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Centre for Catholic Studies

Cardinal Turkson's Bishop Dunn Memorial Lecture

The Gospel and Social Teaching: On Human Flourishing, the Economic Crisis and Christian Ministry

Centre for Catholic Studies, University of Durham

(10 March 2011)


I bring you greetings from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and prayerful best wishes for this year’s Bishop Dunn Memorial Lecture, co-sponsored by CAFOD, which I am happy to give in his honour.

His vision of bringing the best of contemporary theology into conversation with the life of the contemporary Church was the inspiration behind establishing the Centre for Catholic Studies, and later the Annual Bishop Dunn Memorial Lecture. The inspiration included the desire to deepen the dialogue between the academic disciplines so that each discipline can make its own “distinct contribution in the search for solutions.”[1]

Regarding this intellectual labour, the real point of our disciplined attention is to learn to comprehend reality more fully, in order to see more clearly the possibilities for increased human well-being. If this is true of all intellectual labour generally, it should be especially true of intellectual labour connected with the Church: it cannot be pursued for its own sake, otherwise it contradicts the Church’s mission. So, all studies should more or less enable the Church to discern the choices facing God’s people, and to discover the possibilities for their greater flourishing.[2] This, also in the spirit of Caritas in veritate, is to know more in order to love more and so to be more!

The Gospel and the Church’s Social Teaching

Forty years ago, Pope Paul VI wrote his great encyclical letter Populorum Progressio (1967), Pope John Paul II marked its 20th anniversary with his own encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987). Another 20 years later, Pope Benedict the XVI wanted to commemorate these two encyclicals for their treatment of development,and treat it as human development in the new and changed situation of a globalized worldThe social issueswhich did beset development in the days of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II have now become “global”. But due in part to globalization, the current economic crisis burst upon the world, and so his social encyclicalCaritas in veritate was delayed and published only in 2009.

Caritas in veritate is a social encyclical like others before it, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum(1891).[3] “Throughout the course of her history, and particularly in the last hundred years, the Church has never failed, in the words of Pope Leo XIII, to speak ‘the words that are hers’ with regard to questions concerning life in society.”[4] This reflection upon what it means to be authentically human in history and culture goes back to the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church in the second and third centuries. Catholic social tradition harnesses the insights of theology, philosophy, economics, ecology and politics to formulate a social teaching that coherently and consistently places the human person (his total and integral development) at the centre of all world systems of thought and activity.

The human person (his salvation) are at the centre of the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ: as therevelation of the love of the Father (Jn.3:16) and the truth of man’s creation in God’s image and likeness and of man’s transcendent vocation to holiness and to happiness with God. This is the setting of the two concepts:love and truth,[5] which drive the encyclical. Love and truth do not only lie at the heart of the mission and ministry of Jesus; they also correspond to and describe the essential character of the life and activity of the human person on earth. The human person is a “gift and love of God” with a vocation (= called by God) to “become gift and to love” one another.

The social order (res socialis, human society) to which the Church’s Social Teaching refers, has certainly changed over the years: from the misery of workers in the days of the industrial revolution (Pope Leo XIII), the economic crisis (recession) of 1929 (Pope Pius XI), decolonization and the appearance of “third worldism” (Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI), the fall of the Berlin Wall and political changes in Eastern Europe (Pope John Paul II) to globalization, under-development, financial, economic, moral and anthropological crisis[6] of our day and our Pope Benedict XVI. In these changing situations, the social encyclicals have fulfilled the need to actualize the same principles of the Church’s Social Teaching: encountering the social order withChristian faith and the love of Christ revealed in the Scriptures. So “the Church’s social teaching (doctrine) illuminates with an unchanging light the new problems that are constantly emerging”;[7] and this is precisely what the encyclical letter, Caritas in veritate, seeks to do in our day.

In Caritas in veritate, then, Pope Benedict XVI, in full harmony with the long tradition (120 yrs.) of the Church’s social teaching about man and the world, treats the conditions under which the human person develops integrally, in all its dimensions and forms, under the challenging conditions of our contemporary world. He inserts himself fully within the social teachings of the Popes before him, making constant references to Vatican II, especially, Gaudium et Spes, and the works of his predecessors: Populorum Progressio of Pope Paul VI, and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis of Pope John Paul II to make two crucial affirmations:

  • To underline the centrality of the human person, his well-being and total development, in all the activities of the human person (man).
  • To teach that, when man’s activity with which he/she builds the earthly city, is inspired by love (divine) and justice – when it seeks the well-being of the human person, whole and entire – then it is an anticipation of the universal city of God and a contribution to its coming.

