Probably like many folks, I remember exactly where I was on April 19, 2005, watching the live announcement of Joseph Ratzinger’s election as pope. I remember the room I was in, who I was watching the television with, and what I said when I heard. I’ll probably also remember for a long time the moment I learned that Pope Benedict had resigned his office.
Interestingly, I realize now that the very first words out of my mouth were identical on both occasions. Two words. At least the first one was “holy,” so it couldn’t have been that bad, right? Yet I’m still glad the kids were not in the room on either occasion.
I talk about Catholic social teaching a lot here, and so I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge, briefly, this Pope’s important contributions to it. In a post to follow sometime soon, I’d like to consider the mark he will have left in a second area that is of particular interest to me, liturgy and liturgical theology. (CST is the topic of my new book; liturgy was the topic of my previous one.) Come to think of it, these two areas — Catholic social teaching and liturgy — provide a very interesting double-lens through which to view the pontificate of Benedict XVI!
Pope Benedict made a real and lasting contribution to CST. Of course, there was his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, a document that is (as the editors of The Tablet called it this week) “possibly his greatest achievement as a teacher of the faith.” Though this document may (deservedly) be remembered most for its nearly impenetrable verbiage, that would be unfortunate. It’s a profound reflection on the moral elements of the economy and rather crushing assessment of the economic theories and business practices that have dominated the world’s economy in recent decades and that brought us to the economic crisis of the last 5 years. The encyclical
- calls for economic activity marked by gratuitousness rather than greed
- insists that the economy must serve the common good
- affirms structural reform as a political form of love, and
- reaffirms the Church’s conviction — based on the principle of subsidiarity — about the need for some kind of global financial and/or political authority
A key point to Caritas in Veritate, something that was not nearly so clear in previous Church teaching, is that love is an essential element of Catholic social teaching and a key motivation for living it out. If the episcopal motto of the late Cardinal John O’Connor is quite true — “There can be no love without justice” — Benedict insists on a related truth: “There can be no justice without love.”
Perhaps this should not be surprising coming from the Pope whose very first encyclical was Deus Caritas Est, on the virtue of charity. Indeed, that encyclical, too includes significant elements of “social teaching” in it. So does Benedict’s second encyclical, Spe Salvi, on the virtue of hope. Both of these important encyclicals blur the lines that mark off what are commonly called “social encyclicals” from the regular kind, and that’s a strong sign of what I take to be Benedict’s most lasting contribution to Catholic social teaching: more than any other pope, Benedict insisted that Catholic social teaching was of a piece with the entire body of doctrine, an essential aspect of the Good News that the Church proclaims and calls us to live.
This is expressed clearly in strong passages such as this one from Caritas in Veritate:
The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. (CV, 51)
Finally, we must also note Benedict’s strong support of and contributions to the newest facet of Catholic social teaching: care for the environment. He wrote and talked about it plenty (Our Sunday Visitor collected these writings and speeches into a volume called The Environment). He also acted on it. Under his watch, the Vatican installed solar panels on the Paul VI Audience Hall and teamed up with a Hungarian carbon offset company to plant the Vatican Climate Forest, making Vatican City literally the world’s most environmentally friendly nation.
That being said, I think it’s also true that Benedict’s designation by many as “the green pope” will one day seem a little like a different nickname they gave Pope Paul VI in the late 1960’s. Between 1964 and 1970, Paul made nine pastoral visits to countries outside of Italy, and since international travel was, for a modern pope, unprecedented, they called him “the Pilgrim Pope.” Then came John Paul II, with a list of apostolic voyages that, shall we say, smashed all records. Probably one day, not long from now, Pope Benedict’s greenness will appear pale compared to that of a successor, and CST on the environment will develop rapidly. That papal attention and doctrinal development will come for the same reason CST on the rights and dignity of workers developed at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth: a new situation arose within society that produced grave consequences and about which the Christian tradition had something to say, and so the Church had to speak up with urgency. The state of the environment offers similar circumstances today.
Pope Benedict’s contributions to Catholic social teaching are worth more than a few prayers of thanksgiving.