‘Charity In Truth’: An encyclical on development

On June 29th of this year, Pope Benedict issued an encyclical on social justice entitled “Charity In Truth,” or in Latin, “Caritas In Veritate.” What should the Catholic in the pew know about this new papal document? My next few columns will respond to that question by reflecting on “Charity In Truth” in some further but not exhaustive depth.

The first sentence in the encyclical reads: “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity.” The term “authentic development” pinpoints the encyclical’s focus.

In 1967 Pope Paul VI issued the Catholic Church’s first sustained reflection on human development in his encyclical “The Progress of Peoples,” or in Latin, “Populorum Progressio.” Pope John Paul II devoted two encyclicals to the same issue. In commemorating his predecessor’s seminal work in “The Progress of Peoples,” Pope Benedict adds his thoughts in “Charity In Truth.”

Since 1961, when President John F. Kennedy urged the United Nations to designate the sixties as the “Decade of Development,” the idea of promoting human development has grown, achieving cult status within international circles as the buzzword for social justice.

Some historical context is in order. When President Kennedy walked to the podium to address the U.N.’s General Assembly on Sept. 25, 1961, the world was just fifteen years beyond the horrors of World War II. Countries were still trying to rebuild from the devastation of armed conflict. Old political structures were breaking up as newly independent countries were shedding their former status as colonies.

The titanic chess match between the free world in the west and the communist world in the east was influencing the direction of foreign aid. Superpower promises of social advancement served as a core ideological weapon in the push for new, strategic alliances between rich and poor nations.

In his U.N. speech President Kennedy called for all countries, working through U.N. channels, to coordinate efforts to combat poverty, illiteracy and disease through largely economic measures. He expressed the hope that “development can become a cooperative and not a competitive enterprise--to enable all nations, however diverse in their systems and beliefs, to become in fact as well as in law free and equal nations.”

Just three months later on Dec. 19, 1961, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution to implement President Kennedy’s idea of a “Decade of Development.” The resolution recognized that improving the social and economic welfare of poor countries was “basic to the attainment of international peace and security and to a faster and mutually beneficial increase in world prosperity.” The resolution called for “measures to accelerate the elimination of illiteracy, hunger and disease, which seriously affect the productivity of the people of the less developed countries.”

Nations were not the only actors to undertake the task of international development.

Amy L.S. Staples, in the first chapter of her 2006 book “The Birth of Development: How the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organizations, and the World Health Organization Changed the World, 1945-1965,” described the post-war era as a “key moment in history.” This was when private individuals, “discrete groups of people with international stature, expertise, money, power, influence, and the best of intentions began working to better the lives of other human beings whom they had never met or known, for no other reason than the desire to improve the fate of the human race.”

Though well-intended, Staples observes, the private sector drive for development was conceived in “scientific” and strictly political terms, using western forms of industrialization as the model for improvement. Staples asserts that the apostles of development, serving as beneficent technocrats, failed to account for “the human misery and social disruption caused by industrialization.”

Staples argues that development understood this way had its roots in philosophical notions emerging between the 1870s and 1920s. During this period “a group of European and American philosophers discarded the platonic notion of pure forms and theorized that truth must be derived from experience, that politics should replace individual moral responsibility as the locus of reform, and that ethics could be derived only from a rational benevolence rather than an ideal form of justice.”

These philosophical perspectives influenced and continue to impact the training of “educators, social workers, agribusinessmen, journalists, doctors, lawyers, business managers and economists,” Staples explains. Members of these professions have been called and still are hearing the call to use their expertise to assist in human development around the world.

Readers of this column may be trained in one or more of the professions cited by Staples, and all of us have learned to rely on the expertise of these professions to guide us in certain aspects of our daily affairs. As we move forward in future columns to see what significance Pope Benedict’s words in “Charity In Truth” might have in our individual lives, this reality of the professions and their training will play a prominent part in my reflections.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.