Reflecting back on the papacy of Benedict XVI now that it is officially over, his thoughts on world hunger may come as a quite a surprise for those only familiar with the Church’s conservative social doctrines.
In 2007, Benedict declared to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that food should be “a universal right of all human beings, without distinction or discrimination.” In that same speech, he attributed the lack of progress against hunger to those “principally motivated by technical and economic considerations,” who have overlooked the ethical aspects involved. Two years later, while speaking at the UN Food Summit, Benedict pointed out that there is more than enough food to feed the entire world, and sharply criticized the view that hunger is “an integral part of the socio-political situation of the weakest countries, a matter of resigned regret, if not downright indifference.”
In his papal encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Benedict bluntly laid out his view that, “Feed[ing] the hungry is an ethical imperative for the universal Church.” The document discusses the dangers of unmitigated self-interest, and calls for everyone — from governments, to executives to stockholders — to fully consider the impact of their decisions on our global society.
Benedict’s understanding of both the causes of and solutions to hunger stand in line with the long history of Catholic social teaching. While insisting that the free market alone is incapable of addressing the problem, he is equally critical of government overreach and seeks to transcend the free market/government interventionist dichotomy. Benedict is wary of top-down solutions, and understands the need to engage local communities in all levels of discussion. His balanced and nuanced approach treats these issues with the complexity that they need and deserve.
Yet, on the eve of the next papal conclave, there is still room for improvement. As pope, Benedict used his spiritual bully pulpit to great effect, but his intense rhetoric belies the Church’s priorities. The perception of the Church by many is one of social conservatism, and the church has done little to change that. Prayer Vigils for Life are held throughout the country, while hundreds of thousands of pro-life protesters descend on Washington each year in a display that would inspire jealousy in any hunger activist. A 2012 political ad produced by a Catholic non-profit suggests that voting to protect traditional marriage and pro-life principles is non-negotiable, but economic issues are a different story.
Don’t be mistaken, there are millions of Catholics throughout the world who have dedicated their lives to eradicating poverty and hunger, and Catholic charities are accomplishing extraordinary things. But by a two-to-one margin, American Catholics think the Church should be focusing more on economic and social justice issues, even at the expense of abortion and homosexuality. The next pope, whoever he may be, should not only embrace Benedict’s words, but move beyond them to demand action for the hundreds of millions of hungry people throughout the world.