Friday, 10 July 2009

A summary of Pope Benedict's new Encyclical

by Dr. Jeff Mirus, July 9, 2009

What the Encyclical Says:


The purpose of the introduction is to recall that charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine and that charity is inseparable from truth:

Truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the “economy” of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practiced in the light of truth. In this way, not only do we do a service to charity enlightened by truth, but we also help give credibility to truth, demonstrating its persuasive and authenticating power in the practical setting of social living. This is a matter of no small account today, in a social and cultural context which relativizes truth, often paying little heed to it and showing increasing reluctance to acknowledge its existence. (2)

The Pope explains that without truth, “charity degenerates into sentimentality” and “love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way.” This is a fatal risk facing love today, by which it is distorted through mere emotion and opinion. In contrast, it is only through truth that we are enabled to overcome opinions, impressions and cultural limitations to “come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things.” Thus the authentic social doctrine of the Church hinges on the principle of “charity in truth”. (3)

The Pope goes on to identify the two key social concepts which drive the Church’s social teaching, namely justice and the common good. He reminds us that justice is intrinsic to charity—that is, justice is not divorced from charity but presupposed by it, for we would never perform an act of charity for someone we love while at the same time doing him an injustice. So too with the social context: In addition to loving and willing the good of another, we must also will the good of all of us, “made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society.” In other words, “to desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity.” (6-7)

Closing his introduction, Benedict notes that in an increasingly globalized society, the common good includes the whole human family, the community of peoples and nations, “in such a way as to shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God.” In this quest, the Church does not offer technical solutions but a witness of the truth about man:

Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church’s social doctrine receives it, assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life-patterns of the society of peoples and nations. (9)

Chapter One: The Message of Populorum Progressio

Since the encyclical is both a tribute to and an updating of Populorum Progressio, Benedict begins (# 11) by summarizing several key principles set forth in that encyclical, quoted briefly below:

1. ”The whole Church, in all her being and acting—when she proclaims, when she celebrates, when she performs works of charity—is engaged in promoting integral human development.”
2. ”Authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension.”
3. ”Integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone” (i.e., it is a work not confined only to institutions).
4. ”Such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God.”

In the light of this Pope’s repeated emphasis on the “hermeneutic of continuity” in interpreting Magisterial documents, it is noteworthy that he takes pains to make the same point with regard to the Church’s social teaching:

Clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine, which apply categories to Papal social teaching that are extraneous to it. It is not a case of two typologies of social doctrine, one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new. (12)

To place his predecessor’s teaching in full perspective, Benedict briefly examines not just Populorum Progressio but Paul VI’s overall body of social teaching. He touches on the Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens in which Paul VI warned against utopian ideological visions, and in so doing Benedict touches on the twin errors of “idealizing technical progress, or contemplating the utopia of a return to humanity’s original natural state”, both of which detach the idea of progress from consistent moral evaluation. He also touches on Humanae Vitae, in which Paul VI emphasized the strong link between life ethics and social ethics, a connection which led directly to John Paul II’s insistence that society crumbles when it asserts values such as dignity, justice and peace on the one hand, while acting radically to the contrary by tolerating or even encouraging the devaluation of human life, especially in the weak and marginalized.

Finally, touching on Pope Paul’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, Benedict notes the strong links between evangelization and human advancement. He argues again that integral human development is a vocation from God that demands responsible freedom, respect for truth, and charity that will blossom into authentic fraternity in the social order. “The importance of this goal,” Benedict writes, “is such as to demand our openness to understand it in depth and to mobilize ourselves at the level of the ‘heart’, so as to ensure that current economic and social processes evolve towards fully human outcomes.” (20)

Chapter Two: Human Development in Our Time

Having reviewed and organized for his own purposes the principles explained and developed by Paul VI, Benedict proceeds in the second chapter to assess the trends and problems which characterize our current social situation, as they have developed over the past forty years. He discusses the collapse of the economic and political systems of the Communist block and the immense difficulty of replacing them with structures conducive to authentic development; the paradoxical limitations of State sovereignty in the face of the new context of international trade and finance; the reduction of social systems of protection and welfare in order to gain a competitive edge; the growing difficulties of trade unions; the problematic mobility of labor; the emphasis on financial capital at the expense of human capital; the damage wrought by cultural relativism and cultural eclecticism; and the growing separation of human culture from human nature. He briefly discusses each of these developments.

