For the past three semesters (starting in Spring 2018), I have taught a class titled “Catholic Theology and Social Justice.” In some ways, this class had been many years in the making because it gave me the opportunity to finally do a full class implementing service-learning pedagogy (as opposed to having the service-learning be just one option that students could choose, which is how I had used it in the past).
Although I changed the structure of my syllabus drastically in the final semester based on student feedback about the reading assignments, I more or less employed a developmental and historical approach to the tradition of Catholic social teaching—namely, beginning with Rerum Novarum (1891) and ending with Laudato Si’ (2015). What this means is that we reach the more modern papal encyclicals towards the end of the semester.
One of the difficulties I found with teaching this course in this way is that often even though we went over the key principles of Catholic social teaching* at the beginning of the semester and employed them periodically in discussion, students seem to have forgotten the deeper meaning of the principles by the end of the semester. This was especially true for the principle of human dignity and the Catholic understanding of the human person when we discussed Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (2009), an encyclical that is founded on the Catholic understanding of the human person.
The tone of Benedict XVI’s encyclical is different than many of his predecessors even though he—of course—drew on many of the same sources and concepts as previous popes did. This encyclical overall takes a more intentionally theological approach than previous ones in the sense that it is more explicit in the way that it employs foundational theological concepts. Many of the students recognized the different tone and approach of this encyclical in comparison to previous ones and this was reflected in what they wrote in response to the reading. I will say that despite Meghan Clark’s claim that Benedict XVI’s “attention to metaphysics makes the encyclical more dense and less accessible to a contemporary audience” (p. 490), my students in general have reacted more positively to and engaged more with Benedict XVI’s text than to earlier papal encyclicals. For example, students have commented (all student quotes in this blog post are used with their permission):
This (section of the) encyclical seems to mark a huge departure from previous ones in this respect. I keep rereading it to see if I missed an explicit condemnation of communism. I supposed defending capitalism serves the same purpose, depending on his audience. I also don’t mean to imply that Catholic leaders’ opinion on communism changed; I’m just used to encyclicals specifically name-checking it. … On a related note, this text seems to call for shared responsibility even more than other encyclicals haveRachel Knight, 3/16/2018
In my opinion, Caritas in Veritate, expressed underlying foundational principles previous encyclicals overlooked. The author, Benedict XVI, describes the grave situations we face as a society just as previous Popes have, but instead of addressing these crises with resignation, he addresses these crises with confidence, and describes it as an opportunity to shape a new vision for the future. His confidence in human ability is refreshing. It serves as a reminder that these problems can be overcome, and they can be overcome with objective examination and reformation rather than through vague ideologies. I think using this approach to solve the crises of limited sovereignty, intellectual property rights, welfare systems, and workers’ rights is a far more suitable solution than the ideas of previous encyclicals where Popes accurately articulated the problems facing society but failed to instill confidence in our ability to overcome them.Andrew Dignum, 3/14/2018
This last student quote in particular highlights a significant observation that students often made about Benedict XVI’s encyclical (often without my prompting as well), the different tone of the encyclical comes in part from his reliance on deeper theological concepts about the Catholic understanding of the human person and so, in teaching this text, I found it important to keep that concept in the students minds as they read and discussed it.
My approach to teaching this upper-level class is discussion-based, so I have students read the text and respond to it by the morning before the class period, then I draft a series of discussion questions based on the students’ responses to the text. In this way, our class discussion focuses, in part at least, on the topics and questions that the students found interesting. I limit my lecture to providing some historical context for each papal encyclical. Thus, in relation to Caritas in Veritate, I focus on the fact that this is commemorating Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1967) and so is focused on the topic of development, giving context in relation to his planned encyclicals on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and, of course, the global financial crisis that began in 2008. I also discuss some of Benedict XVI’s prior analyses—when in the role of a Cardinal—of the limitations of both capitalism and communism and the need for an ethical approach to economic systems. I mention the influence of Stefano Zamagni’s economic theory of gift and discuss the responses to this text, both in terms of positive and negative responses. This provides a foundation for understanding Benedict XVI’s ideas in historical context.
