Column: Pope, father-general — and farmer-leader

Published on July 14, 2009

Halfway through Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” I thought I caught a glimpse of the true guiding spirit behind it. It was, to my surprise, not Pope Paul VI.

When the long-delayed, much-anticipated “social” encyclical finally saw light last week, it was seen by many, and introduced by Benedict himself, as an updating of Paul VI’s pioneering “Populorum Progressio.” Early in the lengthy document (30,000 words, more or less, according to the Catholic News Service), the Pope announced his program: “I intend to pay tribute and to honor the memory of the great Pope Paul VI, revisiting his teachings on integral human development…”

Those teachings revolve around “two important truths”: that the Church’s very being “is engaged in promoting integral human development,” and that “development concerns the whole of the person.” (A certain generation of Catholics will remember another, thrilling catchphrase from that encyclical: “Development is the new name of peace.”)

And yet, despite framing the discussion in “Caritas” (about a third of the 159 footnotes, for instance, refers to Paul VI or the 1967 encyclical), “Populorum Progressio” is not the source of (what this wayward pilgrim thinks is) Benedict’s most audacious insight. Rather it is “Centesimus Annus,” by John Paul II.

He offers a critique of capitalism (though without mentioning the word once). The following passage is typical: “Today’s international economic scene, marked by grave deviations and failures, requires a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise. Old models are disappearing, but promising new ones are taking shape on the horizon.”

This sounds like John Paul channeling Joseph Schumpeter. But Benedict stops well short of condemning the market-based economy: “In and of itself, the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak.” Here, I think, is where, building on a central insight of John Paul II’s, he offers a new idea for a new century. “My predecessor John Paul II … spoke of the need for a system with three subjects: the market, the state, and civil society.”

He distinguishes the nature of each; the following passage both instructs and pushes the argument forward: “The economy in the global era seems to privilege the former logic [of the market], that of contractual exchange, but directly or indirectly it also demonstrates its need for the other two: political [or state] logic, and the logic of the unconditional gift.”

Into this third subject falls Pope Benedict’s principle of “gratuitousness,” of the gift. The “great challenge,” Benedict says, is to prove that “in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity.”

What on God’s green earth can this possibly mean?

The Pope offers an answer: “What is needed … is a market that permits the free operation, in conditions of equal opportunity, of enterprises in pursuit of different institutional ends. Alongside profit-oriented private enterprise and the various types of public enterprise, there must be room for commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends to take root and express themselves.”

* * *

At the Jesuit Basic Education Congress in Quezon City yesterday, the new Jesuit superior-general, Adolfo Nicolas, quoted what he called a “striking statement” from the new encyclical to great effect. “As society becomes ever more globalized,” Pope Benedict had written, “it makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers.”

 That sense of alienation makes the task of teachers, of Christian formators, even more arduous.

The head of the largest religious congregation in the world, Father-General Nicolas is no stranger to the Philippines; he spent almost a decade serving in international apostolates housed at the Ateneo de Manila University. His visit, then, was like John Paul II’s in 1995: among old friends. (The studied informality of the program was evident even on the webcast I watched live.)

His remarks, to be sure, were about the fate and future of Jesuit education. In particular, he suggested that Jesuit schools consider venturing into two “frontiers”—those of “depth” and “universality.” [For another column, perhaps.]

He highlighted three passages from the encyclical, to set the thrust of his remarks in context: the work of Catholic schools must be understood as part of the Church’s original mission to promote “integral human development.”

(Postscript. I like the way Father “Nico” translated the encyclical’s title—by tradition lifted from the first phrase of the document—into English: not “Charity in Truth,” but “Love done in truth.” The verb makes all the difference.)

* * *

Today marks the 40th day since the murder of Sumilao farmer-leader ‘Nong Rene Peñas. I regret that I never met him, but I remember the moving tribute Leah Navarro of the Black and White Movement wrote the day after his death. Part of it went: “The last time I saw Ka Rene was on May 24th. It was Juana Change’s birthday; we participated in her celebratory walk for change along the Manila Bay boardwalk. We hung back and talked instead; Ka Rene had done enough walking in his short life. He walked all the way from Sumilao in all kinds of weather, in tsinelas, to Manila along with hundreds of other farmers that loved the land that gave them a reason for living. He literally walked the talk. Despite his struggle, Ka Rene was a happy man with an easy smile, and that day we laughed a lot.” A life well lived is true gift.

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