Papal social encyclicals help to renew values

  • July 9, 2009
{mosimage}From the Industrial Revolution to the Great Depression to the onset of the Digital Revolution, papal social encyclicals have erected guideposts to steer Catholics through the mazes of hardship that confront society.

Pope Benedict XVI has more than maintained that tradition with Charity in Truth, a sweeping encyclical that reinforces traditional church teachings while issuing bold challenges to world leaders to do a better job and to individuals to lead more charitable lives. (For full text:

Originally scheduled for 2008, its release was delayed so Benedict could include reflections on the financial crisis of the past year. Unsurprisingly, he has condemned the moral failure and greed that contributed to the economic collapse, but went further by censuring an economic system in which “the pernicious effects of sin are so evident.”

In what may become the most-discussed of his recommendations, Benedict calls for  United Nations reform and creation of a “true world political authority” that would, among several tasks, manage the world economy. His encyclical was not the place to detail how to turn this noble idea into a practical reality. Obviously, it would be a complex undertaking to convince nation states, particularly the fierce free-marketers, to relinquish economic independence in favour of a global regulator. 

But this document was about much more than economic reform. At its heart Charity in Truth reads like a universal call to a renewal of basic Christian values — morality and integrity, generosity and compassion, fairness and dignity, virtue and faith — that is directed in equal parts at both world leaders and the general populace.

In 1931 Pope Pius XI responded to the Great Depression with a social encyclical that lamented “the sordid love of wealth” and promoted the “law of Christian moderation” and “just distribution” of prosperity. Thirty years after that, Pope John XXIII advocated for an international undertaking to deliver the underdeveloped world from its poverty, misery and hunger. 

Benedict has reiterated those themes. He has restated church teaching that becoming wealthy is not in itself evil, but wealth built by immoral or unethical methods, or money hoarded or misspent, is sinful. The ultimate goal should not be creating profit, but leading ethical and moral lives that advance the common good.

To that end, there is an obligation to the developing nations to ensure their access to food, water, education, employment and security. We must defend the dignity of workers, share the world’s resources, safeguard the environment and respect all life. And, significantly, these are not solely the responsibilities of political and business leaders because, writes Benedict, each of us is called to be active in the political process to effect positive change.

Benedict’s social encyclical may contain some radical recommendations but it is not a radical document. It is a reaffirmation of our Christian values and a reminder of our call  to let our lives be guided by charity and truth.


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