|Paul VI, Benedict XVI and the
matrix of social teaching
Benedict's recent Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, has received a
great deal of attention, with particular interest focused upon its
implications for economic matters in a time of economic turmoil. Without
denying the importance of such considerations, it is crucial not to
ignore the strictly theological challenges that the Encyclical poses.
For, in the Pope's view, economic concerns cannot be divorced from what
concerns mankind ultimately: God's economy of salvation. Thus I suggest
three features of the Encyclical that present challenges to Catholic
The first feature of the
Encyclical may seem entirely self-evident. Yet, I think it is crucial to
underline and not take for granted. The Church's social teaching is
its basis and matrix is the Good News of Jesus Christ entrusted to and
proclaimed by the Church.
Pope Benedict writes:
"Social doctrine is built upon the foundation handed on by the Apostles
to the Fathers of the Church and further explored by the great Christian
doctors. This doctrine points definitively to the New Man, to the 'last
Adam who became life-giving spirit' (1 Cor 15:35), the principle of the
charity that 'never ends' (1 Cor 13:8)" (n. 12).
Indeed, this conviction is
already clearly enunciated in the very first section of the Encyclical.
Here Benedict writes: "All people feel the interior impulse to love
authentically: Love and truth never abandon them completely because
these are the vocation implanted by God in the heart and mind of every
human person. The search for love and truth is purified and liberated by
Jesus Christ from the impoverishment that our humanity brings to it, and
he reveals to us in all its fullness the initiative of love and the plan
for true life that God has prepared for us. In Christ, charity in truth
becomes the face of his person, a vocation for us to love our brothers
and sisters in the truth of his plan" (n. 1).
Now an implication to be
drawn from this Christological orientation, given to the entire
Encyclical, is that the Church's social teaching is rooted ultimately in
the Gospel, not in "natural law". In saying this I do not mean to rule
out all appeal to "natural law" reasoning which is certainly a
characteristic aspect of Catholic reflection on social issues. There are
certainly specific contexts of cultural and political dialogue in which
such an appeal is appropriate and even necessary.
well-intentioned desire to find common ground with all people of good
will, can unintentionally uproot the Catholic appeal to natural law from
the rich theological soil which alone can nourish and sustain it.
In other words, natural law
discourse is an "abstraction" from a far thicker and more comprehensive
Catholic language that articulates a vision for humankind and the world:
the integral humanism, so dear to Paul VI and confirmed by Benedict XVI
in his Encyclical.
Indeed, unless that richer
Catholic language is invoked and drawn upon, as the Pope does throughout
the Encyclical, one risks reducing religion to ethics, personal
relationship and fraternity to the promotion of a cause (however just
A second feature of the
Encyclical is the need, precisely in order to foster authentic
development, to have recourse to an integral vision of the human, one
whose concern embraces "the good of every man and of the whole man" (n.
18, quoting Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, n. 14). This
"truly integral humanism" (n. 78) weaves into a seamless garment the
individual and the social, body and soul, effective concern for the
earthly city and fervent hope for the heavenly city.
It is noteworthy that
Benedict XVI brings together in one over-arching vision aspects of the
magisterium of Pope Paul VI that are too often kept apart in Catholic
circles, contributing, in no small part, to our present polarization:
namely, Populorum Progressio,
and Evangelii Nuntiandi.
Together, these Documents bear powerful witness to a vision of human
being and destiny that is awe-inspiring in the horizon of hope that it
proclaims and the scope of transformation to which it summons.
This vision of the human
that the Pope sets before us, this theological anthropology of the
Catholic tradition, is ultimately rooted in Christology. Pope Benedict's
persuasion faithfully reflects the teaching of Vatican II's Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes,
which affirms "The truth is that only in the mystery of the
incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light... Christ, by the
revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man
to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear (Gaudium et Spes,
n. 22; cf. Caritas in Veritate, n. 18) .
Hence, the Encyclical
issues a further challenge to Catholic thought and action. It is a
pressing need in contemporary Catholic life and theology to promote an
integral reception of Vatican II. In this effort we must seek to
appropriate the four conciliar constitutions: for each illuminates the
other and each must be accorded its full due. We cannot afford to be
Thus the proponents of
Gaudium et Spes and its social concern must develop its
Christological underpinnings in the light of the Constitution on Divine
Revelation, Dei Verbum. The advocates of the liturgical
reform, initiated by Sacrosanctum Concilium, must in turn
see the Church's worship to be intimately conjoined with the witness
demanded of it by Lumen Gentium's teaching regarding the Church
as "sacrament of salvation" for the whole world.
A final consideration can
take its point of departure from some words of the President of the
United States, Barack Obama. In a speech marking the anniversary of the
collapse of the Wall Street firm, Lehman Brothers, the President
attributed the financial crisis to "reckless behavior, unchecked excess,
and an appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses". Then he added:
"this was not merely a failure of regulation or legislation; not merely
a failure of oversight. It was a failure of responsibility!".
Of course, the President
could not use the "C-word" on Wall Street
the word "conversion". But Popes can proclaim what presidents can only
whisper. Structural change, however necessary, can never substitute for
authentic conversion of hearts and minds.
In the concluding section
of Caritas in Veritate Benedict XVI writes: "Development requires
attention to the spiritual life, a serious consideration of the
experiences of trust in God, spiritual fellowship in Christ, reliance
upon God's providence and mercy, love and forgiveness, self-denial,
acceptance of others, justice and peace. All this is essential if
'hearts of stone' are to be converted into 'hearts of flesh' (Ez 36:26),
rendering life on earth "divine" and thus more worthy of humanity"(n.
And, since conversion is
not a once and for all affair, but an ongoing imperative, the Church's
social teaching is only complete when embodied in a spirituality that
nourishes and sustains its commitment to charity in truth. Such a
spirituality will daily "place man before the astonishing experience of
gift" and foster the realization of "the gratuitousness present in our
lives in many different forms that often go unrecognized because of a
purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life" (n. 34). For Catholics
such spirituality is always rooted and centered in the Eucharist in
which the body of Christ is received for the nourishment of the Church
and the well-being and salvation of the world.
If these remarks suggest
that Catholic social teaching derives from and depends upon the Catholic
tradition's ecclesial and liturgical matrix and its dogmatic
affirmations, then I have been understood correctly. Someone may object:
does this reading of the Encyclical impede dialogue with other
traditions, perspectives and stances? Does it bespeak a narrowly
sectarian attitude? I think not. It may however, spur those who share
certain of the concrete values and proposals set forth in Caritas in
Veritate to consider the basis for their own claims and convictions.
In this way real dialogue and discernment can only be deepened (cf. n.