Caritas in Veritate: a review

By Stephanie Block

The new encyclical letter by Pope Benedict XVI regarding "integral human development in charity and truth" is also a critique of capitalism.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Saul Alinsky, the consummate community organizer, said, “To hell with charity. The only thing you get is what you’re strong enough to get – so you had better organize.” He was defining “charity” in the very narrow sense of a “handout,” which obviously can only take a person so far. Alinsky and his followers sought to address social problems such as poverty at a deeper level, believing them to be systemic – the rotten fruit of corrupt institutions and an intrinsically flawed social order that can only be changed by the demands of organized people.

Like any influential social movement, there is some truth in these ideas. Suffering either rooted in misuse of individual freedom or in 0systemic” defects – legalized slavery or legalized abortion, for example – can be changed. Organizing people to demand that change is one way to accomplish it.

Addressing systemic defects – sometimes referred to as “the social question” – has been an important discussion for several hundred years and raises many questions in the mind of a sincere and intelligent activist. What are the humanly-generated root causes of human suffering? How do we address them appropriately, without making the problems worse? How do we protect our organizing from power plays that have nothing to do with authentic justice? Will a new system be any better than the old system? Anyone with a heart for social justice needs answers to these questions. False solutions cause as much suffering – or more – then the problem.

The Catholic Church has answers some of these questions.

Real Charity

Alinsky and common usage to the contrary, “charity” doesn’t mean a “handout.” It’s the Latin word for “love,” which Caritas in Veritate calls “an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.” [CV 1]

“Charity” – which 8 0is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine” – also isn’t sentimental, “detached from ethical living” or from moral truth. [CV2, 3] In fact, without that truth, social justice activism (“charity”) is no more than “subjective opinions and impressions,” limited by cultural and historical circumstances. A false assessment of the value and substance of things ultimately leads to injustice. “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.” [CV 5]

To guide those seeking to build the earthly city according to law and justice, with charity and in truth, Benedict XVI revisits Paul VI’s teachings on integral human development. “[A]uthentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension,” the Pope writes. “Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity. Man does not develop=2 0through his own powers, nor can development simply be handed to him…. Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature, to recognize the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that ‘becomes concern and care for the other.’” [CV 11]

The “fully human meaning of the development that the Church proposes” has a number of important components. It rejects amoral and anti-human technological development. [CV 14, 31, 68-77] It respects human sexuality, “locating at the foundation of society the married couple, man and woman, who accept one another mutually, in distinction and in complementarity: a couple, therefore, that is open to life…. [A] society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized. …These important teachings form the basis for the missionary aspect of the Church's social doctrine, which is an essential element of evangelization.” [CV 15]

Benedict XVI challenges “the model of development adopted in recent decades” to help people rise out o f hunger, poverty, disease, and illiteracy in an increasingly interdependent world and calls for a “new humanistic synthesis” [CV 21], liberated from ideologies [CV 22], and progressing in ways that are not merely economic or technological [CV 23].

Addressing Specific Concerns

Lest these foundational points be understood as minimizing the need to respond to specific sources of human suffering, Caritas in Veritate looks long and hard at the contemporary world. Globalization, international trade, and international financial systems bring a host of social problems. Nations are understandably concerned about limits to their sovereignty and “new forms of political participation, nationally and internationally” [CV24]. Systems of protection and welfare, workers’ associations to defend their members’ rights in a world of international labor migration [CV 25], problems caused by “cultural leveling” [CV 26], preventable hunger and “food insecurity” [CV 27], violent denial of religious freedom [CV 29], the earth’s “ecological health” [CV 32], and an entire range of issues concerning peace and stability must all be tackled.

At the heart of these concerns lie the evils of abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. “One of the most striking aspects of development in the present day is20the important question of respect for life, which cannot in any way be detached from questions concerning the development of peoples. It is an aspect which has acquired increasing prominence in recent times, obliging us to broaden our concept of poverty and underdevelopment to include questions connected with the acceptance of life, especially in cases where it is impeded in a variety of ways…. Morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource.” [CV 28; CV 44]

How is any of this achievable? Chapter three of Caritas in Veritate makes it clear that if mankind imagines it will work its way out of its problems alone, it is sorely deceived.
“Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action and morals” [CV 34, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church].

