Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Caritas in Veritate, Part 4

The next chapter of the encyclical is about “The Development of People, Rights and Duties, The Environment.” The discussion starts with the simple point:

Many people today would claim that they owe nothing to anyone, except to themselves.

“I am my own man.” “Look out for number one.” “It’s hard out here fo’ a pimp.” Feel free to include your own clichés. What is needed, the Pope says, is for a redirection of emphasis.

Hence it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere licence. On the one hand, appeals are made to alleged rights, arbitrary and non-essential in nature, accompanied by the demand that they be recognized and promoted by public structures, while, on the other hand, elementary and basic rights remain unacknowledged and are violated in much of the world.

This is a point that we’ve made many time. Pontiffs for the last 200 years or so have been decrying the modern concept of “rights.” There’s no better example of this than the alleged “right” to homosexual marriage. Where does such a right come from? From God? Hardly. From the people? It doesn’t seem so given the fact that the vote in California has been blasted by gay-rights activists as somehow invalid. The simple answer is that it derives from the subjective desires of the individuals in question. This is hardly a basis for government, not to mention morality.

A link has often been noted between claims to a “right to excess”, and even to transgression and vice, within affluent societies, and the lack of food, drinkable water, basic instruction and elementary health care in areas of the underdeveloped world and on the outskirts of large metropolitan centres. The link consists in this: individual rights, when detached from a framework of duties which grants them their full meaning, can run wild, leading to an escalation of demands which is effectively unlimited and indiscriminate. Duties set a limit on rights because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part, in this way ensuring that they do not become licence. Otherwise, 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. The sharing of reciprocal duties is a more powerful incentive to action than the mere assertion of rights.

Remember when folks thought that certain rights were inalienable and granted by the Creator? I really wish Pope Benedict would have spent more time on this issue and been more clear that the rights we are talking about come from God. It’s pretty clear from the rest of the encyclical that this is the case, but too many secular humanist types will take this kind of stuff out of context and use it to justify the further elevation of man at the expense of God by rooting such rights in some sort of (still arbitrary) formula centered on man.

This is made more likely by the talk of “anthropological and ethical framework” lingo. I don’t really know what that means and its vagueness could be used against the Church. I realize that there are always going to be folks that twist the words of the Magisterium. I don’t know if it’s ever been as bad as in modern times, though.

This next part is interesting because the Pope basically takes the standard view of population growth and turns it on its head:

This is a very important aspect of authentic development, since it concerns the inalienable values of life and the family. To consider population increase as the primary cause of underdevelopment is mistaken, even from an economic point of view. Suffice it to consider, on the one hand, the significant reduction in infant mortality and the rise in average life expectancy found in economically developed countries, and on the other hand, the signs of crisis observable in societies that are registering an alarming decline in their birth rate. The Church, in her concern for man's authentic development, urges him to have full respect for human values in the exercise of his sexuality. It cannot be reduced merely to pleasure or entertainment, nor can sex education be reduced to technical instruction aimed solely at protecting the interested parties from possible disease or the “risk” of procreation. This would be to impoverish and disregard the deeper meaning of sexuality, a meaning which needs to be acknowledged and responsibly appropriated not only by individuals but also by the community. It is irresponsible to view sexuality merely as a source of pleasure, and likewise to regulate it through strategies of mandatory birth control.

See how many of your Obama-is-in-line-with-Church-thinking yahoos discuss this section in their attempts to tilt Church teaching in their direction.

Morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource. Populous nations have been able to emerge from poverty thanks not least to the size of their population and the talents of their people. On the other hand, formerly prosperous nations are presently passing through a phase of uncertainty and in some cases decline, precisely because of their falling birth rates; this has become a crucial problem for highly affluent societies. The decline in births, falling at times beneath the so-called “replacement level”, also puts a strain on social welfare systems, increases their cost, eats into savings and hence the financial resources needed for investment, reduces the availability of qualified labourers, and narrows the “brain pool” upon which nations can draw for their needs.

This has been discussed in much detail just about everywhere. A good portion of Western Civilization is contracepting itself into oblivion. Russia and China, too. Nobody really seems to care either. When you see groups amongst the Orthodox signing on to the contraceptive mentality (without censure and contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers), you know things have gotten bad.

