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July 19, 2009

Pope issues third encyclical, but what does he want from you?

By Nicholas Lund-Molfese


On July 7, Pope Benedict XVI published his third encyclical letter, “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”) on integral human development with particular consideration on the role of the economy. Addressed to “all people of good will,” it defines Catholic social teaching as “the proclamation of the truth of Christ’s love in society.” While giving great attention to global economic and political issues, the encyclical contains a mandate for all Christians to have a commitment to the common good rooted not merely in political beliefs, but motivated by love for our neighbors.

Readers who happen not to be Fortune 500 executives, the heads of banks or captains of global finance, might be forgiven for asking, “What does Pope Benedict want from me? After all, I didn't issue any sub-prime loans or speculate on the rise or fall of complex financial instruments. How am I responsible for the state of the economy?”

The short answer: Every Christian is responsible for the promotion of the common good in accordance with his or her circumstances. As members of our society, we help determine — and therefore have responsibility for — the moral values of our culture and economy. The five action items here draw their inspiration from the encyclical and are offered for your reflection and the development of your own detailed “to-do” lists.

First, study the Catechism of the Catholic Church, read the encyclical or review the encyclical reflection links on the Office for Peace and Justice’s web site. These materials are helpful in forming a truly human and truly Christian understanding of human development. As the encyclical explains, there is no contradiction between the two. In fact, evangelization and human advancement are essentially linked.

Recognize that at the foundation of society is the natural family consisting of a man and woman open to life and permanently and exclusively committed to each other. Development is an essential part of being human, a human right, which cannot be imposed on persons and populations in a way that would deny their freedom. It consists not solely of material prosperity, but must include the full truth of human flourishing, which includes moral and spiritual aspects, such as providing for the legal protection of all human life as well as religious freedom. Underdevelopment and poverty are caused not primarily by a lack of goods, but most fundamentally by a lack of love.

Understand suffering

Second, develop within yourself a solidarity for the life and wellbeing of the materially, spiritually and physically weakest in our own nation and around the world. This sense of concern, part of the love Christians are called to have for others, can be nurtured by growing in understanding of human suffering. How do persons in difficult situations view their experience in their own words? What do they see as their needs and the roadblocks to their development? Can you imagine life in their shoes for five minutes? Is there a film or a book you can read? Knowing the needs of others in a personal way, and not merely in a technical or statistical way, is essential to developing an active love for them.

Third, as Pope Benedict teaches in the encyclical, “authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity.” In other words, the relationships we have with merchants and providers of services are real relationships called to be authentic and characterized by solidarity.

Commercial relationships are not essentially adversarial but provide an opportunity to cooperate with another person as he or she seeks their own development and that of his or her family. Even a commercial transaction between persons can always be, in part, a gift. Think of the small courtesies that people share at the checkout counter that acknowledge the human dignity of the other person rather then treating them in a mechanical way.

Reach out to isolated

Fourth, remember that “one of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation.” It can be experienced as various forms of exclusion: economic, social, physical or spiritual. Our relationships fundamentally define us, even to the extent of giving us names such as “mother,” “husband,” “friend,” “sister,” but also “director,” “manager” or “employee.” Only relationships, not possessions, are significant enough to rename us.

As the above names suggest, unemployment, like a divorce, involves a significant rupture of relationships. One way to respond to the poverty of isolation is to choose solidarity with persons in need. Who is alone on the holidays or homebound and unable to attend Mass? Who is without a friend or someone to accompany them to an important function? Who cannot participate in an educational or social experience because they cannot afford the associated expenses? Who is isolated by depression or by living in a situation of violence? We can be more aware of these situations and then act to reach out to those in them so they are not alone.

Fifth, take a sincere interest in the promotion of the common good. Support candidates for public office who have a true understanding of human development and who have competent proposals for improving the cultural, legal, moral and economic aspects of the common good. Educate yourself on the policy positions of the Catholic Conference of Illinois by joining their legislative network (call (312) 368-1066 or visit and supporting their initiatives.

By releasing teaching tools like encyclicals, popes exercise their role as shepherd and fathers. Pope Benedict is reaching out to the Catholic faithful around the world in the time of economic crisis to offer guidance through the inspiration of Jesus Christ, the ultimate teacher and healer. We should take a minute to read what he has to say.

Lund-Molfese is director of the archdiocese’s Office for Peace and Justice.