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Caritas in Veritate: "Its Principal Driving Force" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | July 14, 2009 | Ignatius Insight

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"Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity." -- Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, (#1).

"The Trinity is absolute unity insofar as the three divine Persons are pure relationality. The reciprocal transparency among the divine Persons is total and the bond between each of them complete, since they constitute a unique and absolute unity. God desires to incorporate us into this reality of communion as well: 'that they may be one even as we are one' (Jn. 17:22). The Church is a sign and instrument of this unity. Relationships between human beings throughout history cannot but be enriched by reference to this divine model. In particular, in the light of the revealed mystery of the Trinity, we understand that true openness does not mean loss of individual identity but profound interpenetration." -- Caritas in Veritate, (#54).


The publication of a social encyclical is a significant event both in the Church and in the world. Many people will have heard even the Latin titles, which are the names given to the most famous of them, Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Mater et Magistra, Pacem in Terris, Populorum Progressio, and Centesimus Annus, not to mention Gaudium et Spes, a decree of the Second Vatican Council.

We read in Scripture that a difference is found between the world and the Church. This difference often becomes clear in the way the world understands and receives a social encyclical. The world often considers its relative autonomy to be absolute so that no guidance or advice from outside its own control will be admitted. In not a few countries in the world, even today, opposition to the Church's presence and freedom is juridical and intense. But even in countries where freedom of the press is guaranteed, an encyclical is often interpreted in an unrecognizable or ideological way.

For its part, a social encyclical tries to say something significant and meaningful to the world about the world in terms of truth and human worth. Within it, we often find words like politics, economics, market, violence, profit, capitalism, socialism, justice, technology, development, corruption, rights, freedom, constitution, duties, and any number of other words we see or hear every day in the media. In general, unless it absolutely has to, the Church does not like to be "polemical." But it does have to be truthful. It seeks to make common ground on some one or more basic points on which agreement of principle or practice is feasible and coherent.

When it does not agree with technical, theoretical, or popular social and political concepts, at least the encyclical seeks to state accurately what is at issue. It addresses the controverted issue intelligently and accurately. It is better simply to "disagree" or "agree to disagree" than to arrive at common grounds that are really denials of the basic differences. The Church can live with differences. It cannot live with untruths on any side, especially its own. Even in the case of contingent, practical matters—which politics and economics mostly are—what is looked for is the most proper, most probable way of incorporating truth into an action or polity.

Right away, when dealing with such social or political notions, the Church, to clear the air, disassociates itself from any thought that it might have or provide all the solutions to temporal problems. "The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim 'to interfere in anyway in the politics of States'" (#10). So why should it say anything? Benedict explains: "She (the Church) does, however, have a mission to truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation."

Simply put, at times things should be said. Action first depends on truth. To not state what is true is irresponsible. The truth about man should be spoken, even at high cost. This responsibility to do so is why the Church has and honors martyrs. Christianity and philosophy, in the persons of Christ and Socrates, are both founded on this principle. Finally, only truth will protect what man ought to be and ought to become. He is not simply a malleable being who can become whatever he wants. He is a being who seeks to be the truth he ought to be.


Thus, a "mission of truth" exists that transcends the limits of every polity regardless of time, place, or configuration. The polity itself is a limited relationship. What follows? "Without truth it is easy to fall into an empiricist and skeptical view of life, incapable of rising to the level of praxis because of a lack of interest in grasping the values—sometimes even the meanings—with which to judge and direct it." Benedict adds a pithy phrase of great profundity: "Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom and of the possibility of integral human development." The phrase "integral human development" is one of the organizing principles of this encyclical.

John Paul II, as I recall, called the freedom of religion the "first freedom," a phrase he may have gotten from our First Amendment. Benedict makes an interesting remark about this issue of religious freedom. He says quite frankly that not all religions are the same, that some even tend to violence and deform fundamental aspects of human life. We can dispute these latter on this score but only if we are allowed to do so. The fact is, however, that "the Christian religion and other religions can offer their contribution to development only if God has a place in the public realm, specifically in regard to its cultural, social, economic, and particularly its political dimensions" (#56). In a world used to thinking sloppily on "the separation of Church and State," a phrase not found in America's founding documents (while "freedom of religion" is), these words are very significant.

