Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
July 13, 2009
Encyclicals confronted global problems with Gospel power
Pope Leo XIII
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Pope Benedict's encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth) is the first papal social encyclical issued in 18 years. It is also the latest installment in a growing body of social doctrine.
Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On New Things) was far from being the Church's first pronouncement on social issues. Over the centuries, the Church developed clear teaching that the Christian life involved an essential component of giving oneself to the weakest members of society.
But after the rationalist movement of the 17th and 18th centuries and the French Revolution and the bloody persecution of the Church that ensued, the Church was on the defensive.
Pope Leo's papacy sent a new wind blowing through the Church and Rerum Novarum was the first papal attempt to positively engage with the new social order that grew out of the Industrial Revolution.
LEO ENDORSED DEMOCRACY
Instead of being fearful of human liberty and democracy, Pope Leo endorsed them. He saw the suffering that unrestrained capitalism had created and he called for reform. Workers have a right to a just wage and to form unions, he said. All people, not just the rich, have the right to own property.
In the next social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (Forty Years After, 1931), Pope Pius XI emphasized the role of the laity in developing a just social order.
Written in the depths of the Great Depression, Quadragesimo Anno included a scathing denunciation of the concentration of economic power.
Both encyclicals condemned socialism, but their impact was strongly encouraging to Catholic social action.
Pope John XXIII issued two great social encyclicals Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher, 1961) and Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth, 1963).
Pacem in Terris was the first encyclical to examine the question of world peace. But it also used the moral law and human dignity as the basis for a detailed description and defence of human rights.
Pope Paul VI's 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (On the Progress of Peoples) contained a passionate denunciation of the global inequalities that leave millions to live in hunger, misery and grinding poverty while others enjoyed all the fruits of God's creation.
Paul VI maintained that development should not be seen solely in economic terms; it should aim at the flourishing of the whole person. Humanity cannot progress unless all people are united in a spirit of solidarity.
JP II'S THREE ENCYCLICALS
Pope John Paul II contributed to the development of Catholic social teaching with three encyclicals - Laborem Exercens (On Human Work, 1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (The Social Concern of the Church, 1987) and Centesimus Annus (The Centennial of Rerum Novarum, 1991).
Centesimus Annus went far beyond commemorating the anniversary of an earlier papal document and may well be the most fundamental and greatest of the social encyclicals. Written in the wake of the collapse of Soviet bloc communism by a Polish pope, it examined the cultural and social challenges facing the world in a new era.
While John Paul II pointed to the weakness and emptiness of communism, he gave an endorsement of capitalism that was far from unequivocal. The right to private property is strictly limited by a principle that he called "the universal destination of material goods."
The pope stated this principle in these terms: "God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone."
ULTIMATE MORAL TRUTH
Pope John Paul went on in the encyclical to assert that human freedom and dignity can only be preserved if society recognizes the existence of ultimate moral truth. Without such a recognition, even a democratic society can slide into totalitarianism.
Now we have Pope Benedict's Caritas in Veritate. Originally slated to be published a year ago, it was delayed and revised because of the eruption of one of the worst economic crises in decades. The new encyclical will no doubt renew and re-enliven the Church's concern and involvement with the social issues of our time.