Human Flourishing: Integral or Reduced?

More than 60 years ago, the Charter of the United Nations spoke about promoting social progress and better standards of living in larger freedom; about tolerance and living together in peace and with one another as good neighbours; about higher standards of living, full employment and social advancement.

“Development” used to mean a growing Gross Domestic Product (GDP), namely the total dollar value of the goods produced and the services provided each year. When GDP is divided by the population, you get “GDP per person” which is easy to compare. If it is higher than last year, the country is developing; if it is lower or higher than that of another country, then our country is more or less developed than the other.

Over 20 years ago, to this narrowly economic notion of “development”, the important adjective “human” was added. For example, the 2010 Human Development Report (of the UNDP) bears the title: “The real wealth of the nations: pathways to human development”. Marking the 20th anniversary of its first such report, the 2010 UNDP Report reaffirms the centrality of the human person in every process of development.

Relying on the works of Mahbub Ul Haq of Pakistan and Amartya Sen of India, the Report expands the notion so that development cannot be understood merely in terms of increase of GDP. Instead, it takes into consideration other factors, including the quality of life of the people and their access to health care and education. This is the Human Development Index (HDI), and it is considered by many to be a more useful tool than GDP-per-person for measuring real development, since both economic and social indicators are included:

  • Instead of sickness and early death, having a long and healthy life
  • Instead of grinding poverty, enjoying a decent standard of living
  • Instead of ignorance, being literate and educated

are surely important, indeed fundamental – but are they everything? For the human person, a complex being, confronts quite different realities of poverty: poverty can be material, it can be spiritual, and both material and spiritual poverty are ambivalent – either one can be liberating, either one (alone or in combination) can be very bad, stymieing human life and growth (development).

Indeed, the human person, the protagonist/subject of human development, has a vocation, not only to material development, but also to transcendence, in correspondence to his nature and creation as body andsoul (spirit) and called to communion with God. Accordingly, to ignore the spiritual dimension of man – to overlook the transcendent aspects of the human person in efforts at fostering human development – actually diminishes human development. Regrettably, however, this has been an increasing trend since World War II, a trend that seems to be accelerating with the phenomenon of globalization, especially in the so-called 1st world but spreading rapidly to all parts of the world.

To leave religion out of the social picture – claiming that it belongs exclusively to the private sphere, or opposing its inclusion in public life as ‘divisive’ or ‘irrational’ – is to deny religious liberty, which is not only a basic human right but in some sense the fundamental one, on which all other basic rights depend.

Pope Benedict XVI reminds us often about the transcendent dimension of the human person, and of our need to integrate this aspect more effectively into public policy if we hope to create a more peaceful and just world. In Caritas in veritate, he reminds us that integral human development presupposes the responsible freedom of the individual and of peoples. Only when development is free can it be integrally human; only in a climate of responsible freedom can development grow in a satisfactory manner.[8] And the true freedom of the human person is its freedom to respond to its created nature (created in the image of God) and to find fulfilment in God. This is the truth about the human person and its existence. Thus, requiring freedom, integral human development also demands respect for this truth, so that development will be sought in a comprehensive way, seen not merely as the quest for “having more,” but as the quest for “being more,” by asserting and justifying the unconditional value of the human person and the meaning of his or her growth.[9] In this, Benedict XVI invites us to think more clearly about our society and our economy. He shows us how to put order into our thinking, offering us a proper perspective. For, “there cannot be holistic development and universal common good unless people’s spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as body and soul,”[10]

Talking about “people’s spiritual and moral welfare”, I recall how Benedict XVI, in his homily at the opening Mass of the II Synod for Africa in October 2009, exhorted Africa to be alert to dangerous pathologies stalking her paths: religious fundamentalism, combined with political and economic interests, and a disease that is already widespread in the Western World, namely, practical materialism, combined with relativist and nihilistic thought. The Pope referred to the latter as sickness of the spirit, with reference to the West, and, with reference to Africa (the developing world), a spiritual toxic waste which the so-called first world was exporting and contaminating the people of other continents with.

