A Teacher of the Faith

Benedict XVI is no longer the Pope. Assessments of his papacy will abound, and it seems appropriate for us to render an account of his contribution to Catholic social teaching, which, it seems apparent, will prove immense. He wrote three encyclicals during his pontificate, and all of them touched on the Church’s social doctrine.

In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est [1], he addressed the relationship between justice and charity, taking note of the objection that has been raised since the nineteenth century to the Catholic Church’s charitable activities. The objection, “developed with particular insistence by Marxism,” has been that charitable works are no more than ways “for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and a means of soothing their consciences, while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights.” Instead of works of charity, the argument goes, that do no more than maintain “the status quo, we need to build a just social order in which all receive their share of the world's goods and no longer have to depend on charity.”

But the Holy Father pointed out that it had always been emphasized by Catholic social doctrine “that the pursuit of justice must be a fundamental norm of the State and that the aim of a just social order is to guarantee to each person, according to the principle of subsidiarity, his share of the community's goods.” This “just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics,” and the “direct duty to work for a just ordering of society… is proper to the lay faithful.” The Church herself “cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible.”

Still, the Church has a role to play. In the pursuit of justice, the question of what justice is inevitably arises. This, the Pope said, is where “politics and faith meet.” “Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life,” he said. Its “origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics.” Of course, ethics is very much the business of the Church, and it is the duty of the Church to offer “her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically.”

This does not mean that the Church’s acts of charity have no place in society. On that point the Holy Father said this:

“Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone’ (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.”

In his next encyclical, Spe Salvi [2], Benedict XVI provided a caution to those who would transform Christianity entirely into mere politics. With specific reference to Karl Marx, he pointed out that there can be no Kingdom of God without God, that the “right state of human affairs, the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are.”

Yet the Church must not for that reason retreat entirely to the domain of individual faith and salvation. Modern Christianity, he said, has tended to do that very thing, and in “so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task—even if it has continued to achieve great things in the formation of man and in care for the weak and the suffering.” Humanity is redeemed by love, he said, and this “applies even in terms of this present world.” The business of the Christian is not only the salvation of his own soul. “Christ died for all. To live for him means allowing oneself to be drawn into his being for others.”

It was in Caritas in Veritate [3], Pope Benedict XVI’s third and final encyclical, where he made the statement: “Charity is at the heart of the Church's social doctrine.” By this he did not mean simply acts of charity, though such would be included within it. He meant that charity which, “according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire Law (cf. Mt 22:36- 40).” Catholic social teaching is, quite simply, “the proclamation of the truth of Christ's love in society.”

This encyclical, unlike the first two, was exclusively devoted to social and political issues, and touched on a number of areas such as unjust economic inequalities, abortion, and damage to the environment. Whatever matters the encyclical touched on, the Holy Father made it evident that love was at the root of all Catholic social doctrine, whether it is love for those in poverty, for working people, for the unborn, or for God’s creation. He decried many observable conditions in the world this way:

“The world's wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase. In rich countries, new sectors of society are succumbing to poverty and new forms of poverty are emerging. In poorer areas some groups enjoy a sort of ‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation. ‘The scandal of glaring inequalities’ continues. Corruption and illegality are unfortunately evident in the conduct of the economic and political class in rich countries, both old and new, as well as in poor ones. Among those who sometimes fail to respect the human rights of workers are large multinational companies as well as local producers. International aid has often been diverted from its proper ends, through irresponsible actions both within the chain of donors and within that of the beneficiaries. Similarly, in the context of immaterial or cultural causes of development and underdevelopment, we find these same patterns of responsibility reproduced. On the part of rich countries there is excessive zeal for protecting knowledge through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property, especially in the field of health care. At the same time, in some poor countries, cultural models and social norms of behaviour persist which hinder the process of development.”

The Pope also wrote of his concern about the lack of respect for life in developed countries:

“Not only does the situation of poverty still provoke high rates of infant mortality in many regions, but some parts of the world still experience practices of demographic control, on the part of governments that often promote contraception and even go so far as to impose abortion. In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality; frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other States as if it were a form of cultural progress.”

In addition, he restated the long held position of Catholic social teaching that a fetishistic attachment to the engines of the market should not supercede the requirement that the economy should first and foremost serve human need:

“Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.”

Any attempt to summarize Caritas in Veritate will fail to do it justice, for it is an encyclopedic discussion of Catholic social teaching. If we are wise, it will be studied for some time to come. What it showed was that Pope Benedict XVI wanted to ensure that his pontificate would stand in continuity with the Church’s historical teachings on political and social issues, and that he was zealous for the application of Catholic social doctrine to contemporary affairs.

Benedict XVI will be remembered as one of the great teachers of the faith. May God continue to bless him in his retirement, and may posterity continue to study and reflect on the writings he has left us.

Jack Quirk