Benedict XVI Tightens Up the Church’s Social Teaching

Deal W. Hudson
July 7, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical – Caritas in Veritate – arrived today containing 30,468 words: an introduction, six chapters, conclusion, and 159 footnotes. It’s not thrilling reading, even by encyclical standards, but as the latest papal statement on the Church’s social teaching, “Love in Truth” will be a work of lasting significance.

Those who dig through the document to see whether it leans left or right will be disappointed: There is something here for everybody. For the Left, anxious to set the scene for President Barack Obama’s meeting with Benedict in a few days, there are plenty of concerns expressed that fit their agenda. But the pope’s criticism of free markets and the pursuit of short-term profits, as well as his support for labor unions, environmental ecology, and the right to food and water, are embedded in an overall account of social teaching tightly integrated with the life issues, moral duties, natural law, and truth. Love, in other words, is wedded to the truth about God and man.

Benedict intends his encyclical as both a tribute and commentary on Populorum Progressio (1967) of Pope Paul VI:

Now that a further twenty years have passed, I express my conviction that Populorum Progressio deserves to be considered ‘the Rerum Novarum of the present age’, shedding light upon humanity’s journey towards unity.

Rerum Novarum, published by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, is considered to be the foundation of the Church’s modern social teaching. Benedict affirms a coherent tradition between Leo XIII to Paul VI, John Paul II, and himself, rejecting the oft-used distinction between pre-conciliar and postconciliar: “There is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new.”

Throughout his reading of Populorum Progressio, the Holy Father stresses the “link between life ethics and social ethics,” as seen in Paul VI’s more controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), which reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on abortion and its ban on contraception. Not surprisingly, Benedict condemns foreign aid to undeveloped countries that impose abortion and contraception practices:

In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality; frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other States as if it were a form of cultural progress.

The encyclical argues that authentic human development is undermined by the practices of the culture of death. Abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, and eugenics all undermine human dignity, creating an “indifference shown towards situations of human degradation… on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human.”

One very welcome point of emphasis in this encyclical is its treatment of rights and duties. “An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties,” Benedict explains. Catholic social teaching has embraced such a long list of rights, it has become practically impossible to adjudicate rights claims between different parties, as in the debate over the right to immigrate and the right of nations to protect their boundaries. In Caritas in Veritate, the pope places the emphasis on duties. “Duties set a limit on rights because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part, in this way ensuring that they do not become licensed.” Duties throw light on the bigger picture of human development, while rights isolate only a portion.

In describing the importance of duty, Benedict uses this stunning line, which will go a long way toward unraveling some of the confusion about rights language: “The sharing of reciprocal duties is a more powerful incentive to action than the mere assertion of rights.” Here the Holy Father is arguing that we should first think about our social teaching in terms of what we should do for others, rather than a set of demands of what we are ourselves owed.

Another somewhat surprising point of insistence in the encyclical is the importance of faith is allowed expression in politics.

The Christian religion and other religions can offer their contribution to development only if God has a place in the public realm, specifically in regard to its cultural, social, economic, and particularly its political dimensions.

The only true, or integrated, humanism is one that recognizes man’s supernatural origin and destiny:

Reason always stands in need of being purified by faith: this also holds true for political reason, which must not consider itself omnipotent.

Finally, Benedict seems to be preoccupied with the impact of technology in this encyclical – he constantly warns us not to seek merely technological solutions to the problems of human development. Technology has become such a large concept, covering so many variations, that I wondered just which aspect provoked the Holy Father’s attention. What is bothering him about technology now that hasn’t already been around for a long time? Then I reread this passage from the first portion of the document:

Technology, viewed in itself, is ambivalent. If on the one hand, some today would be inclined to entrust the entire process of development to technology, on the other hand we are witnessing an upsurge of ideologies that deny in toto the very value of development, viewing it as radically anti-human and merely a source of degradation.

What Benedict is concerned about, I believe, is this: The very acceleration of technology, its growing market share in our lives, has led to a concern for technological development alone, while human development is increasingly ignored. Like the teenagers who stare at computer screens all day and never pick up a baseball bat, walk the dog, or mow the lawn, we are more and more a society losing ourselves in our new media. The Holy Father views this passivity in the face of technology as a new spiritual malaise: “The idea of a world without development indicates a lack of trust in man and in God.”

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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