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Signing the encyclical at the Vatican

Signing the encyclical at the Vatican

Last Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI came out with his third encyclical since assuming the papacy in 2005. The first was on Christian love; the second on Christian hope. The latest is on integral human development in charity and truth.

I don’t generally make it a habit to read papal writings, but I have read a little bit of Pope Benedict’s, and I have found them to be intelligent and well reasoned. Of course, I start from different hypotheses, and I am likely to reach different conclusions, but I still have an appreciation for Benedict. You may recall that his lecture at the University of Regensburg in September 2006 led to a controversy about his mis-characterizing Islam. But you probably haven’t read the lecture itself. You might find it of interest. Have a look.

On many issues, the Pope is what we would call conservative. But to identify his views with those of conservatives as the term is generally understood in the US would be to simplify his thinking vastly. His latest encyclical makes this evident. Indeed, as E.J. Dionne (yet another of my college classmates) pointed out in his Washington Post column last Wednesday, “While American conservatives, including most Catholics in their ranks, see capitalism in an almost entirely positive light, Benedict — following a long tradition of church teaching — is more skeptical of a system rooted in materialist values. In that sense, he is to the left of his American flock.”

Ross Douthat makes a similar point in his NYT column today: “The pope is not a Democrat or a Republican, and his vision doesn’t fit the normal categories of American politics. … It represents a kind of left-right fusionism with little traction in American politics.”

I have read only part of the encyclical so far, but I plan to keep reading. To give you a taste, I quote below the very long paragraph that forms Section 21 and the second of the two paragraphs that form Section 25.

Paul VI had an articulated vision of development. He understood the term to indicate the goal of rescuing peoples, first and foremost, from hunger, deprivation, endemic diseases and illiteracy. From the economic point of view, this meant their active participation, on equal terms, in the international economic process; from the social point of view, it meant their evolution into educated societies marked by solidarity; from the political point of view, it meant the consolidation of democratic regimes capable of ensuring freedom and peace. After so many years, as we observe with concern the developments and perspectives of the succession of crises that afflict the world today, we ask to what extent Paul VI’s expectations have been fulfilled by the model of development adopted in recent decades. We recognize, therefore, that the Church had good reason to be concerned about the capacity of a purely technological society to set realistic goals and to make good use of the instruments at its disposal. Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end that provides a sense both of how to produce it and how to make good use of it. Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty. The economic development that Paul VI hoped to see was meant to produce real growth, of benefit to everyone and genuinely sustainable. It is true that growth has taken place, and it continues to be a positive factor that has lifted billions of people out of misery — recently it has given many countries the possibility of becoming effective players in international politics. Yet it must be acknowledged that this same economic growth has been and continues to be weighed down by malfunctions and dramatic problems, highlighted even further by the current crisis. This presents us with choices that cannot be postponed concerning nothing less than the destiny of man, who, moreover, cannot prescind from his nature. The technical forces in play, the global interrelations, the damaging effects on the real economy of badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing, large-scale migration of peoples, often provoked by some particular circumstance and then given insufficient attention, the unregulated exploitation of the earth’s resources: all this leads us today to reflect on the measures that would be necessary to provide a solution to problems that are not only new in comparison to those addressed by Pope Paul VI, but also, and above all, of decisive impact upon the present and future good of humanity. The different aspects of the crisis, its solutions, and any new development that the future may bring, are increasingly interconnected, they imply one another, they require new efforts of holistic understanding and a new humanistic synthesis. The complexity and gravity of the present economic situation rightly cause us concern, but we must adopt a realistic attitude as we take up with confidence and hope the new responsibilities to which we are called by the prospect of a world in need of profound cultural renewal, a world that needs to rediscover fundamental values on which to build a better future. The current crisis obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negative ones. The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future. In this spirit, with confidence rather than resignation, it is appropriate to address the difficulties of the present time.

The mobility of labour, associated with a climate of deregulation, is an important phenomenon with certain positive aspects, because it can stimulate wealth production and cultural exchange. Nevertheless, uncertainty over working conditions caused by mobility and deregulation, when it becomes endemic, tends to create new forms of psychological instability, giving rise to difficulty in forging coherent life-plans, including that of marriage. This leads to situations of human decline, to say nothing of the waste of social resources. In comparison with the casualties of industrial society in the past, unemployment today provokes new forms of economic marginalization, and the current crisis can only make this situation worse. Being out of work or dependent on public or private assistance for a prolonged period undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering. I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity: “Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life”.

The quote at the end is from Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 63.

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Categories: Economy, Politics, Religion, Society
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