Benedict's New Encyclical

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

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9 years 6 months ago
I haven't read the encyclical yet, but I'm hoping its contents will irritate political liberals and conservatives in equal measures. We can't be reminded enough that the Church's social teaching is not anchored to any political philosophy.    
9 years 6 months ago
I have read it.  It is good stuff.  While the Life emphasis will bug some Democrats, the linkage of life and economics will hearten the Obama Catholics.  He explicitly advocates not only labor unions, but an enlargement of them across international borders.  He recognizes plaining the need for regulating the financial markets and outright endorses the government's role in both Social Security and the redistribution of income.  While he did not excommunicate Catholics who are members of the Libertarian Party, he certainly makes it uncomfortable for them - as well as for economic libertarians in the Republican Party.  Not all Democrats are unscathed.  He practically calls out Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates by name when he criticizes international family planning institutions.  Most Catholic Democrats will have no problem with what he says.  We agree that abortion is a bad thing and that the issue is inexorably tied to economic issues and the economic dignity of the poor.  We are all for state economic action to reduce the number of abortions.  The opposition to this strategy usually comes from the Catholic right.  Frankly, I am not sure that conservative Catholics can oppose such a strategy in light of this encyclical.  No Catholic can ever again claim that taxation and redistribution are theft with a straight face. I believe His Holiness and the President have much to discuss.  I am sure, if given the time, the President can enlighten the Pope about the difference between legal abortion as the result of legislation and legal abortion as the result of constitutional law - however I doubt they will take the time for such a discussion.  Pity that.  Like it or not, they are probably two of the leading intellects of this age. I hope they get a chance to chat for quite a while.  They are likely to enjoy eachother's company (much to the chagrin of some), especially as they are both deliberately nice people.  Like Stuart Smiley nice.  I'd love to be a fly on the wall should they ever really get a chance to talk.
9 years 6 months ago
  Oh boy, Obama and the Pope "the two leading intellects of the age"?  I assume that was a serious comment although it's hard to. It's very unlikely that Obama will be able to "enlighten" the pope on the difference between abortion on demand sanctioned by the judicial branch of the United States government, or the proposed abortion on demand right Obama is pushing Congress to implement through legislation.  Neither one of these concepts is particularly hard to grasp, and Obama favors both.  The previous writer's comment on this is therefore mystifying. As for the encyclical, the "left" and the "right" (these conventional, American categories of political discourse, as Benedict XVI has repeatedly said, do not apply to true Christianity) will find nothing in the encylical to endorse any form of charity that is mandatory, i.e., confiscation of wealth.  Charity by its very nature can only be voluntary.  Those who would distort the encyclical as some kind of call for higher taxation or forcible redistribution of wealth need to read it again sentence by sentence.    
9 years 6 months ago
Mr. Ryan,  allow me to direct your attention to the text.  In regard to Social Security systems, which do indeed confiscate money from the haves and give it to the have nots, the Holy Father has this to say: 25. From the social point of view, systems of protection and welfare, already present in many countries in Paul VI's day, are finding it hard and could find it even harder in the future to pursue their goals of true social justice in today's profoundly changed environment. The global market has stimulated first and foremost, on the part of rich countries, a search for areas in which to outsource production at low cost with a view to reducing the prices of many goods, increasing purchasing power and thus accelerating the rate of development in terms of greater availability of consumer goods for the domestic market. Consequently, the market has prompted new forms of competition between States as they seek to attract foreign businesses to set up production centres, by means of a variety of instruments, including favourable fiscal regimes and deregulation of the labour market. These processes have led to a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market, with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State. Systems of social security can lose the capacity to carry out their task, both in emerging countries and in those that were among the earliest to develop, as well as in poor countries. Here budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending often made under pressure from international financial institutions, can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of workers' associations. Further, I am not sure how you can read 32 and not see that the Pope endorses that which you condemn.  I will grant that in 39 he says that we cannot depend only on state redistribution - however he does not reject it as a whole any more than he rejects the market as a whole.    For example:  Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country's international competitiveness, hinder the achievement of lasting development.   36 seems to endorse redistribution by the political system.  36. Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution. The Church has always held that economic action is not to be regarded as something opposed to society. In and of itself, the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak. Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations. Admittedly, the market can be a negative force, not because it is so by nature, but because a certain ideology can make it so. It must be remembered that the market does not exist in the pure state. It is shaped by the cultural configurations which define it and give it direction. Economy and finance, as instruments, can be used badly when those at the helm are motivated by purely selfish ends. Instruments that are good in themselves can thereby be transformed into harmful ones. But 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. The Church's social doctrine holds that authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or “after” it. The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner. The great challenge before us, accentuated by the problems of development in this global era and made even more urgent by the economic and financial crisis, is to demonstrate, in thinking and behaviour, not only that traditional principles of social ethics like transparency, honesty and responsibility cannot be ignored or attenuated, but also that in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity. This is a human demand at the present time, but it is also demanded by economic logic. It is a demand both of charity and of truth. The bold portions will undoubtedly be a subject of profound debate as to the "how" this is done.  I will grant that some method aside from taxation is preferable - however it is just as obvious that the setting of wages without regard to the redistributional needs of the worker for a just and dignified wage to feed the family and reward creativity can no longer be allowed.  I don't see the right wing swallowing that easily.  


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