Titled Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth) Pope Benedict XVI's first social encyclical was released on 7 July, the day before the Group of Eight began their international summit in L'Aquila, Italy, and three days before Benedict's scheduled first meeting with US President Obama.
The encyclical contains pointed messages for both the Group of Eight and Obama, as well as for rest of the world as it struggles with the present economic crisis.
Caritas in Veritate is the first social encyclical since 1991 when Pope John Paul II's Centesimus Annus marked the centenary of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum. It represents a continuing development of Catholic social teaching in the light of new world developments such as globalisation and advances in communications.
Benedict signed the encyclical on 29 June, the solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul, and that same day, before praying the Angelus with those gathered in St Peter's Square, he explained that his encyclical was a reflection on the conditions necessary for 'integral development' (of both individuals and societies), adding that it revisited social themes found in Paul VI's 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio.
Benedict's encyclical, which is available on the Internet, is lengthy, wide-ranging and complex, and this brief report barely scratches the surface.
Benedict's unifying theme is that without God, no amount of advanced technology, complex structures, or creative programs will work. The most ambitious instruments for human progress will ultimately fail unless those involved are animated by sound principles deriving from God's revelation.
He writes: 'Development is impossible without upright men and women, without financiers and politicians whose consciences are finely attuned to the requirements of the common good. Both professional competence and moral consistency are necessary. When technology is allowed to take over, the result is confusion between ends and means, such that the sole criterion for action in business is thought to be the maximisation of profit, in politics the consolidation of power, and in science the findings of research.'
The Church puts forward moral principles, not technical solutions, but these moral principles can help in discerning whether particular social, economic or political proposals are in accordance with God's law and promote integral development.
While written in the context of the current financial crisis, Caritas et Veritate is intended to provide long- term guidance to Christians involved in public life, as have previous social encyclicals going back to Rerum Novarum. Over the past century all these documents have had a profound influence on Catholics' interaction with modern society, and ultimately, on those societies themselves.
Regarding the present global economic crisis, Benedict argues this has arisen from 'a deficit of ethics in the economic structures.' A reform of the current system, therefore requires 'a common code' based on 'the truth from both faith and reason,' capable of providing 'the light through which the human intelligence arrives to natural and supernatural truth of charity.' The crisis presents 'an oppor- tunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future.'
He adds, 'Development is impossible without just human beings, without economic and political leaders who live the appeal to the common good strongly in their own consciences'.
These sentiments echo statements made twenty years ago, when as Cardinal Ratzinger he warned a conference convened by the Acton Institute of the danger of relying on the idea that 'the market's inner logic should free us precisely from the necessity of having to depend on the morality of its participants. The true play of market laws best guarantees progress and even distributive justice.'
Benedict suggests that 'alongside profit-oriented private enterprise and various types of public enterprise, there must be room for commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends to take root and express themselves.'
Contemporary examples of these can be found different countries: the Mondragon co-operatives in Spain, the recently established Kiwibank in New Zealand, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and Rainforest Alliance coffee which protects the interests of small coffee producers.
While the encyclical discusses the 'ecologic health of the planet,' it does not enter the debate about man- made global warming. Benedict points out however that 'the duties we have to the environment are connected to the duties we have towards the human person', because 'the first capital to be protected and cherished is the human person in its integrity.'
Benedict has much to say about the dangers of unrestricted technology in such areas as IVF, embryo research, and the possibility of manufacturing clones and human hybrids. He warns that 'we must not underestimate the disturbing scenarios that threaten our future, or the powerful new instruments that the 'culture of death' has at its disposal. To the tragic and widespread scourge of abortion we may well have to add in the future - indeed it is already surreptitiously present - the systematic eugenic programming of births.'
If human life itself is not respected, what hope is there for a just, humane economic system?
Benedict notes that in many countries a 'practical atheism' is being imposed which seeks to marginalise any religious input into political decisions with moral impli- cations. On the other hand he warns against forms of religious extremism which use religion as a tool for gaining power.
Overall, he concludes, the world needs a 'profound cultural renewal' and 'to rediscover fundamental values on which to build a better future.'
Michael Gilchrist is the editor of AD2000 and the author of several books including a biography of Archbishop Mannix and studies of Australian Catholicism, Rome or the Bush(1986) and Lost! (2006).