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Opening reflection: Caritas in verite
September-October 2009

Once he finally got his old van going, the young man slowly drove through Port au Prince’s Cite Soleil neighborhood. He pointed out the many bullet holes in some of the decrepit houses; the street that was the line of demarcation between extreme poverty and misery and the location of many fierce battles between different gangs; the dry creek choked with garbage that overflowed into nearby houses every time it rained; the “port” where one or two boats bring in a few fish each day and boys swim in filthy water; the once-proud playground now falling apart.

Then, with enormous pride, he arrived at the neighborhood Pax Christi house and introduced the soccer team, coaches and young community leaders who are part of an amazing-sports-for-peace program. Young people who were or could easily have been involved in gangs, kidnapping or street violence were learning new skills – not only about soccer, but especially about life.

These scenes from Haiti provide fitting background to reflect on the new encyclical, Caritas in verite, or “Integral human development in charity and truth,” issued by Pope Benedict XVI in early July.

“Love - caritas - is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.” (Art. 1) Courageous and generous engagement – in Cite Soleil or Juba, in Phnom Penh or Appalachia, in New Orleans or Nairobi.

Benedict is strong in his criticism of a global economy that is exacerbating the gap between the rich and the poor – providing a small minority with “super development,” while the majority barely survive. He notes “damaging effects on the real economy of badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing, large-scale migration of peoples, often provoked by some particular circumstance and then given insufficient attention, the unregulated exploitation of the earth’s resources.”

He insists that “to desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity… Every Christian is called to practice this charity, in a manner corresponding to his [sic] vocation and according to the degree of influence he [sic] wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis.” (Art 7)

The encyclical specifically recognizes the importance of Popularum progressio (“On the development of peoples”) and lifts up the social teaching of its author, Pope Paul VI. Benedict writes: “His was certainly a social teaching of great importance: he underlined the indispensable importance of the Gospel for building a society according to freedom and justice, in the ideal and historical perspective of a civilization animated by love. Paul VI clearly understood that the social question had become worldwide and he grasped the interconnection between the impetus towards the unification of humanity and the Christian ideal of a single family of peoples in solidarity and fraternity.” (Art 13)

Caritas in verite insists, however, in a manner not evident in Paul VI’s teaching, that nature -- more than raw material to be manipulated – is a wondrous work of the creator with an intrinsic “grammar” that sets forth the ends and criteria for its just use. This recognition is increasingly central to the mission of Maryknoll.

The encyclical also emphasizes the importance of cross cultural understanding as an essential element in peace. For nearly 100 years Maryknollers have known well the gift of crossing borders and believe that the myriad of diverse cultures in our interconnected world provides exquisite raw material for the work of promoting inclusive global security.

In the many countries and cultures where Maryknollers walk with the people of God, they experience the tremendous contribution of Catholic social thought to the efforts of local communities to follow the Gospel faithfully. Forty years ago, Populorum progressio raised crucial questions about development and social justice;  Caritas in verite reiterates and further develops these challenges in the present context.

The painful and hopeful reality of Cite Soleil challenges us to read these treasures of the Catholic tradition and allow them to renew and inform our commitment to work for the fullness of life for all people and the whole earth community.

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