Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical "Caritas in Veritate" is likely to be this Pontiff’s most significant contribution to the Church’s social doctrine. It is telling that he chose to organize his thoughts around the anniversary of Paul VI’s "Populorum Progressio," a text that was widely criticized by conservatives because of its suspicions of capitalism and its unequivocal defense of the poor. But it is equally telling that Pope Benedict links, for the first time explicitly, the Church’s social teachings with its teachings on birth control and abortion. Indeed, the adjective "integral" is found throughout the text, and that has never been the most popular adjective in liberal circles. So, as you hear voices from the left or the right picking the text apart, keep in mind that there is something for everybody in the document and the measure of its intellectual integrity is that there is also something with which both left and right will disagree.
Like all of Benedict’s writings, "Caritas in Veritate" is tightly reasoned, theologically dense, and will be studied for a long time. But, here are some of the highlights.
The heart of Benedict’s anthropological frame for the Church’s social teachings is found in these lines: "Man is not a lost atom in a random universe: he is God's creature, whom God chose to endow with an immortal soul and whom he has always loved. If man were merely the fruit of either chance or necessity, or if he had to lower his aspirations to the limited horizon of the world in which he lives, if all reality were merely history and culture, and man did not possess a nature destined to transcend itself in a supernatural life, then one could speak of growth, or evolution, but not development." #29 This leads to a true humanism. He quotes Paul VI, "There is no true humanism but that which is open to the Absolute, and is conscious of a vocation which gives human life its true meaning." #16. Indeed, the reason our social systems, our politics and economics must be rooted in God is because God is the source of those associations which express what it is to be human: "As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbours but does not make us brothers. Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is." #19.
At one point, Benedict sounds like he hired one of Obama’s speechwriters for a day: "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." #21 At other times, he gives voice to a sentiment that I suspect the President and his staff would have difficulty supporting: "The conviction that man is self-sufficient and can successfully eliminate the evil present in history by his own action alone has led him to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action. Then, the conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from "influences" of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way. In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise." #34
The Holy Father has an uncanny ability to look at a situation and produce an observation that has you slapping your forehead and wishing you had penned the words. In this work, my favourite passage is this: "Let it not be forgotten that the increased commercialization of cultural exchange today leads to a twofold danger. First, one may observe a cultural eclecticism that is often assumed uncritically: cultures are simply placed alongside one another and viewed as substantially equivalent and interchangeable. This easily yields to a relativism that does not serve true intercultural dialogue; on the social plane, cultural relativism has the effect that cultural groups coexist side by side, but remain separate, with no authentic dialogue and therefore with no true integration. Secondly, the opposite danger exists, that of cultural levelling and indiscriminate acceptance of types of conduct and life-styles. In this way one loses sight of the profound significance of the culture of different nations, of the traditions of the various peoples, by which the individual defines himself in relation to life's fundamental questions. What eclecticism and cultural levelling have in common is the separation of culture from human nature. Thus, cultures can no longer define themselves within a nature that transcends them, and man ends up being reduced to a mere cultural statistic. When this happens, humanity runs new risks of enslavement and manipulation." #26 If that is not brilliant, then nothing is brilliant.
The most important economic take-away for the Church in America is, I think, his concern that our faith inform our views in a foundational way. "Charity is not an added extra, like an appendix to work already concluded in each of the various disciplines: it engages them in dialogue from the very beginning. The demands of love do not contradict those of reason."#30 Too often, groups of Catholic businesspeople like Legatus treat the demands of love in precisely this way, as an ethical add-on, not something that must affect they way they treat their workers, the environment, and all those affected by their pursuit of profit. It is not enough to write a check to the annual Bishop’s Appeal. The Pope draws a distinction between "stakeholders" and "shareholders" and argues that companies must consider the well-being of their stakeholders first: Employees, the neighbourhood, future generations all have a moral claim upon business decisions.
Pope Benedict also has a knack for taking a common word and injecting new vitality into it. "One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation. If we look closely at other kinds of poverty, including material forms, we see that they are born from isolation, from not being loved or from difficulties in being able to love. Poverty is often produced by a rejection of God's love, by man's basic and tragic tendency to close in on himself, thinking himself to be self-sufficient or merely an insignificant and ephemeral fact, a ‘stranger’ in a random universe." #53 The words "basic and tragic" show some of the deep Augustinian influences that continue to animate Benedict and the Church.
So, read the encyclical and then put it down, go walk the dog (in my case, the dogs had a fight with a ground hog yesterday, so my intermediate activity will be the acquisition of rabies’ booster shots for Bernie, Clementine and Ambrose today), then return to it and read it again. And again. Even the Pope’s critics must admire the depth of his mind, the probing, searching quest for truth, the felicity of expression, and the theological weight he brings to these pages. The Pope presents a vision of what a society and an economy animated by Christian humanism might look like - it would look very different from the one in which we live, that much is clear. And then, of course, it is up to us in the pews to bring the Pope’s vision into our work places, our union halls and into the voting booth. The Pope has done his job and now we must do ours.
Michael Sean Winters