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An Excerpt from “Integral Human Development,” edited by Séverine Deneulin and Clemens Sedmak

Over the last decade, moral theologians who work on issues of poverty, social justice, human rights, and political institutions have been finding inspiration in the capability approach (CA). Conversely, social scientists who have been working on issues of poverty and social justice from a CA perspective have been finding elements in the Catholic social tradition (CST) to overcome some of the limitations of the CA, such as its vagueness regarding what counts as a valuable human life and its strong individual focus. Integral Human Development brings together for the first time social scientists and theologians in dialogue over their respective uses of CST and CA. 


All the above initiatives and searches for new understanding can be seen as “signs of the times,” an expression that has become part of Catholic tradition since the Second Vatican Council. Well before the UNDP launched its Human Development Reports in 1990 and argued that the question of development and progress is linked to the question of what it is to be human, the Catholic tradition had been reflecting on these questions for a long time. As an intellectual tradition that seeks to analyze social and economic realities from the perspective of the Christian faith, the social teachings of the Catholic tradition, known as Catholic Social Teaching (CST hereafter), have long been exploring questions of socio-economic development and its ultimate ends, an idea we will develop further shortly. CST offers an interpretative framework, a normative vision for personal and social transformation. The normative vision of CST is rooted in a moral tradition that recognizes “constants in context” (Bevans and Schroeder 2004), universal aspects of the human condition with tangible normative impacts. This tradition is linked to the idea of natural law (Pope 2005) and has been criticized, among other reasons, on the grounds of a suspected fact/value fallacy and an explicit “essentialism” (Pope 2001, 90–92). These criticisms may not share the theoretical assumptions of the tradition and its commitment to moral realism and universalism, but might nonetheless support important aspects of the “practical force of natural law” expressed in the Nuremberg trials, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (Pope 2001, 92). The situation we find ourselves in may justify a focus on the practical implications of this normative universal vision rather than the theoretical disagreements. Different approaches may be able to find the concepts of human dignity or integral human development useful, even without a consensus on justification and the fundamental background assumptions. 

This volume is intended to offer a dialogue and common ground for action. CST is well prepared for this kind of dialogue because of its non-static nature and its ultimately practical intention of social transformation. CST is a rich tradition that goes beyond a “Western” understanding of development and personhood, as chapter 2 of this volume (by Dana Bates) shows. As this volume illustrates, CST is always in dialogue with the socio-economic, political, and indeed intellectual context in which the Catholic tradition develops its social teachings. CST is dynamic and permeable, shaped and challenged by contemporary developments and open to new “signs of the times.” Like any other tradition, it can be seen as an ongoing conversation and engagement with the world. 

The dialogue partner of CST presented in this volume is the capability approach, a major ethical framework in contemporary social sciences. The capability approach, not unlike CST with its commitment to questions of values and ultimate values, has shifted the understanding of social and economic progress from how much people have to what they can do and be as human beings, whether they can lead healthy lives, express themselves without fear, pursue knowledge or enjoy aesthetic beauty. This way of ethical thinking has been pioneered by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen. Most of the initiatives to redefine progress briefly mentioned above do refer in one way or another to Sen’s capability approach (hereafter CA). This book engages in an intentional conversation with the CA, an intellectual tradition in which scholars from many disciplines reflect on “development as freedom” and the kinds of practices and policies that enable people to flourish. 

As the chapter authors of this volume will discuss, CST, with its emphasis on the human person, can be enriched by a conversation with a versatile and influential approach that owes a lot to Aristotle and his philosophy, which has obviously also shaped the history of CST. At first glance, this conversation could prove to be difficult. The conversation partners are quite different. CST is an expression of a particular faith tradition and part of the teaching office of the Catholic Church. It expresses the social dimension of the Christian faith and is ultimately concerned with discipleship and a pilgrimage toward a transcendent, ultimate goal. The CA belongs within a social-scientific discourse with a special focus on development studies and an emphasis on the individual and her freedoms. Why would a dialogue between CST and the CA with a focus on “integral development” and “integral ecology” be fruitful? We believe that this dialogue is warranted because of their shared concern with human well-being and the protection of dignity. The common ground for this dialogue is their concern with and commitment to human development in a holistic way. Additionally, both CST and the CA have emerged as normative approaches because of their distinct concern with social exclusion and practices of marginalization. Both normative frameworks have responded to social realities with the goal of social transformation. Both are committed to dealing with very similar questions: What is a good human life? What are reasons to value a particular kind of life? What is an appropriate understanding of human development in the light of these fundamental normative questions? How can we deal with the future of humanity and the planet?

This book’s conversation between these two normative frameworks, the CA and CST, is warranted not only because they both have close connections to social practices but because, as many contributors to this book will discuss, they share many common grounds in their understanding of development and socio-economic progress. The two approaches have common grounds (such as the importance of Aristotelian thinking and a focus on the human person) and a shared concern with notions of wellbeing and fulfilment. This dialogue is also warranted because CST and the CA are open to engaging with many traditions and frameworks. Neither approach is closed off, neither has been developed in isolation, and both reflect their engagement with heterogeneous contexts and sources.

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