"The Church's social doctrine came into being in order to claim 'citizenship status' for the Christian religion. Denying the right to profess one's religion in public and the right to being the truths of faith to bear upon public life has negative consequences for true development" (#56). The Pope is thinking of the Europe of the nineteenth century. The Church through concordats, or laws, or political parties, or unions had to carve out a space in which it could speak in the public forum by virtue of its own understanding of a truth valid for all men. It needed to be legally free to build churches, schools, or other institutions, for citizens to participate in public life as legitimate citizens, for the pastor to teach and preach what the Church believes. In almost every meeting with heads of state or ambassadors from states where the Church does not have even today this "citizenship status"—and there are not a few—the pope, be it John Paul II or Benedict, brings this issue up. Without the evangelization efforts of the Church the simple effort of people to live free lives in truth becomes jeopardized.

The pope does not deny a private sphere of religious faith and practice, but here he insists that stating the truth is a public good to which it is entitled both for the well-being of the polity and for the guarantee of truth. When the state denies any public presence, it means that it claims for itself an absolute, even divine power. "Reason always stands in need of being purified by faith: this also holds for political reason, which must not consider itself omnipotent." John Paul II spoke of the "purification of memory," Benedict speaks of the "purification of political reason."

Many readings of this document will concern themselves with the various economic and political suggestions found in it. For the most part they are informed, not infallible, judgments about the contingent laws and actions of politics, economics, finance, ecology, or globalization. Not a few of the suggestions in the encyclical can be wondered about. Usually, the pope shows some awareness of the tenuousness or prudence of these suggestions. Some people find in them a heady optimism; others find even a naïveté. But these judgments are intended to address, at some more than purely abstract level, a given issue. Without this more informed effort, the Church often finds itself being accused of talking only in abstractions and glittering pieties.

Probably the most controversial suggestion of the encyclical has to do with the advisability of a real international authority capable of carrying out necessary reforms on a worldwide scale with power of enforcement. The pope is a German, so he has to be aware of the multiple lineages and dangers of such suggestions. People remember that the Holy Roman Empire and the "Third Reich" were proposals for a world order with authority. Neither the League of Nations nor the United Nations Organization, as the pope intimates in this document, gives much comfort as examples of successful world authority. It is noteworthy the document suggests some sort of third approach. But at this stage, it is little more than a point for discussion.

In one sense, even though he wrote of city-states, an implication for a general authority exists in the very logic of Aristotle's politics extended to include a real common good for all, a proposal many find in Aquinas also. Still, following the Book of Revelation, as Oscar Cullmann once pointed out, there is danger of a "beast," of a new Babylon, that thinks only of itself and sets itself up against God. The pope's writings are full of warnings against this latter absolutist danger. He touches on it in this encyclical but his attention is mainly on the danger of a breakdown of the world economic order. The world seems to lack an authoritative locus of action for greater goods. This authority, in the pope's mind, would be an accepted and carefully limited authority. The pope is usually considered an Augustinian thinker, but in this proposal, he does not show Augustine's usual caution about the abuse of power.


Clearly, this encyclical is as much, if not more, about truth as it is about charity. Indeed, the necessity of dealing with specifically charity arose because it was the fuzziness that grew up about a use of the virtue of charity that was causing moral and political problems everywhere. In Deus Caritas Est, Benedict had already spelled out the scriptural and philosophical meaning of this word. He talked of "eros, philia, and agape", the three Greek words found in Scripture and in the philosophers to depict different aspects of love. The New Testament almost exclusively uses "agape, which means the love that is outgoing, the love in which we first exist. This love that gives being is God's love of us, a creative love. It is this sort of love by which we love one another, our enemies, our God—who also forgives our sins if we choose to have them forgiven.

The first paragraph of this encyclical is tightly ordered to summarize the whole document. Love is a "driving force." It deals with "authentic," not inauthentic, development. It brings out what is already implanted in our being at our very conception and coming to be as human persons. We are what we are through no power or intention of our own. Love is an "extraordinary force" that gives us "courage" and makes us generous to work for "peace and justice." These latter, peace and justice, do not exist before the former, the truth of our being already what we are not of our own making. "Each person finds his good by adhering to God's plan for him, in order to realize it fully: in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free." Truth is to be defended. There is no freedom without it. God has a plan for each of us. This is why we are.

Here, are we just talking of a few Christians who know something of theological terms? Hardly. "All people feel the interior impulse to love authentically: love and truth never abandon them completely, because these are the vocation planted by God in the heart and mind of every human person." This passage, which is very mindful of Augustine, is about what is already "planted" in our hearts. Lest we think this approach is still abstract, we find that it is made concrete in Jesus. "In Christ, charity and truth becomes the Face of his Person." Jesus is the truth. All human beings belong to His plan. John Paul II, following certain modern philosophers, also spoke of the astonishment for us for God to have a human Face, precisely because love seeks sight. Ubi eros, ibi oculus.