The pope has a few, general comments about “the market,” but his point is not to teach economics, per se, but to stress that these matters must be at the service of humanity. “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…. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it20is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner.” [CV 36]

Similarly, the encyclical is more concerned with the potential to use the fact of globalization for human good. “We should not be its victims, but rather its protagonists, acting in the light of reason, guided by charity and truth. Blind opposition would be a mistaken and prejudiced attitude, incapable of recognizing the positive aspects of the process, with the consequent risk of missing the chance to take advantage of its many opportunities for development. The processes of globalization, suitably understood and directed, open up the unprecedented possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a world-wide scale; if badly directed, however, they can lead to an increase in poverty and inequality, and could even trigger a global crisis.” [CV 42] The term “redistribution of wealth” doesn’t, in the context of the encyclical letter, imply an international Robin Hood but refers to the availability of abundant resources that, thanks to “the mobility of capital and labor” benefit developed countries disproportionately. A “humanizing goal of solidarity,” however, will “steer the globalization of humanity in relational terms, in terms of communion and the sharing of goods.” [CV 42]

Ethical business practices and humanizing globalization are only possible when the=2 0“deepest moral needs of the person” are met. In the face of conflicting “systems of morality,” the Church’s social doctrine, “based on man’s creation ‘in the image of God’ (Gen 1:27), [provides] a datum which gives rise to the inviolable dignity of the human person and the transcendent value of natural moral norms.” These “two pillars” of human dignity and moral truth are the rock on which economic and financial systems must be structured. [CV 45].

The encyclical gives a good deal of attention to ecological matters. Eschewing any tendency to “view nature as something more important than the human person…[leading] to attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism,” [CV 48] “the Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when “human ecology” is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits…. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestatio n 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.” [CV 51]

Further Dimensions of Human Development

These materialistic concerns, however important, are only a fraction of what constitutes authentic human development. The pope examines “other kinds of poverty,” such as that “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…” [CV 53] He particularly laments relativistic moral education that “makes everyone poorer and has a negative impact on the effectiveness of aid to the most needy populations.” [CV 61]

The Church, says Caritas in Veritate, is “a sign and instrument of human unity. Relationships between human beings throughout history cannot but be enriched by reference to this divine model.” [CV 54] How is this manifest? “The Christian faith, by becoming incarnate in cultures and at the same time transcending them, can help them grow in universal brotherhood and solidarity, for the advancement of global and community development.” [CV 59] By contrast, the alienating tendencies of syncretism or the subjugation of the person to occult powers are counter-productive. Where “love and truth have difficulty asserting themselves…authentic development is impeded.” [CV 55]

As other encyclicals on social justice have done, Caritas in Veritate stresses the principle of subsidiarity, closely linked to the principle of solidarity, as an “effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state” and a vehicle for “managing globalization.” [CV 58] Wealthier countries are encouraged to be generous in giving economic aid to poorer countries. [CV 60] Countries are urged to address the phenomenon of migration, involving enormous numbers of people, with cooperative policies and respect for the individuals involved. [CV 62] The great dignity of human work and the contributions of labor unions are affirmed. [CV 62, 63] These are classic themes of Catholic social teaching.

The call “for a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth” is not so classic. “[T]here is urgent need of a true world political authority…regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to=2 0securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth….[I]t would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties.” Such a world body, if it is to be just, must meet the criteria set forth in the beginning of the encyclical, that is, of operating with true charity, rooted in moral truth. “Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is.” [CV 78]

Human “[d]evelopment needs Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer,” the encyclical concludes. “Christians moved by the knowledge that truth-filled love, caritas in veritate, from which authentic development proceeds, is not produced by us, but given to us. … Development requires attention to the spiritual life, a serious consideration of the experiences of trust in God, spiritual fellowship in Christ, reliance upon God's providence and mercy, love and forgiveness, self-denial, acceptance of others, justice and peace.”

The “systemic change” called for here is a good deal more radical than any Alinskyian will ever grasp.

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