By Alex Mikulich, Ph.D.
(Note: Following the tradition of Catholic encyclicals, this commentary cites the numbered paragraphs in the text for easy reference, i.e., (#1, 2, 3, etc).)
Pope Benedict XVI ‘s first social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, “Charity in Truth,” advocates a new economic discourse and global economic order advancing a person-centered rather than profit-centered approach to globalization.
Drawing extensively upon his predecessors, including Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (“The Development of Peoples,” 1967), and Pope John Paul II’s Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“The Social Concerns of the Church,” 1987), Benedict reaffirms fundamental insights of modern Catholic social teaching regarding the relationship between love and social justice, freedom and responsibility, subsidiarity and distributive justice, and solidarity and the common good.
“Charity in Truth” extends the insight of Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “God is love.” This starting point reaffirms enduring biblical, apostolic, and theological teaching of the Church about the very nature of God, humanity, and the whole of reality.
Pope Benedict’s Theological Orientation
The very nature of God is a love that overflows in the gift of the human person and in the whole of God’s creation. Love is the heart of the Gospel (Mt 22: 36-40) and the root of all relationships between God, the human person, neighbors and the natural environment. The Trinity best reflects the Church’s understanding of reality as fundamentally gifted and relational (#54).
God’s gift of love and the way this gift interrelates the whole of reality sets the depth and breadth of Benedict’s entire social encyclical. This theological context of God’s gift of love for each human person and the whole of creation constitutes the Truth in which persons, communities, and society must seek to understand and build authentic human development.
“Authentic” human development concerns the extent to which human persons and society live in ways that reflect this theological truth. Hence the title—“Charity in Truth”—because the capacity of human persons to love and share responsibility for one another originates in source of creation and the whole of reality—God.
Like the whole of Catholic social teaching, this document is neither politically liberal nor conservative. Benedict’s encyclical reaffirms enduring Catholic social teaching about the value and integrity of the full spectrum of life issues, and breaks new ground advocating for economic and social justice in this era of globalization.
Benedict’s Theology of God’s Love Invites a Human Vocation to Social Justice
The gift of God’s love calls human persons to a free response of love and responsibility for all others. By definition, love is an unconditional gift, and so it can be refused and rejected. Indeed, love is often rejected, and Benedict’s encyclical details the evils that result when humanity loses the moral compass of Truth, Charity, and Justice. The gift of love and the task of shared human responsibility must be integrally interrelated for social justice and the common good.
For Benedict, charity invites us to the task of justice, not only because of the inherent rights of all human persons. Human rights derive, theologically, from the gratuitousness of God’s love. Love is to be shared, not possessed or hoarded. Thus what is “mine” is due to other human persons by their very being that reflects God’s gratuitousness (#6). The nature of God’s gratuitousness is found in sharing. The sharing of reciprocal duties, in the truth of gratuitousness, is a more powerful incentive for charity and justice, argues the Pope, than the mere assertion of rights (#43). That gratuitousness—the free overflow of God’s love—calls us to live in relationships of dignity, mutuality and equality with and for all.
Charity, Truth, and Justice Demand Respect for Cultural Particularity
In Benedict’s approach, the dignity of human persons and the demand of love for social justice implies a critique of cultural relativism and of any kind of cultural leveling that loses the particular value of unique cultural identities. The distortions of cultural relativism and losses of cultural identity are a result of commercialization. Picking and choosing pieces of culture as if they are equivalent and interchangeable leads to the erosion of meaning and to the idea that there is no truth. Moreover, unregulated markets and commercialism exploit and erode the identity of local cultures and thus “lose the profound significance of cultures (#26).” Unfortunately, a major weakness of this encyclical, is its failure to apply these crucial insights about culture to multiple forms of global racism.
