It will take time for the Third Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI to be read, digested and analyzed.  However, there are a few brave souls who are willing to go on record with their first impressions of the Encyclical.

It was to be expected that there should be general agreement on the high level of intellectual discernment by the Pope of the obligation of all to approach the subject of social justice with respect for the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.

There are those commentators, like the first listed here, Andrew Stuttaford, who will disclaim any qualification to analyze the Encyclical from a theological perspective.  Nonetheless is is valuable to read the opinion of those who will comment on the Encyclical from another perspective, such as history, or geo-politics.

Stuttaford’s comment about Pope Benedict’s thought that it would be beneficial that there should be some sort of
“political world authority” to “manage” the global economy being a “dreadful idea” is not valid when viewed strictly from the historical nature of the Church as authoritarian.  But, given the sorry history of the United Nations in world affairs it is legitimate to oppose such an idea without in any way failing to give proper assent to the quasi-infallible nature of the main body of thought of the papal encyclical.



For obvious reasons I have no comment on the theological content of the new papal encyclical, but when it comes to its political/economic content, E. J. Dionne is being disingenuous if he is trying to suggest that what the pope is saying is particularly new. So far as I can discern, Benedict is basically doing little more than reiterate the “social market” view of political economy that has long been at the core of continental european Christian Democracy or, to put it another way, the “Rhineland-model” capitalism under which he spent most of his adult life. This is not a view I, or many, supporters of the “Anglo-Saxon” (to use the adjective often used to describe it) approach to the market economy, would share, but it’s hardly new. As to the pope’s (dreadful) idea that there should be some sort of “world political authority” to, in some respects, “manage” the global economy, that again should be no surprise. Of all the forms of Christianity, Roman Catholicism is traditionally probably the most “universalist” (in the sense of the lack of attention it pays to the nation-state) and the Vatican is, of course, no stranger to notions of either top-down government or, dare I say, it, the authoritarian. Under the circumstances the pope’s support for this world authority may be thoroughly misguided, but it’s hardly a shock.


I’ve just finished a first reading of Benedict XVI’s new encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.” It is a dense and complex text, deeply in continuity with the mainstream of the Catholic social teaching tradition, but also fresh, filled with new ideas and proposals.

Let me highlight just a few of the major themes. Very much in line with his predecessor Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI insists on the tight connection between love and truth. In a telling phrase, the Pope says that love without truth devolves into sentimentality, and truth without love becomes cold and calculating. The coming together of the two, which is the structuring logic of the Church’s social teaching, is grounded i n the God who is, simultaneously, Agape (love) and Logos (reason).

A real innovation of this letter is the connection that Benedict XVI makes between “social ethics” and “life ethics.” He argues that Pope Paul VI’s “Populorum Progressio” — whose 40th anniversary “Caritas in Veritate” celebrates — is best read in tandem with that Pope’s controversial encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” The radical openness to life, which Paul VI defended in “Humanae Vitae,” should be the inspiration for the Church’s social doctrine, which is intended to foster the full flourishing of communal life at all levels. Benedict XVI makes this point even clearer when he comments that societies that de-emphasize life, even to the point of fostering artificial contraception and abortion, suffer quite practical economic hardships.

Another “novum” in this remarkable text is the Pope’s insistence that, alongside of the contract ual logic of the marketplace (one gives in order to receive), and the legal logic of the political realm (one gives because one is obliged to give), there must be the logic of sheer gratuity (one gives simply because it is good to do so). Without this third element, both the economic and political devolve into something less than fully human.

As many have already commented, Benedict XVI places special emphasis on the obligation to care for the environment. In fact, nowhere else in Catholic social teaching is there such an extended discussion of this issue. He makes the helpful clarification that, as believers in creation, we must avoid both an idolization of nature and an exploitation of it. As created, the world is not divine, but it is a kind of sacrament of God; hence it shouldn’t be seen as absolute, but it should be cared for in a spirit of stewardship.

What might prove most controversial in the encyclical is Benedict XVI’s call for a kind of world gove rnment, a truly international political entity with the requisite power to preside over world political and economic affairs. In saying so, he echoes Pope John XXIII’s praise of the United Nations in “Pacem in Terris.” One might be forgiven for suspecting that this proposal, given political realities on the ground, might be a bit utopian.

