St. Thomas and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

by Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences


How important was St. Thomas for Rerum novarum? What is the importance of St. Thomas for the Social Doctrine of the Church? and what is the importance of St. Thomas for the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church? Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi answers these questions in this essay.

Publisher & Date

International Observatory Cardinal Van Thuân for the Social Doctrine of the Church, July 1, 2012

Abundant and substantial is the presence of Thomist inspiration in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. In addressing this matter, however, I would like to proceed by stages. The Compendium is an important instrument of the Social Doctrine of the Church – willed by Blessed John Paul II and pursued by Cardinals Van Thuân and Martino as Presidents of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace – and is at the service of the latter in order to offer an organic presentation of the Church’s teachings and promote the knowledge and practical inclusion thereof in pastoral, social, economic and political life. Yes, the Compendium is an instrument of the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean it is nothing more than a compilation of material, since the organic presentation of contents in a doctrinal corpus is never technical or mechanical alone, nor does it mean the Compendium is merely repetitive, because it tackles what at those times were new issues later developed by Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate. Even with characteristics such as these it remains an instrument that took stock of the Church’s social doctrine during the passage into the third millennium of the Christian era in order to hand down to the Church of the future a plentiful and articulated doctrinal corpus.

It is therefore evident that the Compendium draws light from the Social Doctrine of the Church, and this likewise occurs for the theme of interest to us, that being the presence therein of the philosophical and theological thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. To this end it is necessary to return briefly to the beginning of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which is ordinarily called ‘modern’ – I will have a few comments to make about this expression later – and that means returning to the encyclical letter Rerum novarum of Leo XIII. Allow me to anticipate two of the questions I will strive to answer: how important was St. Thomas for Rerum novarum? What is the importance of St. Thomas for the Social Doctrine of the Church? After answering these two questions I feel we could ask ourselves a third one more directly linked with our precise subject: what is the importance of St. Thomas for the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church?

The relationship between St. Thomas and the Rerum novarum

As far as Rerum novarum is concerned I’d like to limit myself to two observations. Many have been those who have made a concerted effort not only to distinguish the Rerum novarum from Leo XIII’s other encyclicals, but also to separate it entirely, and the reason for this would be as follows. While in his other encyclicals Leo XIII is considered to have remained bound to a certain intransigent mentality, in the Rerum novarum he seemed to be opening the way to the new things of modernity. Naturally enough, this assessment also concerns the relationship with Aeterni Patris of 1879, in which the pope had proposed anew the philosophical and doctrinal authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, and indicated him as being the undisputed model for seminaries and Catholic schools. Therefore, with respect to Aeterni Patris, and perhaps to St. Thomas as well, the Rerum novarum would constitute a sort of break with the past and almost an act of disassociation; therefore, a taking of one’s distance from St. Thomas.

This view of things is very doubtful and cannot be accepted. As so opportunely recalled by Augusto Del Noce – and after him I don’t think the question has been revisited as it would have deserved – Leo XIII himself had indicated the logical and systematic order in which his major encyclical letters should have been read[1]. The order suggested by that great pontiff at the end his life was as follows: Aeterni Patris (1879), Libertas Prestantissimum (1888), Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae on Christian matrimony, (1880), Humanum Genus on the Masonry (1884), Diuturnum, on civil government (1881), Immortale Dei, on the Christian constitution of states (1885), Quod Apostolici Muneris, on socialism (1878), Rerum novarum (1891), and Sapientiae Christianae on the Christian in the city (1890). This was likewise an implicit suggestion to publish them in that order, but this was followed only once, in America, as Del Noce reports as well, and then never repeated. I must confess that I wouldn’t mind at all if some publisher or another were to do it today. If the pope has indicated the order of his major encyclical letters it means two things: he considered his encyclicals to be a systematic corpus allowing no room for the insertion of any separations; all of this pursued one and the same single aim. At this point I would venture to make the critical observation I had referred to earlier.

I said above that Rerum novarum is often projected as the first encyclical of ‘modernity’, and this is said in a dual sense. First of all, it would be the first encyclical after politics and religion had taken their separate ways with modernity, the first encyclical of the historical phase of secularisation. The second sense is used to argue that in the Rerum novarum there would be a substantial openness to and even acceptance of modernity, which had not been extended to it beforehand in either the encyclicals of Pious IX or those of Leo XIII: therefore, the first encyclical of accepted secularisation. In my opinion this view of Rerum novarum is erroneous, does not correspond to Leo XIII’s intention, and serves no useful purpose – it’s actually misleading – in understanding the later development of the Church’s social doctrine.