The Pope then proceeds to identify four critical areas which must now be addressed in any effective plan for integral human development:

* Hunger: Food and water shortages are still critical in too many regions, and this is caused primarily not by a lack of material things but a lack of social resources—“the network of economic institutions capable of guaranteeing regular access to sufficient food and water for nutritional needs”. Access to food and water must be considered a fundamental human right. (27)
* Respect for Life: The Pope points to various practices of demographic control, the promotion of contraception, the imposition of abortion, the practice of sterilization (often linked to dubious and deceitful health care policies), and the effort to “export this mentality to other States as if it were a form of cultural progress.” This is unacceptable, for “openness to life is at the center of true development.” Without this openness, the whole society withers away. (28)
* Religious Freedom: The Pope’s discussion of the right to religious freedom is extremely interesting; it continues themes he has developed previously concerning the relationship between faith and reason. He decries both religious fanaticism and the promotion of religious indifference, explaining that “God is the guarantor of man’s true development, inasmuch as, having created him in his image, he also establishes the transcendent dignity of men and women and feeds their innate yearning to ‘be more’.” (29)
* Disciplinary Collaboration: Benedict argues that for true development to take place, there must be a fruitful collaboration among faith, theology, metaphysics and science. This is because the cause of underdevelopment is not just lack of technical expertise, but a serious lack of “wisdom and reflection, a lack of thinking capable of formulating a guiding synthesis, for which a clear vision of all economic, social, cultural and spiritual aspects is required.” (30-31)

This section of the encyclical closes by emphasizing that the greatest change since Paul VI’s time is the explosion of worldwide interdependence, that is, globalization:

Without the guidance of charity in truth, this global force could cause unprecedented damage and create new divisions within the human family. Hence charity and truth confront us with an altogether new and creative challenge, one that is certainly vast and complex. It is about broadening the scope of reason and making it capable of knowing and directing these powerful new forces, animating them within the perspective of that “civilization of love” whose seed God has planted in every people, in every culture. (33)

Chapter Three: Fraternity, Economic Development and Civil Society

In his third chapter, Benedict develops a key concept of Catholic social teaching, one which he makes more explicit in Caritas in Veritate, probably in part because of John Paul II’s more recent emphasis on the “law of the gift”. Each new social encyclical enshrines a certain fresh genius which more deeply penetrates the internal logic of the Church’s teaching. I believe that this unique contribution is most characteristic of chapter three. Benedict explains:

Charity in truth places man before the astonishing experience of gift. Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension. Sometimes modern man is wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life and society. This is a presumption that follows from being selfishly closed in upon himself, and it is a consequence—to express it in faith terms—of original sin. (34)

The Pope argues that a false conviction of self-sufficiency causes people to confuse happiness and salvation with material prosperity, and leads them to choose economic strategies which, by removing God and gift from the equation, end up impoverishing the weak and diminishing personal and social freedom and responsibility. At the center of this discussion is Benedict’s assertion that the market itself must incorporate this same gratuitous spirit which God displays in his dealings with man. The market must not limit itself to the commutative justice represented by the contract, but must also incorporate in its very foundations certain elements of distributive and social justice which bring all parties together in an ever-stronger fraternal community.

Indeed, the market is not some infallible machinery that always produces the right result, such that it is necessary to keep God and values out of it. Nor is the market evil, and it is equally foolish to condemn it as a source of evil. Thus does the Pope dispatch ideologies of right and left. Rather, the market is a neutral instrument which is directed this way and that by the moral decisions of human persons. Every economic decision has a moral consequence. Though it may have been understandable at one time, the Pope says, it is not adequate to entrust the creation of wealth to the economy on the one hand while entrusting the task of distributing wealth to politics on the other. Instead, commercial practice itself, like all human activity, must be directed toward the common good. “Hence the canons of justice must be respected from the outset, as the economic process unfolds, and not just afterwards or incidentally.” (37)

Benedict teaches that solidarity is the alternative to our current “exclusively binary model of market-plus-State”. For example, it is utterly insufficient for businesses to operate as if they are exclusively answerable to their investors, often with no stable director who feels responsible for the long-term impact on all of the stakeholders—“namely the workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society.” (40) All of these stakeholders have a claim on business, a claim that is far easier to understand and provide for if the principle of gratuitousness is kept in mind, for it is this principle of the gift that enables us to transcend ourselves and truly operate in solidarity with others. Applying this to the global scene:

What should be avoided is a speculative use of financial resources that yields to the temptation of seeking only short-term profit, without regard for the long-term sustainability of the enterprise, its benefit to the real economy and attention to the advancement, in suitable and appropriate ways, of further economic initiatives in countries in need of development. It is true that the export of investments and skills can benefit the populations of the receiving country. Labor and technical knowledge are a universal good. Yet it is not right to export these things merely for the sake of obtaining advantageous conditions, or worse, for purposes of exploitation, without making a real contribution to local society by helping to bring about a robust productive and social system, an essential factor for stable development. (40)

In order to effect a more sustainable model, the Pope also calls for a greater “articulation” of political authority, by which he mains a collaborative effort, based on subsidiarity, of various institutions, organizations and levels of government combining to guide the process of economic globalization. Between the inadequacy of the United Nations (the Pope calls for its reform later in the encyclical) and the realities of contemporary political power, Benedict comments wryly that “both wisdom and prudence suggest not being too precipitous in declaring the demise of the State. In terms of the resolution of the current crisis, the State’s role seems destined to grow.” Hence “the articulation of political authority at the local, national and international levels is one of the best ways of giving direction to the process of economic globalization. It is also the way to ensure that it does not actually undermine the foundations of democracy.” (41) The encyclical discusses the necessary principle of subsidiarity at some length, emphasizing again the principle of gratuitousness which must animate these varied relationships.

Finally, Benedict cautions that it is completely false and counter-productive to view globalization as a pre-determined process over which man has no control. Because it is a human reality, it is product of cultural tendencies which must be subjected to a process of discernment. A sustained commitment is needed to “promote a person-based and community-oriented cultural process of world-wide integration that is open to transcendence”. In this way, it will be possible to “steer the globalization of humanity in relational terms, in terms of communion and the sharing of goods.” (42)

We will see this reference to “relational terms” developed more fully in chapter five, and once again we will see at its heart the idea of “gift”. For Benedict, the incorporation of the spirit of gratuitousness—the law of the gift—into all of our plans and programs is the key to success. In this spirit alone can the market itself, along with all the institutions and persons which guide it, contribute to integral human development.

Chapter Four: The Development of People, Rights and Duties, the Environment

In the fourth chapter, Benedict addresses several specific problems in the contemporary world which make it difficult to guide human development in an integral manner. First, he calls attention to the contemporary tendency to create arbitrary new rights with no basis in the natural law, while at the same time ignoring the most basic of human rights. The solution is to view rights in their proper framework of duties, a perspective “which grants them their full meaning”. Benedict explains that duties set a limit on rights “because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part.” Thus duties reinforce rights and place their promotion in the context of the service of the common good. “The sharing of reciprocal duties,” Benedict states, “is a more powerful incentive to action than the mere assertion of rights.” (43)

Next, the Pope takes up the matter of population growth and openness to life. He insists that the “primary competence of the family in the area of sexuality” must be upheld against the State and that “morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource.” In contrast, he notes that the attitudes in many nations today “are symptomatic of scant confidence in the future and moral weariness.” Hence it has become socially and economically necessary once more “to hold up to future generations the beauty of marriage and the family.” States are called to enact policies promoting “the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society.” (44)

Benedict also explains that “the economy needs ethics in order to function correctly”, but not just any ethics: The proper ethics must be person-centered, for when business departs from personal moral norms it serves only to exploit the inequities of existing financial systems rather than to correct their dysfunctional features. Periodically throughout the encyclical the Pope takes pains to demonstrate why Catholic social teaching has so much to contribute to properly-directed development. In this context of ethics, for example, he notes the following:

Much in fact depends on the underlying system of morality. On this subject the Church’s social doctrine can make a specific contribution, since it is based on man’s creation “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27), a datum which gives rise to the inviolable dignity of the human person and the transcendent value of natural moral norms. (45)

The Pope also deals here with the inadequacy of the distinction between for-profit and non-profit corporations, indicating again that a more complete understanding of the common good needs to lie at the heart of all business activity. In the same light, he calls for the reform of international organizations: “At times it happens that those who receive aid become subordinate to the aid-givers, and the poor serve to perpetuate expensive bureaucracies which consume an excessively high percentage of funds intended for development.” He calls for complete transparency as to the percentage of income allocated to various programs, the actual content of those programs, and the detailed expenditures of each institution.