Love and Justice Create an Economics at the Service of Persons, not Profits
Benedict is deeply critical of unregulated free markets. He writes: “Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.(#21)”
Specifying his concern about the present economic crisis, Benedict is clear that free markets and unfettered commercial logic have wreaked havoc in every sphere of social, political, economic, and environmental life. He argues that “the damaging effects on the real economy of badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing, large-scale migration of peoples, often provoked by some particular circumstance and then given insufficient attention, the unregulated exploitation of the earth’s resources, all this leads us to…new efforts of holistic understanding and a new humanistic synthesis. (#21)”
A new response and synthesis, in the Pope’s view, demands new forms of global economic re-distribution that serve the full developmental needs of the poorest peoples throughout the earth. Benedict criticizes economic growth that only follows commercial logic and that is not politically directed to the common good. The economy cannot be left to its own volition. Benedict recognizes that in the competition of economic globalization, state institutions have sought a multitude of ways to gain competitive advantage, including “downsizing social security systems,” weakening worker rights by limiting “the freedom or negotiating capacity of labor unions”, exploiting migrant labor, and dismantling environmental standards all in the name of profit and economic growth (#25).
Re-visioning States, Markets, and Civil Society for the Common Good
He thus calls for a “new evaluation of the state (#24).” Although the Church does not offer specific technical solutions to the state, Benedict is critical of the way that nation-states have become subservient to commercial logic and the demands of capitalist expansion at the expense of human persons, labor, local communities, and the natural environment. Societies and states have primary responsibility for the human person because “the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity: “Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life (#25).”
Drawing upon traditional Catholic social teaching, Benedict re-affirms and integrates three forms of justice as ways to build economic justice. These include commutative, social, and distributive justice. Commutative justice concerns the relations of giving and receiving commonly recognized by parties to economic transactions. In order to operate effectively, these relationships are sustained by trust. The Pope notes the ways that trust has been eroded through financial speculation and most importantly in the ways that persons have become instrumental to narrow interests in profit and economic growth.
The market has lost its ability to serve its proper economic function, not only because of the loss of trust, but also because the economy and markets have not been designed to meet the demands of distributive and social justice. Markets have become places where the strong subdue the weak with no regard for social justice, that is, without regard for relationships of “friendship, solidarity, and reciprocity that should be integral to economic activity (#36).”
Benedict argues that new forms of re-distributive justice must be applied to address the grave injustices of the current global order. In Catholic social teaching, distributive justice concerns the ways that burdens and benefits are shared throughout society. The current gulf between economic haves and have-nots is scandalous because it denies fundamental human dignity, interdependence, and the giftedness of humanity. Too often, economically advantaged groups are reaping disproportionate benefits at the expense of the poor who bear disproportionate burdens in the life of society.
Thus, rather than leaving the economy to its own logic, Benedict argues that it “needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift. The economy in the global era seems to privilege the former logic, that of contractual exchange, but directly or indirectly it also demonstrates its need for the other two: political logic, and the logic of the unconditional gift. (#37)”
Drawing upon the full participation of all members of society, not only the state or economic elites, political conversations should explore new ways that the goods of social and economic life can be more equitably shared. Citing Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, Benedict invites a new economic discourse and order that re-evaluates the roles and relationships between markets, states, and civil society (#38). The purpose of this re-evaluation is to steer globalization toward the communion of persons and the just sharing of all goods (#42).
The twin principles of subsidiarity and distributive justice need to be integrated into any new economic order. Again, Benedict re-affirms Catholic social teaching regarding subsidiarity, the principle that no larger institution should make decisions or take responsibilities that smaller, local institutions and groups can make on their own. This principle respects the freedom and capacity of local individuals and institutions to best meet the needs of their local community.
However, subsidiarity does not stand alone, especially in this era of globalization. When local communities are unable to meet basic human needs or the demands of fundamental human rights, larger institutions in society have the responsibility to ensure that those needs and rights are properly met. Given the many ways localities have been devastated by globalization, Benedict calls for redistribution of economic goods to meet a full range of unmet human needs and rights to food, water, education, and civic participation (#43). Thus, developmental aid for poorer countries should be understood as a valid form of wealth development (#60). Moreover, international solidarity means providing greater access to education as the complete foundation for full human development (#61).
