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Christian Social Ethics and its Theological Relevance through the Lens of Veritatis Gaudium

In his Apostolic Constitution Veritatis Gaudium (27th December 2017) Pope Francis highlights the relevance of (academic) theological formation and research as a major path for the renewal of what he calls the evangelizing mission of the Church. The first part of the constitution is dedicated to a deep reflection on the goals and functions of theological formation as such and of ‘ecclesial studies’ as a constitutive means to fulfil the mission of the Catholic Church in our era. He considers our time to be characterized by “a true epochal shift”, “marked by a wide-ranging anthropological and environmental crisis”, as the Pope says with reference to His Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium (2013) and the encyclical letter Laudato si’ (2015).

Theological formation and research is therefore expected to contribute to the necessary “process of discernment, purification and reform” (EG30). Following the Apostolic constitution “a fitting renewal of the system of ecclesiastical studies” is necessary in order to enable theology to play a strategic role in this process further on. Without Christian Social Ethics and/or Catholic Social Teaching being explicitly mentioned as specific subjects of theological formation the whole reflection seems to be clearly based on the idea that theology has to start from a thorough analysis of the social and cultural conditions of life in specific contexts. Only with a precise and engaged awareness of the various situations in which Christian witness and ecclesial activity are to be performed will theological reflection  be apt to reach its addressees. Social and cultural analysis must not be confined to a description of circumstances, but needs to focus on the needs and the capabilities of the poor – including the basic conditions of ecological integrity. Thus the inquiry on the conditions of life will at the same time reveal the conditions in which the mission of the Church has to be fulfilled and for which Christian theology has to provide an apt language and mode of thinking.

Within this framework presented in the first part of the Apostolic constitution strong allusions are made to the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching – especially to the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes and to the encyclical letters concerning the “social question” and its globalization in the Post-Vatican II-period up to the most recent ones. The reflection reads as a strong plea for a kind of bottom up or inductive method of reflection. It explicitly refers to the “social question” as an “anthropological question, one affecting the fate of the entire human family” – alluding to Populorum progressio (14) – and stipulates a theological contribution to what Pope Benedict called “the globalization of humanity in relational terms, in terms of communion and the sharing of goods” in his encyclical letter Caritas in veritate (42).

The Constitution identifies four criteria to prove the aptness of ecclesial studies to meet these challenges. To put it very roughly, these criteria aim at a profile of the theological formation that enables both the students and the teachers  (a.) to develop a faith-based fundament (“spirituality”) of global solidarity; (b.) to promote a “culture of encounter” and to cultivate a “wide-ranging dialogue” going beyond the limits of the community of faith itself; (c) to engage in an interdisciplinary if not cross-disciplinary approach to the areas of fragmented knowledge. This is meant to create deeper understanding, to integrate the diverse pieces of knowledge under a unifying perspective gained through a deep understanding of the unity of theory and practice, knowledge and virtue, truth and love, from the score of Christian faith: the mystery of Christ; (d.) to build a global – or rather: a  catholic in its original sense of ‘all-including’ – network of theological studies and research, which not only promotes partnerships between remote places in the world, but meets the multifold contextual challenges and conflicts and involves theological students and experts in the search for solutions as theologians and faith-based activists. “Theology must doubtless be rooted and grounded in sacred Scripture and in the living tradition, but for this very reason it must simultaneously accompany cultural and social processes, and particularly difficult transitions. Indeed, ‘at this time theology must address conflicts: not only those that we experience within the Church but also those that concern the world as a whole’” (Apostolic Constitution 4,d; quote from Pope Francis’ Video message to the Papal Catholic University of Argentina in 2015 on the occasion of the centenary of its Theological faculty). This involves “the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process”, thus acquiring “a way of making history in a life setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve the diversified and life-giving unity. This is not to opt for a kind of syncretism, or for the absorption of one into the other, but rather for a resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides” (ibid., quotes: EG 217-218).

Notwithstanding the fact that plenty of fundamental questions have to be dealt with in order to precisely work out the suggested understanding of theology itself and of theological formation and research in particular, the reflections of Pope Francis may be basically taken as a plea for a strong social analysis and social ethical research which is needed to empower the presence and to promote the inspiring dynamic of Christian faith and discernment in modern societies – in terms of justice, mercy and the performance of true love.

