The Pope’s Most Recent Encyclical 2

Pope.jpgOnce again, Mary Veeneman, professor in theology at North Park
University, steps up to guide us into understanding Pope Benedict XVI’s
most recent statement. This is the second of a two-part post.

Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate is the latest document in the corpus of
Catholic Social Teaching, as we have been discussing.  One of the more frustrating aspects of working on CST,
though, is that different groups will choose to emphasize different elements of

There are some that want to
point to encyclicals like Humane Vitae and
Evangelium Vitae, which condemn
contraception, abortion and euthanasia and discuss the problems of the culture
of death as the highest priorities of CST.  There are others, who may be even more numerous, who want to
consider CST’s positions on economics and care for the poor as the most
important priorities.  This is frequent
enough that some of the most commonly used compilations of CST documents omit Humane Vitae and Evangelium Vitae even though they certainly contain some of the
Church’s social teachings.

What does this new statement by the Pope say to evangelicals? How might we receive and appropriate some of the teachings in this encyclical?  If we sought to apply Caritas in Veritate‘s statements about
evangelization how might our own evangelism look different? Are we consistently pro life?

North Park University


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 The problem with both of these tendencies is that they are
born from a picking and choosing of the CST documents themselves as well as

elements of the CST documents. 
(Evangelicals, for example, will sometimes claim solidarity with
Catholics on beginning of life issues, but then sanction the use of
contraception and various assisted reproduction technologies forbidden by the
Catholic Church). 


Benedict, in Caritas
in Veritate
makes very clear that this kind of approach is not in keeping
with the Catholic tradition.  He
writes, “Two further documents by Paul VI without any direct link to social
doctrine [Humanae Vitae and Evangelii Nuntiandi] are highly
important for delineating the fully human
meaning of the development that the Church proposes
.  It is therefore helpful to consider
these texts too in relation to Populorum Progressio.”  (Caritas
in Veritate
, paragraph 15). 
The implications of what Benedict has done here are substantial.  While the Catholic Church has always
held to the need for a consistent ethic of life (the late Cardinal Joseph
Bernadin’s A Consistent Ethic of Life
is an excellent resource on this), Benedict seems to want to make absolutely
clear that when we talk about issues of social justice and development, we
cannot do that to the exclusion of the vital issues surrounding the sanctity of
life.  This is because in the end,
all of the issues discussed in Catholic Social Teaching from poverty to stem
cell research to the living wage to euthanasia are ultimately life issues
because they all tie into the Church’s call to seek flourishing for all people
from womb to tomb (as Firer Hinze put it). 


Why are all of these issues worth significant
attention?  Benedict cites Paul VI
in Evangelii Nuntiandi in making a
direct connection between evangelization and development.  Paul VI wrote, “evangelization would
not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the
Gospel and of man’s concrete life, both personal and social” (Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi).  In this way, then, development is part
and parcel of the spread of the Gospel, insofar as we are called to be
concerned not just with an individual’s spiritual condition but also with his
or her concrete, on-the-ground situation. 


I have set these reflections in the Catholic context, since

that is their origin, but Benedict addresses his encyclical to “Bishops,
priests and deacons, men and women religious, the lay faithful and all people of goodwill” (emphasis mine)
which makes clear that his audience goes beyond simply members of the Catholic
Church.  As evangelicals, how might
we receive and appropriate some of the teachings in this encyclical?  If we sought to apply Caritas in Veritate‘s statements about
evangelization how might our own evangelism look different?

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  • Thanks for commenting on this very important document! One of my key takeaways from Caritas in Veritate vis-a-vis evangelicalism is that the CST is not — not, not, not — Libertarian. CST emphasizes the dignity of the individual and supports economic and political institutions that respect human dignity, including systems of market exchange. However, it circumscribes this within the broader framework of human dignity as created beings in community, emphasizing the importance of communal virtues that promote our flourishing.
    Popular evangelical ethics in North America, in contrast, often seem like Libertarianism with a Christian gloss. Our narratives of economics and markets often begin with (misinterpreted) stories of the self-reliant American, rather than with the community God began to form when He told Abram to leave Haran. Maybe CST is better at this because of the Roman Church’s strong ecclesiology. Here’s a query: can evangelicals in North America offer a meaningful communal ethic without a meaningful ecclesiology?

  • Kenton

    Are you suggesting that only the “Roman Church’s strong” ecclesiology is “meaningful?” Certainly there are American members of the RC church that favor their own self-reliance over the community narrative. You might question their catholic devotion, but that undermines the concept of a strong ecclesiology, no?
    (Not that your analysis of libertarianism is off-base. I just don’t see this as a case of catholics tend to get this right more often than evangelicals, and that is because the RC church is so strongly structured, and the evangelical understanding of church is somehow “meaningless.”)

  • dopderbeck

    Kenton (#2) — no, I didn’t mean only the RCC’s ecclesiology is “meaningful.” There are Reformed, Orthodox, Anglican, etc. ecclesiologies that are meaningful. And since I’m not a Catholic, I suppose I’d have to say that I think some things about the RCC’s ecclesiology are mistaken. But, I think it’s true that CST starts with ecclesiology. The Church and the Eucharist are at the heart of the communal nature of CST. Evangelicals want to borrow from CST without any meaningful sense of how the institution of the Church and the sacrament of the Eucharist bind Christians into a community and enable Christians to participate together in the redeeming work of Christ. I think this is a significant reason why we end up falling into Libertarianism.
    Yes, I’m still using that loaded word “meaningful” here. Of course, Evangelicals have an ecclesiology, focused on the invisible Church and the priesthood of all believers, and these are important, Biblical themes. Still, I question whether this alone is “meaningful” in the sense of being able to support an integrated, communal public theology such as CST.

