Vol. III, Bulletin No. 23.                                                              December 24, 1998 

A New Year's Message from the Pope

Respecting Human Rights: The Basis of Peace

A few days before bombs and missiles fell on Iraq, Pope John Paul II released a message prepared for the celebration of the World Day of Peace on January 1.  The message, titled "Respect for Human Rights: The Secret of True Peace," reaffirms principles and policies that are a secret even to most Catholics.

From general principles, such as "the dignity of the human person [as] a transcendent value," the Pope moves to controversial issues, such as:

The Pope's message covers a range of specific rights, including the right to work, the right to education, and the right to life.  His central plea, however, is for the adoption of  "a culture of human rights" that engages the consciences of all sectors of society.  He contrasts this culture to ideologies such as Marxism, Nazism, and Fascism and to "myths" like racial superiority, nationalism, and ethnic exclusion.  "No less pernicious, though not always as obvious, are the effects of materialistic consumerism, in which the exaltation of the individual and the selfish satisfaction of personal aspirations become the ultimate goal of life," the Pope writes.

On the international scene, the culture of human rights urgently requires "a new vision of global progress in solidarity," including advances in the exercise of economic and social rights.  "The free market by itself cannot do this, because in fact there are many human needs which have no place in the market."

The full text of the Pope's message for the celebration of the World Day for Peace on January 1 is available in English on the Vatican's Website.  It is also available in five other languages, including French.

'Social' vs. 'Human Rights' as Concept of Choice

America, the Jesuit weekly, ran an important article titled "Ten Building Blocks of Catholic Social Teaching" a few weeks ago. In it William J. Byron, S.J., former president of Catholic University of America, listed his choice of 10 key principles of Catholic social teaching.

I've long felt uneasy about the adjective "social" in that phrase and similar ones.  So, unlike readers who commented on omissions in Father Byron's selection, I explained my semantic uneasiness in a letter to the editor.   After praising the article, I started off with a quotation from a recent statement of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops: "Many Catholics do not adequately understand that the social teaching of the Church is an essential part of Catholic faith."

Here's the rest of that letter of November 17:

Why this gap in understanding the Church's social teaching?  Among the many possible explanations, I would like to suggest a basic reason: that adding the adjectival qualifier social plants the idea, at least to many American Catholics, that this area of the Church's teaching is not really an essential part of Catholic faith but occupies a secondary ranking, to the point of making it an optional concern.

I realize that the term social responsibility has a long history of usage in Papal and other Catholic documents, inspired by the need to relate the truths of the Gospel to new realities, especially the industrial revolution and more recently peace and the global economy.  But applying a new term to historical changes carries some corresponding semantic baggage that also grows out of history.

Probably the heaviest negative burden is that, to many minds, the word social has a loose but evil connection to socialism, especially as embodied in Germany's Nazism (National Socialism) and the "scientific socialism" of the Soviet Union and Communist China. This is an erroneous linkage, of course, but it exists, and inhibits understanding a core area of Catholic teaching.
Unfortunately this qualifier also creates other kinds of semantic confusion. I would like to point to four other misleading images conveyed by inserting the term social as a prefix:

1. A kinship between social and societal, which suggests that individual human beings are absolved of responsibility for modern evils and thereby places total blame on society in general.
2. A false distinction between the Church's fundamental teaching and that which is only "social."
3. Hence a gap between what is considered your personal moral responsibility and your social responsibility.
4. Even a suggestion that social responsibility is a leisurely activity, as in ice cream social.

Of course I am not advocating abandonment of this term.  But we need to realize that it does carry some serious negative connotations requiring serious corrective efforts.  It needs large-scale educational and pastoral efforts to show how respecting the Church's--and the Gospel's--social teaching is a basic individual human responsibility so crucial that it can determine your eternal destiny.
Where can this be clearer than in Our Lord's teaching about the rich man and Lazarus?   And where are the modern implications of this ancient Biblical social teaching less recognized than in our interest in how our foreign policy and international institutions respond to the needs of the growing numbers of the world's poor and vulnerable, the modern likes of Lazarus?

In rereading my letter, I have wondered whether mine is just a semantic quibble. But maybe not.

The Pope does not use the term "social teaching" in his message on human rights, perhaps because he is not addressing only Catholics. As he says, he is dwelling on the crucial theme of human rights "with all of you, the men and women of every part of the world, with you the political leaders and religious guides of people, with you who love peace and wish to consolidate it in the world."