A final note concerning style. I must say that much of “Caritas in Veritate” didn’t “sound” like Benedict XVI. Joseph Ratzinger is a very gracious writer, and his style is marked by a deep Scriptural and patristic sensibility. I must say I found this literary and theological élan missing in large sections of this letter.

Nonetheless, there is much to learn from this wonderful text — a worthy addition to the impressive collection of papal letters that constitute the social teaching of the Catholic Church.


In 1986 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation under the signature of its prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The Instructionsays that Catholic social doctrine (CSD) had to emerge from the practice of the Christian faith. “The Church’s social teaching is born of the encounter of the Gospel message and of its demands (summarized in the supreme commandment of love of God and neighbor in justice) with the problems emanating from the life of society” (no. 72). CSD helps people to know what love and justice require in the various circumstances of life, knowledge that would escape many without instruction. In his book on the morals of the Catholic Church St. Augustine had underscored the difficulty of carrying out the commandment to love’s one’s neighbor: “From this commandment are the duties pertaining to human society, about which it is difficult not to err.” In other words, it is easy for human beings to love one another badly both in personal encounters and in devising proposals for the common good of society. Pope Benedict’s new encyclical builds on the earlier CDF Instruction by emphasizing that love has to be guided by truth. “‘Caritas in veritate’ is the principle around which the Church’s social doctrine turns.” If society’s work for justice (“the minimum measure” of love) were guided by truth, argues the Pope, society would not permit abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage, the priority of rights over duties, and the exclusion of religion from the public square. Love of neighbor is not compatible with these practices.

The 1986 Instruction also sheds light on the different levels of teaching found in Caritas in Veritateby distinguishing between permanently valid principles and “contingent judgments” in CSD (no. 72). Unlike Pope Benedict’s two previous encyclicals this one contains a number of contingent judgments aimed at overcoming the current economic crisis, such as the argument for a “true world political authority.”

Drawing upon Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, Pope Benedict offers the world a vision of development that is richer and more complete than the common understanding. He reminds us of Paul VI’s teaching that “life in Christ is the first and principal factor in development.” This means development should aim at the “greatest possible perfection” for every single person, in addition to overcoming poverty, disease, unemployment, ignorance, etc.

By way of conclusion, I would simply say that Caritas in Veritate is proposing a Christian humanism to improve the productivity, ethics, and dignity of the economic life of nations. The practice of the virtues by all participants in modern economies, the Pope argues, is more important for a functioning market than any set of structures devised by policy makers.


That theological anthropology is the proper starting point in discovering the good for which human beings were designed is the animating principle behind Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (or “Charity in Truth”). For without true knowledge of the human person, one cannot know how to properly direct one’s love (or “charity”) to one’s fellow human being. As Benedict writes, “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society at difficult times like the present” (5).

For Benedict, who and what we are, the question of theological anthropology, is the key to a proper understanding of our relationship to one another, our economic progress and regress, the nature of the family and marriage, humanity’s stewardship for the environment, the rule of law, intergenerational justice, as well as our openness to human life at its outset, its end, and the time in between. Yes, Caritas in Veritate mentions all these topics as well as several others. But the answer to the question of what constitutes integral human development—i.e., what are we and what is the good for us as individuals and as a whole?—is the unifying principle that connects them all.

The categories that dominate our public discourse in the United States—left, right, liberal, conservative, etc.—play no role in illuminating the message of Caritas in Veritate. This is why it is a fool’s errand to attempt to artificially divide Catholic social teachings into its left and right wings, as if the Church’s rejection of economic libertarianism and proclamation of the principles of subsidiary and solidarity is a call to socialism or the government ownership of the means of production, or that the Church’s embracing of the exclusivity of male-female marriage and its defense of the sanctity of all human life from conception until natural death means that the Church does not believe in individual liberty.

