Just after Vatican Council II, Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) joined others in founding a school of thought called “Communio Theology.” The inner life of the Revealed God is a Trinity, a Communion of Persons. So should be the inner life of every image of God, every human person.
Thus, the four main ideas in the new Encyclical Caritas in Veritate are communion, gift, caritas, and truth. Undoubtedly, this is the most theological, most specifically Catholic, of all social encyclicals since 1891. Its aim is to show the divine context of political economy and the drama of its upward-leaping tongues of fire: its inspiration, its aspiration.
As Abraham Lincoln pointed out, slavery in the United States could not be overcome by a Lockean fear or self-interest alone, but must be married to a larger and more generous grasp of the reality of the other. Progress and human development always depend upon an upward pull.
Benedict XVI sees political economy today caught in a worldwide updraft, whose possibilities we must read accurately. The world’s peoples are becoming ever more pushed together, misunderstanding each other, rubbing against each other. They are called to be one. More and more often, they learn from each other ideas of human rights, protest, free association, free speech, justice, fairness.
The world, in short, groans for inner communion. And some of the most important secrets of human communion spring from the realities of Person and Communion in the free, gratuitous Creator of all. Persons, even in communion with one another, subsist in their uniqueness.
In the distinctively Catholic view of the cosmos, everything begins in the inner personal, communal life of the Godhead. This tallies with our own personal experience that the two most “divine” experiences in our lives, the two that are most God-like, are the kind of love that is perfect communion with another, and the sweet sense of self-control and personal responsibility in moments of great stress. (“Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”)
From this, the Catholic vision concludes that “Everything we look upon is gift.” Creation itself flows from a superabundant gift. A shopkeeper who moves into a neighborhood to bake fresh bread and sweets in the morning brings a great gift to one’s life. Those who spend their lives bringing such goods to one another bear gifts, especially if their human manner in so doing is kind and considerate. The pope asks us to look at economic life in the light of gift-giving, even when it is conducted according to conventions of exchange and price. It is the human generosity of the thing – the human dimension of commerce – that should not be lost sight of, if the world is to remain (or to become) more human.
Michael Novak’s website is www.michaelnovak.net and his wife’s is laub-novakart.com
James V. Schall, S. J.
After reading Caritas in Veritate, I said to myself that the general Catholic and world population has no idea of the brilliance of this pope. Of course, I said that when I finished Spe Salvi, Deus Caritas Est, Jesus of Nazareth, and about a zillion other writings by Pope Ratzinger. God must be amused that the brightest man of our time is the Pope of Rome.
Though I have always admired him, I have considered Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio to be the most nearly ideological of all papal social encyclicals. Caritas in Veritate, which commemorates Paul VI’s document forty years later, I must confess, regards it as one of the best. Aside from not touching on labor union corruption or the potential totalitarian nature of the ecology movement, this latest encyclical is simply great. While noting obvious problems, it is amazingly positive about business, its potential, varieties, and openness to ethics.
The proposal about a better world international institution goes back to Robert Maynard Hutchins and Jacques Maritain, to the Hague Conventions, to the League of Nations, and even the Holy Roman Empire. The pope defines the need for authority at a higher level, but with sufficient restrictions to prevent it from being either a world government or a tyranny. The American Founding Fathers probably were more concerned with the dangers of tyranny, as was Augustine. Our experience with how easy it is for international institutions to become ideological instruments needs great structural attention, especially if this international authority is armed to enforce itself.
But the heart of this encyclical is something else. It is a concise re-presentation of what a human person is in his relation to God, the earth, to another person, to the family, to what it is we are meant for, both in this world and in our eternal destiny. Everything belongs together, but in a coherent order. Catholicism remains quietly committed to doing what can be morally and ethically done at every level, even in the worst situations.
Benedict is eloquent on the defects of modernity, but also on its potential. Like Spe Salvi, which I think is a greater document, it places man within this world in such a way that he is not imprisoned within it. I particularly loved Benedict’s initial reminder that everything about us is gift-oriented. As he already indicated in Deus Caritas Est, every political and economic institution needs to be both just and open to what is more than justice.
The Trinitarian and relational understanding of being in this encyclical shows the relation between our head and our deeds. Thinking properly is a precondition to acting properly. Of course, Aquinas said this long ago, but it is nice to see it here. And this pope is a God-oriented person. He knows that what lies behind all our aberrations is what we think of God.
The genius of this document appears in its very title. No “charity” exists without “truth,” All truth leads to putting love in our being and in our world, but in the right order. “A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance” (#4). It needed to be said.
James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That is Catholic.
After its beautiful opening paragraphs, the latest encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI can be difficult to read. Capable theologians and philosophers, as well as experts in business, economics, and government, may find points that are unclear or ill-reasoned. The encyclical is striking in its address of a wide range of current policy concerns, from the financial crisis to bioethics. Its success in doing so varies. But it splendidly succeeds in reiterating some critically important themes of this pontificate.
Begin with the title, Caritas in Veritate. The first word returns to the pope’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Love is “the force that has its origin in God.” Here the focus is on love in truth, and what that love has to say about how we order our efforts to bring about true human development, or human flourishing in our full potential as the image of God. The pope points to the sequence “Veritas in caritate,” or “truth in love” in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He then inverts the sequence to find his title and reminds us “charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed, and practiced in the light of truth.”
