One looking for a Catholic commentary on the social doctrine of the Constitution can find it in the writings of recent Popes. As is well known, recent Popes have written encyclicals which contain profound observations and exhortations about life in the modern world. In 1967 Pope Paul VI came out with his “Populorum Progessio,” (“On the Development of Peoples” } 1967) and his successor John Paul VI came out with “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,” (“The Social Concerns of the Church”). Both documents might as well be commentaries on the social justice provisions of the Constitution.
He had barely warmed his seat when in 2006 Pope Benedict XVI published “Deus Caritas Est,” (“God Is Love,”) where he articulated the role of Christian love in society. It also included a significant statement on the role of the Church in the political arena, a statement which those who wish to instrumentalize the church for politics should note. He said: “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.”
This was followed by "Caritas in Veritate" ("Charity in Truth") released last June. The encyclical ranges across various topics including family life, globalization, the financial crisis, labor, technology and the environment.
In writing about the environment, Pope Benedict was almost poetic. He noted “that integral human development is closely linked to the obligations which flow from man’s relationship with the natural environment. The environment must be seen as God’s gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations. . . Whenever nature, and human beings in particular, are seen merely as products of chance or an evolutionary determinism, our overall sense of responsibility wanes. On the other hand, seeing creation as God’s gift to humanity helps us understand our vocation and worth as human beings. With the Psalmist, we can exclaim with wonder: ‘When I look at your heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars which you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?’ (Ps 8:4-5). Contemplating the beauty of creation inspires us to recognize the love of the Creator, that Love which ‘moves the sun and the other stars’”.
Recently, on December 8, 2009, in his message for the World Day of Peace, January 1, 2010, amidst the ambivalent results of the Copenhagen conference, he wrote about creation and eloquently entitled the document “If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation.” Noting the direction being taken by government policies, multinational corporations and even by individuals, he asked, “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?”
Pope Benedict is not the first Pope to warn against the possible effects of abusing creation. Already on 1971, on the eightieth anniversary of Leo XIII’s Encyclical Rerum Novarum, Paul VI pointed out that “by an ill-considered exploitation of nature (man) risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation”. He added that “not only is the material environment becoming a permanent menace – pollution and refuse, new illnesses and absolute destructive capacity – but the human framework is no longer under man’s control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable. This is a wide-ranging social problem which concerns the entire human family”.
John Paul II, in his Message for the World Day of Peace twenty years ago, emphasized our relationship, as God’s creatures, with the universe all around us. “In our day,” he wrote, “there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened … also by a lack of due respect for nature”. He added that “ecological awareness, rather than being downplayed, needs to be helped to develop and mature, and find fitting expression in concrete programmes and initiatives”.
Benedict XVI echoes John Paul II in calling for a “greater sense of intergenerational solidarity.” “We have inherited from past generations, and we have benefited from the work of our contemporaries; for this reason we have obligations towards all, and we cannot refuse to interest ourselves in those who will come after us, to enlarge the human family. Universal solidarity represents a benefit as well as a duty. This is a responsibility that present generations have towards those of the future, a responsibility that also concerns individual States and the international community.”
4 January 2010