This “binary model,” as Benedict calls it (41), unnaturally limits our vision of the multilayered and interdependent goods that lead to integral human development, and thus, results in true freedom for the individual to pursue the good. According to the Pope, if we believe that our faith and all that it entails for theological anthropology and the good life is true, we can coherently claim that liberty, rightly understood, prohibits us from rejecting certain unassailable truths about ourselves without which liberty loses its point.

For the Church, the Sermon on the Mount cannot be separated from “Honor thy Father and Mother,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and “Thou shalt not steal.” This is not a seamless garment. For it is not an artifice constructed by our wills. It is a living organism, made by God, whose parts work in concert for the benefit of the whole. Thus, the “justice” in social justice refers to a rightly ordered polity, not to the outcomes and/or processes advocated by the ideologies of a Ludwig Von Mises or a Karl Marx. In Christian theology, you can gain the whole world and lose your own soul (Luke 9:25). To paraphrase St. Paul, that’s a stumbling block to the Austrians and foolishness to the Marxists.


It was predictable, but is nevertheless regrettable, that many pundits and partisans would respond to Caritas in Veritate not so much by engaging Pope Benedict’s profoundly Christian humanism but instead by hunting through the text for quotations they could deploy in support of their own pet policies. (The Pope, for his part, urged “all people of good will” to “liberate [themselves] from ideologies, which often oversimplify reality in artificial ways.”) Rather than reflecting carefully on the Pope’s central proposal, namely, that “[f]idelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom and of the possibility of integral human development,” commentators who might ordinarily roll their eyes at policy suggestions from the bishop of Rome are happy to uproot from the encyclical’s inspiring, challenging vision a few talking points about environmental stewardship, trade unionism, or the redistribution of wealth.

Caritas in Veritate is not, however, merely a papal reflection on the current economic crisis or the implications of globalization. In keeping with the Catholic social teaching tradition, and with the work of his predecessor, the letter is about the person—about who we are and why it matters. Beneath, and supporting, the various statements and suggestions regarding specific policy questions is the bedrock of Christian moral anthropology, of the good news about the dignity, vocation, and destiny of man.

To content oneself with harvesting talking points in support of this or that policy is to miss the point, and the promise, of the letter. We cannot, however high-sounding our stated intentions, expect to achieve true human flourishing through a politics that does not care about or denies the truth—and there is a truth—about the person, namely, that by creating us in his image, God has “establish[ed] the transcendent dignity of men and women and feeds [our] innate yearning to ‘be more.’ 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.” “And now,” the Pope is challenging us to ask, “what follows?”


“Democracy in good faith no longer has any essential reproach to make against the church. From now on it can hear the question the church poses, that it alone poses, the question, Quid sit homo?—What is man?”

The French political philosopher Pierre Manent frames in quite dramatic terms the situation of the Church in the democratic era. Amid the shallow media debates over whether the latest papal encyclical, Pope Bendict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, leans left or right, there is a good chance that readers will miss the central philosophical claim of the document: “the social question has become a radically anthropological question” (italics in the original text). By subordinating all economic systems to the question of the common good, understood as integral human flourishing, the document opposes reductionism, whether in theory or practice, in liberal or conservative forms.

There is a lot of talk already about the document’s dizzying capaciousness, the way it seems to want to discuss everything and embrace almost everything, even things that seem on the surface incompatible. It is easy enough to affirm the Pope’s affirmation of both subsidiarity and globalism, but the document, largely because it does not say enough about the nature of the common good, leaves us guessing a bit as to the principles needed to spell out the relationship. Further reflection about these matters would have to begin, not just from the question, “What is man?”, but also from the queries such as, “What does it mean for human persons to hold things in common?” and “What are the peculiar forms of social life in which human persons now hold—and can learn how better to hold—things in common?”

Even to raise these questions is to sense how distant we are from the world of contemporary political discourse, where the tendency is toward the privatization, not just of religion, but of questions concerning the good, individual and communal. Indeed, a pressing question for a document such as Caritas in Veritate is this: why is it so easily ignored by the wider society, both by the media, political leaders, and ordinary citizens? Catholics fawning over Obama will quickly retort that he has embraced Catholic social thought, especially in the form of Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment.” Aside from the fact that he ignores Bernardin’s insistence on the non-negotiable priority of the sanctity of human life, as well as Benedict’s claim that “openness to life is at the center of true development,” Obama seems to need instruction in the dictionary definition of “seamless.”

