Reflection on the
Encyclical of Pope Benedict
Caritas in Veritate
Heart of Social Doctrine Remains the Human Person
by Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes
President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum
Address Given at a Press Conference on the Release of the New
July 7, 2009
I have been asked to
situate the Encyclical "Caritas in Veritate" within the context
of the thought and magisterium of Benedict XVI. His first
Encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est," on the theology of charity,
contained indications on social doctrine (nn. 26-29). Now we
have a text dedicated entirely to this subject.
What strikes me from the outset is that the central concept
remains caritas understood as divine love manifested in Christ.
This is the source that inspires the thinking and behavior of
the Christian in the world. In its light, truth becomes "gift …,
not produced by us, but rather always found or, better,
received" (n. 34). It cannot be reduced merely to human goodwill
or philanthropy. In my intervention, I wish to comment first on
social doctrine within the mission of the Church, and then treat
one of its principles: the centrality of the human person.
1. Social Doctrine in the Mission of the Church
1.1. The Church's task is not to create a just society
The Church was constituted by Christ to be a sacrament of
salvation for all men and women (LG 1). This specific mission
subjects her to a constant misunderstanding: secularization to
the point of making her a political agent. The Church inspires,
but does not do politics. Drawing on "Populorum Progressio," the
new Encyclical states clearly: "The Church does not have
technical solutions to offer and does not claim to meddle in the
politics of the State" (n. 9). The Church is neither a political
party, nor a politicizing actor. Woe to those who reduce the
Church's mission to a worldly pressure movement to obtain
political results. Cardinal Ratzinger himself opposed this
possible misunderstanding in the 80's as Prefect of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the face of
certain theologies of liberation. (Instructio of 6.8.1984).
This implies in turn that the social doctrine of the Church is
not a "third way," that is a political program to be implemented
in order to attain a perfect society. Whoever thinks in this way
risks -- paradoxically -- creating a theocracy, in which the
valid principles concerning faith become tout court principles
to be applied for social life, both for believers and
unbelievers, embracing even violence. In the face of such
errors, the Church safeguards, together with religious freedom,
the rightful autonomy of the created order, as assured by the
Second Vatican Council.
1.2. Social Doctrine as an element of evangelization
Of course, the Encyclical "Caritas in Veritate" expresses the
import of the Church social doctrine in various places, for
example number 15, which treats the relationship between
evangelization and human promotion, from the starting point of "Populorum
Progressio." Whereas, up until now, social doctrine emphasized
action to promote justice, now the pastoral side is broached:
social doctrine is affirmed as an element of evangelization.
That is to say: the Church's perennial announcement of Christ
dead and risen has a consequence also for social living. This
affirmation contains two aspects.
We cannot read social doctrine outside the context of the Gospel
and its proclamation. Social doctrine, as this Encyclical
demonstrates, is born from and is interpreted in the light of
On the other hand, social doctrine cannot be identified with
evangelization, but is one element. The Gospel deals with human
acting also in social relations and institutions born from them,
but cannot limit man to his social life. John Paul II vigorously
defended this concept in "Redemptoris Missio" (n.11). Hence, the
Church's social doctrine cannot take over the announcement of
the Gospel in the person-to-person encounter.
1.3. Social Doctrine: not without revelation
A brief historical overview: as a result of the industrial
revolution (19th century) and its negative consequences, the
Church's leaders urgently pressed the State for a response in
order to reestablish social justice and the dignity of the human
person in philosophical terms. Later, with "Pacem in Terris,"
John XXIII focused largely on the horizon of faith and spoke of
sin and victory over it through the divine work of salvation.
John Paul II then introduced the concept of "structures of sin"
and applied salvation also to the fight against human misery.
His "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis" integrated social doctrine within
moral theology: "This belongs, therefore, not to the field of
ideology, but theology, and especially moral theology" (n. 41).
With this step, social doctrine enters clearly into the
theological domain. The principles of social doctrine have not
remained merely philosophical, therefore, but have their origin
in Christ and His word. In "Deus Caritas Est," Benedict XVI
writes that faith purifies reason and thus helps it to create a
just order in society; this is where social doctrine is inserted
This proceeds, then, upon the foundation of a discussion
accessible to all reason, and hence on the basis of natural law.
But it recognizes its dependence on faith.
