Circular Letter: Summer 2010


In today’s society, when political and other social issues are revolving more and more around ethical choices, there arises the question: “What is the role of the Church in the public sector? And how can we discern when a particular bishop is teaching the doctrine of the Church or merely espousing his own personal preferences in terms of politics or economics?” Social issues have been a prevalent theme in the encyclicals of nearly all the Pontiffs of the last century, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s <em>magna carta</em> on the social doctrine of the Church, <em>Rerum Novarum.</em> The Second Vatican Council also took up these questions and examined the role of the Church in modern society, providing principles which have been further advanced by the most recent pontiffs, notably by Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. A deeper catechetical study and appreciation of this authentic doctrine is a prerequisite to spiritual discernment.

Pope John Paul II’s pontificate was a stalwart champion of social issues and human dignity, not only in relation to communist regimes of central and eastern Europe and in relation to liberation theology in South America, but also in the face of mammon (materialism) in the west. In recent years the Church has seen fit to publish a compendium of the social teaching of the Church, and Pope Benedict himself has written an encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, which brings out the most fundamental social teachings of the Church as they apply to modern times. As Christians living in the world, we have both the right and obligation to engage in the building up of a society consistent with Christian principles, according to our state in life and the relative influence or role which we exercise in society. We want to prayerfully consider, therefore, a few of the important principles raised by the Magisterium concerning the social doctrine of the Church, especially in light of Benedict XVI’s most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.

“Christ is the light of nations” (Lumen Gentium, 1). So begins the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Church. Through His life, death and Resurrection, Jesus manifested to the world the truth of God’s love for humanity. “God proves his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Jesus not only revealed the love of the Father for each man, but also manifested the perfect human response to this love. “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. …Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. …Whoever follows after Christ, the perfect man, becomes himself more of a man” (Vat. II, Gaudium et Spes, 22, 41). God has a plan of love for every person, a plan to lead him to human perfection and holiness, to the perfection of charity and the fullness of happiness in eternal life. “Each person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him, in order to realize it fully: in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free (cf. Jn 8:22)” (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 1).

The Church, as the visible presence of Christ here on earth, has the mission to bring the truth of God’s loving plan in Christ not only to individuals, but also to peoples and nations, to every aspect of human life, including the social, economic and political dimensions. “Christ, to be sure, gave His Church no proper mission in the political, economic or social order. The purpose which He set before her is a religious one. But out of this religious mission itself come a function, a light and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law” (Gaudium et Spes, 42). The Church, therefore, has a mission in society, for she, “being at God’s service, is at the service of the world in terms of love and truth” (Caritas in Veritate, 11). For this reason the mission of the Church includes the role and duty to teach concerning social issues, to bring the light of reason guided by faith to every aspect of human society, whether economic or political, juridical or cultural.

At the heart of the Church’s teaching mission is always man and his integral development in every dimension of his being, both as an individual and as a society. “The whole Church, in all her being and actingwhen she proclaims, when she celebrates, when she performs works of charityis engaged in promoting integral human development. She has a public role” (Caritas in Veritate, 11). Yet human development is not possible without a consideration of the whole of man, including his moral and spiritual dimensions. Man was created in the image and likeness of God and his entire life is ordered to returning back to God, indeed, back to the God the Father in Christ, His Son. “Since it has been entrusted to the Church to reveal the mystery of God, Who is the ultimate goal of man, she opens up to man at the same time the meaning of his own existence, that is, the innermost truth about himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 41). Those who seek to improve the condition of man without consideration of his spiritual nature and final end, ultimately reduce man to mere matter, degrading his dignity as a spiritual being. Human development is then seen only in terms of technical advancement, the accumulation of wealth or an increase of pleasure, which closes man in upon himself and reduces him to the level of beasts. Moreover, those who do not recognize the spiritual nature of man and the inherent dignity of the human person, in due course will not recognize the inviolable dignity of those whose rational faculties are impaired by physical handicaps or not yet developed, as in the case of the unborn. In some philosophies even today the aged, the handicapped and the unborn are not recognized as “fully human”, and are therefore ruthlessly eliminated.

Man does not develop by his own strength alone, that is, without God and His grace, nor without the help of one’s fellow man. Moreover, his development cannot be simply given to him as an accomplished gift. Personal collaboration is required in one’s own development towards the true and the good corresponds to the dignity and vocation of every man. Man is a person, created in God’s image and likeness, that is to say, with intellect and freedom of choice. He is made to know the truth and to love the good, and so after the divine model to exercise a conscious, responsible dominion over himself and the world about him. It is these qualities that set man apart from the animal world and give him a dignity beyond any other creature on earth. Accordingly, the Vatican Council states that man is “the only creature on earth which God willed for itself” (Gaudium et Spes, 24). [This statement, of course, must be understood within the limits expressly stated: man is the only such creature “on earth”. Gaudium et Spes 12 itself points out that man was made “a little less than the angels” (Ps. 8:5-7).] One single human being is worth more than the entire material universe: more than all the beautiful creatures and animals on this earth, more than the many galaxies of stars with all their planets put together. The faculties of intellect and free will enable man to achieve an eternal communion with God through his knowledge and love; something which is beyond the scope of the rest of the physical universe. “The root reason for human dignity lies in [this] call to communion with God. …For man would not exist were he not created by God’s love and constantly preserved by it; and he cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and devotes himself to His Creator” (Gaudium et Spes, 19). Therefore, it is clear that a society founded on merely naturalistic or atheistic principles cannot fully foster human development; it will ultimately harm and degrade man, since it denies man’s true dignity and goal.

