Pope's 'new anthropology' shoots for the moon

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A fair bit of ink has been spilt regarding Pope Benedict's new encyclical Caritas in Veritate ('charity in truth'). A dense document, it seems to satisfy no-one: the politically conservative see neo-conservatism held up to the spotlight, while the left see a sustained critique of human rights and some strands of teaching on social justice.

I am sure the last thing on Pope Benedicts's mind over the last month was the 40th anniversary of humanity's first steps on the moon. Yet some of the reflections on that event go some way to helping us understand the major themes of the encyclical and to explaining why many of its critics have missed the point.

After their historic mission, the Apollo astronauts embarked on a multi-nation world tour. In the 2007 documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, Michael Collins talks, as you would expect, about the warmth of the reception he and his colleagues received wherever they went.

But what he found most remarkable was that, whereas he had expected the United States,NASA or the astronauts themselves to be congratulated, he instead heard comments like these: 'We did it! Look at what we accomplished.' He was astonished and profoundly moved by this shared sense of pride and accomplishment.

This sentiment encapsulates one of the major themes of Caritas in Veritate. Benedict has taken the rapid growth of globalisation and reread it with the eyes of an inclusive faith. In doing so he both names the pitfalls of globalisation and, more important, identifies its potential. Through it he hears God's call speaking loudly in our present world. He seems to be saying: 'We can do it. We can make a truly just world!'

This may seem reminiscent of the 'Yes we can' speeches of the Obama campaign: inspiring, yes, but hardly revolutionary. What makes Caritas in Veritate so interesting is how Benedict gets there, particularly how he talks about, and indeed redefines, the 'we' or, more correctly, the 'I'.

Over the course of the 20th century, Catholic Social Teaching developed a comprehensive outlook on human development. In particular, John XXIII's Pacem in Terris and Paul VI's Populorum Progressio, which Benedict uses as his departure point, together analysed the increasing gaps between rich and poor nations and advanced a humanist vision of development, with the United Nations playing a critical role.

But the vision was built on an understanding of human beings and their relationship with God that was fundamentally individual in its orientation. While economic and social development was seen as necessary, there was little motivation for the rich nations to help bring it about. Solidarity with the peoples of the world was an option for the virtuous. Charity was something to be done after the hard work of wealth creation is accomplished.

As a choice, the option for the poor, as it came to be known, seemed to some to be a soft 'lefty' project adopted by a few idealistic souls. The emphasis was on the word 'option'. At the same time many feared the 'should' statements that sometimes characterised the more collectivist approach to social justice: they lacked freedom.

In this context the growth of individual human rights at times sat awkwardly with much of the Church's work and thinking. To put it crudely and simplistically, salvation for the Christian remained primarily a solitary affair worked out between one's self and God.

The Church's desire to attribute ultimate responsibility for the wrongs in the world to the choice of the individual unwittingly encouraged this.

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict offers a 'new', more coherent anthropology. Humanity is no longer merely an aggregation of individuals linked by economic, social or political systems. It is a collective entity:

'... the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God ... The same holds true for peoples as well.'

This understanding lies at the heart of Benedict's vision of true human development. The human being is a being-in-relation-with-others. The state of the world, the fact that more than half of the world remains in hunger, diminishes who I am, makes me less than who God intended me to be.

To work for relational justice becomes a moral imperative, although one that I am free to choose or reject. But to reject it leaves me, not to mention our world, impoverished.

This is a radical message indeed. It accepts the reality of globalisation and defines its opportunity. Future generations may well look back and see it as the giant leap for the beginning of the 21st century.


David HoldcroftDavid Holdcroft SJ is the former director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia, currently completing his final year of Jesuit studies.

Topic tags: david holdcroft, pope benedict, Caritas in Veritate, globalisation, moon landing

 

 

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David, I, and our Social Justice Group in Newcastle would be interested to hear how you think Caritas in Veritate, and your analaysis, fits in with the Millinnenum Development Goals agreed to by 187 countries in 2000, and subsequent progrees on meeting those goals.
John L Hayes | 17 August 2009


"Caritas in Veritate seems to satisfy no one". True. So it is good to see Fr Holdcroft try to guide us through its dense and turgid language. But why is such guidance necessary? Why in this age of the Communications Revolution are so many Papal encyclicals indigestible - not just because of their content but because their prose is not clear precise and unambiguous.

What does Benedict XIV mean when he writes "It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God."?

How many men (not to mention women & children)in this world of 6 billion have the opportunity "to place" themselves in relation with others. For most people it is accepting where they are and trying to do the best they can without hurting anyone around them. As for their relation with God? Only God knows what opportunities for a relationship with the Divinity have been given to individual human beings.

Papal encyclicals like Caritas in Veritate fail to satisfy me because their underlying Thomistic/Scholastic concepts do not help me cope with the reality of broken people trying to live happy and productive lives in a contrary world.
Uncle Pat | 17 August 2009


A well written article David. It points out the obvious, an obvious we seem to keep forgetting. I wonder is the time coming when over-resourced people are going to discover that survival depends on a practical discovery of our identity: beings-in-relation? Practical discoveries can sometimes be painful.
Andrew | 17 August 2009


Thank you David. John-Paul 2 in a talk in Cardiff in 1983, to me and quite a number of others, said that it was 'heresy' to believe that you could gain salvation in isolation from the community of which you are a part. Pretty radical stuff. Benedict is globalising that, God bless him.
Eugene | 18 August 2009


This is a lovely and inspirational piece - reminding one also of the Lord's injunction to love thy neighbour as oneself, and the story of the Good Samaritan. Pope Benedict develops these familiar and fundamental moral precepts in:

'... the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God ... The same holds true for peoples as well.'

Thank you, David, for the clarity of your essay.
tony kevin | 18 August 2009


If 'the fact that more than half of the world remains in hunger, diminishes who I am, makes me less than who God intended me to be' then so too does the Church's opposition to the ordination of women diminish all Catholic males (ordained and non-ordained) and makes them less than what God intended them to be.
Ray Ham | 19 August 2009


We seem to have read Paul VI and John Paul II differently to one another David. To me, their anthropology centred on the person in community.
A couple of examples 1.Evangelii Nuntiandi's treatment of the social dimension of the Church's collective mission 2. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia's discorse on social sin.
None the less, the truth of our social nature and its implications is an important point that warrants the extensive - even laboured - treatment that Benedict gives it. It isn't new.
Sandie Cornish | 30 August 2009


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