I have taken some time with this first paragraph because the pope in this document recasts the center of traditional social teaching. It does not cease to be concerned with justice, but "Charity is the heart of the Church's social doctrine" (#2). And if charity is the heart of the Church's social doctrine, certain new emphasizes need to be recognized in our private and public lives. We have to begin with the origin of what we are. We are not of our own origin. Our ultimate origin is the Trinity, nothing less. We exist because of an abundance of being and love in God. This abundance and its overflow reflect in us, in the way we are with others. This abundance is why we find so much in this encyclical about "gift" and "gratuitousness".

What is unique about this social encyclical, then, is its philosophical and theological depth. It does not allow us to be superficial. It does not seek to explain "social matters" as if they had no ultimate source or as if, even with their own proper order, they stood by themselves. "Truth, and the love which it reveals, cannot be produced: they can only be received as a gift. The ultimate source is not, and cannot be mankind, but only God, who is himself Truth and Love. ... That which is prior to us and constitutes us—subsistent Love and Truth—shows us what goodness is, and in what our true happiness consist. It shows us the road to true development" (#52). Thus, not only do "duties" stand before "rights," as Benedict teaches, but "gift" stands before and beyond them both without denying their validity.

Man is a spiritual being. He freely and knowingly relates himself to others, including God. "A metaphysical understanding of the relations between persons is therefore of great benefit for their development," Benedict writes. "In this regard, reason finds inspiration and direction in Christian revelation, according to which the human community does not absorb the individual, annihilating his autonomy, as happens in the various forms of totalitarianism, but rather values him all the more because the relation between individual and community is a relation between one totality and another" (#53).

That passage alone shows how much the loss of metaphysics in our schools affects our understanding of the flourishing of the human person. But the "community" is not itself another substantial being as the individuals who make it up are. Benedict is right to stress this understanding of the human person which remains itself in its relations even with God. This is why we have the resurrection of the body.

So when, as we saw in the citation at the beginning of this reflection, we ask, "What is our grounding in being?", we have to go back to the Trinity, "the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity within the one divine Substance. The Trinity is absolute unity insofar as the three divine Persons are pure relationality" (#54). All three Persons are "transparent" to one another. "God desires to incorporate us into this reality of community. "In particular, in the light of the revealed mystery of the Trinity, we understand that true openness does not mean loss of individual identity but profound interpenetration.

Again, in a "social encyclical" a pope understands that what it is we are created for is not this world itself, though we have something responsible to do in it. The essence of God's love of us is an agape that we do not give ourselves. Hence, we have the constant theme that by itself, politics will not really be able to solve its own problems because the real problems of every man in every polity begin and end with his proper relation to God.

Still, and in conclusion, "Because it is a gift received by everyone, charity in truth is a force that builds community, it brings all people together without imposing barriers or limits." If it is a gift received by everyone, his principal task is to recognize and bring forth what is already there in his being. This bringing forth is not a "self-making" but it is a doing on the basis of what the divine plan has already seen in the being of each existing person. That this plan achieves its end in the inner life of the Trinity, we have to know the truth of what we are.

"The human community that we build by ourselves can never, purely by its own strength, be a fully fraternal community, nor can it overcome every division and become a truly universal community. The unity of the human race, a fraternal communion transcending every barrier, is called into being by the word of God-who-is-love" (#34). Thus, Caritas in Veritate is a social encyclical that is not just an address about "social problems" but a refocusing of the whole plan of our salvation that takes place in the arena of our actual lives in cities of every description. We work with what we have. We are made for eternal life, the life of the Trinity, as a gift.

As Benedict said elsewhere, politics is not an "eschatology" that is itself our salvation, rather it is an ethics in which, knowing what we are and what is our destiny, we decide, ultimately, what we are and what we will be. The gift, the truth, the love is given to us. God can do no more. We are free. Otherwise there is no gift and no love, but there is truth even if we reject God.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:

CWR Round-Table: Caritas in Veritate | Catholic World Report
• Benedict XVI's Theological Vision: An Introduction | Monsignor Joseph Murphy | From the introduction to Christ, Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI
• Pope Benedict XVI, Theologian of Joy | Monsignor Joseph Murphy | An interview with the author of Christ, Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI
Spe Salvi and Vatican II | Brian A. Graebe
• Vatican II and the Ecclesiology of Joseph Ratzinger | Maximilian Heinrich Heim | Introduction to Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology.
The Courage To Be Imperfect | Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D. | The Introduction to Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age
The Theological Genius of Joseph Ratzinger | An Interview with Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
First Musings on Benedict XVI's First Encyclical | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
The Encyclical: God's Eros Is Agape | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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