Father Barron: A First Look at "Caritas in Veritate"

Encyclical Connects "Life Ethics" With "Social Ethics"

| 4584 hits

By Father Robert Barron



SKOKIE, Illinois, JULY 8, 2009 (Zenit.org).- I've just finished a first reading of Benedict XVI's new encyclical "Caritas in Veritate." It is a dense and complex text, deeply in continuity with the mainstream of the Catholic social teaching tradition, but also fresh, filled with new ideas and proposals.

Let me highlight just a few of the major themes. Very much in line with his predecessor Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI insists on the tight connection between love and truth. In a telling phrase, the Pope says that love without truth devolves into sentimentality, and truth without love becomes cold and calculating. The coming together of the two, which is the structuring logic of the Church's social teaching, is grounded in the God who is, simultaneously, Agape (love) and Logos (reason).

A real innovation of this letter is the connection that Benedict XVI makes between "social ethics" and "life ethics." He argues that Pope Paul VI's "Populorum Progressio" -- whose 40th anniversary "Caritas in Veritate" celebrates -- is best read in tandem with that Pope's controversial encyclical "Humanae Vitae." The radical openness to life, which Paul VI defended in "Humanae Vitae," should be the inspiration for the Church's social doctrine, which is intended to foster the full flourishing of communal life at all levels. Benedict XVI makes this point even clearer when he comments that societies that de-emphasize life, even to the point of fostering artificial contraception and abortion, suffer quite practical economic hardships.

Another "novum" in this remarkable text is the Pope's insistence that, alongside of the contractual logic of the marketplace (one gives in order to receive), and the legal logic of the political realm (one gives because one is obliged to give), there must be the logic of sheer gratuity (one gives simply because it is good to do so). Without this third element, both the economic and political devolve into something less than fully human.

As many have already commented, Benedict XVI places special emphasis on the obligation to care for the environment. In fact, nowhere else in Catholic social teaching is there such an extended discussion of this issue. He makes the helpful clarification that, as believers in creation, we must avoid both an idolization of nature and an exploitation of it. As created, the world is not divine, but it is a kind of sacrament of God; hence it shouldn't be seen as absolute, but it should be cared for in a spirit of stewardship.

What might prove most controversial in the encyclical is Benedict XVI's call for a kind of world government, a truly international political entity with the requisite power to preside over world political and economic affairs. In saying so, he echoes Pope John XXIII's praise of the United Nations in "Pacem in Terris." One might be forgiven for suspecting that this proposal, given political realities on the ground, might be a bit utopian.

A final note concerning style. I must say that much of "Caritas in Veritate" didn't "sound" like Benedict XVI. Joseph Ratzinger is a very gracious writer, and his style is marked by a deep Scriptural and patristic sensibility. I must say I found this literary and theological élan missing in large sections of this letter.

Nonetheless, there is much to learn from this wonderful text -- a worthy addition to the impressive collection of papal letters that constitute the social teaching of the Catholic Church.

* * *

Father Barron is the Francis Cardinal George Chair of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. He is also the founder of Word on Fire Ministries and is currently producing a 10-part documentary series called The Catholicism Project.