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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Social Development Begins with Respect for Life

A Commentary on Chapter 1 of Caritas in Veritate: The Truth Doesn't Change

Back in the 70s (before the term "rescue" was in common use) a group of pro-life activists, including myself, conducted regular sit-ins at an abortion mill euphemistically called The Northern Virginia Women's Medical Center. The Center didn't do any medicine; their primary business was killing children. The administrator of the facility was a young woman named Sharon. She and I conversed many times: during sit-ins, at recess in court - we even debated on a local radio station. I tried to witness in Christian charity and challenged Sharon to put her nursing skills to real use instead of killing children. She never stopped in the time I knew her, although one of her nurses, Pam, burned out and left.

Once when our group had again successfully entered the mill to block the killing even though the doors were locked (a nurse opened the door as we walked down the corridor), Sharon said to me in frustration, "You sound like a broken record; you always say the same thing." I replied, "Sharon, the truth doesn't change."

I thought of that as I continued reading Caritas in Veritate this week. The Church doesn't change. Even in the face of new technology and societal development, the principles that guide our actions always remain the same. Pope Benedict makes that clear by his heavy dependence on Pope Paul VI's encyclical Populorum Progressio published more than 40 years ago and reference to the apostles and to the ancient fathers and doctors of the Church. Standing with one foot firmly planted in the traditions of the past and the other in the present facing new challenges, the Church remains solidly grounded in ancient, unchanging truths.

Pope Benedict describes the "two important truths" of Pope Paul's encyclical:
The first is that the whole Church, in all her being and acting -- when she proclaims, when she celebrates, when she performs works of charity -- is engaged in promoting integral human development....The second truth is that authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension.
So human development is oriented toward the individual who is seen as an integrated whole: body, intellect, and will. Pope Benedict speaks the same message shared by the great reformers of every age, "the Christian ideal of a single family of peoples in solidarity and fraternity." Consider the Apostles going to the ends of the earth carrying the message of evangelization and baptizing people one by one. The central force serving this true human development, the very heart of social teaching, is "Christian charity" at the service of life.

Life ethics, Pope Benedict makes crystal clear, are at the very heart of social ethics. There can be no true "dignity of the person, justice and peace" where "human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized." Human progress is essentially a vocation "that derives from a transcendent call." It "presupposes the responsible freedom of the individual" and recognizes that each individual is the "principal agent of his own success or failure." The Gospel, Pope Paul says and Pope Benedict reaffirms "is fundamental for development" and it must, to be true, "involve the whole man and every man."

The world often denies the necessity of the Church, faith, and God to bring about human progress. Instead worldly institutions (government, schools, charitable foundations, think tanks, etc.) are seen as the agents of change for the betterment of society. But the pope makes it clear that:
institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development.
Think of the paganized public school system attempting to solve the problem of teenage pregnancy by teaching children to fornicate without consequence (an impossibility) and you'll understand what the pope means by "a dehumanized form of development."

Pope Benedict stresses that the Church's social doctrine throughout the ages forms "a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new" that shares "the coherence of the overall doctrinal corpus....The church's social doctrine illuminates with an unchanging light the new problems that are constantly emerging." From the Apostles to the Fathers of the Church to "the great Christian doctors" Church teaching still speaks to us today. The great moral principles of the past never grow old, they simply find new applications.

From the very beginning of his encyclical, Pope Benedict makes it clear that respect for life and the dignity of the human person, man's own freedom and responsibility and call to vocation, lie at the center of any discussion of social progress and social justice. It is not a message the media welcomes or is likely to promote. So read the document, not the media spin on its contents.


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