The Economy of Grace: Pope Benedict's Social Theology
For four years now many Catholics have been waiting for a new social encyclical. When would the pope treat globalization? Do a thorough treatment of environmental ethics? Comment on the global economic crisis? Come to the defense of labor? Speculation peaked two years on the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Populorum progression (On the Progress of Peoples). This morning the Vatican released Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, On Human Development in Charity and Truth.
Social activists and ethicists who still honor the memory of Paul VI will be glad to learn that Pope Benedict devotes a full chapter to Populorum progressio, one of the most reformist social documents in the last fifty years, and, somewhat late for the 40th anniversary of the encyclical, he calls for commemorating it just as we commemorate the anniversary of Rerum novarum every decade. Neo-cons will wince that he places this encyclical in line not only with Populorum progressio, but also Sollicitudo rei socialis, the most egalitarian encyclical of Pope John Paul II and their least favorite part of the late pope’s corpus.
Pope Benedict sets himself the task of updating Paul’s encyclical, especially in light of the intensification of globalization and its increasing problems. He also provides a fresh look at Paul’s encyclical, putting special emphasis on its underlying theology of the human person. His reading reveals Benedict’s own metaphysical interests, as does his title, Caritas in Veritate, and mines themes like development as "a vocation" for important lessons about the essential role of responsible freedom in human progress. Other idiosyncracies, like an insistence that Catholic social teaching has a seamless development, without any recognizable subdivisions, also appears.
The encyclical certainly bears Benedict’s imprint and reveals his preoccupations. The correlation of charity and truth is the most obvious instance; and this is probably the first social teaching document since Vatican II to insistence explicitly on the relevance of metaphysics to the Church’s social mission. The Council had abandoned the older philosophia perennis model of social teaching for the positive theology of the scriptures and the fathers and a method of reading the Signs of the Times. Caritas in veritate is ralso eplete with correlations of faith and reason, charity and knowledge, rights and duties, subsidiarity and solidarity, constantly reminding us of the Catholic "both-and."
Most intriguing to me is Pope Benedict’s postulation of a new fourth sector of society, profit-making entities committed to the common good, to figure alongside state, the market and civil society. At first it was hard for me to put my mind around the idea, but then I began to think of examples: the Gramin Bank and other micro-finance institutions; "Fair Trade" product marketers, and small investment firms, like GlobalGiving, offering support to entrepreneurs in developing countries. (I hope my examples don’t mislead, but they seem to fit the contours of the model.) They are all part of what the pope calls "the economy of gratuitousness." I am not sure these enterprises yet constitute a sector of economic life. But they are harbingers of a different, conscientious kind of economics that would not repeat the mistakes of the last 30 years.
While Pope Benedict grounds such a sphere in the interior life of the Trinity, opening lots of ground for further elaboration by theologians, he provides perhaps a more experiential basis when he writes of the need of all economic relations to have an element of gratuity to function effectively. There is a parallel in Pope John Paul II (and Bishop Desmond Tutu’s) notion that there is no justice without forgiveness. That is without forgiveness, justice will slide into oppression and offer new occasions for conflict. Thus, in economics, a Gradgrind economy in which every transaction is a matter of strict exchange will ultimately have to come to halt for lack of the oil of trust and good will and a growing sense of injustice.
The Holy Father, however, is also asking for more. While he acknowledges the implicit working of gratuity in the economy, he is looking for explicit inclusion of gratuitousness in all sectors, so that every institution recognizes its role in the service of the common good as the human development "of each and all."
Those who may tremble when Benedict appeals to Truth need not worry. For the most part, the encyclical stays close to Paul VI’s anthropology, so the truth about the human refers to those conditions that are less or more human, keeping close to the dynamism of desire in which humans desire more and more, but go awry unless they recognize the transcendent object of their desire–a formula used a number of times in Populorum progressio. In addition, there is a repeated acknowledgment that faith and reason are mutually related and reciprocally correcting, as are charity and knowledge. Benedict’s humanism, like Paul VI’s, is an integral humanism.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.