Without a true vision of man, created in the image and likeness of God, there can be no true moral and spiritual development; a naturalistic society could never offer man a path open for the higher goods which are consistent with his spiritual nature and the inherent dignity of the human person. Rather than closing in on himself and seeking his own personal welfare, man is made to open himself, to empty and give himself to others in imitation of Christ in a universal charity which seeks the common good of all. For he was created in the image of the Blessed Trinity, Who is a relation of three divine Persons in one nature. Therefore, man also is created to live in relation to others, to give himself out of love to another. In this giving of himself out of love lies his happiness and fulfillment, as the Second Vatican Council states, “[Man] cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). The key to it all, however, consists in this common experience: man cannot find his true or lasting happiness in any created thing. (It is true that here on this earth the marriage covenant, as an image of man’s eternal union with God, can bring much happiness already in this life when lived in a spirit of Christian self-giving. Nevertheless, the happiness is never without sorrow intermixed, nor is it lasting. A spouse in not a solution to human solitude, but rather a companion on the journey to fulfillment in God.) Only when he turns and gives himself to God, surrendering himself willingly to His loving will, can man find his true fulfillment and peace: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee” (St. Augsustine, Confessions, I, 1).

It is clear, therefore, that the integral development of man and of peoples can never be advanced by a secular or atheistic humanism, which is closed to God and the truth about the true nature and ultimate good of man. In fact, as we have seen in so many utopian visions or “messianic” ideologies (such as Marxism, socialism or liberation theology put into dreadful practice), secular humanism results in harming man and degrading his dignity as a free and spiritual being who is ordered to an eternal goal. Man becomes instrumentalized, a mere cog in the wheel of political and economic development (regardless of the name the propaganda machine might give it). The wealth and the power of a few are developed, while the good and development of all mankind is trampled upon. In a Marxist state, for example, man becomes a mere number in the “work force” ordered to the building up of the “state”, and when he is incapable or no longer capable of serving society in a utilitarian sense (due to physical or mental handicaps), he is thrown out with the daily rubbish. The same logic permeates the materialistic west with its “socially necessary” programs of abortion and euthanasia. “A society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized” (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 101). Life ethics can never be separated from social ethics. In questions regarding social issues, therefore, the Christian and moral answer must be based upon the unchangeable principle of the inalienable dignity of man: does this system or social order protect and care for human life? Does it contribute to human dignity, to the growth of the human person in all his dimensions on both the individual and collective level? Does it advance the union of all mankind as one family in a communion of fraternity, justice and peace in likeness to the Blessed Trinity? Of course no human society will ever attain these goals completely, but there are certain principles of social life which foster growth in this direction.

True development of the human person, even on the natural level, requires first of all the freedom to assume responsibility for one’s own actions and to carry them out. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to Him” (Gaudium et Spes, 17). Every man—whether or not he is Christian—has a law written by God on his heart telling him to do good and avoid evil, the law of conscience: “to obey it is the very dignity of man; by it he will be judged” (Gaudium et Spes, 16). There man is alone with God and God speaks to his heart. There, both Christians and non-Christians search for objective truth and the solution to problems which rise in social relationships. “The more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality” (Gaudium et Spes, 16). Yet in order to live by conscience, man must be free. “Man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure” (Gaudium et Spes, 17). Unfortunately, in modern society freedom has come to be falsely understood as complete autonomy, as “a license for doing whatever one pleases, even if it is evil” (Gaudium et Spes, 17). This definition comprises “a completely individualistic concept of freedom, which ends up by becoming the freedom of ‘the strong’ against the weak, who have no choice but to submit” (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 19).

True human freedom, on the contrary, is the capacity to choose and do the objective good: “Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skillful action, apt helps to that end. Since man’s freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God’s grace can he bring such a relationship with God into full flower” (Gaudium et Spes, 17). Society, therefore, in order to promote human dignity must be governed by laws respecting freedom of religion and the pursuit of happiness, but also respecting truth and objective morality. “Freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth. When freedom, out of a desire to emancipate itself from all forms of tradition and authority, shuts out even the most obvious evidence of an objective and universal truth, which is the foundation of personal and social life, then the person ends up by no longer taking as the sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed, his selfish interest and whim” (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 19). It follows also from this that the men who are elected to make civic laws must exercise their office in the light of a correctly informed conscience—by the truth about good and evil. To divorce personal conscience from civic duty is to divorce civil law from the divine law—that is to say, it is to reject the divine law. In the end, such a society inevitably becomes tyranny and turns against man as well.

