Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
August 24, 2009
New encyclical tackled social quandaries
Secular response to Benedict's guidance exposes society's avarice
Journey to Justice
Sometimes it must be hard to be the pope.
In early July, Pope Benedict released his first social encyclical, called Caritas in Veritate, or, In Charity and Truth. Conservative voices have surprisingly - and resoundingly - trashed the pope's message.
Without showing any evidence of actually having read Benedict's letter, columnist Neil Reynolds, writing in the business pages of the Globe and Mail, referred to the encyclical as "confused" and "an anachronistic Old Left manifesto."
The National Post's Terence Corcoran dismissed the message's "willful disregard for economic history and the massive benefits of free markets and globalization," and renamed the encyclical, Caveat Venalicum Libertas (his translation would be "Beware Free Markets.")
George Weigel, an American academic and biographer of the previous pope, described the encyclical as "a duck- billed platypus," and, rather than a new sounding of the trumpet, "far more like the warbling of an untuned piccolo." The deferential Weigel concluded that the pope wrote the parts of the letter Weigel can agree with, and that staff in the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace must have written all the sections he personally dislikes.
This pope's two previous encyclicals, God is Love (2006) and Saved by Hope (2007) caused nowhere near the same level of virulent response. Why has the pope's social message now become such a target?
To be understood, encyclicals must be read in their historical context. It has been 18 years since the last papal "circular letter" on a social theme was issued.
In 1991, when Pope John Paul II wrote Centesimus Annus to commemorate the centenary of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, the Polish pope's reflection touched on the recent fall of communism.
In 2009, the Vatican delayed release of Benedict's important message until the day before the meeting in Italy of the wealthiest countries on the planet, the G-8. The context is now the global financial meltdown and resulting crisis of confidence in the free market economy, which, according to the UN, has caused 100 million more people to be thrown into poverty.
The time would seem to be ripe for a call to action from a respected spiritual leader.
Caritas in Veritate makes some statements that could rankle conservatives. "Today's international economic scene, marked by grave deviations and failures, requires a profoundly new way of understanding business" (#40); "Financiers must rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity" (#65); and to the chagrin of those who feel that the autonomy of markets is a sacred tenet of economic life, it must bristle to read, "there is urgent need of a true world political authority" (#67).
Benedict's critics would do well to take a deep breath, and delve further into the fine tradition of Catholic social teaching, which stated 80 years ago: "Free competition, and especially economic domination, must be kept within definite and proper bounds, and must be brought under effective control of the public authority" (Pope Pius XI).
Of course, it is entirely appropriate that an encyclical ignites debate and discussion among people who are genuinely searching to connect their faith to doing justice.
For my own part, I was pleased environmental concerns were so closely tied to the concern for human development. For the first time, a papal encyclical noted the need for intergenerational justice (#48), arguing we cannot responsibly leave a damaged planet to our children.
Yet I was disappointed to see no mention whatsoever of global warming.
World leaders gathering in Copenhagen in December face the pressing challenge of reaching an international climate change accord. Fortunately, the pope's World Day of Peace message (to be released for Jan. 1) will address this most crucial issue.
It was well known that an encyclical to update and celebrate Pope Paul VI's Populorum Progressio was being prepared. This 1967 encyclical had a major impact on the Canadian Church. Back then, Canada's bishops hosted a series of meetings of trusted laypeople to discuss the encyclical and discern how development, "the new name for peace," could be promoted.
As a result, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace was started as a lay-led organization. During the past 42 years, Development and Peace has provided $531 million to finance 15,200 projects in 70 countries in the Global South. Perhaps as important, Canadians have been invited to learn about development issues and act to promote international economic justice.
How will we, the Church, respond to this latest encyclical?
Christians should be encouraged to read, reflect and discuss a précis of this dense document, sharing group insights and questions about its many important themes. We can all become more environmentally friendly and shop, save and spend ethically.
Ontario's bishops propose to study the encyclical at their upcoming plenary, with the help of expert speakers.
The bishops of Canada and members of Development and Peace are presented with an opportune challenge to lead the Church in a profound reflection on the spiritual dimension of authentic development (#77).
Hopefully this will lead the entire Canadian Church, in charity and truth, to a renewed commitment to the work of Development and Peace and its mandate of public education and international solidarity.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice http://www.cpj.ca an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)
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