Pope Benedict’s new encyclical Caritas in Veritate adds to the rich Catholic social teaching tradition on the morality of the economy, development and life issues.
Contrary to some comment, Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand would not divide particular issues covered in the encyclical into ‘left’ and ‘right’ wing categories. We already have the clear direction of New Zealand’s Catholic bishops in their 1997 statement A consistent ethic of life on taking an inclusive approach to all issues of life and social justice. Pope Benedict’s latest encyclical also binds these issues together seamlessly.
Caritas in Veritate gives one of the clearest explanations in Catholic social teaching of the principle of the common good which we apply in our work. Pope Benedict sees the current economic crisis as a moral and ethical failure on the part of the world’s economic and political systems, but also as an opportunity for change. He sees inequalities growing as new forms of poverty emerge.
On basic human rights
In response to this he restates traditional Catholic teaching on the rights of workers to form associations and raises concerns about the downsizing of social security systems:
… with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with traditional forms of the social State (#25).
Pope Benedict teaches that it is not the market, but individuals operating within markets who must be held to account. He also firmly rejects the argument that the market requires a level of poverty to function:
It is … erroneous to hold that the market economy has an inbuilt need for a quota of poverty and underdevelopment in order to function at its best. In and of itself, the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak (#35-36).
A central concern of the encyclical is a call for ethics and morals in economic decision making, saying a people-centred ethic is needed not just to create ethical ‘sectors or segments of the economy’:
Efforts are needed…to ensure that the whole economy – the whole of finance – is ethical (#45).
Pope Benedict’s comments on international aid and development are particularly relevant to New Zealand. In describing a truly authentic ‘human development’, Pope Benedict articulates the principles expressed by Caritas and other New Zealand aid agencies in asking the government to continue to focus on alleviating poverty through its overseas aid programme:
The principal concern must be to improve the actual living conditions of the people in a given region, thus enabling them to carry out those duties which their poverty does not presently allow them to fulfil. The people who benefit from (development programmes) ought to be directly involved in their planning and implementation (#47).
And he calls on richer countries such as New Zealand to give more:
Economically developed nations should do all they can to allocate larger portions of their gross domestic product to development aid (#60).
The increasing attention paid to the environment in current Catholic social thought is also given a high importance in the encyclical:
The environment is God’s gift to everyone and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole (#49).
The richness of this encyclical is found in its attention to detail, but also in the insistence that Catholics bring faith, reason and, above all, love to social questions.
Love – caritas – is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace (#1).
The encyclical is a significant pulling together of key messages of the social encyclicals of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II as we face new economic and social challenges.
Understanding how the encyclical will contribute to the work of Caritas and other Catholic agencies is an ongoing task in which we will constantly consider what insights and revelations the encyclical brings to New Zealand political decision making.
Lisa Beech is advocacy coordinator for Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand.