Justice and Charity

Benedict XVI‘s Caritas in Veritate must be read in light of a debate going on in the Catholic Church for a century. It first arose in the mid-1800s with the social question, and new ideas like liberalism and socialism. Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII’s encyclical (1891), was considered the Catholic answer to these new challenges. But it was really the result of a wide debate between two different schools of Christian economists and sociologists. One taught that the social question required the primacy of the theological virtue of charity, the other the primacy of the moral virtue of justice.

The primacy of justice leads to an emphasis on the state as administering justice. The primacy of charity, however, underlines the role of the individual. Therefore we have, on the one hand, the regulating state, by nature Socialist; and on the other, the free market, private property, and individual enterprise.

The safest solution, as Rerum Novarum pointed out, is a synthesis of justice and charity, with a slight prevalence of the latter. Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1967) reversed this tradition, proclaiming the supremacy of justice over charity, and a negative view of liberal capitalism and free trade. It called for Programs and Planning, envisaging limitations on private property and the redistribution of income, while encouraging the cult of progress, work, and international solidarity.

Benedict now brings back traditional doctrine in new terms, by developing paragraphs 26-31 of his own Deus Caritas Est, which were focused precisely on the relation between charity and justice.

Caritas in Veritate declares that “Charity in truth is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity” and constitutes “the heart of the Church’s social doctrine.” It is in fact “the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, family members, or in small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic, and political ones).”

Populorum Progressio called for the liberation of all peoples from hunger, poverty, endemic disease, and ignorance. Post-Conciliar enthusiasts believed it possible to provide peace and well-being to all. “Justice and Peace” were the key words Paul VI employed for achieving “man’s complete development and the development of all mankind.”

Benedict roots Charity in truth: “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.” The social doctrine of the Church is therefore “caritas in veritate in re sociali: the proclamation of the truth of Christ’s love in society.” Without truth, “charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word ‘love’ is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite.”

Justice has its place: “Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity.” Nevertheless, “Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is ‘mine’ to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is ‘his,’ what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting.” Charity is linked to gift: “Charity is love received and given.”

Benedict XVI takes a stance towards Paul VI similar to the one he took towards the Second Vatican Council: it should re-interpreted in the light of Tradition. The pope emphasizes that Populorum Progressio is still relevant, if “situated within the great current of Tradition.” But to fully comprehend development in Paul VI, we need “the Tradition of the apostolic faith, a patrimony both ancient and new, outside of which Populorum Progressio would be a document without roots – and issues concerning development would be reduced to merely sociological data.”

Following the neo-Malthusianism of the 1960s, Paul speaks openly of responsible limitation of births. Benedict XVI notes instead Paul’s Humanae Vitae (1968): “This is not a question of purely individual morality: Humanae Vitae indicates the strong links between life ethics and social ethics.”

Benedict knows that demographic growth does not produce poverty, but wealth: “Morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource” and it is “at the heart of all real development.” In view of this, states are “called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society.”

Benedict XVI sees positive value in free markets and enterprise, if grounded in ethical principles: “Admittedly, the market can be a negative force, not because it is so by nature, but because a certain ideology can make it so.” The market is merely an instrument and “it is man’s darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the instrument per se. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.”

Many believe economic freedom means freedom from the moral sphere. For instance, “liberals” often favor drug decriminalization, abortion, and bio-ethical experimentation. Benedict counters: “the social question has become a radically anthropological question, in the sense that it concerns not just how life is conceived but also how it is manipulated, as bio-technology and a pro-euthanasia mindset places it increasingly under man’s control.”

Finally, a far-reaching assertion: “God has to have a place in the public realm, specifically in regard to its cultural, social, economic, and particularly its political dimensions.” In fact, “without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is.” This is the heart of the document, and possibly of the whole Magisterium of Benedict XVI.

Roberto de Mattei, a distinguished Italian historian, is the author of Saint Pius V: The Legendary Pope Who Excommunicated Queen Elizabeth, Standardized the Mass, and Defeated the Ottoman Empire (Sophia Institute, 2021).