When in May 2010, the Pope addressed the Plenary Assembly of the Italian Bishops’ Conference about the economic crisis, he again described an equally serious spiritual and cultural crisis; and for the Pope thisspiritual and cultural crisis is human. The current crisis, the Pope observed, may be manifested in the area of economics, market, trade, business, technology, ecology and politics; but it is ultimately anthropological in character. The crisis derives from new and modern ideas (ideologies) which diminish man’s vision of the truth. And without doubt, false ideologies about man necessarily lead to false ideologies about his development. They limit and obstruct the vision of his true vocation to authentic and true love, to being a gift, to unity and brotherhood, to solidarity, to transcendence and to communion with God and with one another.Here are five manifestations of this sickness of the spirit:

  1. 1. The first manifestation of the sickness of the spirit is in the area of an emerging understanding of the human person (the sense of man). The Holy Father observes that in the past fifty years the various human sciences have produced an ideology (sense of man), according to which man is only the product of culture; and that he evolves/fashions himself independently of human nature and any universal laws inherent in his being. Man is the author of himself, of his/her life and of his society.[11] Man feelsself-sufficient; and not only does he “replace God”, he/she does away with God completely.
  2. 2. A consequence of this emerging sense of man is that man thinks he/she owes nothing to anyone, except to himself; and he believes that he only has rights.[12] The individual is thus the master of the interpretation of the texts of his own existence.
  3. Thus disconnected from the common good and the universal dimension of objective moral law, man now seeks in majority opinion, however unstable it may be, the basis for the determination of the morality of law. This has led to a moral and an anthropological deregulation, giving the impression that norms are created solely by consensus. Moral law, the highest instance of regulation of all laws, has been secularized and replaced by civil law, which is ascribed a moral value, by reason of the fact that it has been decided upon democratically and by consensus.
  4. 4. Fourthly, our freedom gives rise to ceaseless technological inventiveness, in the attempts to conquer and control the forces of nature. But when this basic impulse towards creativity and transcendence gets detached from moral evaluation and responsibility and exaggerated into the ultimate goal, when it idealizes technical progress and entrusts the entire process of development to technology alone, then it manifests the “cultural and moral crisis of man”; and it produces an intoxicating sensation of man’s self-sufficient ‘autonomy’ and a misguided notion of ‘absolute freedom’ which no one else may interfere with. This technocratic ideology creates systems and ways of understanding man and the organization of society, which are unreal and contrary to both human needs and common good. And development is concerned with merely technical aspects of human life, and not with the meaning of man’s pilgrimage through history in company with his fellow human beings, nor with identifying the goal of that journey[13]
  5. 5. Another negative ideology is the utopia of a return to humanity’s original natural state. This detaches progress from its moral evaluation and human responsibility;[14] and it reveals a desire to deconstruct conceptions about the human person and its institutions (man, woman, family, marriage, children and their education etc.). The truth about man would then be freed of all models and moulds. Man would not be differentiated in anyway. All would be equal, and all would be the same.

To cure this sickness of the spirit, the Church invites her children (Christians) and everyone of good will to help make people aware of their identity and their dignity; to work to establish democratic institutions; to recognize human rights and their corresponding duties;[15] and to contribute to integral human development. We are invited to the exercise of Christian ministry for the fuller development and flourishing of all people.

Christian Ministry for an integral Human Development

A true understanding of Church ministry starts with the faith experience of the ecclesial community itself. Responding to God’s revelation of his love and truth in Jesus, people are transformed by the power of God’s word and re-socialized by His love in the Holy Spirit. This new social reality, the ecclesial community, proclaims the love and truth of the Trinitarian life which surrounds it.[16] From this experience, people become subjects of love and of truth, called to become:

  • agents of a new freedom and a new way of thinking, instruments of grace and communion, spreading the Good News of God’s love, weaving networks of love and of truth.
  • builders of an earthly city which anticipates the heavenly city of God.

