Development generally means “progress”, but “progress” must be defined. To tackle this topic Pope Benedict XVI turns to the virtue of Charity; as he will write in the encyclical, “Development needs Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer” (Caritas in veritate, #79). In effect, our Holy Father reminds us that we can talk about development in all its aspects — economy, politics, environment, health, energy, education — but if we are not rooted in the reality of God with all that that implies, then indeed we risk dire consequences.
What are those dire consequences? In one simple word, inhumanity. In this, I am reminded of Henri de Lubac, whose The Drama of Atheist Humanism is well-known to Pope Benedict XVI, when he writes that Man can produce a society without God but ultimately a society without God will be a society turned against Man. Pope Benedict makes reference to this idea when he observes: “The question of development is closely bound up with our understanding of the human soul…. Development must include not just material growth but also spiritual growth…. Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is” (C. in v., #76 and #78).
Almost all of the commentaries on this encyclical I have read have concentrated on what I would call practical specifics, the “what-to-do-about-the-problem” approach. While the Holy Father does offer some concrete observations, I think the encyclical is more of a “wake-up call” to modern society, a sort of modern day “voice crying in the wilderness”, to embrace God and the principles of truth, beauty, and love that flow from that embrace.
He does address the principle of subsidiarity, especially when it comes to international development aid or taxes — a passage which, in my opinion, is one of the most revolutionary of all his propositions, namely that citizens “decide how to allocate a portion of the taxes they pay to the State” (C. in v., #60). He also speaks of globalization, what he calls “the explosion of worldwide interdependence” (C. in v., #33) and how Pope Paul VI foresaw its coming; without the guidance of “charity and truth” globalization could bring about much damage to the human family.
Underlying Pope Benedict XVI’s observations about labor unions, the role of the State, population growth, non-renewable energy, and numerous other concerns, is the idea of respect and reverence for the human person; he writes, “…the centrality of the human person… must be preserved” (C. in v.,#47). “Respect for life” is thus a non-negotiable aspect of any development. It is this idea of the human person that becomes the point of departure for his calling of Man back to God. This movement requires “charity in truth”, which is “illumined by the light of reason and faith” (C. in v., #9). This movement also requires an acknowledgement of the reality of “original sin,” whose consequence is selfishness (C. in v., #34), a very determined opponent to any human development.
In conclusion, if one approaches this encyclical in an attempt to find, for example, a “fix” for the economy, then this will be an exercise in futility; the Holy Father says so himself, when he writes, “The Church does not have technical solutions to offer” (C. in v., #9). Instead, Pope Benedict XVI offers the most fundamental advice and teaching possible, a conversion of heart to “charity in truth.” There is no development without conversion, a change of heart. There is no development without a realization of man’s dependence upon God and his gifts. In this respect, a development that refuses to acknowledge a transcendent and eternal Good is doomed. The Church’s witness and gift to human development is a call back to giver of every good gift — God.