Awaiting Benedict XVI's 3rd Encyclical

Comments of Bishop Crepaldi on Church

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VERONA, Italy, FEB. 1, 2009 ( Here is a statement written by Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and president of the Cardinal Van Thuân International Observatory, ahead of the publication of Benedict XVI’s third encyclical, to be titled «Caritas in Veritate.» The encyclical will likely be published in April.

The statement was published this week on the observatory’s Web site.

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What does it mean to say the social doctrine of the Church is timely?

We all await the heralded third encyclical of Benedict XVI, which will evoke the publication of «Populorum Progressio» by Paul VI 20 years ago, and will be entitled «Caritas in Veritate.»

Our time is therefore a propitious time for us to ponder the sense of the «timeliness» of the social doctrine of the Church (SDC). The Holy Father is going to publish a new social encyclical precisely in order for a teaching dating back centuries to continue to be ever timely, alive and at work in history. What, therefore, is the source of this «timeliness»? On what basis can we say the social doctrine is «timely»?

We know the social doctrine of the Church has a permanent value and a changing value at one and the same time. In paragraphs 2, 3 and 5 of «Centesimus Annus» John Paul II asserted his wish to «re-read» «Rerum Novarum» by looking «back,» looking «around» and looking «to the future.» These three expressions indicate the historicity of the Church’s social doctrine, which is always an updating of tradition in order to render it once again fecund and hence timely and present.

The three moments of yesterday, today and tomorrow indicate the change and the simultaneous permanence of the selfsame truth in the sense that the SDC is historical, and not just «history,» insofar as it is the announcement of Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever. The «permanent» features of the social doctrine of the Church also stem from apostolic tradition as an essential component of the «depositum fidei» and as a point of observation — or «theological place» as theologians say — to look upon the world and history.

Not only does SDC have its own tradition, which began back in 1891 with «Rerum Novarum,» but it also falls within the mainstream of the living tradition of the Church from which it draws nourishment. One of the reasons explaining a certain degree of slowness or even delays in the awareness of Christians with respect to assuming personal and collective responsibility for SDC may be seen in that fact it is not considered part of ecclesial tradition.

On the basis of what has been said above it could be surmised that the updating of SDC stems from changes and developments in the course of history, which constitute challenges for humanity. This is undoubtedly true. Since «the Church’s social teaching is born of the encounter of the Gospel message and of its demands […]with the problems emanating from the life of society» («Libertatis Conscientia,» 72) it may be argued that it «develops in accordance with the changing circumstances of history» (ibid) and «is subject to the necessary and opportune adaptations suggested by the unceasing flow of the events which are the setting of the life of people and society» («Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,» 3). This is true, as I said, but it has to be understood in a theological sense, not a sociological one. The «timeliness» of an encyclical does not merely depend on the new social problems or issues it addresses. Were this the case, establishing the timeliness of Benedict XVI’s upcoming social encyclical would merely be a question of listing the social issues it tackles and then checking which and how many of them were not touched upon in previous encyclicals. That, however, is not the way it is, for the simple reason that a social encyclical is not a sociological investigation.

It therefore becomes clear that the «timeliness» of SDC stems not only from the new facts humanity has to deal with, but from the Gospel itself, which, insofar as Word incarnate, is always new. New facts and developments in history can act as a stimulus for a re-reading of everlasting truth, because everlasting truth is essentially open to such an endeavor. Were this not true, each encyclical would speak only to the men and women of its time.

Present in the Church’s social doctrine is an inexhaustible and irreducible element of prophecy bestowed upon it by the Gospel. Christ is ever timely, and let us not forget that the social doctrine of the Church is «announcement of Christ.»

Rt. Rev. Giampaolo Crepaldi
President of the Observatory

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