By Matthew Bunson, D.Min.
On July 7, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI issued the third encyclical since his election in 2005 and his first social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“Love in Truth”). He chose a topic for the Church that is very much in tune with the “signs of the times.”
In addressing the global financial meltdown of the last few years, the Pope reiterates that there are essential links connecting truth, the moral good and the real world. Some have seen in the encyclical a rejection of capitalism; others see a call for a one-world government to regulate corporations. Still others suggest it is a demand that the environment become the main priority for the Church’s theologians.
Nevertheless, Pope Benedict tells us clearly what he intends in his introduction, when he writes: “Love in truth — caritas in veritate — is a great challenge for the Church in a world that is becoming progressively and pervasively globalized. The risk for our time is that the de facto interdependence of people and nations is not matched by ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development” (Introduction).
The encyclical, of course, does not propose technical solutions to today’s vast social problems, as these lie outside the competence of the magisterium of the Church. Still, it offers principles that are crucial to building real human development, if the world has the wisdom to listen.
The foundation for this remarkable project is Pope Benedict’s wider concern about applying the social teachings of the Church. For years, some Catholics have suggested that there are two rival approaches to Catholic social doctrine: one rooted in the time before the Second Vatican Council, and one that applies some notion of the “spirit” of Vatican II.
For Pope Benedict, however, Catholics must be committed to continuity in Church teachings. This means we must embrace the 21 ecumenical councils in Church history rather than just the last one.
There is only one Catholic social teaching, the pope insists, and to make his point, he draws from every social encyclical since Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891. He makes the point again when he quotes Pope John Paul II that “there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new” ( Sollicitudo Rei Socialis , No. 3). This approach permits Pope Benedict to pull together the whole framework of Catholic social thought, especially its defense of human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity.
The encyclical, of course, does not merely repeat the thought of previous popes. Rather, the Pontiff builds on the legacy of his predecessors and applies the timeless teachings of the Church in a timely way. As a result, even as he restates traditional Catholic social thought, he makes several significant innovations, such as the connection between justice and concern for the environment.
The Pope declares that the global situation is clearly one of increasing globalization, a shrinking of the earth in the face of advances in communication, travel and technology. This is certainly an opportunity for the entire global community, but it brings with it grave social and economic imbalances that can be remedied only by genuine reform and moral and cultural renewal. Business decisions and finance cannot be separated from the priority of the human person.
Pope Benedict’s call for fidelity to continuity becomes important here, for where Pope Blessed John XXIII stressed peace in his 1958 social encyclical Pacem in Terris , and Pope Paul VI urged justice in his 1967 social encyclical Populorum Progressio , Pope Benedict ties them to the defense of human life, from conception to natural death.
The encyclical makes the association “between life ethics and social ethics” (No. 15), especially in its tribute to the late Pope Paul’s prophetic encyclicals Populorum Progressio and Humanae Vitae (1968). In Populorum Progressio , Pope Paul anticipated the problems that have attended globalization, and, in Humanae Vitae , he predicted with searing accuracy the long-term social effects of a contraceptive culture. Reflecting on both of these earlier documents, Caritas in Veritate proclaims that true development must encompass the rights of all human persons, including the unborn.
The Pope observes that eco-nomic development and humanitarian aid from the West are too often accompanied by the imposition of dehumanizing programs and exploitation of labor and natural resources. Even worse, they can attach strings to aid that compel poor countries to embrace the culture of death through the same toxic reproductive policies that are eroding the social fabric of the first world.
Pope Benedict argues that not only do abortion, contraception and euthanasia inherently trample upon the dignity of the human person and responsible freedom; they are bad economics because of the strains they place on social welfare systems and labor resources, not to mention the wider impoverishment of culture. He declares:
“Openness to life is at the center of true development. When a society moves toward the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good” (No. 28).
There is also a practical economic advantage to such openness. Populous nations are able to emerge from poverty in part because of the talents of their people, while one-time prosperous nations that are plagued by falling birth rates witness collapsing social welfare systems, increased costs and a dwindling “brain pool.”