Thus they might well encourage the expectation that Christian Social Ethics, representing an important domain of theology, be explicitly implemented within the revised normative framework of ecclesial studies which is presented in the Second part of Veritatis gaudium. But this is not the case as it hasn’t been in the framework of Sapientia Christiana (1979). Social ethics does not appear as a discipline of its own which has to be taught in the regular theological courses and is thus guaranteed in the ecclesial studies’ infrastructure of Church run institutions or theological faculties integrated in Catholic or secular universities.

This discrepancy clearly shows up in the present situation of academic Christian Social Ethics in probably most places of Catholic theology worldwide. Compared with the claim to strengthen a theology which is contextually aware and sensitive of social, cultural and ecological crises we experience an alarming institutional weakness of social ethics within academia in general and specifically within the system of ecclesial norms for theological formation. Given that Catholic ethicists generally agree with the Pope’s analysis which underlines the importance of ethical reflection and an active presence of Christian convictions in the socio political arena it is not a marginal issue how to overcome the precariousness of resources social ethical teaching and research are able to rely on in the theological realm.

Having dealt with this situation for a longer period before, the German speaking Association of Social Ethics (which assembles academics from Germany, Austria and Switzerland) published a Position Paper on The Importance of Christian Social Ethics for Society, University, Theology and Church in March 2018 (the text is available in German, English, Spanish and Italian as preprint on: The English version is also available at

Our paper stresses the importance of social ethical reflection with regard to the global challenges:

The current situation of humanity, in which the different continents, nation-states and peoples are growing together, raises significant issues of justice at all levels. Among other things, we must respond to what justice and sustainability mean in the current global change, and how they can develop their normative effects under the conditions of freedom, plurality, demographic and digital change, as well as the complex economic and financial systems and, last but not least, under the fragile approval of the institutions of international politics. Particularly the pressing questions, which today arise in a new and existential way, concern the necessity of averting, respectively, moderating the overheating of the earth’s atmosphere and – closely related to this – the challenges of migration, peacekeeping and human rights abuses. (Position Paper, 2) 

It therefore underlines the necessity to strengthen the resources for social ethical engagement in both theory and practice. Although it mainly refers to the situation of academic theology in Germany and the German speaking countries, it focuses on a much broader horizon. Being clearly aware of the fact that in many other countries the resources for teaching and research in the social ethical realm are not as extensive as they are in Germany, Austria and Switzerland the German speaking social ethicists aim to contribute to a broader and interconnected reflection on how to promote personal resources, institutional infrastructure and guarantees and thus to solidarily strengthen our global catholic social ethical potential.

Our text reflects the importance of social ethics as a source to help develop standards of responsibility, justice and solidarity within pluralist and secularized societies. It also pays attention to the function of social ethics for the development of the (worldwide) church and, of course, specifically in the realm of academic theological formation and ecclesial studies. With regard to the mission of the Church it says:

If we look at the focus of current conflicts within a world society, pressing socio-ethical challenges are emerging. The world is at the same time globally connected as well as torn apart by deep upheavals. Nowadays it is an essential practical test for the Christian message of salvation to actively contribute to the solution of these problems. However, this requires a reflective combination of basic theological insights combined with socio-theoretical competence. Christian social ethics itself is a place of open and controversial discourse. It provides a sense of orientation and reflection on Christian beliefs in and for modern societies. […] Today the discourses on regulatory, economic-, social-, peace-, bio- and environmental ethics are more on a global level. Therefore, a further internationalization of socio-ethical research is required. So Christian social ethics is indispensable for the scientifically founded struggle of the World Church for a responsible contemporary commitment in a globalizing world. (Position Paper, 5).

Regarding how urgent it is to accompany the social, economic, ecological challenges and political conflicts of the present time with ethical discernment, with a sense of responsibility and solidarity we need to grow the awareness that social ethical knowledge and sensitivity have to be trained and cultivated also within the programs of theological formation.

The changing constellations of Christian responsibility in a pluralizing and globalizing world, as well as the complexity of the reference sciences to be taken into account, demand methodological and content-related expert knowledge, particularly for the translation of Christian faith into secular and plural societies. A belief that wants to enable people to assume responsibility needs social-ethical competence. As a reflection on responsible contemporaries, Christian social ethics therefore belongs to the essential core of theology. (Position paper, 9).

Marianne Heimbach-Steins, Münster