In this last instance, in one brief paragraph, only about 130 words, the Holy Father details the qualities and virtues needed for such building. Let me read the passage slowly:

The complexity and gravity of the present economic situation rightly cause us concern, but we must adopt a realistic attitude as we take up with confidence and hope the new responsibilities to which we are called by the prospect of a world in need of profound cultural renewal, a world that needs to rediscover fundamental values on which to build a better future. The current crisis obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negative ones. The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future. In this spirit, with confidence rather than resignation, it is appropriate to address the difficulties of the present time.[17]

The Holy Father provides no plans or recipes here, but seems to lay out five ways which he recommends – indeed urges – for building-up the city of man with qualities closer to the City of God:

  • Begin with a realistic attitude, approaching the difficulties of the present time with discernment
  • Ground the work in fundamental values, a new vision for the future
  • With confidence rather than resignation, take up the new responsibilities
  • Be open to profound cultural renewal, with confidence and hope
  • Commit to new rules, new forms of commitment, with coherence and consistency.

These are five profound competences, five focuses to guide our ministry in support of human development (“life to the full”). Let us explore each one briefly:

1. The first step is surely to face the difficulties of the present time, not with ready-made answers or simplistic, over-simplifying ideologies, but with a realistic attitude and with discernment. This is the Church’s duty to scrutinize the signs of the times and to interpret them in the light of the Gospel.

In order to confront the problems of our world we must first study them, we must learn to SEE them clearly and recognize what constitutes injustice at every level. “Seeing” demands more than a glance based on presumptions of ideology or prejudice or even political affiliation. Rather, using the available scientific tools, we must conduct a rigorous analysis of social conditions, their causes and interconnections, their effects especially on the poor and marginalized, and the contemporary experiences of the People of God who struggle. Beside an empirical analysis, we make use of biblical insight, the tradition of our Church’s social teaching, theological reflection to “judge” the situation described. And out of this effort – which sometimes entails solitary research but which often is a collaborative task – emerges a way forward and proposals of what to do and how to “act”.

2. Our next step is to ground the work in fundamental valuesa new vision for the future, which can only begin with oneself, and so this second competence can rightly be called conversion, metanoia.[18] To know and accept oneself is the beginning of wisdom. And this attitude must be accompanied by a willingness to change, to work on oneself.

We just saw some manifestations of the sickness of the spirit; and the Holy Father explains clearly the spiritual roots of the new vision we require. “When he is far away from God, man is unsettled and ill at ease.”[19] “Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. Globalization reduces distances and brings us into closer proximity, but it does not make us into brothers and sisters. This relationship originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is.”[20]

The “outer ecology” of the structures of our family, our community and our society – what we call justice and peace or their absence – reflects the “inner ecology” of each individual, community and organization. Individuals who refuse to change will contribute to the establishment or maintenance of unjust and conflictive societies.

Those who promote peaceful transformation of the world in a convincing way have usually worked to transform oppressive and violent tendencies within themselves, and thus have become credible advocates for those who are suffering the violent consequences of unjust structures.

3. With confidence rather than resignation, let us take up the new responsibilities which go with a new vocation and mission. For a Christian, the starting point and the goal of all building is Christ, Alpha and Omega. Our vision is entirely shaped by God’s salvific plan for the world; and at its centre is the human person.

Vision, or a sense of mission, as the third competence necessary for building a more just and peaceful society, requires clarity about our human calling. The industrial and scientific revolution irreversibly changed western humanity’s picture of the world and man’s place in it. The earth got reduced to a collection of material objects, structured like a machine and treated as such, rather than recognizing the intrinsic worth of every human creature and a sense of the common good.

But “the more we strive to secure a common good, corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practise this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields” in society (the polis).[21]

4. For the fourth competence, the fourth “how”, the Holy Father would have us be open to profound cultural renewal and show confidence and hope. Quite counter-culturally, therefore, we Christians firmly believe that a more just and peaceful world is possible.

If we resign ourselves to fatalism, this can have drastic consequences for our overall wellbeing and that of others. On the contrary and despite the naysayers, economic resources do exist that could help wipe the tears from the eyes of those who suffer injustice, who lack the basics of a dignified life, and who are in danger from any deterioration in the climate. And the poor do benefit from champions in solidarity who believe that injustice can be reduced, that harmonious relationships can be fostered, that our planetary ecology can be made sustainable, that a world of greater communion is possible.