Human development, most so in light of globalization, is a reminder that we are deeply and innately connected to one another. Pope Benedict describes this reality when he calls upon all people to remember that “the development of peoples depends above all on a recognition that the human race is a single family” (No. 53).
The decisions that are made in boardrooms in the First World have a direct impact upon the lives and the destinies of men, women and children in far-flung corners of the earth. By thinking and acting in solidarity with the poor, the helpless and the developing parts of the world, we will be able to embrace “the interconnection between the impetus towards the unification of humanity and the Christian ideal of a single family of peoples in solidarity and fraternity” (No. 13).
Pope Benedict also examines the principle of subsidiarity, the idea that the largest number of people can be helped when the functions of government are handled at a more immediate or even local level. A key teaching in Catholic social thought, subsidiarity rejects the dangers of a vast social welfare state in favor of development that does not lose focus on the human person.
Some interpreters of this encyclical claim that it condemns capitalism and calls for a socialist model for global economic management. Such claims were made falsely about Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus , and they are just as erroneous regarding Caritas in Veritate . Pope Benedict calls for proper government intervention in the economy when needed, but he also proposes a thorough reform of the United Nations as well as “economic institutions and international finance” (No. 67).
Likewise, the connection between the development of people and the environment has long-term consequences for everyone. Nature is a gift from God that signifies “a design of love and truth” (No. 48), meaning that humanity has an obligation to use it responsibly. This obligation entails the proper use of energy resources, with a sense of solidarity that reflects the vision of a human family. Technologically advanced societies must find ways to reduce their energy consumption, encourage new and alternative forms of energy, and assist developing societies with their own energy needs.
Pope Benedict’s pioneering vision teaches that the environment is related to the culture of life. He writes: “The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties toward the environment are linked to our obligations toward the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other” (No. 51).
While it may be a complex and lengthy document, the Pope’s social encyclical is a welcome opportunity to meditate in a new way on the priorities of the current pontificate.
Pope Benedict is not proposing some supposed middle way between capitalism and socialism. In restating eloquently all Catholic social teachings from Pope Leo’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 to Pope Pius XII’s Quadragesimo Anno in 1940, to Pope Paul’s Populorum Progressio , to Pope John Paul’s Sollicitudo Rei Socialis in 1987 and Centesimus Annus , Pope Benedict is proclaiming to the world that the Church offers only one Way: Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
As Pope Benedict observes: “In Christ, charity in truth becomes the Face of his Person, a vocation for us to love our brothers and sisters in the truth of his plan. Indeed, he himself is the Truth (cf. Jn 14:6)” (No. 1). TCA
Matthew Bunson, D.Min., is the author of more than 35 books, a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the general editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac.
Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), Pope Leo XIII, 1891: The first of the social encyclicals; called the “magna carta” of Catholic social thought, it offered important Catholic teachings in the face of the Industrial Revolution.
Quadragesimo Anno (“After Forty Years”), Pope Pius XI, 1931: A meditation on labor and industrialization 40 years after Rerum Novarum .
Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher”), Blessed Pope John XXIII, 1961: An application of Church teachings in the areas of science and technology that offered a clear denunciation of ideologies that make false promises of utopias.
Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), Pope John XXIII, 1963: The first encyclical ever issued to “all men of good will” and Pope John’s last major work focusing on the requirements of peace in the middle of the Cold War.
Populorum Progressio (“On the Development of Peoples”), Pope Paul VI, 1967: A prophetic encyclical that forecast the dangers of globalization.
Laborem Exercens (“On Human Work”), Pope John Paul II, 1981: A discussion of the rights and dignity of workers on the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum .
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“On Social Concerns”), Pope John Paul II, 1987: An encyclical issued on the 20th anniversary of Populorum Progressio with an update on the original theme of globalization.
Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), Pope John Paul II, 1991: A celebration of the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum that discussed the great themes first developed by Pope Leo XIII as seen in the light of a post-communist world.
Caritas in Veritate (“Love in Truth”), Pope Benedict XVI, 2009: Offers principles that are crucial to building genuine human development in the face of globalization.