With his first social encyclical still waiting in the wings, Pope Benedict XVI has been honing his argument that the practice of real-world charity is a litmus test of Christian faith.
By John Thavis
VATICAN CITY – To three very different audiences in November – diplomats, health care specialists and the Catholic faithful – the pope emphasized the indispensable connection between the Gospel and social justice.
At his general audience November 19, he envisioned God as the judge whose "single criterion is love."
"What he asks is only this: Did you visit me when I was sick? When I was in prison? Did you feed me when I was hungry, and did you clothe me when I was naked? And so, justice is decided by charity," he said.
The pope began working on his third encyclical, tentatively titled "Love in Truth," in 2007, and a draft has been circulating quietly for months among high-echelon consultants. It was expected to be published sometime in 2008, but informed sources now say next year looks more likely.
Although no one at the Vatican was talking about the encyclical’s content, a sneak preview of its basic themes was offered by Ignatius Press, the English-language publisher of the pope’s writings.
"Love in Truth" applies the teachings of the pope’s first two encyclicals (on love and on hope), to the major social issues of today’s world, the publisher said.
The first part of the new encyclical examines the contributions of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II to Catholic social teaching, in particular their rejection of simplistic conservative-liberal categories and their insistence on the importance of natural moral law, it said.
The encyclical’s second part outlines moral principles needed to confront contemporary social issues, including assaults on human dignity and human life, poverty, war and peace, terrorism, globalization and environmental concerns, it said.
From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Benedict has aimed to revive the roots of the faith. He has made clear that this is not a theoretical faith built solely on theological arguments, but a faith lived in the real world among those who suffer, and based on the dual commandment to love God and one’s neighbour.
Speaking to the new Lithuanian ambassador to the Vatican in early November, the pope eloquently summarized his essential message in a few quick strokes, and in the process critiqued the consumer society.
"Since love of God leads to participation in the justice and generosity of God toward others, the practice of Christianity leads naturally to solidarity with one’s fellow citizens and indeed with the whole of the human family," he said.
"It leads to a determination to serve the common good and to take responsibility for the weaker members of society, and it curbs the desire to amass wealth for oneself alone.
Our society needs to rise above the allure of material goods and to focus instead upon values that truly promote the good of the human person," he said.
A few days later, the pope addressed a Vatican health care conference on the treatment of sick children. He noted that each year 4 million children die in the first 26 days of life, many of them as a result of poverty, drought and hunger.
"The church does not forget her smallest children," he said. He pointed to the Gospel account of Jesus’ concern for the youngest ones and said this must be the model for how today’s Christians react when children are suffering.
By providing medical and spiritual care to the neediest children, Catholic health care facilities and associations are following the example of Jesus, the good Samaritan, he said.
But, typically for the German pope, he broadened the argument beyond Catholic teaching. He cited the Roman poet Juvenal’s dictum, "A child is owed the greatest respect," to illustrate that "the ancients already recognized the importance of respecting the child, a precious gift for society."
On the broader economic front, the pope forcefully has encouraged countries to implement the aid quotas of the Millennium Development Goals, a plan that aims to cut global poverty in half by 2015.
He has repeatedly warned that market forces motivated solely by profit-seeking can never lead to justice.
The pope’s interest in economic mechanisms is not new. In an article presented in a symposium in 1985, he criticized the idea that market laws alone represent the best guarantee of progress and justice.
Ethics, sustained by strong religious convictions, must be brought to bear on the market system, he said, and "the decline of such discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse."
Those words have a prophetic ring today. Certainly the current global financial crisis could merit its own chapter in the upcoming encyclical, and some believe that’s one reason it remains a work in progress.