Father Williams: Benedict XVI's New Social Encyclical

Interview With Social Doctrine Professor Father Thomas Williams

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By Kathleen Naab

ROME, JULY 7, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The new encyclical is a victory neither for the "left" nor the "right," but rather a call to men and women of good will to "actively explore new avenues to promote sustainable development," says a social doctrine professor from Rome's Regina Apostolorum university.
 
Legionary of Christ Father Thomas D. Williams spoke with ZENIT about "Caritas in Veritate," Benedict XVI’s long-awaited third encyclical, dealing with integral human development as a key to understanding Catholic social teaching.
 
The Vatican released the text of the encyclical today; it was signed June 29, feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.
 
Here, Father Williams considers where "Caritas in Veritate" fits into the Church's tradition of social teachings and what it adds.
 
ZENIT: What did Benedict XVI seek to accomplish with this encyclical?
 
Father Williams: He sought to accomplish a number of things. This encyclical was originally intended to appear two years ago, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Paul VI's 1967 social encyclical "Populorum Progressio." Several intervening difficulties, including deficient early drafts of the document and the world economic crisis, came together to significantly delay the release of the text. Still, Benedict does succeed in highlighting some important contributions of Paul’s encyclical, which is notoriously hard to read and understand.
 
Benedict underscores, for example, Paul’s insistence that the Gospel has an indispensable role to play in building a society according to freedom and justice. He likewise notes Paul’s important emphasis on the global dimension of social justice, and the “Christian ideal of a single family of peoples.”
 
ZENIT: Does this explain the Pope's suggestion that "Populorum Progressio" deserves to be considered the "Rerum Novarum" of the present age?
 
Father Williams: In part, yes. More fundamentally, perhaps, Benedict is aware that the great Leonine encyclical dealt specifically with the economic problem of the post-industrial revolution and the socialist proposal to this problem. Leo responded by affirming the natural right to private property, the radical defects of the socialist solution, and the need for associations of workers to work as a counterforce to capitalist heavy-handedness.
 
"Populorum Progressio," on the other hand, shifted emphasis to the central idea of integral human development, a broader concept than the specifically economic focus of "Rerum Novarum," and one that Benedict fully embraces in "Caritas in Veritate."
 
Benedict observes that only a more fulsome understanding of the good of the human person and of society can provide the kind of foundation necessary to achieve a truly just society. This includes not only man’s economic dimension, but his cultural, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and religious dimensions as well.
 
He makes the bracing claim that the whole Church, in all her being and acting is engaged in promoting integral human development. This makes sense, of course, only when we understand human development in the context of the temporal and eternal vocation of the human person.
 
ZENIT: Will this encyclical be seen as a victory for the “left” or the “right”?
 
Father Williams: The papal magisterium rightly eschews the political categories or right/left, or conservative/liberal. Honestly there is much in this encyclical that read in isolation could be used to bolster a wide variety of positions, including opposing positions.
 
In this regard, it is particularly important to heed Benedict’s own plea that the encyclical be read in the context of the ongoing tradition of the Church’s social doctrine, rather than in separation from it. It is also important, as the popes have ever insisted, to interpret which parts of the encyclical pertain to the Church’s ongoing proclamation of fundamental principles for the just organization of society and which represent contingent suggestions to achieve those ends.
 
Benedict clearly states that the objective of social renewal is the achievement of integral human development according to the common good. Whatever effectively contributes to this goal will be embraced and whatever impedes it should be discarded.
 
Moreover, while advocating government intervention in national and world economic markets, he likewise notes that merely technical and institutional solutions can never be sufficient, and decries the wastefulness of bureaucracies. His words should serve as a stimulus for men and women of good will to actively explore new avenues to promote the sustainable development so desperately needed in the developing world.
 
ZENIT: Does Benedict XVI identify new social issues to be addressed in the present moment?
 
Father Williams: He points out quite a few. For one, Benedict picks up on Pope John Paul's strong declaration in 1995 that the life issues, especially abortion, had virtually replaced the worker question as the fundamental social justice issue of the contemporary age. Benedict refers several times to the essential link between life ethics and social ethics, and notes the glaring contradiction involved in asserting the importance of justice and peace on the one hand while tolerating or even promoting offenses to the most basic right to life on the other.
 
Benedict also links religious freedom to progress and human development. He condemns religious fundamentalism -- especially in the form of religiously motivated violence and terrorism -- as shackling development, while at the same time observing that “the deliberate promotion of religious indifference or practical atheism” also stifles true human progress by promoting a materialistic caricature of human flourishing devoid of transcendence.
 
ZENIT: Though Benedict XVI insists on a broader understanding of development than the merely economic or technological, he also devotes many pages to these aspects of development. Is there a contradiction here?
 
Father Williams: No. Benedict begins by reiterating a premise dear to the Church’s tradition: that material progress can never be the sole gauge of authentic human development. That said, material prosperity does form a key component of true progress and must be addressed as well. The Church has never favored the view that economic poverty is a good to be sought, but rather that it is an evil to be overcome, and Benedict develops this point and explores a number of possible measures to attain it.
 
How exactly this is to be achieved is, of course, a much debated question, and Benedict is quick to note that the Church “does not have technical solutions to offer.” He does insist, however, that a fundamental change in attitude is needed. Selfishness will always be the enemy of human development, and lies at the heart of many of the social and economic problems faced by the modern world.
 
All in all, the encyclical may be read as a papal "cri de coeur" for a greater humanization of economic markets, political regimes and socio-cultural associations and institutions, which demands on the personal level the abandonment of a pragmatist worldview in favor of well-formed Christian moral conscience. What he says explicitly regarding care of the environment can be well applied to the other issues treated in the letter: "the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society."

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On ZENIT's Web page:

"Caritas in Veritate": http://www.zenit.org/article-26386?l=english