University President Explains Importance of Charity and
By Genevieve Pollock
WASHINGTON, D.C., 7 JULY 2009 (ZENIT)
Benedict XVI's latest encyclical offers a unique vision
by using traditional principles to enlighten today's societal issues
such as globalization, the economy, technology and the environment,
affirms a university president.
Vincentian Father David O'Connell is president of The Catholic
University of America. He is a consultor for the Vatican Congregation
for Catholic Education, and a national spokesperson on Church issues and
Catholic higher education.
In this interview with ZENIT, he shares his perspective on Benedict
XVI's encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate," which was released to the
ZENIT: What is your general impression of the new encyclical?
Father O'Connell: We have come to expect brilliance from the lips and
pen of Pope Benedict XVI. His third encyclical letter, "Caritas in
Veritate," will not leave us disappointed.
Drawing from the ecclesiastical magisterium of the past half-century,
the Holy Father offers a theological prism developed through long
reflection upon the relationship of faith and reason, truth and freedom,
and the primacy of the human person in a communion of love through which
we must view the social teaching and doctrine of the Catholic Church.
This encyclical is, truly, a celebration of the Church's social
teaching, with a special emphasis on Pope Paul VI's landmark
post-Vatican II social encyclical "Populorum Progressio" (1967). In that
encyclical, Pope Paul VI presented an exposition of the promotion of
integral human development as the responsibility of the Church and all
humankind in every dimension of their lives.
ZENIT: What does Benedict XVI mean when he talks about the Church's
social doctrine and integral human development?
Father O'Connell: The Church's social doctrine and teachings are the
fruit of a long ecclesial reflection upon the person of Jesus Christ,
the proclamation of his Kingdom in the Gospels, the unfolding tradition
of the Church and the claims this reflection makes upon the community of
It has as its subject and object the "human person."
It is clear in Pope Benedict's writing that the human person is not
merely a sum of his or her parts, so to speak, but, rather, an integral
the word is used throughout this text
whole: physical, spiritual, social, psychological, emotional, sexual,
Our social doctrine addresses the whole human person in himself or
herself but also within the context of a community of persons striving
for justice in and through service of the common good.
ZENIT: Is this encyclical stating something new regarding the Church's
social doctrine, or it is emphasizing certain points that have been made
in previous documents on this topic?
Father O'Connell: The Church's social doctrine
of which papal encyclicals have become an incredibly important part
and the whole of Church teaching are developmental, building upon what
has come before.
While the Holy Father, once again, displays a mastery of the Church's
theological and ecclesial traditions, he makes a genuine contribution to
the unfolding of Catholic belief by incorporating his own writings and
vision into the text.
Most important, I believe, is his awareness of and ability to address
contemporary society in all its complexity by relating the Church's
doctrine to the world in which we live: globalization, the economy, life
issues, technology, the environment, etc.
His theological perspective reveals a vision and a beauty that is "ever
ancient, ever new."
To speak of charity as the heart of the Church's social teaching
reflects the ancient mandate of the Lord Jesus himself to love our
To adapt that teaching to contemporary issues makes this encyclical new,
fresh and especially relevant.
ZENIT: Why did Benedict XVI title the encyclical "Caritas in Veritate?"
What kind of dynamic between charity and truth is he highlighting for
Father O'Connell: Papal encyclicals have historically taken their names
from the first few words of the text and this one is no exception.
Pope Benedict XVI's letter sees charity in truth as a Gospel theme drawn
from the special witness of Jesus Christ.
They are the hinges of a message that places the human person, human
dignity and human progress at the center of a list of priorities
rendered meaningless, indeed, impossible without a connection to the
Truth as a light and charity as its logical consequence become for
humankind the path to justice and realization of the common good.
As universal teacher, "truth" is of great significance to our Holy
Father. As universal pastor, "charity" is of no less consequence.
"Charity in truth" becomes a Gospel and ecclesial imperative, and an apt
way to introduce a teaching encyclical that relies on both to make its
ZENIT: Is this encyclical mainly written for economists and world
leaders, or what message is important for the ordinary Catholic to take
away from it?
Father O'Connell: The Holy Father addresses this encyclical to the
hierarchy, the clergy, religious women and men as well as the lay
faithful of the Roman Catholic Church but also indicates that his
message is directed toward "all people of good will."
The letter itself, just released today, has been over two years in
preparation. It has a substantial message that will require a careful
reading and re-reading, good analysis and commentary, and some prayerful
Hopefully, it will be a subject of homilies and other preaching
throughout the Catholic world as well as a topic in both theology and
economics classrooms so that its principle themes can become accessible
to the widest possible audience.
ZENIT: Does the Holy Father say something about the role of technology
in human development?
Father O'Connell: Benedict XVI writes that the challenge of human
development today is "linked to technological progress," calling
technology "a profoundly human reality" related to "the autonomy and
freedom of man."
He calls technology "the objective side of human action," ; but cautions
that technological advancement "can give rise to the idea that
technology is self-sufficient."
His message advocates that both fascination with and development of
technology must be accompanied by "decisions that are the fruit of human
responsibility [...] there cannot be holistic development and universal
common good [themes of this encyclical] unless people's spiritual and
moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as
body and soul."
ZENIT: What does the Pope have to say about protecting the environment?
Father O'Connell: The Holy Father relates his consideration of human
development to our "relationship to the natural environment."
He writes that "nature expresses a design of love and truth." As a
consequence of this relationship and reality, the human person is called
to a "responsible stewardship over nature" that includes both use and
protection of the environment.
As he affirms the Church's "responsibility toward creation," the Pope
writes, "the way humanity treats the environment influences the way it
treats itself and vice versa."