When he travels to the United States next month, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson is aware that he may have to make some adjustments in the way he talks about the Church’s social teaching.
As president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Ghanaian cardinal, 62, is charged with making the Church’s social teaching more widely known and practiced around the world.
He will be in Washington to deliver the plenary address of the 2011 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, Feb. 13-16. The gathering, on the theme of “Protecting Human Life and Dignity: Promoting a Just Economy,” is sponsored by 19 Catholic organizations, including the U.S. Catholic bishops.
In a recent interview with CNA, Cardinal Turkson said he has learned from past experience that the Church’s justice and peace terminology often needs clarification for an American Catholic audience. Key terms used by the Vatican — such as “social justice” and “gift” — are not always understood the way the Vatican intends, he said.
"We found out that some of the vocabulary which is just taken for granted and used freely may not always have the same sense or may have had some nuances which sometimes are missed because of the way the terms are used in the American political context,” Cardinal Turkson said in a Jan. 12 interview at the council’s offices in Rome.
Pope Benedict XVI appointed Cardinal Turkson to his post in Oct. 2009, just months after the Pope released his blueprint for the Church’s social teaching, “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth). The council has since made promotion of the Pope’s vision a top priority.
The encyclical outlines Pope Benedict’s plan for "integral human development" in economics, society and politics through the principles of charity and truth.
Cardinal Turkson said the Vatican is pleased by response to the document. But he said reaction from some sections of the audience in the United States was unexpected.
The council has been surprised to find that common terms were misunderstood or misinterpreted. He emphasized that the misunderstanding was not a general or widespread problem among American Catholics. But, he said, "in certain circles ... there is a difficulty."
For instance, the Pope's teaching on themes of "social justice" have been mistakenly connected to "socialism" and "communism." As a result, he indicated, the Pope is mistakenly seen as promoting socialist or big-government solutions to social problems.
The council has also learned that words like "social" and "solidarity" may have been dismissed by American readers for their perceived connection with communist regimes such as the Soviet Union, he said.
Cardinal Turkson explained that in the Church’s thinking, social justice involves citizens’ obligations and responsibilities to ensure fairness and opportunity in their communities and societies.
While this may include the adoption of specific government policies and programs, the emphasis in Catholic social teaching is on the obligations that flow from citizens' relationships in societies.
"Respecting, understanding and fulfilling those demands constitute our justice," he said. "It would be useful if we just observed our sense of justice as our ability to fulfill the demands of the relationships in which we stand."
This is in contrast to socialism, he explained, which is an ideology in which private property and private interests are totally placed in the service of government policies.
What the Pope proposes in “Caritas in Veritate,” said Cardinal Turkson, is "achieving the common good without sacrificing personal, private interests, aspirations and desires."
Cardinal Turkson said the Council was also surprised that the Pope’s concept of the “gift,” was perceived in some circles as encouraging government welfare handouts.
In "Caritas in Veritate," Pope Benedict described the concept of “gift” as a way to understand God’s love for men and women in his gift of life and his gift of Jesus.
"Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity," the Pope wrote. "That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith, through which the intellect attains to the natural and supernatural truth of charity: it grasps its meaning as gift, acceptance, and communion."
Gift, Cardinal Turkson explained, is "a very basic, deep theological expression of God's relation or the motivation for whatever God does in the world, and it's not quite the same as a handout."
"If we ever need to talk about this in a society where the sense of gift is that of a handout ... it doesn't quite express the sense of gift in this regard," he added.
While it is too late to add any explanations to the encyclical, the Council might tailor its language differently in future documents.
"We just realized that probably in the future, when ... this dicastery takes up the task of diffusing, presenting and talking about this it might be necessary to provide a footnote in which some of these expressions can be given an awareness of the different senses of expressions in different cultures and settings,” he said. We thought something like that would be useful and helpful to the readers."
Cardinal Turkson urged American Catholics and government and economic leaders to give a conscientious reading of "Caritas in Veritate."
The encyclical, he said, invites us "to go back or to remind about the centrality of the human person, his well being, his common good within everything that we do.”
Another important message, Cardinal Turkson said, is that “we must not sacrifice the good of the human person for anything that we aspire after or want to do with technology, business, economics or whatever."
The key to an authentically human vision of development is to consider the full ethical character of the individual in all decisions, he said.
"In details," he concluded, "it may be for food security and shelter for all persons, but at the end of the day we are looking at whether things that we are doing in the world as government, as a Church and all of that help advance the good of the individual person."