The social tradition of the Church derives from the social implications of the Gospel and from the demands of social justice that are central to the relationship between God and the people in the biblical tradition. The prophetic tradition is just one outstanding example of how faith and fidelity to Yahweh requires just and life-giving relationships among human beings. Moreover, the message of the Gospel brings out the mystery of Christ and human dignity; the human vocation to communion, and the demands of justice and peace, all of which are summarised in the ìlaw of loveî that Jesus leaves to his disciples. This law is much more than an ethical norm: it is part of the revelation of God, of the nature and relationship with the Father. Therefore, the Social Gospel is integral part of the evangelising mission of the Church and leads to social transformation.
Throughout Christian history there are uncountable instances of persons and communities who responded to social questions, dilemmas, situations of injustice and oppression. Confronted with such issues, Christians have looked at them in the light of the Gospel and discerned what position to take and how to respond, putting into action their social responsibility. Outstanding examples feature in the life of the Fathers of the Church (e.g. John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Benedict, Cyril and Methodius, among many others), then in the life of very many saints in all ages (e.g. Anthony, Thomas Moore, BartolomÈ de las Casas, Vincent de Paul, Daniele Comboni; down to the very many social apostles of the XIX c. and then figures such as Dorothy Day, Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe, and Oscar Romero closer to our days) and the expression of prophetic lifestyles and lay movements that have witnessed to the Gospel and regenerated social living in their times.
This led to the social praxis of the Church, namely the process in which social issues elicit various responses along with pastoral reflections promoting social transformation as the process unfolds. As new social issues arise, new discernment takes place, still enlightened by the Gospel, but also assisted by the social wisdom accrued earlier on in history; all in all, we are never the first ones to face social questions and it is very helpful to enter into dialogue with ancestors in faith who bear witness to the fruitfulness of the encounter between the Gospel and the problem that mankind encounters on its journey through history. Further discernment and evaluation in the light of faith lead to the recognition of principles for reflection on social questions, criteria for judgement and directives for action by the social teaching of the Church, and which constitute the starting point for the promotion of an integral and solidarity humanism.
The Churchís social teaching (known also as Social Doctrine of the Church) plays a guiding role in the struggle for a just society, but it does not offer easy answers to hard questions, and even less does it offer a blueprint for a perfect society. Rather, the social tradition presents principles for reflection, or values and assumptions that inform a fully humanised society. Therefore they are expected to be part of the world-view, of the reference values with which a solution to social questions can be constructed. In other words, the process of discernment reflects what value and meaning we give to life, to humanity and the human place in nature and society: such assumptions inform choices, attitudes and social behaviour and therefore give a specific orientation to the solutions sought for. Whereas principles for reflection constitute a firm and lasting point of reference, guidelines for action can change from situation to situation, in time and place; in fact, these are contingent judgements, based on the available information and human knowledge.
This points at the importance of criteria for judgement, at a level that lays in between principles and practical guidelines for action. These are assumptions that offer a perspective on how to establish a dialogue between principles for reflection and the specific situations at hand. Both human, social sciences and theological reflection play a role in this process. There is a need to understand critically and systematically the issues at hand, to find out what is happening, how and for what reasons; on the other hand, we need also to grasp the meaning of it all, and how we are called to respond to it in virtue of our humanity, which we fully understand in our relationship with God.
In other words, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (19) puts it, ìsocial doctrine [proposes] to all men and women a humanism that is up to the standards of Godís plan of love in history, an integral and solidarity humanism capable of creating a new social, economic and political order, founded on the dignity and freedom of every human person, to be brought about in peace, justice and solidarity.î
A large body of documents of various natures makes up such living, on-going legacy, both at the level of local and universal Church. Among other contributions, social Encyclicals stand out for their authoritative weight. These are the end result of a process of action and reflection started at the grassroots level through the action and prayerful reflection of Christian communities. Social encyclicals are not meant to propose any new world order but to unmask the underlying patterns of domination that are responsible for the social evils being analysed. Their function, therefore, is to set people free, unmasking social sin and directing ethical behaviour. Because they are a historical response to social issues, they might be historically limited, in the sense that there are ever new situations and major transformations taking place in society; but when read in historical perspective and within a living social tradition, social encyclicals remain a powerful source of inspiration and wisdom enlightened by faith.