For Manent, democracy—increasingly defined by the pursuit of a freedom unfettered by any external restraint, authority, or law—“neither wants to nor can respond” to the questions raised above. The Pope is not quite so despairing, but his own document gives us reason to think that its teaching will at best be distorted when not smugly dismissed. Benedict makes, as some in the media have noticed, numerous references to the current economic crisis, but he also speaks of other crises, including the one arising from a Promethean spirit of technological mastery, the will to remake both human life and the natural environment according to our unrestrained desires. Benedict astutely points to numerous signs of the fraying of the project of mastery. Our task, as sympathetic readers, is to communicate the teaching of Caritas in Veritate so that others can become better able to articulate the hopes and fears of our time, a time in which the very meaning of humanity is very in doubt.


The truth will set you free, and the Truth is Jesus Christ. In this encyclical, the Holy Father is reminding us, exhorting us, to link charity to truth—to Christ. Doing so gives meaning not only to human charity but to human life and human development. As the Holy Father states in his opening, this linking of charity to Truth, to God—not to emotionalism, not to politics, not to purely selfish impulses—ought to be “the principle driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity.” Or, to the contrary, as the Holy Father states in his closing, “A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism.”

The timing for this encyclical is crucial, as the global economy suffers, and, by extension, as charitable giving suffers. Of course, suffering didn’t prevent Jesus Christ from offering the ultimate expression of charity, one that was human as well as divine. We who call ourselves Christians, or followers of Christ, need to emulate Christ and the cross he bore, during tough times as well as easy times.

Already, some are misinterpreting this encyclical in how it weighs the state versus the market. I personally see what I’ve always seen in the Church’s encyclicals: a healthy balance. In section 38, Pope Benedict warns of seeking “profit as an end in itself.” This is hardly controversial. As Christians, we must have charity, as we must have faith, and we must be mindful of a charitable purpose in our lives, sharing our economic blessings in a way that serves human dignity and the human family—a recurring theme of Caritas in Veritate. That is especially imperative in a modern society of unspeakable prosperity.

Charity needs to be coupled always to Christ. As the Holy Father says, it “needs Christians.” The message of this encyclical couldn’t be timelier.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.


Woe to those who call good evil and evil good, says Holy Scripture. Modern political life largely revolves around this kind of lying. We witness daily the routine corruption of language in public life: a blizzard of noble-sounding words—among them, “hope,” “progress,” “development,” “the common good,” “rights,” “solidarity”—grossly disconnected from the God-determined realities to which they are supposed to refer.

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI says in effect: Woe to those who call degradation “development,” selfishness “charity,” regress “progress,” and wrongs “rights.” His encylical letter is a sustained debunking of modern liberalism’s most complacent claims and habitual abuse of words.

How, he asks for example, can the “developed” nations of the world profess to be charitable when they don’t even aspire to basic justice? Treating human beings fairly—not aborting them, not killing them in old age or disability, not corrupting them in their youth, not exploiting them for science, etc.—is the “minimum measure” of charity, writes Pope Benedict, drawing upon Pope Paul VI’s phrase. In his deluded sentimentality, modern man somehow thinks he can leapfrog over justice and get to charity. Not so. Are “social justice” liberals in the Church who support a right to abortion listening?

How, Pope Benedict also asks, can the modern world claim to respect nature when it doesn’t even respect human nature? How can it plausibly demand discipline and sacrifice for the “purity” of nature in future ages while encouraging impurities in human nature in the present one? Modern life’s hedonism, he notes, cuts against its environmentalism: humans who degrade themselves will also degrade nature, no matter how many conservation bills are passed.

This is the age of rhetoric without results, a world elite that speaks of “empowering” the poor while impoverishing them, solving the “population problem” while creating a real one (underpopulation), and advancing “humanitarianism” while killing humans. Caritas in Veritate upends their tired and destructive assumptions, drawing the world’s attention back to the organizing principle of all true charity and development: that man’s good can only be secured if we consult and obey the God who designed it.


