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Meeting to Discuss the Pope's Encyclical Print E-mail

October 20, 2010 |The Long Island Catholic Vol. 49, No. 26 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY

Last Friday and Saturday, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome hosted a meeting of mostly academics from the United States to discuss the Holy Father’s third encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” and what lessons that papal letter might be able to offer to the U.S. economy. The meeting was sponsored and organized by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies which is headed by a Marianist priest, Fr. James Heft S.M. The president of the pontifical council, Cardinal Peter Turkson, kindly invited me to be a participant and to introduce the section of the discussion that focused on “theological foundations.”

It was an interesting gathering that included theologians and social scientists from Europe as well as the United States. The conversation was broad ranging and even sweeping in some of the comments made. There was, however, an ongoing focus on the value of the encyclical and how it was viewed by the participants both in the context of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church and in the kinds of issues that concern academics in both Catholic and secular universities in the United States.

At one point several raised questions about the nature of an encyclical, how encyclicals are written and what place they have in the teaching of the Church, especially her social teaching. Inasmuch as many of these persons are well-known for their commentaries on social issues, this struck me as a bit odd. However, the new secretary of the council, Bishop Mario Toso, former rector of the Salesian University in Rome and well known in this field, gave a masterful summary of all these issues.

The encyclical, he said, is the kind of letter the pope uses when he wants to teach with authority the ordinary teaching of the Church as opposed to a solemn definition on one end of the spectrum and a personal opinion on the other. Thus we as Catholics must attend seriously and attentively to this teaching and seek to understand what it means for the living out of our lives as Catholics. While each pope has his own “style” for preparing an encyclical, every pope consults widely and makes use of advisors who are experts in the issues at hand. Yet what the encyclical addresses and what is said is the pope’s choice because of his pastoral conviction of the importance of addressing these issues rather than others. The social doctrine of the Church, which is the subject of “Caritas in Veritate,” rests on principles found in natural moral law, illumined by the Gospel and the Church’s magisterium. It offers a series of insights to be used to analyze current issues and to see to what extent that teaching can guide us to make good and sound decisions for the good of the person in society and the common good of all. One of the basic insights Pope Benedict has brought to this field is that God cannot be excluded from economic decisions and that the reality of God must enter into these and all our actions related to the economy.

That said, several of the academics raised questions about this letter and some of its key concepts such as gratuitousness, charity in truth, and the relation of natural moral law to doctrine as they applied to subjects ranging from the issues of wealth creation to distribution of wealth, reciprocity, fraternity and self-interest. A few seemed to stray away from Catholic principles and even re-interpret them in what could best be called secular ethical opinions. A few also saw their role to be critical of the encyclical as being out of sorts with their own positions. One of them opined that he “preferred” “Pacem in Terris,” of Blessed John XXIII, because it was more consonant with his own way of thinking. Another invoked the “principle of humanity” as the basis of ethics. Yet these and other points of view were debated and discussed with great respect and mutual honesty.

While I had reservations about some of the points of view and interpretations of today’s issues and the Church’s teaching presented in the conversation (and some of the academics had the same reaction to some of my comments), there was a good measure of mutual respect and serious listening that, all too often, is lacking in our American society and in our Catholic Church today. One person, however, commanded extraordinary attention and made a visible impact on the discussion. Cardinal Turkson had kindly agreed to have a well- known investor and financier from our diocese come to the meeting as an observer. On the second day he was invited to speak from the perspective of a person with more than 30 years of successful activity in the market, in the economy, both national and international, and in shaping legislation in these fields.

His brief but profoundly revealing description of what was happening in the economy, and how the practitioners have shaped it with consequences that bear concern on a moral level as well as an economic one, deeply impressed all the participants without exception.

At the close of the session there was general agreement on the value of the time we spent together, and a plethora of suggestions of further areas to be deepened in light of the conversation or engaged in order to broaden the exchange. What I hope all realized is the importance of recognizing the role of the pope, and especially of Pope Benedict, in calling all Catholics and all men and women of good will to attend to the social doctrine of the Church, which teaches authoritatively the truths about the human person in society as well as offering truthful insights into the economic, social, political and cultural life of peoples and nations and the whole world. This teaching is not just one “opinion” among many, all of which are subject to “my preference” or “my way of analyzing” issues. What the pope offers us is the wisdom of the Church as an “expert in humanity.” The Church invites us to enter into the deeper meaning of that teaching, to grasp its truth and then to apply its principles as a way to help us build societies that reflect divine law through natural moral law and seek to frame communities where the dignity of the human person and the common good of all are the touchstones and measuring rods of human living.

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