August 7, 2009


Global issues and personal morality are interconnected

The first “social encyclical” of Pope Benedict XVI is a dense, and in some ways difficult, reflection on the responsibility that we human beings have for one another and for all creation.

“Caritas in Veritate” deals with a broad range of social, political, economic and environmental issues. But the encyclical’s viewpoint is not fragmented or compartmentalized.

It does not discuss global social issues as though they were somehow separate or distinct from the personal issues facing individuals, families and communities on a daily basis. For Pope Benedict, global issues are, first of all, local issues.

Consider, for example, chapter four of “Caritas in Veritate,” which deals with “the development of people, rights and duties, and the environment.” The pope begins this chapter by observing that “many people today would claim that they owe nothing to anyone, except to themselves. They are concerned only with their rights, and they often have great difficulty in taking responsibility for their own and other people’s integral development” (#43).

This is the sin of individualism, which blinds us to our essential interconnectedness as members of the family of God. Individualism fosters an excessive, self-destructive emphasis on “my needs,” “my wants” and “my rights.” It cuts us off from others and prevents us from becoming aware of, and acting on, our responsibility for the common good. As the Holy Father teaches us, “an overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard of duties.”

According to “Caritas in Veritate,” personal morality is the foundational principle underlying all social responsibility. Two powerful examples are cited in the encyclical’s fourth chapter—sexual morality and care for the environment.

Our modern culture has come to regard sexuality as a private matter between “consenting adults,” and the Church is frequently criticized for its perceived preoccupation with sex.

In fact, Catholic teaching on human sexuality is based on a profoundly positive understanding of the dignity of the human person, the beauty of marital intimacy and the fact that “morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource” (#44).

As the Church sees it, human sexuality is a gift from God for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole. Therefore, “it is irresponsible to view sexuality merely as a source of pleasure, and likewise to regulate it through strategies of mandatory birth control. In either case, materialistic ideas and policies are at work, and individuals are ultimately subjected to various forms of violence” (#44).

Similarly, the Church teaches that human beings have a sacred duty to “exercise a responsible stewardship over nature, in order to protect it, to enjoy its fruits and to cultivate it in new ways, with the assistance of advanced technologies, so that it can worthily accommodate and feed the world’s population” (#50). Each of us has a personal stewardship responsibility to care for the environment—but also to ensure that business practices and economic policies support “the principle of the centrality of the human person” over all other considerations.

“Nature is at our disposal,” the pope writes, “not as a ‘heap of scattered refuse’ but as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order, enabling man to draw from it the principles needed to till it and keep it (Gen 2:15). But it should also be stressed that it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as more important than the human person” (#48).

With penetrating insight, and the wisdom gained from more than 80 years of lived experience and prayerful study, Pope Benedict XVI dramatically reminds us that what is good for the individual person is good for society as a whole.

And what is loving and true for the global village we live in today finds its fullest expression in the principles of personal morality and social responsibility first taught 2000 years ago by the author of the Church’s first great social encyclical, the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who are weeping, who are hated and excluded and insulted … for the kingdom of God—with all its joy and satisfaction and peace—will be yours.

“The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere,” Pope Benedict tells us. “She must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction” (#51).

We are called to be responsible stewards of all God’s gifts—both those that he gives to each of us individually and those that he entrusts to the entire human family. Let us give thanks to God for his abundant generosity and resolve to resist every temptation to individualism and social irresponsibility.

—Daniel Conway

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