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Future justice

Many people were disappointed that the cardinals did not choose a pope from the Third World to highlight the desperate plight of its impoverished peoples. Cardinal Ratzinger had not previously attended extensively to global social problems as he was engaged with more theological writing and teaching.

However, he had been involved in some social controversies, notably on the war in Iraq, and during the liberation theology debates on problems of hunger and poverty. He presumably played a key role when his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reviewed the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, drafted by the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace and released late in 2004.

With Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger strongly opposed the US invasion of Iraq as morally unjustified. He was also disconcerted by leading US neoconservatives, especially George Weigel and Michael Novak, interpreting the Catholic Catechism to mean that only governments, not the Church, could make the final decision about the justice of recourse to war. As one of the most influential neoconservatives in the Bush camp, Novak adopted a politically partisan role in disputing the Pope’s views. To prevent such blatant misreading of the text, Ratzinger considered that these sections of the Catechism might need to be rewritten.

In a clear reference to the Iraq war, the Compendium of Social Doctrine states that ‘engaging in a preventive war without clear proof that an attack is imminent cannot fail to raise serious moral and juridical questions ... International legitimacy for the use of armed force … can only be given by a competent body’.

Further, with obvious implications for the sanctions against Iraq which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, the Compendium declared: ‘Sanctions must never be used as a means for the direct punishment of an entire population.’

It appears that Benedict will continue John Paul II’s opposition to the unilateralist foreign policies of the US neoconservatives and the Bush Administration.

Perhaps Cardinal Ratzinger is most controversially known for his interventions against versions of liberation theology. The point that was at times overlooked in the ensuing controversy and anti-communist media frenzy was that his documents were also highly critical of injustice and oppression in Latin America.

Cardinal Ratzinger was no friend of the often rapacious and cruel practices of capitalism as it existed in many Third World countries. His Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation in 1984 insisted that the Gospel ‘is a message of freedom and a force for liberation’. ‘In itself, the expression “theology of liberation” is a thoroughly valid term’ (III:4), and the document did not hesitate to call Christ ‘our Liberator’. It urged: ‘More than ever, it is important that numerous Christians … become involved in the struggle for justice, freedom and human dignity.’ 

The second document, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (1986), wished to ‘set in motion ambitious programs aimed at the socio-economic liberation of millions of men and women caught in an intolerable situation of economic, social and political oppression’. It called again on richer countries to help poorer ones, especially through aid and fairer  trading relationships.

Pope John Paul II wrote to the Brazilian bishops on 9 April 1986 that ‘the theology of liberation is not only timely but useful and necessary’. The poor ‘feel the urgent need for this Gospel of radical and integral liberation’.

The conundrum,  is why the Vatican has not appointed more bishops who can carry forward this social justice agenda in Latin America and elsewhere.

The new Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has shifted emphasis from opposing communism to critiquing capitalism, poverty and social inequalities.

The Compendium insisted that the Church’s social doctrine is ‘an integral part of her evangelising ministry’. None of the great social issues ‘is foreign to evangelisation’. The social doctrine ‘is not a marginal interest or activity, or one that is tacked on to the Church’s mission, rather it is at the very heart of the Church’s ministry of service’.

Quoting John Paul II, the Compendium declared: ‘At the beginning of the New Millennium, the poverty of billions of men and women is “the one issue that most challenges our human and Christian consciences”.’

With more than 70 per cent of Catholics living in developing countries, Pope Benedict must highlight the social justice agenda. Watch carefully then to see how he can draw on the vast expertise available to him to help mobilise world opinion to tackle problems of war, poverty, hunger and injustice.



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