Once Pope, the same man did not disappoint. He has been a champion for the social teaching in a way I could not have even fathomed. Indeed, he has stressed doing for the social teaching what he has done for Vatican II, namely making sure we interpret it in light of the tradition.
Let me just point out first what the good German pontiff has written. Half of Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus caritas est, was on the social teaching. Themes of the social teaching are woven in and out his second encyclical, Spe salvi, with references to hope and liberation. And the entirety of his third encyclical, Caritas in veritate, was devoted to the social teaching.
His contribution to the social teaching with Caritas has already produced fruit. From the introduction of a term like “gratuitousness” and the “logic of gift” to inspiring documents like “Vocation of a Business Leader: A Reflection,” from the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace in collaboration with the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, Pope Benedict has made a difference in the development of the social teaching in a very short time.
Personally, he has helped me understand how and where and why the social teaching has gone so awry over the years, at least in as I’ve experienced it in the U.S.
Pope Benedict has understood very well that humanitarianism has been conflated with Christian social teaching for far too long. Social justice programs and theologies that emphasize doing over and above (and sometimes to the exclusion of) being with Christ have produced Catholics who equate their fidelity to the faith with how many just actions they perform. Feeding the poor, or protesting injustice or expressing compassion for the marginalized, these are the signs of the Christian rather than in the fundamental question about whether or not Jesus was God. The latter question is peripheral. All that matters is what you are doing to bring about justice.
Contemporary social justice teaching is not just about being nice. It is more than that. It is firm commitment to action for the sake of the poor. But it is wrapped up in the stuff of political theology. It is married to the idea that without power, true Christian charity cannot happen, so therefore power and the influence that comes with it is the measure of fidelity.
In Pope Benedict’s writing, I believe, we find a tour de force against this brand of social teaching that insists first on praxis, on doing, on action instead of on the personal relationship with Christ. In Caritas in veritate “Charity in truth” the Holy Father teaches that charity without truth, without THE TRUTH is an empty shell to be filled up by mealy-mouthed sentiment. This can often turn in on itself and become the opposite of love. The social teaching, social justice action, says the pope, must be founded on the relationship with Christ first and foremost. It cannot be well-meaning humanitarianism or social consciousness of the type which is taught at secular universities (and even some Catholic ones too).
No, the social teaching must be about Jesus Christ, whole and entire. It must be a living out of the radical love of the cross, or it is not Catholic social teaching. When Christ is optional, and sadly I’ve seen personally how it has been made so, the work of social justice becomes an activity unhinged, a labor directed at any kind of progress for social progress, however achieved, is the goal. This is not the Gospel, however, anymore than unbridled capitalism could possibly be.
Pope Benedict also had this to say about the social teaching:
“A profound understanding of the social doctrine of the Church is of fundamental importance, in harmony with all her theological heritage and strongly rooted in affirming the transcendent dignity of man, in defending human life from conception to natural death and in religious freedom. … It is necessary to prepare lay people capable of dedicating themselves to the common good, especially in complex environments such as the world of politics.”
So, cursory understanding of the social teaching is not enough. We need to understand it “profoundly,” and this is of “fundamental importance.” In fact, it is “necessary” that the Church prepares lay people to care for the common good by means of their understanding of the social teaching. We can only hope that the Church continues with the next Holy Father to provide us with that formation, that bishops in our nation continue to teach the entirety of the social teaching, that pastors receive the formation to begin to preach about the social teaching from the pulpit but mostly that the laity seek out this formation and dedicate themselves wholly to the common good.
I will be forever thankful to the good Holy Father for his helping to form my understanding of the social teaching and for inspiring me to share that knowledge with others.