At Pope Benedict’s meeting with President Obama, the Pope gave the President two gifts: the new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, and the recent document on bioethics, Dignitas Personae. The latter gift was apparently a last-minute addition. Upon leaving the meeting, the President said to the Pope, “I’ll have some reading to do on the plane.”
The timing was perfect, because these two new documents have much to say to the current administration, and to the wider culture, both within and outside the Church.
The new encyclical is an addition to the rich body of the social teaching of the Church. Social doctrine is just as much a part of Church doctrine as are the teachings on the Trinity and the sacraments. And one of the new encyclical’s key points is that a proper understanding of true human and social development is possible only in light of the revelation that comes in Christ.
Another key point is this: social justice cannot advance unless the right to life is protected. And this is where pro-abortion politicians and parties so often get it wrong. They trumpet support for human rights, human development, and social justice, but also think that abortion belongs to those categories.
The Pope has affirmed again that just the opposite is true. Here are two of his key quotes:
“The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that ‘a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized'” (n.15).
“Openness to life is at the centre of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away” (n.28).
Pope Benedict refers explicitly in the new encyclical not only to previous “social encyclicals,” but also to the “life encyclicals,” Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae, as he seeks to erase the unnecessary gap that often exists between social awareness and awareness of the rights of the unborn.
And he asserts that those rights do not come from government and are not negotiable:
“If the only basis of human rights is to be found in the deliberations of an assembly of citizens, those rights can be changed at any time, and so the duty to respect and pursue them fades from the common consciousness. Governments and international bodies can then lose sight of the objectivity and “inviolability” of rights. When this happens, the authentic development of peoples is endangered” (n.43).
I hope the President did his reading on the plane. Let’s be sure to do ours as well.