However, what I noticed—as I noted at the beginning of this post—is that in relation to this text, I need to ensure that the students keep the Catholic understanding of the human person in mind because that is the foundation that underlies much of Benedict XVI’s other analysis in this text. This emphasis is also part of what distinguishes Benedict XVI’s encyclical from those of previous popes, as my students have noted:
In the following sentences he says what I found most important, ‘it is man’s darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the instrument per se. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility’ (36). I really like this quote, because up until this text, economic systems had basically been personified, and capitalism was to blame for things it did. As Benedict states, Economic Systems are nothing more than tools, and it is the people behind them that are causing the issues previous texts have seemed to blame on capitalism itself. The message that we need to look beyond the systems and tools of our society to find who is really to blame for our problems is a really powerful one, and a message that is really important currently as well.Jacob Kramer, 3/16/2018
At the end of the day, we are human beings who strive to be loved and listened to. I think that is a big part of working towards improving human development. Going out and speaking to given communities to empathize with their stories as well as getting information from the source, first-hand. I believe this would make a huge difference and is one of the biggest aspects of improving human development.Christina Chu, 3/16/2018
What I have found in practice is that it is important to maintain the focus of class discussion on the Catholic idea of the human person. This often takes the form of an explicit refocusing on this topic in relation to our discussion of the encyclical and each class I made the first question I asked one that related to foundational concepts in relation to the human person. For example, from this past semester the questions I asked in the three class periods we discussed the text were:
- How can we define “charity” in the context of the Catholic theological tradition?
- How does this section of the encyclical draw on the traditional Catholic understanding of the human person and the principle of human dignity?
- How does Benedict XVI use the idea of the human person as a social being in this part of the encyclical?
Now, in these classes students have already read and written online responses to the reading, but I often employ also write-pair-share in relation to these questions to make sure that—regardless of the focus of their initial reading responses—everyone has had an opportunity to reflection on the role of the theological understanding of the human person in this text.
Understanding the meaning of “charity” in a theological context, which is what I am trying to get at with that first question, is important for understanding Benedict XVI’s text. For example, this reflection by my student last semester made the connection between the idea of charity (in the sense of giving to those in need), community, and spirituality which starts to get at this Catholic sense of charity as a theological virtue.
[Pope Benedict XVI] states, “Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end… Once profit becomes the exclusive goal … without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty” (21). After reading Sibley’s Catholic Economics, I can identify this thought from Benedict XVI’s as in favor of fair trade as opposed to free trade. I too agree that once profit becomes the exclusive goal, real brotherhood is lost. Although some may turn towards to the government to regulate free trade in hopes of fair trade and competition, Benedict XVI emphasizes a platform of Charity in Truth. As did his predecessor Pope Pius XI in his papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Benedict acknowledges the importance of freedom in creating fairness, believing the care for the common good must be found willingly within each individual. Charity, the act of providing option for the poor and vulnerable, must come from your truth, God’s presence in your spirituality. Ultimately, I agree with the thesis of this encyclical and think it points to conversion for those currently unaware of truth and blinded by false idols. His Catholic social teaching is rooted in getting others to acknowledge God’s presence and act with care for all of His creation.Giselle Omar, 4/8/2019
In class, I make sure to take some time to remind students of the Catholic definition of charity as “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC §1822). For this, we read Matthew’s Gospel:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:36–40)
I ask students to try to put this teaching in their own words and use that to define charity and then connect it back to the text of Caritas in Veritate. Some of the themes that students highlighted in this discussion last semester were the rooting of charity in social relationships and solidarity, rather than giving to the less fortunate in a way that comes from a place of privilege. They discussed how this is related to Catholic teachings on the common good, justice, and human dignity and basically describes how we should be living as members of society. It’s also a question of motivation: love and charity should be the motivation that we have for helping our communities, including the worldwide community.
For the first class period, I assign the introduction and chapters 1 and 2, but the discussion of charity usually becomes the focus of that sessions discussion. Thus, in the next two class sessions (divided into chapters 3 and 4, then chapters 5 and 6 and the conclusion), I use the above questions to direct class discussion to understanding some of these fundamental points on which Benedict XVI bases his discussion of social issues. For example, his critique of individualism in chapter 3 is connected to the Catholic understanding of original sin (CV §34). Similarly, in chapter 4, his argument for a people-centered ethics in the economy is rooted in the idea of humans created in the image of God (CV §45). This gives the human person a place of dignity, putting the person above profit. But it’s not just the person as an individual that matters, but the person in community. The Catholic tradition sees the human person as a social being—we are made in the image of God and the Christian tradition sees God as one in relationship, a Trinity. Furthermore, in both creation stories in Genesis, albeit in different ways, humans are created in relationship to each other. Thus, Benedict XVI argues—a comment that many of my students have highlighted as important in their discussion of the encyclical—that isolation is the deepest form of poverty (CV §53).
Ultimately, by continuously reminding students to read this text through the lens of the Catholic understanding of the human person, they are better able to understand and appreciate Benedict XVI’s overall message about economic development.
* Human dignity, preferential option for the poor, call to community, rights and responsibilities, work and the dignity of work, solidarity, care for creation.
- Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (29 June 2009), http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate.html.
- Clark, Meghan J. “Commentary on Caritas in veritate (On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth).” Chap. 19 in Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations, 2nd ed., edited by Kenneth R. Himes, O.F.M., 482-514. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2018.