  • Travis Greene

    I think you’re right. Evangelical ecclesiology is atrophied in many, many places. And “priesthood of all believers” is merely a catchphrase in too many contexts.

  • Diane

    Thanks for the comments. You speak my mind.

  • samb

    Dopderbeck (and others),
    How do we best move toward an ecclesiology that will support a communal public theology?

  • As I read the encyclical, Nobel economist Robert Fogel’s The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism kept coming to mind. Fogel argues that there is a strong egalitarian impulse from within American Christianity but the focus of the egalitarian impulse has changed over the years, largely in sync with major religious revival. He sees three in the past and a fourth vision emerging.
    First was the revival that gave birth to the nation and emphasized political equality and freedom. Early to mid-19th Century the shift moved toward equality in terms of opportunity. The rise on industrialism spawned a new vision of equality in the 20th Century that emphasized equality in terms of material outcomes. On the horizon he sees a move toward the redistribution of human/spiritual capital. I here see strong shades of this in the encyclical.
    Dopderbeck you wrote, “… CST is not — not, not, not – Libertarian.” It is also not — not, not, not – American liberalism. The driving force in American politics is individualism. One camp seeks autonomy through minimalist government … being left to enjoy the fruits of hard earned labor. Another seeks autonomy through government provision that will, on the one hand, free them from the consequences of their personal behavior and, on the other hand, free them from care for neighbor … that is the government’s job. If all that is seen in this encyclical is a refutation of libertarianism in favor of governmental solutions, then I think the point has been missed. Surely it opposes libertarian excess but it also attacks the idea that if we just get the right institutions in place we can achieve a just world (Paragraph 11).
    I think what we have witnessed over the last century is the enormous benefit that has come from healthy institutions … including markets and government entities. However, going forward, institutional improvements will make smaller and smaller contributions to human welfare. We are now coming down to issues of people needing hope that the world can be different, understanding their value as human beings, having the spiritual resources to face calamity and change, having sufficient freedom for their potential to blossom, and having basic social skills so they can be empowered to take advantage of opportunities. These are “resources” that money and governments are only marginally effective at distributing. Redistribution of human capital requires intense identification and commitment by those who have, with those who have not, and working for the elimination of obstacles that hamper the emergence of human capital
    That is why the call to solidarity with all of humanity and the call for us to carry love into all we do. The Encyclical affirms both markets and governmental institutions but in my estimation its thrust is on creation of an ethos of love and taking personal responsibility for the world.

  • dopderbeck

    Michael (#7)– good points. On CST not being American liberalism — I agree, but see an interesting piece from Commonweal ( and response on the Mirror of Justice blog (run by a bunch of Catholic law professors):
    I’m not so sure that we’ve seen over the last century the “enormous benefit that has come from healthy institutions.” It’s a complicated story, isn’t it? We are, after all, in a deathly-bad recession, facilitated by some significantly unhealthy aspects of our market and regulatory institutions, and this is in the first decade after the most violent hundred years in human history (WWI, WWII, and the Cold War). Yet we in the West also enjoy unprecedented health and wealth, even in our recession, though hundreds of millions of children die of hunger and disease around the world.

  • Here are some the things I have in mind.
    Life expectancy is considered by demographers to be one of the best overall indicators of societal health because so many factors have to be good for it to rise. Throughout human history, average life expectancy was 20-30 years old worldwide. (The low numbers were significantly influenced by very high infant mortality (1 in 4) but even those who made it past the first year would do well to make it into their fifties.)
    Life Expectancy Worldwide:
    1900 = 31
    2009 = 67+
    Worldwide per capita income, measured in purchasing power parity dollars, rose from about $90 in 10,000 BCE to $180 in 1750 CE. Since 1750 it has risen to more than $6,600. Keep in mind that the world population in 1750 was less than a billion and has now grown to more than 6.6 billion during the same time.
    Economies of China, India, Brazil and other populous emerging nations have been growing at double the rate of the developed nations with the most significant improvements inuring to the bottom quintile. All over the world it was typical for people to spend 70-90% of the labor and incomer for food. For billions that is now 50% and lower.
    Yes we have had two world wars, but on a proportional basis, the population who died from warfare is smaller than in many recent past centuries. Several scholars have documented a remarkable era of peace (absence of death from warfare) over the past thirty years.
    Using Freedom Houses Freedom survey, we have moved from 16% of the world living in free countries in 1975 to 43% in 2005.
    My point isn’t that we have reached some utopia. There are still 1-1.5 billion people living in abject poverty. We have challenges coming from the type of energy we have become wedded to. Yes, we have a bad recession and improvement doesn’t move in perfectly straight line. But the advances that have been made over the past century are absolutely astounding … unthinkable by historic standards.

  • I forgot to add that last summer I did a brief series at my blog on world social indicators with stats and charts: world social indicators

  • dopderbeck

    Michael (#9) — I hear you, and these are wonderful things you cite, and I too celebrate them. Yet we also have lived in the most bloodthirsty century in human history. The technology that facilitated the growth you mention also brought death; the markets that fostered the prosperity you mention also exploited the global South. It’s messy.