by Deacon Keith Fournier
On June 29, 2009 Pope Benedict XVI told the faithful, “The publication of my third encyclical is now near, which has the title Caritas in Veritate. Taking up the social themes contained in Populorum Progressio, written by the Servant of God Paul VI in 1967, this document — which is dated precisely today, June 29th, the Solemnity of the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul — aims to deepen a few aspects of integral development in our age in the light of charity in truth. I entrust to your prayers this new contribution that the Church offers to humanity in her commitment for sustainable progress, in full respect for human dignity and everyone’s real requirements.”
This long awaited encyclical letter has finally been released
Prior to 2004, the phrase “Social Teaching” or “Social Doctrine” of the Catholic Church referred to the teachings found in the Sacred Scriptures, expounded upon in the Christian tradition, developed in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, explained within a contemporary series of encyclical letters, apostolic letters and exhortations, and wonderfully summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, many people have not read many of these sources for any number of reasons. Thus, what claimed to be the “Social Teaching” of the Catholic Church was sometimes closer to being the “spin” self styled “experts”, some of whom have had their own political and/or economic theories and agendas.
Then on April 2, 2004, the Memorial of Saint Francis of Paola, Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, President of the “Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace” released the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of Church.” It was exactly what had been lacking. It contains a very readable summary of centuries of teaching and sets forth the themes of that rich Social teaching of the Church for all men and women. The Compendium is one well written, beautifully sourced and highly readable book. It is a ready made Manual for the New Catholic Action which is so desperately needed in our age. I had sincerely hoped that it would be widely distributed and really studied by the faithful. I have done all I can to write, teach and use the Compendium in my own public policy and apologetics work.
Unfortunately, over five years have past since the release of the Compendium and the situation has not changed all that much. I have found that few Catholics even know the Compendium exists. This becomes obvious when one reads some of the comments and articles written in anticipation of the release on Tuesday July 7, 2009 of Pope Benedict XVI’s much anticipated “Charity in Truth.” Even some well intended Catholics used a “proof text” approach of quoting past encyclical letters in order to “prepare the ground” for this new encyclical. They were telling others how they should interpret it before it was even capable of being read! I ask all of our readers to take a very different approach. Prayerfully receive this encyclical letter from the Church as a gift, thoroughly read it yourself and then seek to give religious submission of mind and will to it.
The Social Teaching of the Catholic Church is precisely what is needed as western culture continues on its path of self destruction. It is not only for Catholics, other Christians or even just “religious people”. It is for all people and all Nations. It is offered by the Church to those who seek to build a truly just society and promote the real common good. This teaching is called “social” because it speaks to human society and to the formation, role and rightful place of social institutions. These truths and principles can be known by all men and women because they are revealed in the Natural law and then expounded upon in Revelation. The Social Teaching is neither “left” nor “right”, neither “liberal” nor “conservative” – within the contemporary politicized use of those words. The Church ‘walks the way of the person’ and is an “expert in humanity” because she continues the work of the Lord Himself in whom we find revealed the fullness of the human person.
The Social teaching maintains that there are unchangeable truths, such as the dignity of every human person at every age and stage, which provide a framework for viewing and structuring our social life together. We should recognize and follow them if we ever hope to build a truly just society. This human dignity is present in every person, at every age and stage, because it reflects the Image of God in all men and women. It is this foundational vision of the human person which informs the Catholic position concerning the respect for every human life whether that life be in the first home of the womb, a wheelchair, a jail cell, a hospital room, a hospice, a senior center or a soup kitchen. It does not propose any particular economic theory but insists that every economic order must first be at the service of the dignity of the human person and the family and further the common good.
Another example of such a truth is the insistence upon the primacy of authentic marriage as between one man and one woman, intended for life and the family founded upon it. Marriage is not some social construct which can be redefined by courts or legislatures. It is the foundation of the family which is the very path and vehicle to building a just social order. The family is the first society, first church, first school, first economy, first government and first mediating institution. In the words of the late servant of God John Paul II “the future of the world passes through the family.” The Church proclaims the truth that the human person is by nature – and grace – made for community and the first community which humanizes and civilizes us is the family.
These truths are not “religious” positions, in the sense that only religious people need assent to them. They are revealed by the Natural Law and are true for all people and for all time. The social teaching of the Catholic Church offers principles which are to be worked into the loaf of human culture in order to build a more just society. That includes principles meant to inform how we order our economies. Because they are “principles”, they leave room for the application of prudential judgment.
The Church challenges any notion of “freedom” which begins and ends with the isolated, atomistic, person as the measure of its application. She proclaims an authentic view of human freedom as having to always be exercised within a moral constitution. Freedom must be ordered toward choosing what is good, respecting the truth about the human person,human flourishing, the family and the real common good. Freedom must be exercised in deference toward our obligations in solidarity to one another. The Church calls us to a preferential option or love for the poor, a demonstrated concern for their well being and the development of a social and economic order which includes them within its embrace and promise of advancement. She upholds the dignity of all human work and the basic right to a living, just or family wage.
In recent encyclicals the market economy has been recognized as having a real potential for promoting all of these goods – when properly understood and morally structured. However, the Catholic Church does not take a position on which economic theory is the “best” among many. She properly and prophetically stood against the materialism of the atheistic Marxist system. She has also properly and prophetically cautions Nations which have adopted a form of liberal capitalism that there are dangers in any form of economism or materialism which promotes the use of persons as products and fails to recognize the value of being over acquiring. She reminds our consumerist western culture that the market economy must be at the service the person, the family and the common good, lest ‘capitalism’ conflate its claims to offering freedom and become “savage” in its application and practice devolving into greed.
“Charity in Truth” addresses, in part, economic issues. However, it does not contain anything ‘new’. With great wisdom it presents the truth within the context of our own time. It is also prophetic. The Church carries on the prophetic mission of Jesus Christ. Let us open our hearts, our minds, our lives and our lifestyles to the truths presented in this new encyclical letter by Pope Benedict XVI. The very term “encyclical” means circulating. The practice began in the first centuries of church history when Bishops would “circulate” their instructions among the faithful. Let us take this important encyclical letter and do the same. Read it for yourself before you take anyone’s word for what it says. Receive it in prayer with a heart filled with charity and hungry for the truth.