Over and over, the pope speaks to us of the necessity of integral, true human development. In an age of thoroughly disintegrated personalities, lacking an understanding of divine love and thus incapable of integration in that love, as we see at every level of society and often celebrated in the media, this message of integrity is important.
Pope Benedict returns to his assault on relativism and his promotion of cultural dialogue (instead of traditional efforts at religious dialogue). He rejects “cultural eclecticism that is assumed uncritically [whereby] cultures are simply placed alongside one another and viewed as substantially equivalent and interchangeable. This easily yields to a cultural relativism that does not serve true intercultural dialogue.” Likewise, he rejects the opposite danger of “cultural leveling and indiscriminate acceptance of types of conduct and life-styles.” Both these failures “have in common. . .the separation of culture and human nature.”
The pope is thinking in decades and centuries of human development. But this could be an interesting point of discussion during his meeting next week with President Obama, who seems to seek leveling of outcomes as his primary goal at home and abroad, with the moral equivalence of different perspectives as the foundation for such leveling.
In almost all of the current social issues treated in the encyclical, there is an “on the one hand, on the other” sequence that suggests that any human trend or endeavor can be good or bad. International tourism can promote economic development, or degradation. Using the earth’s resources can be good for development, or bad. Globalization is neither inherently good nor bad; same for technology; same for the consumer economy. Is the pope caught in the middle on all these issues, wringing his hands? No. What is common to all is that anything that is open to, and includes, God’s love in truth will aid integral development. Anything without that love destroys such development. This is the central message.
This “on the one hand, on the other” cadence at first resembles a typical speech by President Obama. The middle point of the just way forward, framed between two or more sides of unfairness, works out to be the president himself. In the pope’s view, the just, integral way forward is always the way of love in truth, the way that points to God. He decries the “types of messianism which give promises but create illusions,” for “these always build their case on a denial of the transcendent dimension of development, in the conviction that it lies entirely at their disposal.”
Finally, he highlights again the crucial marriage of faith and reason. The “one hand/other hand” approach does so implicitly by noting that reason without faith produces ineffective or counterproductive means towards development. He emphasizes explicitly that “reason always stands in need of being purified by faith,” while “religion always needs to be purified by reason.”
There are oddities in the text. I had never associated microfinance with pawnbroking, for example. But for whatever faults it has, Caritas in Veritate reprises the great themes of Pope Benedict XVI, and it is thus a gift to be used by all.
Joseph Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.
Charity is a much used word in the Catholic tradition. After 2000 years, you would think that virtually everything that could be said about it has been. But that would be to judge by mere human standards, and to underestimate the Holy Spirit – and Papa Ratzinger.
If there has been a more pointed and simultaneously expansive treatment of Christian love in the encyclical tradition of the last century or so than we find in the first few pages of Caritas in Veritate, I have not stumbled across it. As we have come to expect from this pope, brilliant aperçus appear as he goes about his business, seemingly without effort:
- “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.”
- “Truth , in fact, is lógos which creates diá-logos, and hence communication and communion.”
- “Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development.”
- “Only in charity, illumined by the light of reason and faith, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value.”
These few sentences light up so much of the landscape that Benedict wants to explore, that they come close to encapsulating, in themselves, this entire encyclical.
You do not need to be a literary critic, however, to notice a change in voice as the encyclical turns from charity to more strictly social concerns. Indeed, it’s clear that there are several voices in that part of the text, sometimes working at cross purposes, sometimes almost impossible to decipher – very odd in a document by a man with such a powerful and synthesizing intellect (and unusual even for the typically dense language of an encyclical). Professional Vatican watchers have already begun to parse out which passages may be traced to which of a number of more or less acknowledged consultants. It’s an important pastime, because anything that seems to be the voice of the Successor of Peter bears serious consideration.
But despite the sometimes irritating fits and starts, assertions, qualifications, doubtful formulas, and doubling back, perhaps ultimately all that is not so very important. Because Benedict has put on the table a wide range of questions – wider than any other world figure possibly could – that will have to be worked through in the coming years. And just to raise certain questions already enriches the conversation on several current crises.
To be clear, it would be a great mistake to approach this encyclical in terms of left versus right, as has often been the reductive, politicized way of reading social encyclicals. Though Benedict says that Populorum Progressio, a controversial encyclical written at an inopportune moment in the 1960s, is the “new Rerum Novarum,” his own encyclical is not at all ideological. Don’t believe anyone who simply tells you the pope has endorsed some political position. A pope has to be the pope of everyone, and he of all the public figures on the world stage must reflect the legitimate concerns of workers and employers, developed and developing nations, industries and environmentalists, and many others.
The Church is not some uber-school of business, sociology, economics, or political science And previous popes as well as this one are quick to point out that the Church has no technical solutions to propose. It has some general principles – ultimately the overarching perspective that everything begins and ends in charity – that it seeks to introduce into every nook and cranny of the questions that emerge in our wayward pilgrimage through this life.
When you consider the alternatives – the cold perspective of scientific materialism, the sad narrowness of homo economicus, the grey pragmatism of modern politics, the weightless inconsequence of cultural relativism – even a pope groping around for how to speak about love, God’s love, in every dimension of life, with an unshakeable faith that it’s there, waiting, why, it’s almost enough to give you hope.
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.