The chapter concludes with several pages on nature, the environment, and what the Pope calls “human ecology”. Noting two common and equally false attitudes, Benedict writes:

[I]t is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person. This position leads to attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism—human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely naturalistic sense. This having been said, it is also necessary to reject the opposite position, which aims at total technical dominion over nature, because the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a “grammar” which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation. (48)

Pursuant to this principle, the Pope condemns the hoarding of non-renewable energy resources, which integral human development demands should be shared, and he condemns massive short-term exploitation of resources as if we have no solidarity with future generations. Along the same lines, Benedict warns against the widespread hedonism and consumerism of the modern world, which does so much harm to those who are poor and so much damage to the environment. He insists that the Church has a grave responsibility to defend “earth, water and air” as gifts that belong to all and, above all, to “protect mankind from self-destruction.”

Benedict’s larger point is that economic incentives and deterrents to effect change are insufficient: “The decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society.” (51) Thus he concludes the chapter by returning once more to the law of the gift. He notes that the ultimate source of truth and love is God, and the vocation to development is an intrinsic part of God’s plan, prior to man himself: “That which is prior to us and constitutes us—subsistent Love and Truth—shows us what goodness is, and in what our true happiness consists. It shows us the road to true development.” (52)

Chapter Five: The Cooperation of the Human Family

The fifth chapter of Caritas in Veritate begins with a deep reflection on the idea of “relation” in human solidarity (analogous to and modeled on the infinitely self-giving and self-fulfilling relations of the three persons of the Blessed Trinity). Benedict notes the extreme isolation characteristic of our times: “One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation.” This includes isolation from not being loved and from rejecting God’s love because of “man’s basic and tragic tendency to close in on himself, thinking himself to be self-sufficient or merely an insignificant and ephemeral fact, a ‘stranger’ in a random universe.” Indeed:

Man is alienated when he is alone, when he is detached from reality, when he stops thinking and believing in a foundation. All of humanity is alienated when too much trust is placed in merely human projects, ideologies and false utopias. Today humanity appears much more interactive than in the past: this shared sense of being close to one another must be transformed into true communion. The development of peoples depends, above all, on a recognition that the human race is a single family working together, in true communion, not simply a group of subjects who happen to live side by side. (53)

Benedict sees the solution in a proper understanding of “relation”. Rather than being diminished personally by entering into a relation, each person finds that his identity is enriched and matures through his reciprocity with the other. Just as a family does not submerge but enhances the identities of its individual members, and just as the Church rejoices in each “new creation”, enriching each member and being enriched in return, “so too the unity of the human family does not submerge the identities of individuals, peoples and culture, but makes them more transparent to each other and links them more closely in their legitimate diversity.” (53)

Importantly, Benedict pauses here to note even the problems posed by religious cultures which divide men and women from each other, as well as the proliferation of various forms of religious syncretism which fragment the human family into small groups, each going its own way. In so doing, he makes an important point about religious liberty (a point which will perhaps illuminate all the Church’s previous teachings on this subject, and a point thoroughly consistent with the Pope’s prior context of illuminating the nature and limitations of rights by examining corresponding duties):

For this reason, while it is tree that development needs the religions and cultures of different peoples, it is equally true that adequate discernment is needed. Religious freedom does not mean religious indifferentism, nor does it imply that all religions are equal. Discernment is needed regarding the contribution of cultures and religions, especially on the part of those who wield political power, if the social community is to be built up in a spirit of respect for the common good. Such discernment has to be based on the criterion of charity and truth. (55)

He goes on to affirm that the Christian religion and other religions can make their vital contribution to authentic development “only if God has a place in the public realm”. He notes that the denial of the “right to profess one’s religion in public and the right to bring the truths of faith to bear upon public life has negative consequences for true development”, and he rejects both “the exclusion of religion from the public square” and “religious fundamentalism” because both “exclude the possibility of fruitful dialogue and effective cooperation between reason and religious faith.” Returning to a point he has made repeatedly during his pontificate, Benedict states again:

Reason always stands in need of being purified by faith: this also holds true for political reason, which must not consider itself omnipotent. For its part, religion always needs to be purified by reason in order to show its authentically human face. Any breach in this dialogue comes only at an enormous price to human development. (56)

Then chapter goes on briefly to explore a number of principles which must be used effectively to address a wide range of modern problems, such as subsidiarity, solidarity, and the natural law. Benedict sees the latter not only as a basis for discussion between religions and cultures but also as a necessary basis for true education, which must form the whole man in light of his proper ends—a goal which is rendered problematic by all relativistic cultures, yet is absolutely vital to authentic development.

