A preview of the encyclical to come

Just how long the next papal encyclical has been anticipated as “coming soon” is illustrated by the fact that I reached an agreement a year ago with Pauline Books and Media regarding a study companion for the thing, along the lines of what we’ve done with Your Guide to Spe Salvi: Saved in Hope and two other companions to two other papal documents.  At the time, I expected that project to be the major one I’d be working on during summer ’08.  But summer ’08 came and went, and so did fall, and ….

Pope Benedict recently mentioned the long-awaited encyclical, which will be on some facet of Catholic Social Teaching, in a question and answer session with the priest of the diocese of Rome.   (The transcript of the entire session is here.)  His response to the question offers a dramatic look into what will likely be ideas more fully developed in the encyclical itself.  And frankly, it looks to me like it will be a blockbuster.  Take a look at the entire question as it was presented to the Pope, and the Pope’s full answer.  The bold is my own emphasis on especially interesting parts.


Holy Father, I am Fr. Giampiero Ialongo, one of the many pastors who performs his role on the periphery of Rome, physically at Torre Angela, on the border with Torbellamonaca, Borghesina, Borgata Finocchio, Colle Prenestino. These are peripheries which are often forgotten and ignored by other institutions. I’m happy that this afternoon we have been joined by the president of the municipality: we’ll see what might come from this meeting. Perhaps more than other zones of our city, our peripheries feel the pain of the international economic crisis, which is beginning to weigh on the concrete conditions of life for many families. In the form of the parish-level Caritas, but also the diocesan Caritas, we carry on many initiatives that are first of all, sometimes, a matter of listening, but also of material help, concrete help, for those who – without distinction of race, culture or religion – come to us. Despite all that, we are ever more aware that we’re facing a real and true emergency. It seems to me that many people, too many people – not only the retired, but also those who have a regular job with an indefinite contract – are facing enormous difficulties in making ends meet for their families. ‘Living packets,’ like we offer, which offer a little bit of support for paying the bills or the rent, can be of help, but I don’t believe they’re a solution. I’m convinced that as a Church, we must ask ourselves what more we can do. Even more, we must ask about the causes that have led to this generalized situation of crisis. We must have the courage to denounce an economic and financial system that’s unjust at its roots. I don’t believe that, in light of the inequalities introduced by this system, a little bit of optimism is enough. What’s needed is an authoritative word, a free word, that can help Christians – as you, Holy Father, in a certain sense already have said – use the goods which God has given us with evangelical wisdom and responsibility, goods given not just for a few but for all. I’m hoping to hear such a word from you now, just as we’ve heard from you before. Thank you, Holiness!


I would distinguish two levels. The first is the level of the macro-economy, which realizes itself and extends to the last citizen, who feels the consequences of a mistaken foundation. Naturally, it’s the duty of the Church to denounce this. As you know, I’ve been preparing an encyclical on these points for a long time. Along the way, I’ve come to see how difficult it is to speak with competence, because if a given economic reality isn’t confronted competently, [the treatment] won’t be credible. On the other hand, it’s also important to speak with deep ethical awareness – let’s say, a conscience created by, and awakened in, the Gospel. Hence, it’s essential to denounce the fundamental errors now revealed in the collapse of the great American banks, the errors which lie at the bottom. In the end, it’s a question of human avarice in the form of sin, or, as the Letter to the Colossians says, avarice as idolatry. We must denounce this idolatry which stands against the true God, and the falsification of the image of God with another God, which is ‘mammon.’ We must do so with courage, but also with concreteness. Great moralisms don’t help if they’re not given substance through awareness of the reality, an awareness which helps indicate what can slowly be done to change the situation. Naturally, to do that requires the understanding of this truth and the good will of all.

