Evangelii Gaudium and Social Doctrine


The Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” of Pope Francis and the Social Doctrine of the Church

by S. E. Mons. Giampaolo Crepaldi, 4th December 2013.

The Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium” contains many aspects having to do with the Social Doctrine of the Church both directly and indirectly. It is a text marked by the centrality of the encounter with Jesus Christ, the Saviour and the Merciful One, in the life of each Christian.

The “joy” of which Pope Francis speaks is not a generic psychological sentiment; it is the joy of the person saved, salvation encountered and experienced in the life of grace, the mercy that forgives us our sins if we also so wish, and the light which faith in Jesus Christ shines on our life as a whole, our personal, family, community and social life. It is a “Christocentric” Apostolic Exhortation because the light of Jesus Christ is the source of light for creation, the Church, humanity and history.

This Christocentric approach is very important also for the Social Doctrine of the Church, which, as repeatedly taught by John Paul II, is “the announcement of Christ in temporal realities”, and only in this light does it deal with everything else. It is likewise important because it entails, among other things, the priority of announcement over denouncement. This too is an underlying approach already present in the social teaching of the Church, which Pope Francis now takes up anew and further develops. The announcement must be made with joy because at its origin is a ‘yes’ that comes well before any critical observation about social conditions today. In the beginning there is the announcement of salvation, mercy and justice. We are grateful to the Holy Father for having centred his Exhortation on what is essential.

A decidedly more than formal feature of “Evangelii Gaudium” is how the Holy Father frequently makes use of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, recommends it in explicit terms, and often cites it. The Compendium is used extensively in Latin America, perhaps more so than in Europe, and now the Latin American pontiff is proposing it anew to the Church at large. Moreover, the Compendium’s implicit approach responds in a very direct way to the needs and requirements voiced by the Holy Father in this Apostolic Exhortation: in the beginning there is the plan of God’s love for man, which fills man with joy and impels him to reach out to others so they too may partake of this joy. In no way does this entail a refusal or undervaluation of the ethical level of social problems. In fact, the ethical level is actually uplifted and protected against its ever possible forms of moralistic degeneration. The new law of love uplifts and purifies the Table of the Law, and does not cancel it.

The themes and the global perspective of the Social Doctrine of the Church are present throughout the Exhortation, but are concentrated especially in chapters II and IV. In the latter chapter entitled “The Social Dimension of Evangelization” the Holy Father uses fresh language in highlighting the major themes of the relationship between the announcement of Christ and its community repercussions, between the confession of faith and social commitment, but also announces new perspectives that enrich the previous magisterium: “Time is greater than space”, “Unity prevails over conflict”, “Realities are greater than ideas”, “the whole is greater than the part”. These constitute four new perspectives to be used as a basis for rethinking social relations as a whole.

Once again regarding the Social Doctrine of the Church, an additional new development to be found in “Evangelii Gaudium” is the in-depth treatment of the “preferential choice for the poor” to be found in chapter IV. The Holy Father speaks about it from the viewpoint of the evangelical love of Jesus for the little ones and the last of the last, and what he has to say abounds with food for thought and reflection regarding the attitude of both believers and the Church towards the poor, as well as just how much can be learned from them. Presented in these terms, the social inclusion of the poor becomes something more than a mere social policy. It becomes the selfsame perspective of our living in society, the aspect or feature that never ceases to remind us about the ultimate motive for there being a political community. In an explicit or implicit fashion, present in one form or another is all the thinking of the Social Doctrine of the Church on solidarity and the common good, but this time around from the viewpoint of the poor. In this regard we are now living a particular moment in time. The economic crisis is causing an increase in the forms and magnitude of inequalities, and therefore in the numbers of poor persons and the extent of poverty as such. A new gaze brought to bear on the poor from the viewpoint of the poor understood in an evangelical sense will be certainly be a great help for one and all.

Emerging from “Evangelii Gaudium” among its abundant food for thought and numerous entreaties is the important concept of “peace in society”, which the Holy Father develops in chapter IV as well. There is diplomatic peace between nations, political peace between political parties, but there is also ‘social peace’ among social classes and among citizens. Most people give very little thought to this, and yet nowadays it proves to be the most disruptive element of all, because inequalities and very transient employment possibilities end up making citizens and entire social groups take resolute stands against one another. In this regard the Exhortation makes some helpfully provocative statements intended for the realms of both economic affairs and politics so they would once again place the human person and an authentic common good at the core of their concerns and endeavors.

“Evangelii Gaudium” projects a strong missionary thrust as a result of the Christocentric approach mentioned above. Pope Francis calls on the Church at large to have the courage of the mission, overcoming paralyzing factors such as inertia and excessive scruples. This is also true for the Social Doctrine of the Church. In Centesimus Annus John Paul II had written that this social doctrine has a “concrete” and an “experimental” aspect, and he called on all believers to become courageously pro-active in their own right, becoming part of the mainstream of those who from the very beginning of the Church have labored intensely for the common good of their brothers and sisters. The fact that the Church should go out of herself for the mission does not mean we have to leave churches empty or abandon doctrine and the sacramental life. According to Pope Francis it means we must always let ourselves be guided by what is essential and in the life of Christian, what is essential is to be given to all.

+ Giampaolo Crepaldi

Archbishop-Bishop of Trieste

President of the Observatory Cardinal Van Thuân for the Social Doctrine of the Church