Catholic Social Teaching Corner: Caritas in Veritate – Part II

November 2, 2012

Pope Benedict on Globalization, the Environment and, Well, Everything

Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict’s 2009 social encyclical, is a rich stew of magisterial commentary on the topic of human development. In line with the whole tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, it confounds ordinary political categories, offering clear teaching on such matters as ecology, bioethics and the morality of financial markets. Dense and theological, it nonetheless provides a refreshing and powerful social vision for the twenty-first century. In regard to the environment, the topic of current urgency is global warming. Precisely because scientific judgments fall outside the competence of the magisterium, Pope Benedict steers clear of any judgment as to the reality or severity of the problem. But he says nothing most environmentalists would disagree with, emphasizing the obligation for “inter-generational justice” in taking care of the earth. (48) What the Pope adds to the discourse is that our duty to be ecologically responsible flows from the doctrine of creation: “the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a ‘grammar’ which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation.” (Ibid) At one moment the environmentalist, at another Benedict is the pro-life prophet: “Openness to life is at the center of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good.” (28) He condemns abortion, especially when it is forced or encouraged by the state, and deplores experimentation on human embryos. The pro-life imperative must be seen as an essential part of the picture of global human development, not as incidental or even opposed. Another pressing topic at the time of the encyclical was the worldwide financial crisis, felt so acutely in the United States in 2008. As with the global warning issue, the holy father manages both to stay above the political fray and offer wise and clarifying contributions. He laments the situation wherein, with outsourced labor, investors’ interests are disproportionately valued over “the stakeholders — namely the workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society…” (40) There is a loss of the ethical purpose in finance, as financial institutions look out only for themselves. Echoing the best points of both sides of the political aisle, he asserts: “Finance, therefore … now needs to go back to being an instrument directed towards improved wealth creation and development.” (65) Catholic Social Teaching tends to both inform and annoy, in large measure because it is does not fit neatly into left and right categories. Attempting to reconcile the best on both sides of the debate, Pope Benedict is thoughtfully provocative. He refers to offenses against unborn life as contrary to “human ecology”, since the “book of nature is one and indivisible.” (51) Melding the moral conservatism of one side with the global consciousness of the other, he points out the paradoxical tie “between claims to a ‘right to excess’, and even to transgression and vice, within affluent societies, and the lack of food, drinkable water, basic instruction and elementary health care in areas of the underdeveloped world ….” (43) In the struggle for integral human development, it is necessary to break out of our normal political categories of thought and take on the truly global vision of the Universal Church.

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