Here we come to the hard part: Does original sin really exist? If it doesn’t exist, we can simply appeal to the light of reason, with arguments that are accessible and incontestable to everyone, and appeal to the good will that exists in everyone. If there’s no original sin, we can simply go forward and reform humanity. But that’s not how it is: reason, including our reason, is obscured, and we see that every day. Egotism, the root of avarice, stands in the desire to have me for myself, and the world for myself. It exists in all of us. This is the obscuring of reason: our reasoning can be quite subtle, with beautiful scientific arguments, but it’s still obscured by false premises. Thus, we move with great intelligence and great steps forward down a mistaken path. Also our will is, let’s say, ‘bent,’ as the Fathers say: it’s not simply inclined to do the good, but it seeks above all its own good or that of its group. Thus to really find the path of reason, true reason, is no easy thing, and it’s developed only with difficulty in dialogue. Without the light of faith, which enters into the darkness of original sin, reason cannot move forward. Faith, however, runs into the resistance of our will. Our will doesn’t want to see the path, which would also represent a path of self-denial and a correction of our own desires in favor of others.

For this reason, I would say, what’s needed is a reasonable and reasoned denunciation of errors, not with sweeping moralisms, but with concrete arguments that are comprehensible in the world of today’s economy. The denunciation of these errors is important, it’s always been part of the Church’s mandate. We know that in the new situation created with the industrial world, the social doctrine of the Church, beginning with Leo XIII, tried to offer these denunciations – and not just denunciations, which are never sufficient, but also to indicate the hard paths upon which, step by step, the assent of both reason and will can be obtained, along with the correction of my conscience, in order to deny myself in a certain sense and to be able to collaborate with that which is the true scope of human life, of humanity.

That said, the Church always has the duty to be vigilant, to seek with its best efforts to understand the logic of the economic world, to enter into this reasoning and to illuminate it with the faith that liberates us from the egoism of original sin. It’s the duty of the Church to enter into this discernment, into this reasoning, to make itself heard, including at the different national and international levels, in order to help and to correct. This is not an easy task, because so many personal interests and national groups are opposed to a radical correction. Maybe it’s pessimism, but to me it seems like realism: as long as there’s original sin, we will never arrive at a radical and total solution. However, we have to do everything we can on behalf of at least provisional solutions, solutions sufficient to allow humanity to live and to prevent the domination of the egoism which presents itself under the pretext of science and the national and international economy.

This is the first level. The other is to be realists, to see that these great aims of macro-science are never realized in micro-science – the macro-economy in the micro-economy – without the conversion of hearts. Where there aren’t just people, there is no justice. We have to accept this. For that reason, education in justice is a priority, perhaps we could say ‘the’ priority. St. Paul says that justification is the effect of the work of Christ. It’s not an abstract concept, regarding sins that no longer concern us today, but it refers precisely to integral justice. God alone can give it to us, but he offers it only with our cooperation on diverse levels, on all the levels possible.

Justice cannot be created in the world solely through good economic models, however necessary those are. Justice is created only where there are just people. There cannot be just people without a humble, daily work of conversion of hearts, or creating justice in hearts. Only thus does corrective justice spread itself. In this sense, the work of the pastor is fundamental, not only for the parish, but for humanity. As I’ve said, without just people, the concept of justice remains an abstraction. Good structures can’t be developed if they’re opposed by egoism, including that of competent people.

This work of ours, humble, daily, is fundamental in order to reach the great aims of humanity. We have to work together on all levels. The universal Church must denounce, but it also has to suggest what can be done and how to do it. The episcopal conferences and the bishops must act. But all of us together must educate about justice. The dialogue of Abraham with God (Genesis 18:22-33) seems to me still true and realistic, when Abraham says: Are you truly going to destroy the city? Maybe there are fifty just people, maybe there are ten, and ten just people are enough the city to survive. On the other hand, if the ten just people are missing, even with all the economic doctrine, society cannot survive. Hence we have to do what it takes to educate, to ensure that there are at least ten just people … but if possible, many more. With our proclamation, let’s act so that there are many just people, and therefore that there may be justice in the world.

In effect, these two levels are inseparable. If, on the one hand, we don’t proclaim macro-justice, then micro-justice won’t grow. But on the other hand, if we don’t do our very humble work of micro-justice, then macro-justice won’t grow either. And always, as I said in my first encyclical, despite all the systems that can grow in the world, and beyond the justice that we seek, charity always remains necessary. To open hearts to justice and to charity is to educate in the faith, it’s to guide people to God.

This immediately reminded me, by the way, of a recent and very insightful post over at the First Things blog.  Check out Hunter Baker’s “Evangelicals and Economics: Reflections of a Conservative Protestant.”


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