An interesting (though tangential) historical note: If the folks at the Vatican hoped to get people to notice the publication of Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, on its release day that early summer of 2009, they could hardly have chosen a worse day. Dated June 29, 2009, the document was released to the public a little over a week later, on July 7. To put it mildly, the attention of most of the world was elsewhere that day, thanks to wall-to-wall cable news channel coverage of the funeral of Michael Jackson.
CiV is subtitled “On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.” It’s a social encyclical — that is, it is on some specific aspect of Catholic social teaching, following in a long line of remarkable modern encyclicals starting with the foundational Rerum Novarum, published by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. Like so many modern social encyclicals before it, CiV pushes Catholic social teaching a few steps forward and applies it anew to an ever developing social landscape.
CiV was intended to mark the fortieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s landmark 1967 encyclical on human development, Populorum Progressio. This is itself noteworthy, since almost every social encyclical prior to that was published on an anniversary of Rerum Novarum; for tradition-minded Benedict, the departure was certainly a deliberate choice. Why make it?
Populorum Progressio was a careful exploration of the interconnections between Christian ethics and the economic life of nations. At a time when economic development of poor nations was rising on the priorities of policy-makers around the world, Pope Paul insisted that authentic development is not just about providing money where there is not enough; it must respect and develop the humanity and the dignity of all involved. Paul wrote, “There can be no progress toward complete development of man without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity” (n. 45). And that solidarity must be practical. Paul insisted that rich nations must be concerned about poor nations, and express this concern in concrete ways, such as aid, fairer trade relations, and making sure that no people is left behind as development advances.
It’s worth noting that Populorum was greeted (and continues to be regarded) with profound disappointment by Catholics (and others) whose politics were conservative in nature. This is not surprising, since Paul takes direct aim at many basic principles of economic liberalism (which is called “conservatism” is the U.S. today). He said free trade and the laws of the market are not adequate guides in international trade relations; these relations are subject to the principles of social justice. He condemned any economic theory that “considers profit as the key motive for economic progress, competition as the supreme law of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right that has no limits and carries no corresponding social obligation” (n. 26).
Not surprisingly, then, the Wall Street Journal called the encyclical “warmed-over Marxism.” Years later, the neo-conservative Michael Novak wrote that it was naive, lacking in humility, and overly emotional.
Pope John Paul II clearly disagreed. In 1987, he took the novel step of marking the twentieth anniversary of Populorum’s publication with a social encyclical of his own, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. By commemorating Populorum in the way that other popes (including himself, with the 1981’s Laborem Exercens) had commemorated Rerum Novarium, JP2 automatically gave Paul’s encyclical greater prominence and significance in the landscape of Catholic social tradition. (Sollicitudo, for its part, was also rejected by conservatives. William Buckley said it was “heart-tearingly misbegotten.” And the New Republic accused John Paul of making himself “an apostle of moral equivalence.”)
With the publication of CiV, Pope Benedict XVI repeated his predecessor’s commemoration of Populorum. Indeed, Benedict wrote in it that Paul’s encyclical is “the Rerum Novarum of the present age” (n. 8). It’s a strong statement of support for the contents of Paul VI’s encyclical.
As an anniversary marker, though, CiV was late. But some initial delays in its preparation soon seemed downright providential, since they provided the Pope the opportunity to delay it even further with the onset of the global recession in 2008, in order that this new social encyclical could do what many of its predecessors have done so well: apply Catholic social teaching to the developing circumstances of its day.
The result is what theologian Donal Dorr has called “a remarkably insightful and comprehensive presentation of the Christian and Catholic approach to economic activity, to business, and to social justice at the national and international levels.” Indeed, Dorr contends that CiV provides “a richer and more satisfying theology of human development and of social justice” than the earlier encyclical it commemorates.
[Part 3 of this little series on Caritas in Veritate will come in a couple of days.]