The opening words of the Rerum novarum, as people well know but likewise often forget as a result of distorting the title, sounds not like a felicitous openness to new things, but rather a disapproval of the senseless pursuit of the new things that had descended from the political level into the arenas of social and economic affairs. It is therefore clear that Leo XIII was perfectly in line with Pious IX in indicating that the selfsame process which had characterized the detachment of politics from the religious foundation in previous decades had then spread into civil society and the economy, detaching them as well from the Christian religion. Evident in Rerum novarum is not a acceptance of the violent secularisation perpetrated by a certain wave of modernity, but rather the need for a response, a reaction: this response is the Social Doctrine of the Church, that is to say a “right of citizenship” of the Church in society, as John Paul II was to say one hundred years later in Centesimus annus[2], with the resolute conviction that there is no solution to the social issue outside the Gospel.

The instrument and channel of this project had to be the Social Doctrine of the Church – therefore Rerum novarum – but within the framework of Leo XIII’s other encyclicals and above all the ones he indicated as major ones and whose logical order he had suggested himself.

I do believe that outside such a framework it is not possible to truly grasp the connection between St. Thomas Aquinas and Rerum novarum and the entire Social Doctrine of the Church, since the first place in that framework was occupied by Aeterni Patris, which therefore becomes the compulsory point of reference for Rerum novarum and the Social Doctrine of the Church as a whole.

St. Thomas and the Social Doctrine of the Church

Thus have we answered the first question, and let’s move on to the second one: what is the relationship between St. Thomas and the Social Doctrine of the Church?

In the his book we have already examined, Augusto Del Noce makes two statements that can be endorsed in full. He says that Leo XIII was “the greatest Christian philosopher of the XIX century”[3] insofar as he sustained that “the faith supposes a metaphysics included in it, and one does not go outside the faith to render that explicit”[4]. Encapsulated in these two phrases is all the importance of St. Thomas for the Social Doctrine of the Church. When Leo XIII wrote Aeterni Patris the cultural, academic and educational scene was dominated by Positivism taken on by the new liberal states as a civil religion. This means embracing as a civil religion the separation between reason and faith and the ejection of religion from the public sphere. This transpires by denying that implicit in the faith is a metaphysics, an ontological order, and ensuing there from is a social and political order. In this case the faith takes on individual and sentimental relevance alone and the dogma ceases to have an ontological dimension. The battle was waged throughout the 19th century in the realm of politics, but now the industrial revolution and new ideologies brought it into the sphere of civil society. Pious IX[5] had proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception to counter the sin of liberal modernity, which consisted precisely in no longer seeing a metaphysics implicit in the faith, and hence in the pretense of forging political history without any reference to the Creator. It was necessary to decide whether or not to accept secularization as irreversible, because this was the proposal made by Positivism. Leo XIII did not accept this irreversibility, and reference to St. Thomas and the writing of Rerum novarum stand forth as two aspects of one and the same project. As of that moment the reference to St. Thomas represents the benchmark of the correct relationship between faith and politics for the Social Doctrine of the Church. It is true that the reference to St. Thomas began to wane at a later stage, but he remains the most oft cited theologian in all the social encyclicals and in the Council itself. It is likewise true that the Church cannot place its complete trust in a single philosophical system, and yet the theoretical force with which St. Thomas posits and resolves the problem seems to have no peers, but rather opportune developments and completions.

The Social Doctrine of the Church absolutely needs a correct formulation of the relationship between faith and reason for the simple reason that, as Benedict XVI says in Deus caritas est, it is situated precisely at the point of encounter between faith and reason. Now, St. Thomas’ merit is to be acknowledged in his having provided a perfectly orthodox view of the issue, saving on one hand the legitimate autonomy of politics, and, on the other hand, the regal superiority of religion.

The great Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson posed the big question: “Can there be a Church without there being political unity on earth; but can there be political unity on earth without there being a recognition by the temporal order of the direct authority of the spiritual order not only in moral matters, but also in the political sphere?” Gilson replied with St. Thomas Aquinas: “In spiritual matters it is opportune to obey the pope, in temporal affairs it is better to obey the prince, but even better the pope, who occupies the summit of the two orders”. According to Gilson this means that for St. Thomas “the spiritual order is not subordinate to the temporal order. The prince, who has authority over the temporal order, therefore has none at all over the spiritual order; but the temporal order is subordinate to the spiritual order. The pope, who has authority over the spiritual order, therefore also has authority over the temporal order insofar as it depends on the spiritual order. The formula is simple and it suffices to apply it in order to see how it entails a precise meaning. The pope is not the political ruler over any people in earth, but does have sovereign authority over the way in which all peoples conduct their political affairs”[6]. The ultimate reason pertains to the theological-metaphysical sphere: “Nature informed by grace is more perfectly nature”[7]. This is what St. Thomas teaches and this claim stands at the selfsame origin of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and is possible only if implicit in the faith is a metaphysics and one does not have to go outside the faith in order to render that explicit.