The Moral Character of Business People and Enterprises
In Benedict’s approach, social justice also demands transformation on the part of business people and enterprises. The individual character of business people plays a critical role in a civil society and humanistic economic order. Benedict thus advocates a new moral vision for responsible business people and enterprises. Responsible business enterprise encompasses far more than profits and traditional “shareholders”; managers and business elites must share in responsibility for workers, suppliers, consumers, the natural environment and broader society (#40).
Investment is not merely economic or only for the end of profit; every investment is moral because of its impacts upon workers, consumers, the natural environment and society. The way that business people and enterprises invest is constitutive of social justice and common good. The individual moral character of business leaders makes enormous difference and is necessary to promote trust in economic exchanges and for the common good.
The Priority of Labor over Capital
In his call for a new economic order that honors the dignity of the human person, workers and workers’ rights must become a new priority for a new economic discourse and order. Benedict 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)”
Work is a central way that human persons reflect the giftedness of God’s creation and the Truth of being made in God’s image—the Imago Dei. Due to this fundamental insight of Catholic social teaching, Benedict argues that new efforts must be made to empower unions, to empower workers to forms unions, and foster the ability of workers to meet the needs of their families (#25, #41, #42, and #63).
Drawing upon the efforts of Pope John Paul II, who advocated the International Labor Organization’s movement for “decent work,” Benedict addresses the connection between unemployment and poverty by advocating meaningful labor that is paid a just wage (#63). This vision demands that society, institutions, and all businesses pay a living family wage that enables families to meet their needs and gain access to education that enables all people to thrive as full members of society.
Stewardship of the Natural Environment
Full recognition of the giftedness of God’s creation, in Benedict’s view, includes “responsible stewardship of nature” and cultivating the gifts of the earth for the benefit of humanity. Some environmentalists might critique the Pope as setting humanity against the environment. This would be a mistaken critique, for Benedict does not set humanity over and against the natural environment, free to exploit nature in any way society may see fit.
Rather, writes the Pope, it is “incumbent upon the competent authorities to make every effort to ensure that the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations: the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet. One of the greatest challenges facing the economy is to achieve the most efficient use — not abuse — of natural resources, based on a realization that the notion of “efficiency” is not value-free. (#50)” Both the human economy and environmental ecology must be valued for their transcendent nature and purpose in God’s creation.
“Acquire real teeth” for the Family of Nations to meet the Common Good
Benedict’s advocacy for a new just economic order includes reform developing “real teeth” for the United Nations organization. Such a political authority, argues the Pope, “would need to be 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 securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth (#67).”
Although the precise details of such reform would need to be developed through political discourse, Benedict sets helpful social ethical principles to guide reform. These include respect for subsidiarity whereby the priority and wisdom of local cultures are empowered to meet the needs of their populations. Genuine reform would shift the distribution of power so that international institutions serve the international common good rather than the narrow interests of economically advantaged societies. Certainly, fleshing out the contours of real reform will be no easy task and would demand concerted international effort, but this is the kind of effort demanded by the Pope and the exigencies of social justice in our time.
Conclusion: Authentic Humanism Turns toward God in Prayer
Benedict teaches, in the tradition of the Church, that God’s love is the source, meaning, and purpose of human life. Humans are not ends in themselves; rather, human persons reflect the meaningfulness of reality in our giftedness and relationality. The current social, economic, political, moral, and spiritual breakdowns of societies cannot be solved alone by human will or technical knowledge.
These times invite us to acknowledge our shared human vulnerability and our need to cry out to God for justice, so that our hearts, minds, and souls may be re-tuned for the work of a love that does justice, ensuring that all may thrive as persons who draw us to the unique gifts of God’s creation (#77-78). This openness to God and each other is the true mark of human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Such moral and spiritual openness is indispensible for transformation of the world and to pursue authentic human development in a new economic discourse and order.
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