Encyclicals Aren't Just for Theologians

High School Seniors Challenged With «Caritas in Veritate»

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By Karna Swanson

SAN MARCOS, California, JULY 12, 2010 (Zenit.org).- When Benedict XVI published his latest encyclical, «Caritas in Veritate,» few high school students probably thought it was something they would be able to read and understand.

Kevin Clarke, a theology teacher at St. Joseph Academy in San Marcos, however, knew differently.

He gave his seniors the not-so-easy task of not only reading the encyclical, but of synthesizing its teaching and applying its principles to current events.

In this interview with ZENIT, Clarke explains how the students exceeded his expectations in their ability to grasp the principles of the encyclical, and the importance «Caritas in Veritate» will have in their lives as they enter college and then into the professional world.

ZENIT: Could you explain your «Caritas in Veritate» project for your 12th grade morality class?

Clarke: Before we got to the projects, we built up to them through a close read of the encyclical. The students were given nightly readings from «Caritas in Veritate,» from which they were to prepare discussion points for the following day’s class. They read and discussed the whole encyclical over a period of two weeks. Students were graded based on their participation in class dialogue.

In class, they discussed and debated in a very orderly manner. During daily discussions, to ensure major points were covered, I would ask questions to guide them to important principles related to the major themes of the encyclical.

Having that foundation, for their projects they were then to pick a social justice topic related to the encyclical (such as technocracy, the environment, bioethics, and so on), synthesize the Pope’s teaching on authentic human development, and then show how the encyclical applies to their topic.

ZENIT: Why did you assign this project?

Clarke: I assigned the project for several primary reasons. First of all, many in the media cast this encyclical in a couple of false ways. In one extreme were those who stated that the Pope had bequeathed a totally irrelevant social encyclical, inaccessible to all non-theologians. Other opportunists in the media have been latching onto «Caritas in Veritate» to prove that Catholicism has become, under «the green Pope,» a religion of environmentalism. These misconceptions vanish easily upon reading the text itself.
Secondly, I wanted them to see (for themselves and that they may show their peers) just how pro-life this encyclical is and just how pro-life social justice is supposed to be. To work for authentic human development in the world, there is but one path: the path that respects all human life. This is true human ecology, as the Pope has said. All means of development will continue to fall tragically short as long as abortion on demand and universal access to contraception remains a «value» of Western economic aid.

Thirdly, speaking of social justice, I wanted to teach social justice the right way, the Catholic way. So often, ideas of social justice and economic equity when expressed in the classroom become means of fostering the very attitudes Benedict XVI cautions against. These include too much faith in political institutions to save man from his miseries (cf. CV, 11); solidarity without subsidiarity, or vice versa (cf. CV, 58); and even worse, liberation theology, a salvation through political revolution movement that this Pontiff has tirelessly opposed for decades.

Ultimately, I wanted the students to see that their Papa had written a letter to the world, inclusive of them, and so it had something to say for their lives. And indeed, they will be entering into various fields of study next year in college. So these are invaluable principles they will hopefully take into whichever field they enter, and in so doing transform the world.

ZENIT: What problems did the students have (if any) in understanding it?

Clarke: The students struggled a bit with the depths of Trinitarian theology found in paragraphs 53 and 54. There were also some challenging economic principles here and there, such as microfinance and pawn broking. But they cut through the concepts of subsidiarity and solidarity like warm butter.

At the end of the discussions, the students admitted that while they initially thought the reading would be mundane or tedious, they actually really enjoyed it more and more as we went along. They realized that while this was a “human development” encyclical, it encompasses just about every issue that moves them.

ZENIT: How did the students do?

Clarke: They did amazingly! They kept up with the reading. They engaged in the classroom discussions. They learned quite a bit and I’m quite proud of them.

While the students found the reading challenging, they did not find it inaccessible. They saw that if they can read and understand this, heads of state have no excuse. With regard to the question of the environment, «Caritas in Veritate» gives a true Catholic perspective on what «green» should be. A true reverence for the environment has reverence for man at its core (cf. No. 51). If anything, this shows how tragically inadequate the culture’s environmentalism measures against the Catholic view of the environment.

And I have found that among students especially, there is a sincere love for the Pope.  Knowing that this was a letter to them from their “Papa,” they took his words to heart.

ZENIT: Was there a particular take on the encyclical from a student that surprised you?

Clarke: Here are some of the quotes from the students:

Rebecca Ryland: “One of the most striking aspects of development in the present day is the important question of respect for life, which cannot in any way be detached from questions concerning the development of peoples” (No. 28). Authentic human development is one of Pope Benedict’s most prominent themes in the encyclical. One generally thinks of human development in purely economic and social terms, but the Pope is referring to the spiritual and intellectual improvement of each person, as well as to the financial and political improvement of mankind as a whole. As stated in the quote above, respect for all human life is inseparable from true development.

Kari Hill: The market today revolves around the one man trying to “make it big” quickly. Where is the fraternity in this man’s life? […] The financial ties between the classes are mutually affected by each other. Again, in order for there to be prosperity, charity is required.

Theresa Chadwick: In order for society to thrive, one must support life. Abortion and euthanasia might seem the most obvious topics, but [Pope Benedict] is referring to a larger picture including contraception, stem cell research, in-vitro fertilization, and sterilization. […] Many people think that “true development” means greater wealth and power, but what people must start to learn is that it is referring to a much more precious development — spiritual development.
ZENIT: Will you do this again?

Clarke: I would most certainly do this again. And I would echo the recommendation of one of my seniors, Theresa Chadwick, who stated in her paper: «Catholic schools, all around the United States, should without a doubt put this encyclical in their curriculum. Young Catholics cannot escape the realities of the modern business world and must learn now about these realities and how to live a moral life within that world.»

I would encourage other teachers to follow Theresa’s advice. If a school has a goal such as the formation of the whole person or that the student become a virtuous and responsible member of society, then I would encourage such a school to turn to «Caritas in Veritate.» It could fit into the high school curriculum in so many ways — in a morality class, a social justice class, an economics class. Challenge the students, and then watch them rise to the oc

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