Still, the Pope does not hesitate to rely on the Gospel. In the closing part of  his message, he addresses "you, dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, who in all parts of the world take the Gospel as the pattern of your lives: become heralds of human dignity!"  He appeals to Christians to recognize Christ even "in the poorest and most marginalized," and adds:

"As the [Gospel] parable of the rich man (who will remain forever without a name) and the poor man called Lazarus clearly shows, in the stark contrast between the insensitive rich man and the poor in need of everything, God is on the latter's side.  We too must be on this same side." 
A Scary 'Lesson from the Brink' for 1999
Perhaps the only good thing about crises is that they can shatter accepted notions about how the world works.  Crises impart new lessons--if people are willing to listen.
That's how the September 21 issue Business Week, in an editorial titled "Lessons from the Brink," introduced five conventional notions that have been shattered by "the current plight of the global economy."  The most basic lesson probably concerns the fervent faith in the free market.  This is how the Business Week editorial put it:
Conventional wisdom: Free markets always lead to prosperity.  The spread of laissez-faire capitalism around the world is inevitable, now that the cold war is over and the U.S. has won.

Reality: Freedom can also lead to anarchy. Asia and Russia are good reminders that the rule of law, regulation of banks, bankruptcy courts, accounting transparency, and a whole web of legal do's and don'ts are necessary to channel high octane, short-term capital flows to efficient investments. Without government playing a major role, international capital flows can lead to corruption, overcapacity, currency devaluations, recessions, and even a backlash against capitalism itself.  Capital and foreign exchange controls are returning with a vengeance in Asia and Russia. Free markets need government action to work best.

This analysis is true, up to a point.  But in emphasizing the need for government action, it ignores another reality.  Take the U.S. government and its ability to act. Since the end of World War II the U.S. government has had the lead role in determining the framework of the global economy.  The unfortunate reality is that the United States has become unable to take the lead in behalf of the public good.

How Wall Street Exercises 'Exceptional Clout' on U.S. Policy

In the May/June 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs, which is no hotbed of extremism, Jagdish Bhagwati, a conservative economist, candidly described the "exceptional clout of Wall Street" in determining the U.S. government's international economic policy.  That clout, he wrote, is exercised through a "power elite" that extends from Wall Street to other powerful institutions. He cited the Treasury Department, the State Department, the IMF, and the World Bank as the most prominent among them.  "This powerful network...is unable to look beyond the interest of Wall Street, which it equates with the good of the world."

(Human Rights for Workers has reported on Bhagwati's revelations before: see "Wall Street's Self-Interest in IMF Bailouts.")
The prospects for U.S. government action in 1999 on the international financial crisis for the good of the world are dim.  That could change if the American people, and their  organizations, were well enough informed to put pressure on Congress and the executive branch.   But the media, television in particular, keeps the public diverted and aroused by safer issues, like the Clinton-Lewinsky saga. 

Insights on Freedom: Updike vs. Lincoln

Cruising up the Yangtze River on the S.S. Splendid, John Updike had four days to observe the boat's captain closely.  He impressed Updike as a happy man, so much so that in published reflections on a three-week sightseeing trip in China, the novelist referred to the captain's happiness three times.  Updike added: "Kathy, the guide on our bus in Beijing, was also happy."   President Jiang, too, "seemed happy" (from his photo in China Daily).  And even the deceased Deng Xiaoping still "smiles gently down from billboards."

For Updike, those observations confirmed the impression that he got at the Beijing airport upon his arrival there--that "the Chinese people seemed happy" and "full of fun."  In this jolly atmosphere, Updike "detected none of the police state emanations I remember from the Soviet Union in the sixties."  In fact, "the Chinese we knew best, the local tour guides," were quite relaxed: "They wore freedom's manners easily."

--summarized from "Back from China" by John Updike in the December 7 & 14 issue of the New Yorker.
Traveling down the Ohio River on the Steamboat Lebanon more than 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln took special note of a group of 12 male passengers who were happily enjoying themselves.  One played the fiddle; the others danced, sang, cracked jokes, and played cards.  There was another striking fact about them.  Each man wore a manacle around his left wrist.  The manacle was fastened to a short chain which in turn was fastened to a longer chain, from which the men "were strung together like so many fish."

The 12 were slaves, purchased in different parts of Kentucky and being transported to a farm in the South by their new master.  Here they were, torn from their former homes and "going into perpetual slavery," and yet, Lincoln later wrote, "they were the most cheerful and apparently happy creatures on board."  He reflected further: "How true it is that ‘God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.'"

--summarized from a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to Miss Mary Speed in Louisville, Ky., on September 27, 1841. (Text in "Lincoln on Democracy," edited by Mario Cuomo and Harold Holzer, HarperCollins, 1991.)
"Beijing, Toughening Crackdown, Gives 3 Activists Long Sentences"
--page one headline, New York Times, 12/22/98, reporting 12- and 13-year prison terms for three Chinese human rights campaigners.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  See you in 1999, I hope.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. III-23, December 24, 1998
Robert A. Senser, editor

Copyright 1998
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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