One of the best known statues of Peter the Apostle is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The apostle, seated on a chair, has his hand raised, not just in blessing but to make a point. He’s teaching the church.
The popes continue the teaching ministry of Peter and one way they do it is through encyclicals, letters sent to bishops and people throughout the world. On June 29, 2009, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Pope Benedict XVI issued Caritas in Veritate, an encyclical on socials issues affecting our world today.
It took me a week to read through it and I can’t say I’ve grasped it all, but I’ll be back to it.
If you read this extensive, densely packaged work, remember that the word “encyclical” is close to the word “encyclopedia.” Our world isn’t simple, it’s big and complex, and the pope–certainly helped by advisors– tries to analyze it and provide a vision for living in it.
It’s a lot to digest. The letter is a long banquet table, not a quick snack for one gulp.
But that’s the challenge I like about it. Love, the gift we have from God, calls us to look at big things and be engaged in them. We tend to consider love mostly in interpersonal dimensions, but the letter speaks of a love that reaches into the mystery of God and enrolls us in work at building our earthly city.
It’s not a letter of pat answers but of many questions which arise from the reality of the world we live in now. A love based in truth calls us to think about the world as it is and creatively work for its good.
It’s about the development of the human being, the whole human being and all human beings. As Christians we’re charged to work for this development, which has now taken on new global dimensions through the advance of technology.
Politically, it calls for international structures more responsive to the situation of a global society and technological advances. The stumbling G 8 meeting just concluded in Italy is evidence of the need. Hard to believe for some, but nation states alone are not the answer.
It urges the human family to respect the rights of the natural world, which must be part of the development of an earthly city. It warns against untrammeled technological advances that don’t take into account human rights, the rights of creation, as well as the divine law. It recognizes greed and lack of oversight behind the present world financial crisis.
The pope’s encyclical is not a view from a small cloistered world.
There’s a consciousness in the encyclical that weariness and loss of hope can stop our efforts to engage our world as it is, but love refuses to be conquered. It endures. Importantly, our efforts are not simple human efforts:
“Development needs Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer, Christians moved by the knowledge that truth-filled love, caritas in veritate, from which authentic development proceeds, is not produced by us, but given to us. For this reason, even in the most difficult and complex times, besides recognizing what is happening, we must above all else turn to God’s love. Development requires attention to the spiritual life, a serious consideration of the experiences of trust in God, spiritual fellowship in Christ, reliance upon God’s providence and mercy, love and forgiveness, self-denial, acceptance of others, justice and peace.” (79)