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On Integral Development

Did Pope Benedict’s encyclical go far enough?

By Bruce Duncan, C.Ss.R.*

Caritas in veritate is the most considered new papal statement on the great issues of our day, hinging around globalisation, hunger and poverty, climate change and social equity among nations. The issues are most urgent, with possibly millions of lives at risk.

The new social encyclical is addressed to Catholics ‘and all people of good will On Integral Development in Charity and Truth’. Though it deals with such major social issues, the encyclical has attracted surprisingly little public debate in Australia. Even the title is somewhat puzzling to many.

Part of the difficulty is the style of the document, which is at times dense, reflecting Pope Benedict’s own philosophical concerns. At 30,000 words, the encyclical is almost five times as long as Pope Paul’s famous 1967 encyclical, Development of Peoples. A shorter document may have had more impact.

At 30,000 words, Benedict’s encyclical is almost five times as long as Pope Paul’s famous 1967 encyclical, ‘Development of Peoples

Pope Paul VIBenedict extols Development of Peoples as ‘the Rerum Novarum of the present age’ (#8). This is a surprising initiative, as Development of Peoples has been somewhat overlooked in Church circles in recent years. Benedict now makes it the centre-piece for Catholic responses to issues arising from globalisation.

Development of Peoples had a profound impact on Catholic social movements, particularly in Latin America and developing countries. Pope VI issued it as an urgent call to action to tackle the current problems of poverty and social injustice, giving enormous impetus to the Catholic social movements worldwide.

Caritas in veritate is not likely to have the same immediate impact. Development of Peoples was very crisp and sharp, though dealing with difficult questions, like the issue of rapid population growth or the use of violence to confront tyranny and injustice. It was almost racy in style, compared with Benedict’s new encyclical.

The latest encyclical comes 18 years after John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. This is a long time between social encyclicals, but it is worth remembering that John Paul II used the Jubilee 2000 to highlight the social implications of the Gospel, and Vatican and other Church agencies are very active in movements for peace and development.

Whether the encyclical will succeed will depend very much on how we can extract momentum for the vast social transformation needed.

The major problems are systemic and ideological, indeed moral

Many may be surprised that Benedict has not gone further in his critique of international capitalism. After all, the economic crisis has costs millions of jobs and homes, and hundreds of millions of people in poorer countries have been plunged back into the most dire poverty. How would one estimate as a result the very large numbers of people suffering premature death or needless illness?

MoneyThere is a great chasm in accountability here. Yes, some of the most outrageous criminal activity has resulted in gaol for a few. But the major problems are systemic and ideological, indeed moral.

Part of the problem is how does one fully comprehend the weighty issues confronting us, including in crucial philosophical assumptions that help determine social and economic policies, as well as analysing the global economy?

Key Vatican agencies were certainly involved in preparing the encyclical, including the Pontifical Commission Justice and Peace, the Vatican Secretariat of State, and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (set up by Pope John Paul II in 1994), with Mary Ann Glendon as President. The latter body has held a series of conferences on global justice issues, with the proceedings published as books available at the Vatican website.

Among the many publications resulting from these consultations are the following of particular relevance: Summary on Globalization, 2008; Globalization and International Justice, 2007, being the papers given at a conference in Mexico City in June 2004; Democracy in Debate 2005; The Governance of Globalization, 2003; Globalization and Inequalities 2002; Globalization. Ethical and Institutional Concerns, 2001; and The Social Dimensions of Globalization, 2000.

Many of the leading names in the social sciences appear in these publications, and from many countries. Undoubtedly the Vatican collaborators have also been listening carefully to critiques coming from people like Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Geoffrey Sachs.

One searches hard to find an echo of such burning passion for human wellbeing in the encyclical

It is well known that Cardinal Ratzinger, like John Paul II, has been extremely critical of liberal capitalism, but the new encyclical reads as if it has been considerably toned down. Consider how strong Pope Benedict was in his 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth (pp 197-98), reprinted on the back cover of Summary on Globalization:

‘Instead of giving [the peoples of Africa] God… we have brought to them the cynicism of a world without God in which all that counts is power and profit, a world that destroys moral standards so that corruption and the unscrupulous will to gain power are taken as a matter of course. And that applies not only to Africa.’

These are fighting words. But one searches hard to find an echo of such burning passion for human wellbeing in the encyclical. We have seen financial ‘pirates’ plundering whole countries and plunging millions of people into great hardship. One might have expected Benedict to use much stronger language, as did Paul VI.

Right-wing reaction

It is no accident that right-wing commentators in the United States have reacted sharply against the encyclical, for Pope Benedict has attacked the utilitarian economic ideology which has been so dominant in US political and financial circles. The Pope has avoided using the term, ‘neoliberalism’, but that is what he repeatedly blames for many injustices. Development of Peoples referred to a very similar ideology as ‘economic liberalism’.

It is quite implausible that Benedict would have included such views on social justice simply to placate his bureaucrats

The Catholic biographer of Pope John Paul II, George Weigel, argued in the National Review (7 August) that the encyclical should be divided into those deep theological reflections which Benedict himself seemed to have written, and those sections produced by ‘the conventional gauchiste and not-very-original’ Commission for Justice and Peace.

