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Striving for A Better World:Benedict and Obama

Striving for A Better World:Benedict and Obama

by Bruce Duncan, C.Ss.R.

In his stirring inauguration speech, President Barack Obama articulated powerfully the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans for a better and more inclusive world, for people of all religions and of none, and with keener attention to the poor and disadvantaged in the USA and overseas.

Comparing this speech with Pope Benedict’s World Day of Peace statement on 1 January 2009 shows how Catholic social thought endorses so much of Obama’s own vision. The Pope urged that ‘people everywhere feel personally outraged by the injustices in the world and by the concomitant violations of human rights’ (#8).

It is a pity that Benedict’s social statements are not adequately reported in the media, in Australia at least. He and his Vatican officials comment constantly in international forums about pressing social issues, from appealing for protection of human rights in Gaza or Africa, to urging greater efforts to eliminate hunger and poverty. The Pope draws from deep wells of social commitment, involvement and thought around the world.

Benedict’s World Day of Peace statement also gives important clues as Pope Benedict XVI and Kevin Ruddto what the Pope will be saying in his forthcoming encyclical on globalisation, which has been delayed almost two years but will endeavour to galvanise Catholic efforts for social justice worldwide.

Entitled Fighting Poverty to build Peace, the Pope’s statement highlights ‘the negative repercussions for peace when entire populations live in poverty’. It urges renewed efforts to improve living conditions, including ‘safeguarding the environment and above all… defence of the family’ (#5). Benedict also laments the ‘immense military expenditure’ which diverts resources from development efforts (#6).

The Pope reiterates pleas to give ‘priority to the needs of the world’s poor’ (#13). He urges Christians to help ‘not only by “giving from one’s surplus”, but by “a change of life-styles, of models of production and consumption, and of the established structures of power”’ (#15). Presumably the forthcoming encyclical will say more along these lines, especially in the light of global warming.

However, Benedict’s statement gives surprisingly little attention to the global economic crisis, including the rising costs of food in poorer countries. There is little critique of the neo-liberal economic philosophy underlying the financial debacle. Presumably the forthcoming encyclical will stress more strongly the Church’s teaching on distributive and social justice, and the need to support equitable policies of redistribution.

In addition, many people will query the document’s treatment of population issues: ‘Poverty is often considered a consequence of demographic change. For this reason, there are international campaigns afoot to reduce birth-rates, sometimes using methods that respect neither the dignity of the woman, nor the right of parents to choose responsibly how many children to have; graver still, these methods often fail to respect even the right to life. The extermination of millions on unborn children, in the name of the fight against poverty, actually constitutes the destruction of the poorest of all human beings’ (#3).

True, some birth-control campaigns have violated the rights of women and used coercive methods and abortion, as in China. But such abuses have been strongly condemned at international conferences by feminists and human rights advocates as well as religious groups. If such practices are reviving, they should be stopped.

The statement continues that the proportion of people living in absolute poverty has been halved since 1981 ‘and whole peoples have escaped from poverty despite experiencing substantial demographic growth’ (#3). However, most of this improvement has been in China, with its stringent one-child policy!

Fighting Poverty to build Peace contends that the new economically powerful countries ‘have experienced rapid development specifically because of the large number of their inhabitants… In other words, population is proving to be an asset, not a factor that contributes to poverty’ (#3).

This is too sweeping. Population growth can aid economic development, as in Australia. But rapid population growth can put great pressure on resources, making it extremely difficult to lift peoples out of acute deprivation.

In such circumstances families and communities may be morally obliged to reduce birth rates. Individuals have a duty to consider these issues when deciding the number of their children, but governments also have a role to moderate population growth if it is clearly for the common good.

 These considerations have long been recognised by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae in 1968: 

In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a large family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth.

Responsible parenthood implies therefore, that husband and wife recognise fully their own duties towards God, towards themselves, towards the family and towards society, in a correct hierarchy of values (#10).

As the response to President Obama has shown, many people are longing for a more inclusive and humane world. The Church has a vital ethical contribution to make to how to do this. The forthcoming encyclical on globalisation will undoubtedly deal with these issues in a more comprehensive way, helping to set our moral compass in this difficult period.


• Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the new Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, based at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.