Exploring the Social and Political Thought of Benedict XVI

On December 6, 1965, as the Second Vatican Council drew to a close, the bishops who’d assembled in Rome from around the world capped four historic years of labor by voting 2,111 to 251 to accept the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope). The final, formal vote of approval took place next day.

Here, thought many bishops—and many others as well, was the signature document of Vatican II, its most important achievement. For here the Church at long last engaged contemporary secular culture as a worthy interlocutor and, to some extent, even as a mentor for itself.

Forty-five years later Gaudium et Spes still stands as a major achievement of Vatican II, but the overall judgment of it by now is mixed. The pastoral constitution, it is commonly pointed out, was in many ways a product of its time and that shows—not for the best either. For these were the tumultuous, confused 1960s when cultural revolution had entered the mainstream, including even the mainstream of the Church.

In this context, the big problem with Gaudium et Spes is its “uncritical acceptance of modern progressivism,” said to cause Christians to neglect “the necessary distinction between progress conceived politically, economically, and scientifically…and the advancement of the kingdom of heaven.” This in turn is responsible for a kind of collective amnesia concerning “the most fundamental political insight that faith has to offer,” namely: “that politics is not the working out of the divine plan, that it is essentially limited and anti-utopian, and this for its own good.”

The words quoted here come from an important—and unusual—new book, The Social and Political Thought of Benedict XVI (published by Lexington Books). It is the work of Thomas R. Rourke, professor and chair of the department of political science and philosophy at Clarion University in Pennsylvania.

Rourke’s study can rightly be called “unusual” for an obvious reason. Although Pope Benedict—Joseph Ratzinger—is widely recognized as one of the most important Catholic theological figures of the last half-century, not many people think of him as a significant social thinker as well.

Rourke argues persuasively that this is a mistake. “When we look to the foundation stones of a humane, democratic social order,” he writes, “it would be difficult to find a better guide with more reliable orientation than Benedict XVI.” The Social and Political Thought of Benedict XVI is a relatively brief but unusually rich working out of that thought.

Benedict-Ratzinger’s critique of Gaudium et Spes and, especially, the starry-eyed reception it received in some quarters after Vatican II clearly marked a turning-point in his career. But his thought has continued to develop since then, producing a body of work that displays a first-rate theological mind grappling with the realities of the contemporary scene.

Pope Benedict’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), published last year, arguably marks the culmination of this process. The key concept at the heart of this long document is the intensely personalistic idea that integral human development should be the central value in the formulation and evaluation of social policy. As Benedict puts it: “The truth of development consists in its completeness: if it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development.”

It is barely possible to scratch the surface here. For those who wish to go further, Thomas Rourke’s groundbreaking book is an important guide to mining and applying the insights of an innovative social thinker.

Russell Shaw

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Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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