Context and Viewpoints for the Pope’s Latest Encyclical

Trent Gilliss, online editor

With the Pope Benedict XVI’s release of his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Nancy wondered if we should do a short post pointing to Laurie Goodstein and Rachel Donadio’s article in The New York Times or the press release issued by the Vatican. I recommended we hold off and suggested that perhaps Martin Marty might weigh in Monday’s issue of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

It never came, but last Thursday Rick Elgendy, a doctoral candidate in Theology, took the reins. His piece is smart and helpful, giving us perspectives from several sides and some historical context for this social treatise. We reprint it here for you:

The Radicalism of Caritas in Veritate?

The Vatican recently released the long-awaited papal encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which ranges from theological to political and economic themes. Now that the dust has settled, the encyclical and reactions to it can be seen to be rather remarkable.

Papal comment on social ethics is not itself unusual; Caritas in Veritate is the latest in a long line of encyclicals exploring Catholic social thought. What might be surprising, however, is the character of this encyclical, given its source. Benedict XVI, frequently remembered (from his days as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) for his participation in the institutional resistance to Latin American Liberation Theology, has long been perceived as reactionary by the masses and the media. Yet, this encyclical adopts positions about distributive justice that defy the presumption of papal partisanship. Benedict argues that charity goes beyond but “never lacks justice,” and that “I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice.” Thus, “charity” given under the conditions of systemic injustice is not charity.

Elsewhere, Benedict discusses development (“authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension”), world hunger (food and access to water being “universal rights of all human beings”), the moral responsibilities of corporations (to shareholders, workers, clients, suppliers, and “the community of reference”), and the role of the market (which requires forms of solidarity and mutual trust to fulfill its own function), as well as the usual “life” issues. In doing so, he represents the “seamless garment of life” described by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin: the essential continuity between the Church’s concern with issues ranging from abortion and euthanasia to structural inequality and international peace.

Though frequently presumed to be the source of authority for those who would, say, deny communion to pro-choice politicians, Benedict here refuses to accept the ideological categories assumed in American politics: The same theological commitments that inform his convictions about the integrity of life demand a reimagining of prevailing social arrangements. Catholic and non-Catholic onlookers alike might hope that the encyclical will inspire political discourse that reexamines the standard binaries and turns to principled and civil conversation before partisan rancor (as Benedict himself did, by most reports, in his recent meeting with President Obama, in sharp contrast to how others dealt with the president’s Notre Dame commencement appearance).

Reaction from some commentators has been as remarkable as the encyclical itself. Michael Novak, for instance, echoes Benedict’s theology, emphasizing that, “[f]or Catholics, all social energy flows from the inner life of the Trinity. Everything is gift.” Yet, Novak draws starkly different ethical conclusions: “Thus, it is no surprise when empirical research shows that people who are believers give more of their time and resources to the needy than do unbelievers, and people who cherish limited government (conservatives) give more than welfare-state liberals.” Whatever its “empirical” status, this is a strange response to an argument that charity is specifically not best expressed in noblesse oblige. Novak’s further comments clarify his intention, though, as he suggests that “[t]he Catholic tradition - even the wise Pope Benedict - still seems to put too much stress upon caritas, virtue, justice, and good intentions, and not nearly enough on methods for defeating human sin in all its devious and persistent forms.”

George Weigel argues that the encyclical is the latest episode in a sordid history of attempts by The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to insinuate its social thought into the mainstream. As a result, it is “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,” and those in the know could easily enough “go through the text…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.” Weigel finds those Benedictine sections “strong and compelling,” and exhibits suspicion about the other sections (because, at Justice and Peace, “evidence, experience, and the canons of Christian realism sometimes seem of little account”). He concludes, “Benedict XVI, a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include…these multiple off-notes, in order to maintain the peace within his curial household.”

Weigel’s redaction recalls the work done in the Jesus Seminar, attempting to reveal the sayings and actions of the “historical Jesus” behind the veil of the New Testament. Though the Jesus Seminar uses four colors instead of Weigel’s two, the presumption that one can sort out the wheat from the chaff, the genuine meaning of the authoritative author from the accretions of inexpert subordinates, remains common to both. Apropos, then, is Albert Schweitzer’s well-known suspicion, expressed after decades spent on his own such searching: that the person resulting from such quests often bears a striking resemblance to ourselves. To assimilate the encyclical to our own status quo, however, would mean the tragic loss of its potentially prophetic voice.

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