The intellectual center of this encyclical is that “A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism.” It rests a notion of authentic human development upon the principle enshrined inGaudium et Spes 22, that the human person only has self-understanding to the extent that he or she knows Christ and participates in the Trinitarian communion of love. As the Pope says, “Life in Christ is the first and principle factor of development.” The whole document is a plea to understand the limitations of a secularist notion of development. Behind secularism lies the error of Pelagius which in contemporary times takes the form of trust in education and institutions without reference to God or the interior dynamics of the human soul. A purely secularist notion of development reduces the human person to a kind of economic machine somehow designed for the accumulation of wealth.

Such a truncated concept of development has fostered government policies hostile to the more spiritual elements of human life, including relationships of reciprocal self-giving in love. Abortion is encouraged, couples are persecuted for having more than one child, and international aid is linked to the acceptance of contraceptives. The questions covered in Humanae Vitae are thus not merely those of purely individual morality, but indicate a strong link between life ethics and social ethics. The concept which links the two is that of a “human ecology.”

Secularist notions of development also fail to comprehend the root cause of drug addiction and depression which is the malnutrition of the human soul, made for communion with God but imprisoned within a materialist universe. When cultures no longer serve the deepest needs of human nature and actually narrow the spiritual horizons of people, people don’t know who they are and feel depressed.

The remedy for this pandemic in contemporary Western culture is to grasp the fact that truth is something which is given to us as a gift: “In every cognitive process, truth is not something that we produce, it is always found, or better, received. Truth, like love, ‘is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings’” (34).

Caritas in Veritate is a masterful synthesis of the Trinitarian anthropology of Gaudium et Spes and the subsequent insights of Paul VI and John Paul II, applied to the contemporary context. The core theological ideas were all present in Ratzinger’s essay on the notion of human dignity in Gaudium et Spes, written in the late 1960s.

At the more practical level this encyclical is exciting in that it calls for a reform of the United Nations and the economic institutions of international finance. It is clear that the general tendency of such institutions to equate human development with the success of capitalism and democracy or material progress is utterly inadequate when measured against the Gospel’s standard.


Benedict XVI is, happily, incapable of dealing with something unless he deals with everything. Journalists will rapidly read this documents looking for items that are “news-worthy,” that is, ones that criticize business, the government, the media, or the Church. They will not concentrate on the overall scope of what Benedict is about here.

The encyclical is wide-ranging and seeks to say something about everything. It is known to be a document initially prepared by others from various disciplines and sectors of the Church and curia, but finally organized by the Pope, no mean feat. Benedict’s first two encyclicals were composed mostly by himself. The difference is telling in reading this document. The document has a kind of “touch on everything” feeling about it. However, what it does consider at some depth, things such as business, profit, life, and the relation of politics to metaphysics and revelation, are very good.

Benedict sets this encyclical within a broader framework so that we can see the limited but important status that public life has. The whole document is concerned with our relation to each other, especially to the poor and weak. It is stronger on what the rich owe to the poor than in what the poor must themselves do if they are to be not poor. The discussion of the other religions in their relation to issues of development is quite frank. The Pope understands that many of their basic beliefs and attitudes are incompatible with a more developed human life. But this criticism is not taken to mean that allowing freedom of religion is not the basic human duty of the state.

This encyclical, moreover, does something that I have been concerned about for many years. It is very careful how it uses the term “rights.” The Pope clearly spells how “rights” and “democracy” in their modern meanings can lead to a violation of human dignity if they are grounded in no standard or understanding of human nature, including fallen human nature.

But the great insight is that all reality is gift-oriented. The very title of the encyclical has to do with the fact that we cannot call “charity” something that is not rooted in the truth of what man is. The terms “mercy” or “compassion” have often lent themselves to a process whereby they overturned what was objectively true in the man.

The encyclical is finally cast in the context of the Trinity, of the relationships in which we are created. The person is not “rights”-oriented but duty- and gift-oriented. The encyclical is a great document that puts things together, metaphysical things, natural law things, revelational things, political things, economic things; all things are seen in relation to each man’s relation to God, to his transcendent destiny which, as is stated in Spe Salvi, is already social. Caritas in Veritate is thus a continuation of Deus Caritas Est, and Spe Salvi. Deus Caritas est. Deus Logos est. Deus Trinitas est.

