identity of human action, it is necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the person who acts (St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 78) and not in the neutral perspective of the third person (as in iusnaturalistic perspective) or of the impartial spectator. Saint Thomas Aquinas had already observed that moral good, being a practical reality, is known primarily not by those who theorize it, but by those who practice it: they are those who know how to identify it and therefore choose it with certainty every time it is in question.
What does it mean to welcome the point of view of the ethics of the common good? To answer this question, it is worth starting from the consideration that the central theme of the Social Doctrine of the Church, that is, the goal it aims at, is that of a social order that is not only just, but also fraternal. Socio-economic action, in fact, cannot be reductively conceived in terms of everything (institutions, rules, tools) that serves to ensure social coexistence, but also (and above all) life in a communal perspective. Aristotle had well understood the profound difference between life in a community and the mere commonality of the pasture that is typical of animals. Therefore, if life in common is the context within which individual, ethically sensitive life plans are realized, then that context too must be recognized as provided, too, with an ethical dimension.
Why then does the category of the common good continue to be confused with the growth of income, even among professionals, generating many misunderstandings and causing many sterile and inconclusive disputes? It should be borne in mind that it is the utilitarian ethics of Jeremy Bentham (1789) that affirms and spreads the idea of the maximization of total utility as the purpose of economic action. It is around this utilitarian idea that the market and the economy and public institutions are organized, as something that must not hinder the achievement of such an objective, the maximization of total utility.
It is therefore important to carefully specify the characteristics of the notion of the common good, which should not be confused with either the private good or the public good. In the common good, the advantage that each one derives from being part of a certain community cannot be separated from the advantage that others also derive from it. This is to say that the interest of each is realized together with that of the others, not against (as happens with the private good) or regardless of the interest of others (as happens with the public good). In this sense, “common” is different from “my own”, just as “public” is different from “private”. What is common is different not only from one’s own, but also from what is everyone’s indiscriminately. So, what is the “enemy” of the common good? On the one hand, those who behave as opportunists, that is, those who live on the shoulders of others; on the other hand, those who behave as pure altruists, that is, those who ignore their own interest in favor of the interest of others. Both behaviors do not feed the common good, albeit for different reasons and with different consequences. Neither pure selfishness nor pure altruism are capable of making sustainable – by themselves – a social order of humans. What then is the friend of the common good? Behavior inspired by the principle of reciprocity. Which sounds like this: I give you something freely so that you in turn can give something, according to your possibilities, to others or possibly to me. On the contrary, the principle of exchange of equivalents states: I give you something on condition that you give me the equivalent of value in exchange. Therefore, while the principle of reciprocity postulates – as Aristotle had already indicated – proportionality, the principle of exchange postulates equivalence.
The acceptance at the cultural level and the translation into practice at the political level of the principle of reciprocity are the sure guarantee of a harmonious coexistence capable of the future. This is the specific – albeit not unique – contribution that the Catholic tradition is able and therefore must make to the regeneration of the polis. It is not difficult to understand this. The original structure of the reciprocity principle is ternary (I, you, and the third); whereas that of the exchange of equivalents is binary (in the contract there is only an “I” and a “you”). As Paul Ricoeur reminds us, it is the entry of the third into the intersubjective relationship that creates and keeps society alive.
It is no small merit of Pope Francis’ magisterium to have been able to apply the principle of fraternity in both institutional and economic terms, making it become a cornerstone of the social order.
5. In carrying out her mission, the Church seeks and encounters the response of human beings subject to the turmoil of history. The lives these human beings live, which make history itself, their possibilities of realizing themselves and of exercising their freedom – these are not facts extraneous and indifferent to evangelization, since both its specific traits in a given epoch and the answer evangelization will find depend on these factors. It is no small merit of Pope Francis’ magisterium to have been able to apply the principle of fraternity in both institutional and economic terms, making it become a cornerstone of the social order. There are pages of Fratelli Tutti that help well to understand the proper meaning of the principle of fraternity. Which is to constitute, at the same time, the complement, and the overcoming of the principle of solidarity. In fact, while solidarity is the principle of social organization that allows unequal people to become equals, the principle of fraternity is that principle of social organization that allows already equals to be different, that is, to plan their lives or live their charisma in different ways. The historical seasons that we have left behind today, the 1800s and especially the 1900s, were characterized by great battles, both cultural and political, in the name of solidarity and this was a good thing; think of the history of workers’ unions, the trade union movement, and the struggle for civil rights. The point is that good society cannot be satisfied with the horizon of solidarity, because a society that is only in solidarity, and not also fraternal, would be a society from which everyone would try to distance themselves. The fact is that while fraternal society is also a society of solidarity, the converse is not automatically true.
What we said above allows us to understand the specific role of mercy in our societies. In the Hebrew language, piety is a visceral feeling, rendered by the term “Rechem”, which literally denotes the womb. In the Old Testament, the organ associated with the concept of mercy is the maternal womb: “Rachamim” is a compassion so deep that the viscera contract. In the Latin language and culture, the vital center of man moves from the bowels to the heart. It is no longer the breath that keeps the person alive, but the blood circulation. The heart is the center of life and the sight of the poor shakes us so much that mercy flows from the heart. Please note an interesting consequence of this change of vision: for the Latin cultural matrix, mercy is no longer an exclusive attribute of femininity, given that all human beings have hearts. Everyone can turn their “heart to the poor”, that is, be capable of mercy. From the Christian perspective, mercy speaks of the way in which love must manifest itself; Christians do justice by making righteous those who are forgiven. Pope Francis wrote: “God loves by mercying” (a neologism in Italian: misericordiando).
This is why cultivating mercy is an indispensable task not only from the point of view of the civitas – something that has long been known – but also from that of the economy. Since economic institutions influence very much the economic results, it is necessary to ensure that the economic-institutional structure of society encourages – and does not penalize, as today foolishly happens – the widest possible diffusion of the practices of mercy among citizens. The results will then follow, despite what skeptics of various philosophical traditions may think. The secret of merciful action is all here: it helps us to overturn the traditional (and often consoling) ethics of philanthropy, leading us to reflect on the essentiality of the dimension of gratuitousness at any moment of human experience, and therefore also of the economic one. If it is true that gratuitousness can be thought of as the identity of the human condition, then it must also characterize the way of being of our economy. The great contribution of the Social Doctrine of the Church is to make people understand how it is possible to behave rationally in the economy, to obtain significant results by operating in the market, without severing the relationship with the other.
Catholic social teaching is built on three foundational principles - Human Dignity, Solidarity and Subsidiarity. Human Dignity, embodied in a correct understanding of the human person, is the greatest. The others flow from it. Good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the three principles.
This means a correct understanding of the human person and of each person’s unique value. All Catholic social teaching flows from this: the inherent dignity of every person that comes from being made in God’s image.
Solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 38) Love of God and love of neighbor are, in fact, linked and form one, single commandment.
Subsidiarity “is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by the lesser and subordinate bodies”. (Pope Pius XI)
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