Modernity can be understood in many ways. It’s isn’t right to lump everything together or generalize, but I think it’s difficult not to realize that at the basis of radical modernity we have, as Del Noce said, the refusal of original sin, or, in even clearer terms, the ousting of grace from history as something irrelevant for human life. Original sin has an ontological dimension: it is the negation that implicit in the faith is a metaphysics, or that our life does not have to respond to the order established by the Creator, but is something we can create all on our own. Hence the anti-religious character of radical modernity with which Leo XIII was faced, and which he countered with St. Thomas Aquinas and the Social Doctrine of the Church, not separated from one another but united in a counter proposal of salvation not only of religion, but politics as well, not only grace, but nature as well, as we read in Gaudium et spes, “without the Creator the creature is lost” (n. 24).

St. Thomas and the Compendium

Insofar as we have prepared the necessary premises, we are now in a position to answer the third question.

First a datum that is tangible, yet more than that alone: St. Thomas is cited twenty-six times in the text of the Compendium, more so than any other theologian. St. Augustine is cited twice, and St. John Chrysostom comes in second place to St. Thomas with three references.

The references in the Compendium to St. Thomas have to do with the openness of man to transcendence insofar as openness to all being, the need for authority, natural law, justice, the common good, the family, charity, the virtue of prudence, and legitimate resistance to unjust power. It can be said that the framework or structure of the discourse of the Church’s social doctrine was pieced together by using the Angelic Doctor’s thought.

We must also keep in mind the fact that the Compendium weaves together numerous passages of the social Magisterium, many of which imply St. Thomas or refer to him. Therefore, there is a direct relationship of the text of the Compendium with St. Thomas Aquinas, and this can be seen in specific references to passages or excerpts from his works. In addition, there is an indirect relationship because the entire corpus of social documents, of which the Compendium is what it is, a compendium, presuppose his thought. Consider, for example, how the Compendium cites the documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, many of which use input from St. Thomas in their turn. Or else the numerous references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, as we know, often rely on St. Thomas. And lastly we have encyclicals such as Fides et ratio or Evangelium vitae, which the Compendium uses and thereby also avails itself of their Thomist inspiration.

Despite this extensive direct and indirect presence of St. Thomas in the text of the Compendium, I am nonetheless of the opinion that the influence of his thought on the Compendium itself is to be attributed above all to the frame of the reason-faith relationship, which I spoke of earlier in reference to Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris and Rerum novarum, more so than to the individual issues focused upon one by one. This frame concerns the very heart of the Church-world relationship in the framework of the theological vision of the original fall and the history of Salvation in Christ, as well as the eschatological recapitulation of all things in Him at the end of time. The Social Doctrine of the Church is part and parcel of this framework because it belongs to the mission of the Church, and if it were removed from that position it would turn into nothing more than social humanism. Now, such a vision cannot do without a metaphysical grammar. St. Thomas is the Doctor Communis because he offered great teachings specific in nature, but above all because he provided an imperishable metaphysical structure. I think one of the reasons why the Social Doctrine of the Church was abandoned for a certain period of time may be ascribed to the crisis of metaphysics, and I am equally convinced that one of the conditions for its recovery can be seen in the recovery of metaphysics, without which its main teachings remain defenseless. Hence the importance of St. Thomas.

I’d even venture to take this one step further: the recovery of the importance of St. Thomas in the Compendium, in linkage with the programme of Leo XIII, can be a way to account for the continuity between the Doctrine of the pre-Conciliar and the post-Conciliar Church. Opening up before us here is a field of research still to be tackled in a systematic manner. On 22 December 2005 Benedict XVI countered a reading of the Council as “rupture” with another reading looked upon as “reform in continuity”. This also applies quite evidently to the Social Doctrine of the Church. Then again, in Caritas in Veritate we read: “. . .clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine, which apply categories to papal social teaching that are extraneous to it. It is not the case of two typologies of social teaching, one pre-Conciliar and one post-Conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new”[8]. I do not believe the programme Leo XIII sought to indicate with the systematic succession of his nine major encyclicals is obsolete or outdated. It would suffice to compare it with the programme of Benedict XVI to realize that.

[1] A. Del Noce, Fede e filosofia secondo Étienne Gilson, in Pensiero della Chiesa e filosofia contemporanea. Leone XIII, Paolo VI, Giovanni Paolo II, a cura di L. Santorsola, Edizioni Studium, Rome 2005, pp. 75-83. This was first published in 1982.

[2] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus annus (1991), n.

[3] A. Del Noce, Fede e filosofia secondo Étienne Gilson op. cit., pg. 76.

[4] Ibid, pg. 81.

[5] R. De Mattei, Pio IX e la rivoluzione italiana, Cantagalli, Siena 2012.

[6] E. Gilson, Metamorfosi della città di Dio, Cantagalli, Siena

[7] Ibid, pg. 183.

[8] Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in veritate, n. 12,

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