by Ana Cristina Villa Betancourt
Benedict XVI’s long-awaited social encyclical was made public on 7 July last. It was published forty two years after Populorum Progressio (1967) and eighteen years after the last social encyclical by John Paul II, Centessimus Annus (1991). Caritas in Veritate is dated 29 June 2009. It was time for the Magisterium to make a pronouncement on social matters, and even more so because of the climate of uncertainly brought about by the current financial crisis.
If we read the encyclical from the standpoint of our “Women’s Section”, several thoughts come to mind. We do not find sections or ideas that refer directly to women, and the word ‘woman’ (or ‘women’) appears six times in an encyclical of 31,278 words. Of these six times, in five cases it appears as part of the phrase ‘men and women’ or ‘man and woman’. The word ‘feminine’ does not appear, nor does the word ‘feminist’. On the other hand, the term ‘family’ appears thirty two times, one of these as the heading for the fifth chapter: “The cooperation of the human family”. What can this numerical observation tell us?
Caritas in Veritate is full of content. The social recommendations it contains are based on a profound anthropological vision, patrimony of the Church as an “expert in humanity.” It does not hesitate to put forward to the world of economics and politics some “truths of human life” that the Holy Father regards as necessary if we are to build a more just society in charity, “a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation.” (BENEDICT XVI, Encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, 9). The Encyclical does not hesitate to assert that this is the only way forward towards true development.
There is no doubt that this vision attuned to humanity is a vision that will bring about a response from the minds and hearts of women because of their particular awareness that “God entrusts the human being to her” (JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem on the dignity and vocation of women on the occasion of the Marian year, 30). The Holy Father’s call is a call to understand our commitment and social action from the viewpoint of humanity. This is a call that women respond to eagerly because we know that we have a special vocation to create a spirit of family wherever we are.
As we read the encyclical we feel that we are hearing the words that the Holy Father spoke during the gathering of Catholic movements for the advancement of women in Luanda last March. He said on that occasion: “In a world like ours, dominated by technology, we feel the need for this feminine complementarity, so that the human race can live in the world without completely losing its humanity”. The model of development put forward by the encyclical that is centred on the human person and meant for him, seems to call even more loudly for men and women to work together in a relationship of complementarity.
In another section of that address delivered in Africa, the Holy Father said: “since the dignity of women is equal to that of men, no one today should doubt that women have ‘a full right to become actively involved in all areas of public life, and this right must be affirmed and guaranteed, also, where necessary, through appropriate legislation. [...] At the same time “The presence of a mother within the family is so important for the stability and growth of this fundamental cell of society, that it should be recognized, commended and supported in every possible way” (BENEDICT XVI, Meeting with Catholic movements for the advancement of women, Luanda, 22 March 2009). One commentator noted the fact that, when speaking about the world of work (no. 63), the encyclical seems to assume that women are present in that sphere and has no comment to offer in this regard. The presence of women is accepted as part of the reality of the contemporary world. It is true that we women are in the world participating fully and making our contribution to society. This new encyclical is an opportunity to ask some questions. It is time to look further at our identity and to ask if we, in this world, are completely faithful to the “feminine genius” (MD, 30, 31) and the “prophetic charism” (MD, 29)of our femininity; if we are giving the best of ourselves; if we are contributing, each to the best of her ability, to making this world become one big family.
The Church calls on everyone – men and women – at this disturbing time in history to do what each one can to work towards integral development, one that includes a transcendent vision of the human person, that assumes the responsible freedom of each person; to create a “family atmosphere” that is attentive to people; to insert the categories of trust and solidarity into the marketplace so that it will better fulfil its role in economics; to remember that every financial decision has moral weight; to create a type of market economy that can include all peoples; to be receptive to forms of economic activity that have margins of gratuity and communion; to care for life and protect it; to help to implement “morally responsible openness to life”; to help show that this receptiveness is a “social and economic resource”. It also asks us to be witnesses to the younger generations that marriage and family are beautiful; to set up policies that further the centrality and integrity of the family; to help enhance human possibilities using the greater availability of intercommunication ...
In one of the most profound and interesting passages, the encyclical laments the lack of ideas and thought (no. 53), and invites us to undertake a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation as the key to the future of humanity. Humanity may seem to be much more interconnected than before, but paradoxically, loneliness is one of the deepest forms of poverty being experienced. The Holy Father asks us to come to a greater understanding of relations between people and the centrality of this topic if we are to understand the identity of the human being and how we can build a society that cares for and protects each individual person.
The encyclical calls on all men and women to think again about our activity and commitments in the world. The vision of development that it proposes, based on charity informed by truth, places the human person at the centre. This encyclical should be a wake-up call to many minds and hearts that are willing to accept and implement it. We women feel particularly motivated to respond to this call.