Read more of Father Schall’s reflections on Caritas in Veritate here.

James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University.


In the first social encyclical of his pontificate, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), Pope Benedict XVI insists on a close relationship between morality and the economy in order to promote a “holistic understanding and a new humanistic synthesis.” This new document is focused not on specific systems of economics but rather on areas of morality and the theological underpinnings of culture.

The background for this new encyclical is the global economic crisis that has taken place within a moral vacuum bare of truth and rampant with materialism. While the Pope does not offer any detailed analysis of the cause or solution to the crisis, he nonetheless urges that the crisis become “an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future” (no. 21).

Never employing either the word “greed” or “capitalism” in the over 30,000 word document (despite some media hype), the crisis itself he attributes to “badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing” without naming the specific institutions that made this possible. The market, Benedict says, “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.”

Those who prophesied that this would be Benedict’s opportunity to “overthrow” capitalism, or that conservatives would be “shocked and disappointed,” must themselves be rather sad today. While it is explicitly not the purpose of the document to offer strict structural models that nations should adopt (no. 9), the principle of subsidiarity—which prefers proximate and private action of the state—a preference for trade over government-to-government aid for developing countries, and a rightly understood globalization are all affirmed.

This is a complex and rich document that will require much study and thought in the years ahead. What is clear and non-negotiable from Benedict’s perspective is that to understand the challenges facing the world economy it is first necessary to understand the august nature of the human person who must always be at the center of economic decisions. Caritas in Veritate enables us to see, at a new depth, the way in which the whole of the human reality must be taken into consideration in order to construct social institutions worthy of man.


Pope Benedict has something for everyone in Caritas in Veritate—from praising profit (21) to defending the environment (48). But in these cases, as in all the others, he calls for a discernment and a purification by faith and reason (56) that should temper immoderate and one-sided enthusiasms.

Once again Pope Benedict shows himself to be a theologian of synthesis and fundamental principles. In the titles of his three encyclicals he has used only five nouns: God, Love, Hope, Salvation, and Truth—the most fundamental of realities. And in the opening greeting of this encyclical he succinctly describes the contents: “on integral human development in charity and truth.” Note that from this very greeting Pope Benedict has changed the whole framework of the debate on “the social question.” This was expected to be—and is—his encyclical on “social justice.” And indeed “justice” and “rights” find their proper place in a larger synthesis. But the priority is established from the outset, the foundation is laid, with “charity” and “truth.”

Another fundamental principle, and a central theme of this pontificate, is the continuity of the Church and her teaching. Surprisingly, the central ecclesiastical text from the past is Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, and Pope Benedict makes it clear that we do not have “two typologies of social doctrine, one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new” (12). This principle of continuity was expressed centrally in Benedict’s first address as Pope on April 20, 2005, and again to the Roman curial cardinals on December 22 of that year.

Within this fundamental material context of charity and truth, and the fundamental formal context of the continuity of the Church’s teaching, Pope Benedict situates the centerpiece of the Church’s social teaching: “integral human development.” And by “integral” he means “it has to promote the good of every man and of the whole man” (18, quoting Paul VI). Among the important dimensions of this wholeness, he notes that integral human development must be open to the transcendent (11) and it must be open to life (28). The inclusiveness of this integration is emphatically and perhaps surprisingly exemplified in paragraph 39. There, the Pope states that the “logic of the market and the logic of the State,” i.e., free economic exchange with political oversight and restraint, are not enough to secure human flourishing. There must also be “solidarity in relations between citizens, participation and adherence, actions of gratuitousness” or, as he says in summary, “increasing openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion.” Pope Benedict insists on a “third economic factor” in addition to the market and the state: gratuitousness.

Here is a radiant example of the fundamental, synthetic, and discerning character of Pope Benedict’s formulation of the Church’s social teaching, one which for me is worth the whole encyclical for its clarity, depth, and common sense: “If there is lack of respect for the right to life and a natural death, if human conception, gestation, and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational system and laws do not help them to respect themselves” (51).