Pope Benedict sums up the social teaching of the Church with the words, caritas in veritate, charity in truth. “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation” (Caritas in Veritate, 5). Truth presents the proper object to charity and “only in truth can charity be authentically lived” (Caritas in Veritate, 3), since substantial truth and goodness are inseparable. To give a teenager a contraceptive, for example, out of “concern” for her “well-being” is not charity, since it does not respect the truth of her personal dignity, nor of the spousal meaning of her body. Society needs to be grounded in and faithful to the truth, the truth about God and His loving plan, the truth about man, his dignity, his spiritual vocation and final goal.

Freedom is not impeded by truth, but it is by living in accordance with the truth that we grow free from sin and division, from our own inner selfishness and passions; by living according to the objective moral order, we grow freer and become more open to give of ourselves in love for the other. In this way, we truly find the meaning of our human dignity and vocation. “Fidelity to man requires fidelity to truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development” (Caritas in Veritate, 9). For man can attain fulfillment and happiness only through freely accepting the truth which is in Christ, the truth that it is in giving that we receive; it is this truth that the Church is called to proclaim in charity to the world. For “in the present social and cultural context, where there is a widespread tendency to relativize truth, practicing charity in truth helps people to understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development” (Caritas in Veritate, 4).

Christians bear witness to the truth of God’s love through charity, for “charity always manifests God’s love in relationships” (Caritas in Veritate, 6). The vocation of the Church and all her members is to be “in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium, 1). This union is worked through charity in truth. “Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is” (Caritas in Veritate, 19). Charity presupposes justice, but also goes beyond justice. While justice gives to each what is his, “to love is to give, to offer what is ‘mine’ to the other” (Caritas in Veritate, 6). Charity must be built upon the foundation of justice, which recognizes the legitimate rights of individuals and nations, but it also “transcends justice”, for in charity we give more than what is due, and forgive when we do not receive what is rightly ours. Charity is, in fact, our first debt of justice as St. Paul says, “Owe no man anything, save to love one another: for he that loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” (Rom 13:8).

In this way, we bring not social fragmentation but healing and restoration to broken relationships which inevitably and continually arise due to man’s fallen state —in the family, in the community, in the nation, in every social or economic situation. “The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion” (Caritas in Veritate, 6). Just as in a family, the unit of society, relationships cannot be preserved unless the members are willing to go beyond strict justice, to give more, to practice mercy and forgiveness, so too in society at large. Sin divides, but charity forgives, heals and unites. The Christian is called to be a light to the world and salt of the earth, to sow seeds of charity, mercy and communion within every relationship, that through their actions the world may know that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us; therefore, we too must lay down our lives for our brothers.

We return then to our original question: Does the Church have a right to teach regarding politics or economics or other social issues? Must I follow my Bishop in political questions? It is clear from the foregoing that the Church has no direct role in the public forum, but she does have a teaching mission. The Church clarifies ethical principles in accordance with the divine law, so that man may make informed decisions about the objective morality of social action. While teaching with the authority of Christ, she presents arguments also on the basis of reason and the natural law, that is, on the basis of what is in accord with human nature. In this way, she speaks to every man. She does not impose her ideas on the State, but offers her exhortations to help form consciences with regard to the objective moral order and the common good. In so doing the Church bears witness to the truth of Christ. Bishops have the right, and even more so, the duty to speak out on the ethical significance of issues, even political or economic issues—as St. Paul says, “Woe to me if I do not preach!” (1 Cor 9:16). For Christ is concerned with the whole man, including his social relations and civic duty.

We cannot separate faith from life, nor faith from civic duty. “The Church’s social doctrine bears witness to faith. It is an instrument and an indispensable setting for formation in faith” (Caritas in Veritate, 15). Bishops are teachers of the faith, and so long as they teach in union with the Pope and the college of Bishops, we have the obligation to obey them, even in the public forum. We are obliged to follow their guidelines with regard to issues, and even with regard to the relative priority of issues. (Life issues, for example, override economic issues because life is the first of the rights demanded by human dignity.) In following the Church, we follow Christ. “He who hears you, hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me” (Lk 10:19). The first civil duty of all citizens is to respect and honor God. Due to the default on the part of many, this duty falls with even greater urgency upon Christians, namely to honor God and pray for the common good. Only God can grant true justice and peace, and lead us as a human family to unity in love. We are called to intercede for the world around us, that the dignity of the poor and the oppressed may be recognized and their burden lightened, and that all peoples and nations may live in justice and peace. While living charity in truth in our own personal lives, while showing mercy and giving of ourselves and of our means for others, we beg for the grace of a transformation of hearts, that all might be open to seek the common good. May our Blessed Mother, who is the Mirror of Justice and the Queen of Peace, help us to bear witness to our Christian faith by how we live in society. And may the holy angels enlighten us with their light and keep our hearts fixed on God and His eternal Kingdom, where He will be all in all.

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