Father Fessio: A New Framework for Social Justice

Pope Places Charity and Truth at Heart of Debate

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By Father Joseph Fessio, SJ

NAPLES, Florida, JULY 7, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI has something for everyone in "Caritas in Veritate" -- from praising profit (21) to defending the environment (48). But in these cases, as in all the others, he calls for a discernment and a purification by faith and reason (56) that should temper immoderate and one-sided enthusiasms.

Once again, Pope Benedict shows himself to be a theologian of synthesis and fundamental principles. In the titles of his three encyclicals he has used only five nouns: God, Love, Hope, Salvation, and Truth -- the most fundamental of realities. And in the opening greeting of this encyclical he succinctly describes the contents: "on integral human development in charity and truth."

Note that from this very greeting Pope Benedict has changed the whole framework of the debate on "the social question." This was expected to be -- and is -- his encyclical on "social justice." And indeed "justice" and "rights" find their proper place in a larger synthesis. But the priority is established from the outset, the foundation is laid, with "charity" and "truth." "Charity is at the heart of the Church's social doctrine" (2). "Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power" (5).

Another fundamental principle, and a central theme of this pontificate, is the continuity of the Church and her teaching. Surprisingly, the central ecclesiastical text from the past is Pope Paul VI's "Populorum Progressio," and Pope Benedict makes it clear that we do not have "two typologies of social doctrine, one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: On the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new" (12). This principle of continuity was expressed centrally in Benedict's first address as Pope on April 20, 2005, and again to the Roman curial cardinals on Dec. 22 of that year.

Within this fundamental material context of charity and truth, and the fundamental formal context of the continuity of the Church's teaching, Pope Benedict situates the centerpiece of the Church's social teaching: "integral human development." And by "integral" he means "it has to promote the good of every man and of the whole man" (18, quoting Paul VI). Among the important dimensions of this wholeness, he notes that integral human development must be open to the transcendent (11: "authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension. Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space.") and it must be open to life (28: "Openness to life is at the center of true development").

The inclusiveness of this integration is emphatically and perhaps surprisingly exemplified in paragraph 39. There, the Pope states that the "logic of the market and the logic of the state," i.e., free economic exchange with political oversight and restraint, are not enough to secure human flourishing. There must also be "solidarity in relations between citizens, participation and adherence, actions of gratuitousness" or, as he says in summary, "increasing openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion." Pope Benedict insists on a "third economic factor" in addition to the market and the state: gratuitousness.

Here is a radiant example of the fundamental, synthetic, and discerning character of Pope Benedict's formulation of the Church's social teaching, one which for me is worth the whole encyclical for its clarity, depth, and common sense: "If there is lack of respect for the right to life and a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational system and laws do not help them to respect themselves" (51).

There are times when one is especially proud of the blessing of the Catholic faith. This is one of them.

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Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio is the editor of Ignatius Press and theologian in residence at Ave Maria University. Father Fessio is also a former student of Joseph Ratzinger and belongs to Ratzinger's "Schülerkreis."