The new Encyclical treats more explicitly and more decisively
all of this, with charity as the foundation. It teaches,
"charity is the supreme path of the Church's social doctrine"
(n. 2). Charity understood here as "received and given" by God
The love of God the Creator Father and His Redeemer Son, poured
out in us through the Holy Spirit, empowers the social life of
man on the basis of certain principles. It affirms for
development the "centrality … of charity" (n. 19). Wisdom -- it
also says -- capable of orienting man "must be 'mixed' with the
'salt' of charity" (n. 30). These simple -- apparently obvious
-- affirmations conceal some important implications. When it is
loosed from Christian experience, social doctrine becomes that
ideology which John Paul taught it should not be. A political
manifesto without a soul. Social doctrine rather, in the first
place, commits the Christian to "incarnating" his faith. As the
Encyclical claims: "Charity manifests always, even in human
relations, the love of God, it gives theologal and salvific
value to every worldly task" (n. 6). To the oft-formulated
question: "What contribution does the Christian make to the
edification of the world?" social doctrine provides the answer.
2. An anthropocentric approach
The heart of social doctrine remains the human person. I already
said that, in a first phase, the attention of this discipline
was oriented, rather, to problematic situations within society:
regulation of work, right to a just wage, worker representation.
Later, these problems were dealt with at an international level:
the disparity between rich and poor, development, international
relations. With the theological emphasis, John XXIII treats more
decisively the question of all this in terms of the human person
-- we are in a second phase in the evolution of this discipline.
John Paul II then reinforced this understanding centering social
reflection on the anthropological. This aspect is present in a
striking way in the document: "The first capital to be defended
and valued is man, the human person, in his entirety" (n. 25);
"The social question has become radically the anthropological
question" (n. 75). Progress, to be truly so, must, therefore,
enable man to grow in his entirety: in the text, we find
references to the environment, market, globalization, the
ethical question, culture, that is, the various places where man
carries out his activity. This end remains a precious heritage
in social doctrine from its beginnings. But, more deeply, the
anthropological question implies answering a central question:
which man do we wish to promote? Can we consider true
development a development that imprisons man in an earthly
horizon, formed only by material well-being, ignoring the
question of values, meaning, the infinite to which he is called?
Can a society survive without foundational reference points,
without looking at eternity, denying man and woman an answer to
their deepest questions? Can there be true development without
In the logic of this Encyclical, we find then a further stage,
perhaps a third phase in the reflection on social doctrine. It
is not by chance that charity is placed as a key link: divine
charity responds, as a human act, through a theological virtue,
as I said at the beginning. Man is not considered only as the
object of a process, but as the subject of this process. The
man, who has known Christ, makes himself the agent of change in
order that social doctrine does not remain a dead letter. Pope
Benedict writes: "Development is impossible without upright men
and women, without economical actors and politicians who do not
live strongly in their consciences the call to the common good"
(n. 71). Here, we are in perfect continuity with the Encyclical
"Deus Caritas Est," which, in its second part, treats the
characteristics of those who work in charitable organizations.
And the horizon widens to the public world, where often, in the
north and south, we experience phenomena that are all too
well-known, preventing the growth of people: corruption and
illegality (cfr. n. 22), the lust for power (cfr. DCE 28). The
"original sin," as the text recalls in n. 34, prevents the
construction of society in many places. Also in those who guide
society. We cannot confront the social question without the
ethical. The Encyclical refers to the "new man" in the biblical
sense (n. 12). There can be no new society without new men and
women. Social doctrine will not remain a treatise or an ideology
only if there are Christians prepared to live it in charity,
with the help of God. Authenticity on the part of all the actors
is needed. Formulated without any twist of words: "Far from God,
man is troubled and sick" (n. 76). It is very significant that
the last paragraph of the Encyclical (n. 79) is dedicated to
prayer and the call to conversion: God renews the heart of man
so that he may dedicate himself to living in charity and
justice. Christians, therefore, do not simply stand at the
window to watch or protest, infected by the modern culture of
denouncing others, but they allow themselves to be converted to
build, in God, a new culture. This is true also for the Church's
members, both as individuals and groups.
I wish to end with a reflection on the concept of progress. Paul
VI -- this Encyclical also recalls -- spoke about it in a
succinct way ("Populorum Progressio," n. 21). Unfortunately,
human growth has often been conceived as independent from the
question of faith, as if human promotion is one thing, and the
proclamation of the faith another. In addition to unifying the
two dimensions, this document introduces a further element in
the concept of progress: hope (n. 34).
As Pope Benedict XVI stressed in "Spe Salvi," hope cannot be
that of progress constructed for well-being in this world (n.
30), since this does not coincide with human freedom (nn.
23-24); the foundation of Christian hope is the gift of God (n.
31). Hence, hope helps us not to enclose progress in the
edification of an earthly kingdom, but it opens us to the gift:
in God, we find the crowning of the desire for man's good. It is
always within this optic that the Church formulates social
doctrine and Christians find in it inspiration for their
engagement in the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen: There is great interest in this
Encyclical. When read well, Benedict XVI's text is a light for
society and, last but not least, for us Christians.
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