5. Finally, gathering the wisdom of the previous four, the fifth competence would have us commit to new rulesnew forms of engagement, with coherence and consistency. Appreciating God’s plan and our place in it, “is what gives rise to the duty of believers to unite their efforts with those of all men and women of good will, with the followers of other religions and with non-believers, so that this world of ours may effectively correspond to the divine plan: living as a family under the Creator’s watchful eye.”[22]

The fifth competence for building a society of greater peace and justice, therefore, is cooperation, collaboration, networking and solidarity – all that binds people together in the multiple efforts required. This means that groups, organizations, institutions and movements of different persuasions – whether Catholic, Christian, inter-religious or non-confessional – need to respect one another’s identities and differences, and not see one another as threatening or competing with one another. We must cooperate, coordinate, and make our efforts converge towards the very same goals: greater justice, greater security, greater transparency, greater peace.

The Church is an expert in humanity, it has often been affirmed, and the Church’s expertise is rooted in its active engagement in human affairs, ceaselessly looking towards the ‘new heavens’ and ‘new earth’ (2 Peter 3:13), which she points out in order to help people live their lives in the dimension of authentic meaning. Gloria Dei vivens homo: The glory of God is man and woman alive! This conviction, first expressed by St. Irenaeus of Lyons in 185 AD, is the reason why the Church teaches not only Catholics but everyone of good will about the things that truly matter in life. “Testimony to Christ’s charity, through works of justice, peace and development, is part and parcel of evangelization, because Jesus Christ, who loves us, is concerned with the whole person. In the context of faith, the social doctrine of the Church is “an instrument of evangelization – of ministry – because it places the human person and society in relationship with the light of the Gospel.”[23]


In his 2011 Message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict said that: “Today too, in an increasingly globalized world, Christians are called, not only through their responsible involvement in civic, economic and political life but also through the witness of their charity and faith, to offer a valuable contribution to the laborious and stimulating pursuit of justice, integral human development and the right ordering of human affairs.”[24]

This baptismal experience of life of the ecclesial community does not close in on itself, but interacts at every level with the world. It is in living in Jesus, the Supreme Truth and Good, that the faithful discover anew an appropriate order of goods and an authentic scale of values to live by and witness to, to minister and serve in. Let us pray that God, who has truly begun the ministry of human flourishing within and among us, may bring it to great fruitfulness.

Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson

(President, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace)

[1] Ex Corde Ecclesiae, § 32.

[2] Cf. Paul Murray, ed. Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning, xii.

[3] The social doctrine of the Church, with roots in the Old and New Testaments and throughout the tradition, is usually reckoned to begin in its modern form with the encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII in 1891. This social doctrine includes encyclicals down through the years, documents from the Vatican and from Conferences of Bishops and even individual Bishops. For the history, cfr. Le Discours social de l’Église Catholique: de Léon XIII à Benoit XVI, Paris: Bayard Montrouge 2009.

[4] Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Letter presenting the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 2004, p. xxi.

[5] The introduction to the encyclical is devoted to the senses of these two concepts: love and truth, their relatedness, their rooting in the life of the Triune God, their revelation to man through Christ, and their distortions at the hands of men and in human history. Jesus who reveals and shares them with men is also the one to liberate and free them from human distortions.

[6] Cfr. Caritas in veritate,.§ 75.

[7] Cfr. Caritas in veritate, § 12; Sollicitudo rei socialis, § 3.

[8] Cfr. Caritas in veritate, § 17.

[9] Cfr. Caritas in veritate, § 18.

[10] Caritas in veritate, § 76.

[11] Caritas in veritate, § 34.

[12] Caritas in veritate, § 43.

[13] Caritas in veritate, § 16.

[14] Caritas in veritate, §14.

[15] Cfr. Pope Benedict XVI, Message, World Day of Peace 2011, §7.

[16] Caritas in veritate, § 54. In the light of the revealed mystery of the Trinity, we understand that true openness does not mean loss of individual identity but profound interpenetration.

[17] Caritas in veritate, § 21.

[18] In Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II speaks of the need to live the Beatitudes and to have the spirituality of missionaries in today’s world.

[19] Caritas in veritate, § 76.

[20] Caritas in veritate, § 19.

[21] Caritas in veritate, § 7.

[22] Caritas in veritate, no.57.

[23] Cfr. Compendium, xxii, with reference to Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, § 54.

[24] Benedict XVI, Message, World Day of Peace, 1.1.2011, § 7.

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