Weigel depicts John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, as ‘a rout – the Waterloo for Justice and Peace. Ever since, Justice and Peace – which may forgive but certainly does not forget – has been pining for revenge.’ He terms the ‘incoherence of the Justice and Peace sections of the new encyclical… deep, and the language in some cases… impenetrable’. ‘There is also rather more in the encyclical about the redistribution of wealth than about wealth-creation – a sure sign of Justice and Peace default positions at work.’

Weigel is no fan of Populorum Progressio either, which he considers ‘barely recognisable as in continuity’ with the social encyclicals because of its ‘misreading of the economic and political signs of the times’.

Weigel singles out for criticism sections in the encyclical talking about ‘gratuitousness’ and ‘gift’ as ‘simply incomprehensible’, and ‘clotted and muddled’ sentimentality. Unfortunately for Weigel, these sections were more likely those personal emphases written by Benedict himself.

Moreover, it is quite implausible that Benedict would have included such views on social justice simply to placate his bureaucrats.

The stocks of the Catholic neoconservatives plummeted in Rome because of their support for the Iraq war. Their stocks are likely to fall even further if they are perceived to be merely  political ‘spin-doctors’ for the neoliberals and neoconservatives in the United States, even after recent scandals.
Along with Michael Novak and the late Richard John Neuhaus, Weigel has been one of the key Catholic apologists for US-style neoliberal capitalism. In the past, court theologians produced theological opinions to suit their political masters. In our times, well financed right-wing think tanks in the United States have recruited prominent Catholic writers to challenge recent social encyclicals, particularly their teaching on social justice, equity, and redistribution of wealth.

Their efforts may have confused some Catholics about the Church’s social teaching. Right-wing critics also provide a rationalisation for some richer groups to dismiss concern for social justice simply as the infiltration of Church circles by naïve left-wingers. By extolling the virtues of the rich and defending their growing share of wealth, such apologists gravely distort Jesus’ sharp warnings about wealth, and his demands to aid the poor in substantial ways.

In the notion of development, understood in human and Christian terms, [Paul VI] identified the heart of the Christian social message
- Benedict XVI

Benedict strongly endorses Church social action

Benedict reiterates the social dimensions of the Church’s mission in such a forceful way that no one can be in any doubt that he thoroughly supports the social teaching of the Second Vatican Council and recent popes. He writes: ‘Love – caritas – is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace. It is a force that has its origin in God…’ (#1). We are called to ‘shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God.’ (#7).

Pope Benedict writes that ‘In the notion of development, understood in human and Christian terms, [Paul VI] identified the heart of the Christian social message’ (#13). Paul VI emphasised ‘that the whole Church, in all her being and acting… is engaged in promoting integral human development’, and has a ‘public role over and above her charitable and educational activities’. (#11) ‘Testimony to Christ’s charity, through works of justice, peace and development, is part and parcel of evangelization’ (#15).

Naming the problem?

Benedict does not use the words ‘neoliberalism’ or the ‘Washington Consensus’, though readers will readily recognise that he is strongly opposed to them. Why does he avoid using these terms? Perhaps because they will cause an even more adverse reaction in the United States, and be interpreted as attacking commonly held US beliefs, such as economic individualism?

Benedict warns that the ‘world needs to rediscover fundamental values on which to build a better future... The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future.’ (#21).

In and of itself, the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak…
- Benedict XVI

While the world became more wealthy, scandalous inequalities increased. ‘Corruption and illegality are unfortunately evident in the conduct of the economic and political class in rich countries, both old and new, as well as in poor ones’. He mentions also the conduct of large multinationals as well as local producers, and ‘an unduly rigid assertion of the rights to intellectual property’, especially in health care. (#22).

A critic might observe that the world is in such bad shape in part because of the policies of the multinationals, which have immense power to shape economic development in their own interests. Does their role shed light on the skewed distribution of wealth, and help explain why it has been concentrated in the hands of richer people? How well has the Pope described the dynamics of global capitalism?

Like Paul VI, Benedict is not against capitalism on principle, and recognises a legitimate role for profit, but called for ‘real growth, of benefit to everyone and genuinely sustainable’. He insists on social justice, better distribution of wealth and opportunity, and addressing the problems of climate change so that the planet can provide for future generations as well.

Indeed, Benedict writes that ‘The processes of globalization… open up the unprecedented possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a world-wide scale.’ (#42) No wonder George Weigel and his allies are not happy.

Benedict insists that ‘the Church has unceasingly highlighted the importance of distributive justice and social justice for the market economy… In and of itself, the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak…’ (#36)

He says that finance which ‘wreaked such havoc on the real economy’ needs to return to improved wealth creation and development. He encourages ‘regulation of the financial sector’ and strengthened micro-finance and micro-credit schemes. (#65) ‘...along with renewed interest in producer and consumer cooperatives. (#66).

Benedict makes various proposals, from improving aid and trade opportunities, to reform of international institutions and the UN. He calls for richer countries to adopt a more modest and sustainable lifestyle. He also supports improved efforts to sustain social justice, social services, the rights of workers and living standards everywhere.  

He gives only passing mention to other great questions of war, violence, disarmament and nuclear weapons. But as one of the cardinals at the launch of the encyclical said, one document could not deal with everything.

Nor can this review. We have much work to do to draw out the implications of the new encyclical, and see how it might guide us forward at this perilous moment.


• 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.