This chapter also highlights various key problems (e.g., migration, unemployment, and the development of poor nations) and suggests how they ought to be approached. Further, it highlights the need for all stake-holders in international finance, including labor unions and consumer groups, to be open to a new sense of responsibility for all the other stake-holders, instead of being preoccupied only with their own separate concerns. The Pope also expresses the need for a significant reform of the United Nations Organization and other international economic institutions so that “the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth.”

To sum up:

The integral development of peoples and international cooperation require the establishment of a greater degree of international ordering, marked by subsidiarity, for the management of globalization. They also require the construction of a social order that at last conforms to the moral order. (67)

Chapter Six: The Development of Peoples and Technology

In his final chapter, Benedict focuses on the need to overcome the prejudices of technocracy with a truly human understanding of integral development. He returns again to the concept of the gift: “The development question is not simply the result of natural mechanisms, since as everybody knows, we are all capable of making free and responsible choices. Nor is it merely at the mercy of our caprice, since we all know that we are a gift, not something self-generated.” The Pope continues:

A person’s development is compromised, if he claims to be solely responsible for producing what he becomes. By analogy, the development of peoples goes awry if humanity thinks it can re-create itself through the “wonders” of technology, just as economic development is exposed as a destructive sham if it relies on the “wonders” of finance in order to sustain unnatural and consumerist growth. In the face of such Promethean presumption, we must fortify our love for a freedom that is not merely arbitrary, but is rendered truly human by acknowledgment of the good that underlies it. To this end, man needs to look inside himself in order to recognize the fundamental norms of the natural moral law which God has written on our hearts. (68)

In this context, the Pope emphasizes that technology is a profoundly human reality, revealing man and his aspirations towards development, including the “inner tension that impels him to overcome material limitations.” It is therefore a response to God’s command in Genesis “to till and keep the land.” For this reason, technological development must never become so preoccupied with the “how” questions that it fails to ask and answer the “why” questions which underlie human activity: “When the sole criterion of truth is efficiency and utility, development is automatically denied” and “human freedom is authentic only when it responds to the fascination of technology with decisions that are the fruit of moral responsibility.” (70)

The Pope uses three critical but disparate examples (peace among nations, social communications, and bioethics) to show how preoccupation with technological solutions can distract us from the deeper human values and moral judgments which are required for true development. Returning to one of his favorite themes, he concludes: “Entranced by an exclusive reliance on technology, reason without faith is doomed to flounder in an illusion of its own omnipotence. Faith without reason risks being cut off from everyday life.” (74)

This final chapter ends with a renewed focus on the central argument that runs through the entire encyclical: (1) We now see that “the social question has become a radically anthropological question”; (2) The cultural refusal to attend to these deep anthropological questions results in a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life which has a universally negative effect on integral human development; and (3) Therefore, integral human development can never occur without the moral values which arise from an understanding of the importance of the soul of man to his overall well-being.

The Pope laments that the “social and psychological alienation and the many neuroses that afflict affluent societies are attributable in part to spiritual factors” (76) and that “the supremacy of technology tends to prevent people from recognizing anything that cannot be explained in terms of matter alone.” (77) In contrast, true development

requires new eyes and a new heart, capable of rising above a materialistic vision of human events, capable of glimpsing in development the “beyond” that technology cannot give. By following this path, it is possible to pursue the integral human development that takes its direction from the driving force of charity in truth. (77)


In conclusion, the Holy Father emphasizes that “without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is.” Therefore, we can develop the vision and energy for integral human development only by recognizing our calling to be part of the family of God. “A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism,” Benedict writes. “Only a humanism open to the Absolute can guide us in the promotion and building of forms of social and civic life—structures, institutions, culture and ethos—without exposing us to the risk of becoming ensnared by the fashions of the moment.” This is the only way we can move beyond “the limited and the ephemeral”. Ultimately, it is God who “gives us the strength to fight and to suffer for love of the common good.” (78) And so Benedict ends with the law of the gift which he has so effectively unveiled at the heart of Catholic social thought:

Development needs Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer, Christians moved by the knowledge that truth-filled love, caritas in veritate, from which authentic development proceeds, is not produced by us, but given to us. For this reason, even in the most difficult and complex times, besides recognizing what is happening, we must above all else turn to God’s love. (78)