In chapter one, “The Message of Populorum Progressio,” of Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, he brings Paul VI’s insights on charity and truth to bear on the present in a number of fascinating ways. Paul VI wrote his encyclical, Populorum Progressio, in 1967 just after the completion of Vatican II. The encyclical clearly identifies itself with spirit and concerns of Vatican II and the social justice teaching of the Catholic Church. For example, the opening paragraphs of Populorum Progressio state,
The progressive development of peoples is an object of deep interest and concern to the Church. This is particularly true in the case of those peoples who are trying to escape the ravages of hunger, poverty, endemic disease and ignorance; of those who are seeking a larger share in the benefits of civilization and a more active improvement of their human qualities; of those who are consciously striving for fuller growth.
With an even clearer awareness, since the Second Vatican Council, of the demands imposed by Christ’s Gospel in this area, the Church judges it her duty to help all men explore this serious problem in all its dimensions, and to impress upon them the need for concerted action at this critical juncture.”
Benedict XVI as well highlights the important of the Second Vatican Council and the role it played in shaping both Paul VI’s document and the social teaching of his magisterial successors. Then the Pope mentions two important truths from Paul VI’s encyclical that still speak to us today.
The first is that the whole Church, in all her being and acting – when she proclaims, when she celebrates, when she performs works of charity – is engaged in promoting integral human development. She has a public role over and above her charitable and educational activities: all the energy she brings to the advancement of humanity and of universal fraternity is manifested when she is able to operate in a climate of freedom. In not a few cases, that freedom is impeded by prohibitions and persecutions, or it is limited when the Church’s public presence is reduced to her charitable activities alone.
Having just spent some time reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit and parts of his Phenomenology of Spirit, I found it the Pope’s point about the need “to operate in a climate of freedom” to be in great continuity with Hegel’s thought. For example, in the section on “Objective Spirit” in Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit, he explores the concrete institutional structures that promote human flourishing. According to Hegel, political institutions-those which over time have developed various traditions and customs-are the conditions required for the possibility of human advancement and flourishing. Though I in no way agree with Hegel’s narrative regarding the details of the master/slave dialectic, he does claim that this dialectic must be overcome through recognition of our mutual rationality and freedom-that is, the other must be recognized not as my tool but as an “I” who has the ability to step back from the causal matrix and act as a free being.
The first triad under Objective Spirit is the movement from abstract right (thesis), to morality (Moralität, antithesis), to social ethics (Sittlichkeit, the synthesis of the previous two). Abstract right deals with law articulating various rights and duties of the citizens. Morality focuses on the individual conscience and what s/he takes as morally binding on her/himself. When we get to social ethics, however, we have moved beyond mere private conscience (though private conscience has not be eradicated) to a higher synthesis of private morality and social living in the customary life of a concrete state. Here the triad moves from the immediacy of the family to civil society to the state. The structures of a civil society are based on contract and private interests where the most basic unit in the atomistic individual. Yet, Hegel also emphasizes that a civil society should allow for voluntary entry associations such as churches, fine art societies and the like. The state, of course, represents the synthesis of this triad, and it is here that we find not only the government of the people but the lifeblood of the people as well. Here the individual finds greater meaning within the larger whole, while, according to Hegel, still remaining an individual. Interestingly, Hegel stresses that the state’s constitution is not to be externally imposed on a people, but rather must arise from within the state’s own history and tradition. That is, it must express the state’s innermost being-its Spirit/Geist. Consequently, for Hegel, religion plays a huge role in the development of the state, as religion is tied to the ultimate and deeply felt concerns of human beings. This is not to suggest that a state’s constitution ought to quote bible verses in its legislation; rather, the idea is that the intelligible principles and moral insights of religion have an essential role to play in public life and to bar religion (in that sense) from public life is to remove one of the key voices in the harmony of state. (Charles Taylor seems to articulate something along these lines).
Hegel also notes that the history of states has gone through many developments. In some expressions, freedom was experienced by few; however, in the modern state, the possibility of freedom for all has been unleashed. In no way am I suggesting that what Hegel says is identical in all its details with what Benedict XVI articulates in his encyclical. However, there are some interesting overlaps here to be explored, and I am simply applying the Pope’s own words as articulated in the introduction:
Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development. For this reason the Church searches for truth, proclaims it tirelessly and recognizes it wherever it is manifested. This mission of truth is something that the Church can never renounce. Her social doctrine is a particular dimension of this proclamation: it is a service to the truth which sets us free. Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church’s social doctrine receives it, assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life-patterns of the society of peoples and nations [Cf. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 76.]
In short, both Hegel and Benedict emphasize the importance of human freedom, the formative role of concrete institutions and tradition, and the need to appeal to common, shared truths available to all apart from revelation (which is not to say that Christians in the public square, for example, ought not to allow revelation to inform their views. Indeed they should and must. It’s the how that various Christians disagree over).
Returning to the text, Paul VI’s second important truth is that “authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension” [Cf. Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, 14: loc. cit., 264.]. As Benedict explains,
“Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity. Man does not develop through his own powers, nor can development simply be handed to him.”
In what follows the Pope distinguishes his view from those who would claim that well-functioning human institutions in themselves are our salvation and hope. Rather, as the Pope states,
institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development. Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature [Cf. Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est (25 December 2005), 18: AAS 98 (2006), 232.], to recognize the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that “becomes concern and care for the other.” [Ibid., 6: loc cit., 222.]
I haven’t finished reading the encyclical yet; however, what I’ve read thus far, I’ve found edifying and a “breath of fresh air” in an age in which the human beings are increasingly instrumentalized and often treated as a mere resource having no dignity of their own.
 All citations from Caritas in Veritate are taken from the online version of the document as found here: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate_en.html#_edn16.