Since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum novarum (On capital and labor, the Church has seen a few blockbuster encyclicals. Pope Benedict XVI may be about to issue another one for the ages with the forthcoming Caritas in veritate (Charity in truth).
Rerum novarum addressed the condition of labor and the challenges of the Industrial Revolution’s widespread exploitation of workers. It resounded in the United States as it upheld the rights of employees to organize and rejected communism and unbridled capitalism. Later social encyclicals built on its foundation and addressed growing concerns of labor and international finance.
Pacem in terris (Peace on earth), Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical, and the first encyclical ever to address not just Catholics but to all of good will, stands as another remarkable statement. It addressed a major social problem of its time, the Cold War. It said that peace required respect for human rights. Coming just months after the Cuban missile crisis, it offered hope in the United States as it called for negotiation not conflict.
Pope Paul VI’s only social encyclical, Populorum progressio (Progress of peoples), in 1967, saw development as the path to peace. The world economy must serve many, not few, it said, and pointed out the inequities of the global trading system. It reiterated Catholic teaching on the right to a just wage, security in employment and unionization. The call for development as the way to peace was important for Americans ensnared in the Vietnam War.
Evangelium vitae (Gospel of life), Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, the fourth social encyclical of his papacy, spoke of the inviolability of human life. It proclaimed a vital message in a society marked by widespread abortion, growing euthanasia and a too free use of the death penalty. It touched concerns in the United States where medical advances to preserve life have been overshadowed by efforts to snuff it out.
Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in veritate (Charity in truth) will address the ills of today. He may touch on the economy, ecology and personal and corporate ethics. Preparation on it began two years ago, and reportedly originally was planned to mark the 40th anniversary of Populorum progressio.
With world finances in shambles, society may be ready to reconsider the world’s economic structures. The reverberation of the U.S. mortgage worldwide surely highlights the need to address finances from a new, global perspective. That the world’s people form one community showed dramatically in the last year’s financial tsunami.
The fact that human beings are damaging creation makes ecology another likely topic. A strong social statement from the Vatican, which does not worry about curtailing a manufacturing empire or other business venture, can provide a basis for honest brokering for environmental concerns. The pope is a voice for the poor and can speak out for everyone’s rights to basic needs, including water, a staple becoming an endangered commodity in many areas of the world.
The pope as moral leader may address the greed heralded in headlines about crimes such as fraud by individuals (the well named Mr. Madoff comes to mind) or corporations (think Enron for starters). The fact that greed requires one to ignore, indeed, to exploit, one’s neighbor, underscores dramatically the violation of the simple principle for peace: love thy neighbor.
Today’s social ills, sins, and crimes give Pope Benedict plenty to work with. Economic, ecological and ethical troubles abound, big ones of international scale. It’s safe to predict the world is in for an overdue call to consider the ethical dimensions of economic life. Benedict is first a teacher and pastor. The words of the encyclical will likely be carefully nuanced, but his message will be clear. Divorcing economics and ethics is a path to moral and human disaster. No one will be 100 per cent happy with the encyclical, of course. People grumble when oxen are gored. This may be a boon, however, if it prompts citizens across the globe to think, act and change when they look to others’ needs as well as their own.
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.