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Friday, 10 July 2009

A magnificent encyclical in a great tradition

The Holy Father’s new encyclical Caritas in Veritate is typical of his writing generally. Each individual sentence is perfectly lucid and yet taken as a whole it is a dense read, demanding full attention and often requiring the reader to go back again to take in the full impact of the powerful ideas expounded. My personal reaction after finishing it was that this is a superb exposition of the Church’s social teaching, tailored expertly to our present time. As well as being magisterial in the theological sense, it is a fine example of the work of our “papa professore”.

Beginning in a way that reflects the best quality of the Holy Father’s German academic background, an orderly and logical approach to complex topics, the introduction offers an exposition of the mutual relationship between charity and truth, explaining that truth must be sought and expressed within the “economy” of charity but that charity in its turn must be “understood, confirmed and practised in the light of truth” (n.2) because without truth, charity is an empty shell. A key principle is the nature of love itself which, almost in passing, Pope Benedict reminds us, is to desire the good of the other (n.7)

On this basis, the encyclical proceeds, considering first of all Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio in the light of the hermeneutic of continuity. Importantly, Pope Benedict reminds us that the Church’s public presence cannot be limited to charitable activities; a limitation that is a significant danger in secular legislation and a danger also in Catholic schools and parishes where it can sometimes seem as though the only worthwhile activity is raising money for one or other charity. Worthy as these activities are, they must not derail the Church’s missionary mandate.

The encyclical does not shy away from the question of financial activity, placing this too within the context of mutual relationship in society, decrying the purely speculative approach to the market and calling for a “new humanistic synthesis” in the face of globalisation – which is, after all, simply an aspect of relationships between human persons made inevitable by increased communication. For those of us interested in the opportunities presented by the internet, the passing remark criticising the “unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property” (n.22) applies not only to the field of health care which the Holy Father mentions, but also within the Church to the accessibility of liturgical texts.

Another crucial principal that Pope Benedict underlines is that the primary capital to be safeguarded, when we are thinking of economic and social assets, is the human person in his or her integrity. Thus he lays considerable emphasis on the sanctity of human life, expertly drawing pro-life concerns into the question of development and starkly contradicting the common view that pro-life and development priorities are somehow opposed. For me, this is one of the highlights of the encyclical: it is perfectly proper for pro-lifers to pull out particular quotations since there are some fine points made, but it is also heartening to see the pro-life message presented positively within the context of the Church’s commitment to the common good, tackling poverty, and the development of peoples.

In the third chapter, on fraternity, economic development and civil society, Pope Benedict puts the doctrine of original sin firmly in its proper place as the root explanation for the evils we experience in society. As the antidote for this, he speaks at length on the “spirit of gift”, the genuine charity which is gratuitous, rather than driven by necessity. As a deepening of the spirit of philanthropy (which itself could surely be a lesson we could learn from some of the great Victorians) he courageously proposes that gratuitousness must find a place even within economic activity.

On human rights, the Holy Father again brings us back to a fundamental principle that rights presuppose duties (n.43). He emphasises the vital importance of the family and, when speaking on the duty that we have to enable a just distribution of resources related to energy, he goes further to speak on a theme that he has addressed before, the underlying demand to preserve the human ecology which is necessary itself if society is to be in a position to address the problems of the material ecology.

The chapter on the co-operation of the human family takes up and reinforces familiar themes in the tradition of Catholic social teaching, applying them to the present time. In addition to observations on the welfare state, trade unions and finance, the Holy Father also reflects on the more modern phenomenon of tourism, gently challenging us to consider the effects of our holidays on others, and on the duties of the “consumer”, again a consideration that is especially relevant for modern western society.

Considering technology in general, Pope Benedict warns against the “promethean presumption” that we can re-create ourselves through technology, and reprises his teaching on the means of social communication urging that these too should have the good of the human person at the heart of their activity, rather than taking refuge in a supposed moral neutrality which ultimately destroys social relationships.

It seems to me futile to attempt to analyse the encyclical in terms of “left” and “right” or to apportion elements of it to particular interests or political leanings. The Church’s social teaching has always offered the reflection of an “honest broker” who is not involved in party politics; and that is how it should be. Caritas in Veritate is a magnificent contribution to that venerable tradition, offering thoughtful, instructive, and challenging guidance on the problems that society faces today.
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