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.”

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