There are times when one is especially proud of the blessing of the Catholic faith. This is one of them.


In the often unpredictable world of the Vatican, it was as certain as anything could be in mid-1990 that there would be a 1991 papal encyclical to commemorate the centenary of Rerum Novarum — the 1891 letter of Leo XIII that is rightly regarded as the Magna Carta of modern Catholic social doctrine. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which imagines itself the curial keeper of the flame of authentic Catholic social teaching, prepared a draft, which was duly sent to Pope John Paul II — who had already had a bad experience with the conventionally gauchiste and not-very-original thinking at Justice and Peace during the preparation of the 1987 social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. John Paul shared the proposed draft with colleagues in whose judgment he reposed trust; one prominent intellectual who had long been in conversation with the Pope told him that the draft was unacceptable, in that it simply did not reflect the way the global economy of the post–Cold War world worked.

So John Paul dumped the Justice and Peace draft and crafted an encyclical that was a fitting commemoration of Rerum Novarum. For Centesimus Annus not only summarized deftly the intellectual structure of Catholic social doctrine since Leo XIII; it proposed a bold trajectory for the further development of this unique body of thought, emphasizing the priority of culture in the threefold free society (free economy, democratic polity, vibrant public moral culture). By stressing human creativity as the source of the wealth of nations, Centesimus Annus also displayed a far more empirically acute reading of the economic signs of the times than was evident in the default positions at Justice and Peace. Moreover, Centesimus Annus jettisoned the idea of a “Catholic third way” that was somehow “between” or “beyond” or “above” capitalism and socialism — a favorite dream of Catholics ranging from G. K. Chesterton to John A. Ryan and Ivan Illich.

It was, in a word, a rout — the Waterloo for Justice and Peace. Ever since, Justice and Peace — which may forgive but certainly does not forget — has been pining for revenge.

It didn’t get it during the last years of the pontificate of John Paul II, despite efforts to persuade the Pope to mark the 30th anniversary of Paul VI’s 1967 social encyclical, Populorum Progressio, with a major statement — or, when that stratagem failed, to mark Populorum Progressio’s 35th anniversary. Evidently incapable of taking “No” for an answer, Justice and Peace kept beavering away, with an eye toward Populorum Progressio’s 40th anniversary in 2007. It is one of the worst-kept secrets in Rome that at least two drafts of such an encyclical, and perhaps three, were rejected by Pope Benedict XVI.

That Justice and Peace should imagine a Populorum Progressio anniversary encyclical as the vehicle for its counterattack against Centesimus Annus is itself instructive. For in the long line of papal social teaching running from Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus, Populorum Progressio is manifestly the odd duck, both in its intellectual structure (which is barely recognizable as in continuity with the framework for Catholic social thought established by Leo XIII and extended by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno) and in its misreading of the economic and political signs of the times (which was clouded by then-popular leftist and progressive conceptions about the problem of Third World poverty, its causes, and its remedies). Centesimus Annus implicitly recognized these defects, not least by arguing that poverty in the Third World and within developed countries today is a matter of exclusion from global networks of exchange in a dynamic economy (which put the moral emphasis on strategies of wealth creation, empowerment of the poor, and inclusion), rather than a matter of First World greed in a static economy (which would put the moral emphasis on redistribution of wealth). Interestingly enough, Paul VI himself had recognized that Populorum Progressio had misfired in certain respects, being misread in some quarters as a tacit papal endorsement of violent revolution in the name of social justice. Pope Paul tried a course correction in the 1971 apostolic letter, Octogesima Adveniens, another Rerum Novarum anniversary document.

Now comes Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), Benedict XVI’s long-awaited and much-delayed social encyclical. It seems to be a hybrid, blending the pope’s own insightful thinking on the social order with elements of the Justice and Peace approach to Catholic social doctrine, which imagines that doctrine beginning anew at Populorum Progressio. Indeed, those with advanced degrees in Vaticanology could easily go through the text of Caritas in Veritate, highlighting those passages that are obviously Benedictine with a gold marker and those that reflect current Justice and Peace default positions with a red marker. The net result is, with respect, an encyclical that resembles a duck-billed platypus.

