Pope Benedict XVI’s eagerly awaited third encyclical was released today:  “Charity in Truth.”  I’ll be reading it over the next few days, but here’s a link to a quick synopsis.  The concluding paragraph of the summary points in an exciting direction:

In a chapter entirely dedicated to the rights and duties of man to safeguard the environment, Pope Benedict writes that in order to protect nature it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; he points out that once again the decisive issue is “the overall moral tenor of society”. The Pope asks the question,  how can we expect society to respect the environment if society does not respect human life?. “If there is no respect for the right to life and natural death the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and with it that of environmental ecology”. The book of nature, is one and indivisible. “A humanism which excludes God, he concludes, is an inhuman humanism”. “Development must not just include material growth but also spiritual growth”.

It’s to be wondered whether American Catholics and fellow-travelers will overcome their cognitive dissonance to consider the continuity of the pro-life, pro-nature (“environment”) position.  Or, will prominent voices in the American Church and beyond continue gorging in a cafeteria – both Left and Right alike?

Be that as it may, the linking of the pro-human, pro-nature position is the past and future of the Church.  The Left and Right can get on board and finally acknowledge this deep interlinking of the moral dimension of how we treat the world and each other, or remain in the straitjacket of narrowing and indefensible partisan posturing.  It’s time to see the truth of the matter – that at base the crisis of our age calls for our devotion to improving “the overall moral tenor of society” on behalf of an overarching human and natural ecology- and that this amazing Pope is showing us the path.

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  1. I agree with Patrick: Benedict’s new social encyclical contains the strongest and most penetrating statement the Holy See has ever made on the natural environment, urging us to dismantle our economic lordship over the natural world and step back from the brink of the gravest social sins: denying God’s rule in nature and in nature’s laws, and denying future generations their inheritance from God.

    Patrick quotes from the critical passage relating environmental destruction to the human “pro-life” agenda; here it is in full:

    “It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.”

    Benedict’s penetrating moral logic confounds right and left in a constructive way–not by blending some moderate “middle path” between the two, but by bracketing both as related species of destructive liberalism, economic and cultural.

    No less important is Benedict’s strong urging of political support for alternative economies or systems of value, most notably the “economy of communion” developed by the Focolare movement. These alternative systems of value (extending from a long line of thinking that began with worker ownership in the Church’s earliest social teachings) govern resources, output, and exchange under strict social norms of collective human betterment. They are and probably must be voluntary, but Benedict asks us to construct more space for such alternatives in the private economy, bringing them from the margins of capitalism into the center.

    I will soon post more on the economy of communion in light of “Caritas in Veritate.”


  2. I’ll be anxious to read what you come up with, Lew. At this point, I’m still reading through it and thinking about it. What you and Patrick have to say about it is certainly true. Off the top of my head though, I’d have to say that what I appreciate most about the encyclical is the firm connection it makes to Populorum Progressio and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, both of which firmly expressed the fundamental discontent which Christians ought to have with class divisions, and the disparity in security and justice enjoyed by the rich and the poor. The doctrine of the preferential option for the poor clearly isn’t going away, at least not insofar as Catholic thinking is concerned.

  3. There are many things to remark, but I wanted to stop by to point out the discussion of the various “ideologies of technology” in the encyclical. I thought this might sound familiar to you, as he is pointing out the error of the various materialistic ideologies of modernity (which might appear under different guises – left, right etc.). But he also points out the error of the irrationalist (or anti-rationalist) reactions to technology, and he does this by underlining – beautifully, I think – that technology is in fact an affirmation of the triumph of the spirit over matter, which can receive its proper meaning and place within a comprehensive view of man, with a view to his eternal destiny. For me, a surprising and important remark… technology as an affirmation of the triumph of the spirit … what a nice reversal of the critiques of reason in the name of spirit… from German Idealism, Nietzsche, Heidegger, to even, at the extreme of anti-rationalism in the name of the spirit of the nation, Nazism… But of course, this is not in the encyclical as such, so people should read it without being afraid of finding such abstruse philosophical divagations: it is a beautiful and accesible document… it was just my pleasure in finding what I thought was a small philosophical gem…

  4. Terrific analysis, Patrick! I’m completely captivated by Benedict’s extraordinary emphasis on theological/philosophical anthropology. Notice the comprehensiveness of his theoretical argument. Society, culture, government, economy, life issues, family, biology, natural world–the ethic or morality proper to each is plainly grounded in his anthropology.

    I’ve argued that the policy prescriptions are not new. But, the way he forthrightly ties them all to this integral Christian humanism is very compelling.

    I’m curious about everyone’s thoughts regarding the philosophical provenance here. Scheler, Gehlen, Guardini?

    It’s tempting to try and put together a quick theoretical discussion of the encyclical here at the Life Cycle Institute in the fall. If any of you have some interest, send me a private email.

  5. I keep thinking with Lynn White that modern science is an extrapolation of Christian natural theology which realizes man’s transcendency of and mastery over nature. The result has been the greatest loss in diversity in the last 200 years, which correspond to modernity. Modernity as a secularized christian religion for the control of nature.


    Anyway Pope Benedict Encyclica is still far from the Saint Francis preaches. What I have read from it, keeps the issues of development vs. underdevelopment, progress vs. poor countries. A linear history towards better future always by means of “progress” (material and spiritual alike)

  6. Looking around the Internets, the predictable responses roll in – from the usual suspects on the Right, “hey our Panzer cardinal didn’t really mean that,” and on they go supporting inhuman economics, and from the usual suspects on the Left, “hey the Pope is one of us!” and they go on fornicating, contracepting, and aborting (and/ or making their peace with the social and political order that does). I guess that was to be expected, but it’s depressing nevertheless.

    “But, the way he forthrightly ties them all to this integral Christian humanism is very compelling.” I agree.

    The Holy Father would feel right at home on the Front Porch. But of course he would – as he said, “mein Herz schlägt bayrisch.”

  7. But, the way he forthrightly ties them all to this integral Christian humanism is very compelling.

    With Steve K., I concur with Stephen Schneck above. Stephen is perhaps too modest (or not yet familiar enough with the self-promotional aspect of blogging) to mention his contribution to the discussion here. He promises further posts, which no doubt will be much worth reading. (There Steve; now surely you feel grateful enough to dip into the Life Cycle Institute’s near-inexhaustible funds and fly me out to the aforementioned Caritas conference, right?)

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