My Take on Caritas in Veritate
After many months of waiting and speculation, Pope Benedict’s third encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Truth in Charity, CV for short) was released to the public today. As I read it this morning, I was grateful that we have been blessed with a Pontiff whose intellectual command of the social and cultural issues of our day is so wide-ranging, dynamic and insightful.
The reaction, thus far, has been more or less what I expected: people of various ideological persuasions attempting to take away what they can from it. I will have more to say about that below. For now, though, I want to highlight what I thought were the most important themes.
First, the Pope reminds us that Catholic social teaching cannot be arbitrarily divided into different categories. Of the Church’s social doctrine, Benedict says: “there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new” (12). Nothing in this encyclical, then, will fundamentally alter or revise anything that has been said before since the publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891.
It is apparent to me that Benedict, like his predecessors and perhaps to an even greater extent, uses a certain methodology when approaching a wide range of issues. He points out the extremes, calls attention to their flaws, and seeks a reasonable middle position between the two. We saw this with regard to market activity, the environment, technological development, and religious freedom in the course of CV.
Benedict acknowledges both the positive and the negative results of globalization, and calls particular attention to the negative. Let there be no mistake: CV is not an anti-market encyclical. But in the tradition of his predecessors, it is most certainly an anti-individualist encyclical. Benedict says, for instance: “Admittedly, the market can be a negative force, not because it is so by nature, but because a certain ideology can make it so.” (36)
What is this “certain ideology”? I think it is clear, in the context of CV as a whole, and Catholic social teaching as a whole, that this negative ideology is that of individualism and consumerism, which sees economic growth as an end unto itself. Here a finer distinction comes into play. Sam Gregg of the Acton Institute interprets Benedict’s argument in the following way:
In economic terms, the pope describes as “erroneous” the tired notion that the developed countries’ wealth is predicated on poor nations’ poverty (CV no.35) that one hears customarily from the likes of Hugo Chavez and whatever’s left of the dwindling band of aging liberation theologians. That’s a pontifical body-blow to a central working assumption of many professional social justice “activists”.
But this assessment is not entirely accurate. It is true that Benedict rejects a rigid structuralism or economic determinism as the cause of third world poverty, i.e. arguments that claim that this poverty is inevitably caused by the wealth of developed nations. But that does not mean that the poverty of third world nations is totally unlinked to first world economic policies. Consider that Benedict also says the following:
A link has often been noted between claims to a “right to excess”, and even to transgression and vice, within affluent societies, and the lack of food, drinkable water, basic instruction and elementary health care in areas of the underdeveloped world and on the outskirts of large metropolitan centres. The link consists in this: individual rights, when detached from a framework of duties which grants them their full meaning, can run wild, leading to an escalation of demands which is effectively unlimited and indiscriminate.(43)
So there is, in fact, a link between these two phenomenon. What the Pope argues, however, is that it is not a structurally determined link, but rather the result of the conscious and willful activity of human beings. He goes on to develop his argument that rights – and here he clearly means those rights which developed countries claim, including the ‘right to excess’ – must be balanced by duties, a truth all too often forgotten not only by those inclined to agree with the economic prognosis of the Acton Institute, but by many in our society at large.
I was also quite pleased to find his constant warnings against blind faith in scientific, technical management of the economy. He says,
Often the development of peoples is considered a matter of financial engineering, the freeing up of markets, the removal of tariffs, investment in production, and institutional reforms — in other words, a purely technical matter…
When technology is allowed to take over, the result is confusion between ends and means, such that the sole criterion for action in business is thought to be the maximization of profit, in politics the consolidation of power, and in science the findings of research. Often, underneath the intricacies of economic, financial and political interconnections, there remain misunderstandings, hardships and injustice. (71)
Benedict also makes a point I have always stressed – that while all of this technical innovation and market modeling is taking place, the “people on the ground” continue to suffer. For them, he says, “there is little hope of emancipation”. Clearly the notion that liberalization will simply “one day” lead to social progress absent some real, substantive attempts to guide the process with a moral vision must be rejected. In this vein, Benedict is clearly rejecting arguments that justify, and programs that seek to implement, a scaling back of worker’s rights for the sake of short-term profits. He says,
Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country’s international competitiveness, hinder the achievement of lasting development.(32)
On the topic of work, it must be said that CV does not go into as great a detail as say, Laborem Exercens. But what it does say is absolutely vital in addressing the global economic crisis. Following his predecessors Benedict renews the call for greater worker participation in business, greater job security, policies that secure the interests of the family against the fluctuations of the market. Distributism, I believe, gets a nod as Benedict, quoting Paul VI, writes:
Business activity has a human significance, prior to its professional one. It is present in all work, understood as a personal action, an “actus personae” which is why every worker should have the chance to make his contribution knowing that in some way “he is working ‘for himself’”. With good reason, Paul VI taught that “everyone who works is a creator”. (41)
Benedict speaks of “economic democracy” through CV, and argues that development policies must be subject to the democratic control of those they seek to aid. He also argues consistently, and forcefully I would say, for the notion that businesses are responsible for the communities in which they function, and to a whole wide range of social and economic agents beyond the shareholder.
To expound on all of the economic themes would take more time than I have at the moment. So I want to move on to Benedict’s integration of life issues into the fabric of CV. Both concern for the environment and concern for global poverty, Benedict argues, are incompatible with an attitude that is indifferent or hostile towards life in all of its stages of development, especially its most vulnerable. On the enviornment, he says,
The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. (51)
On concern for the poor:
How can we be surprised by the indifference shown towards situations of human degradation, when such indifference extends even to our attitude towards what is and is not human? What is astonishing is the arbitrary and selective determination of what to put forward today as worthy of respect. Insignificant matters are considered shocking, yet unprecedented injustices seem to be widely tolerated. While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human. (75)
This, I believe, is the rallying call of our age. There are many millions of well-meaning people across this world who desperately seek solutions to the problems of poverty and environmental destruction, among others – and who at the same time promote anti-life attitudes and policies. On the other hand there are far too many whose stalwart defense of vulnerable life in the womb or in old age is marred by various degrees of indifference or denial with regards to the prospects of the unregulated market or the severe damage done to public morality by consumerism and hedonism (two words that appear often in CV, and never in a good light).
Only the Church in her official social teaching rejects these one-sided approaches, with CV ending with a rousing call for a “Christian humanism” that unites respect for life with a well-ordered economy and a mature conception of liberty.
So much more could be said about this wonderful encyclical. In closing I will say that it is evident that, for Benedict, it is not some thing called “capitalism” that is to blame for the worlds ills, but rather materialism and hedonism, and their various manifestations in anti-life and consumerist mindsets. It is clear that part of the solution rests in overcoming what Benedict calls the “market-plus-State” model, in vigorously developing alternatives to both of these institutions, in reinforcing the intermediate layers between them, and in opening the system to greater democratic accountability and control. What that means is that the solution is not, cannot, must not be “business as usual”.