The clearly Benedictine passages in Caritas in Veritate follow and develop the line of John Paul II, particularly in the new encyclical’s strong emphasis on the life issues (abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive stem-cell research) as social-justice issues — which Benedict cleverly extends to the discussion of environmental questions, suggesting as he does that people who don’t care much about unborn children are unlikely to make serious contributions to a human ecology that takes care of the natural world. The Benedictine sections in Caritas in Veritate are also — and predictably — strong and compelling on the inherent linkage between charity and truth, arguing that care for others untethered from the moral truth about the human person inevitably lapses into mere sentimentality.

The encyclical rightly, if gingerly, suggests that thug-governments in the Third World have more to do with poverty and hunger than a lack of international development aid; recognizes that catastrophically low birth rates are creating serious global economic problems (although this point may not be as well developed as it was in previous essays from Joseph Ratzinger); sharply criticizes international aid programs tied to mandatory contraception and the provision of “reproductive health services” (the U.N. euphemism for abortion-on-demand); and neatly ties religious freedom to economic development. All of this is welcome, and all of it is manifestly Benedict XVI, in continuity with John Paul II and his extension of the line of papal argument inspired by Rerum Novarum in Centesimus Annus, Evangelium Vitae (the 1995 encyclical on the life issues), and Ecclesia in Europa (the 2003 apostolic exhortation on the future of Europe).

But then there are those passages to be marked in red — the passages that reflect Justice and Peace ideas and approaches that Benedict evidently believed he had to try and accommodate. Some of these are simply incomprehensible, as when the encyclical states that defeating Third World poverty and underdevelopment requires a “necessary openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion.” This may mean something interesting; it may mean something naïve or dumb. But, on its face, it is virtually impossible to know what it means.

The encyclical includes a lengthy discussion of “gift” (hence “gratuitousness”), which, again, might be an interesting attempt to apply to economic activity certain facets of John Paul II’s Christian personalism and the teaching of Vatican II, in Gaudium et Spes 24, on the moral imperative of making our lives the gift to others that life itself is to us. But the language in these sections of Caritas in Veritate is so clotted and muddled as to suggest the possibility that what may be intended as a new conceptual starting point for Catholic social doctrine is, in fact, a confused sentimentality of precisely the sort the encyclical deplores among those who detach charity from truth.

There is also rather more in the encyclical about the redistribution of wealth than about wealth-creation — a sure sign of Justice and Peace default positions at work. And another Justice and Peace favorite — the creation of a “world political authority” to ensure integral human development — is revisited, with no more insight into how such an authority would operate than is typically found in such curial fideism about the inherent superiority of transnational governance. (It is one of the enduring mysteries of the Catholic Church why the Roman Curia places such faith in this fantasy of a “world public authority,” given the Holy See’s experience in battling for life, religious freedom, and elementary decency at the United Nations. But that is how they think at Justice and Peace, where evidence, experience, and the canons of Christian realism sometimes seem of little account.)

If those burrowed into the intellectual and institutional woodwork at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace imagine Caritas in Veritate as reversing the rout they believe they suffered with Centesimus Annus, and if they further imagine Caritas in Veritate setting Catholic social doctrine on a completely new, Populorum Progressio–defined course (as one Justice and Peace consultor has already said), they are likely to be disappointed. The incoherence of the Justice and Peace sections of the new encyclical is so deep, and the language in some cases so impenetrable, that what the defenders of Populorum Progresio may think to be a new sounding of the trumpet is far more like the warbling of an untuned piccolo.

Benedict XVI, a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include in his encyclical these multiple off-notes, in order to maintain the peace within his curial household. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear will concentrate their attention, in reading Caritas in Veritate, on those parts of the encyclical that are clearly Benedictine, including the Pope’s trademark defense of the necessary conjunction of faith and reason and his extension of John Paul II’s signature theme — that all social issues, including political and economic questions, are ultimately questions of the nature of the human person.

July 07, 2009

Caritas in Veritate in Gold and Red
The revenge of Justice and Peace (or so they may think).

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center and a longtime commentator on Catholic social doctrine.
National Review Online –

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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