I’ve seen a couple of sources that criticize the Pope’s apparent promotion of social welfare systems. This is another point where I don’t understand the hub-bub. It’s pretty easy to read this in pari materia with other Church statements on social justice. The State may, or will, occasionally have to intervene to correct certain societal problems, especially when the ower orders have failed. Granted, in the modern US context, much of our problems are attributable to the already pervasive higher level intervention, but again, we shouldn’t read papal documents as relating specifically to our situation unless the document itself says so. If this contradicts Centessimus Annus, I’m not sure how.

Striving to meet the deepest moral needs of the person also has important and beneficial repercussions at the level of economics. The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centred.

I know what you are thinking. Here we go again with the anthro-centric stuff that is going to create problems. A-ha, says the Pope. Not this time.

Much in fact depends on the underlying system of morality. On this subject the Church's social doctrine can make a specific contribution, since it is based on man's creation “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27), a datum which gives rise to the inviolable dignity of the human person and the transcendent value of natural moral norms.

Much better. I am greedy, though. What would have been really awesome is if the Pope would have continued his discussion of the heightened degree of human dignity brought about by grace and the sacraments. You can’t always get what you want, I guess.

As the encyclical moves (drags?) on, I am forced to admit that he loses me for a while. The next couple of sections discuss the formation of new business types that don’t look at profit as their end, but rather, profit as the instrument for helping people. Such businesses would then feed the creation of person-centered “development programs” in 3rd World-ish places. These sections have a lot of writing but I can’t derive a whole lot of meaning out of them.

I will include this next bit because it is easy to understand and applies just as much to the prior sections and the reliability of state action.

International cooperation requires people who can be part of the process of economic and human development through the solidarity of their presence, supervision, training and respect. From this standpoint, international organizations might question the actual effectiveness of their bureaucratic and administrative machinery, which is often excessively costly. At times it happens that those who receive aid become subordinate to the aid-givers, and the poor serve to perpetuate expensive bureaucracies which consume an excessively high percentage of funds intended for development.

So we’re back to man screwing things up again.

Speaking of screwing things up, we finally get to the much-ballyhooed environmental portion of the encyclical.

Today the subject of development is also closely related to the duties arising from our relationship to the natural environment. The environment is God's gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole. When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes. In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God's creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God's creation.

Pretty basic stuff. I get that. Here’s what I get even more, though.

But it should also be stressed that it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person. This position leads to attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism — human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely naturalistic sense.

Again, I’m greedy. It’s good to see the Pope pointing out that humanity is more important than the rest of the natural world. I wish he would have popped in a few more lines about the latter part on the incapability of achieving salvation by our natural powers.

This having been said, it is also necessary to reject the opposite position, which aims at total technical dominion over nature, because the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a “grammar” which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation.

The weird part here is that it seems that this issue is a lot worse in less industrialized nations. You probably don’t see a lot of environmental protection concerns in India. China’s problems have been well-publicized.

Time for another bit of honesty. I was lost on the next few bits. The Pope talks about the problem of energy production and how more developed countries should lower their consumption and help out their worse-off neighbors. I’m not real sure what the deal is here. Preaching solidarity is one thing. I’m not real sure how wise it is to start laying out these kinds of guidelines. It’s not like a Pope condemning a specific activity like, say, the publication of pornography. That’s pretty basic. Energy production is a lot more complex than that and is the sort of thing that policy-driven reductions might make worse.

The rest of this chapter is equally confusing. The remaining few sections goes from problems associated with materialism to concerns about deteriorating crop lands to wars to embryonic research. Ultimately, I think he’s saying that the breakdown in our overall culture results in abuses of humanity and the rest of Creation. If that’s the case, I wish he would have just said that. Read it for yourself, then come back and explain it to me if I’m wrong.

He does salvage things a bit with this capstone, returning us to the real point of ordering things toward God and everything else working out as a consequence of that.

Truth, and the love which it reveals, cannot be produced: they can only be received as a gift. Their ultimate source is not, and cannot be, mankind, but only God, who is himself Truth and Love. This principle is extremely important for society and for development, since neither can be a purely human product; the vocation to development on the part of individuals and peoples is not based simply on human choice, but is an intrinsic part of a plan that is prior to us and constitutes for all of us a duty to be freely accepted. That which is prior to us and constitutes us — subsistent Love and Truth — shows us what goodness is, and in what our true happiness consists. It shows us the road to true development.

All that, and we’ve still got another 12 pages of stuff, and the most controversial stuff at that, to work through. I promise that we will, along with the next installment of the Vatican II series.

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