It's a Moral Document, Not a Political One

Pope Provides Ethical Basis for Addressing Crisis

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By Carl Anderson

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, JULY 7, 2009 ( Long before there was a «left wing,» or a «right wing,» there was the Gospel, and long after these political labels have faded into oblivion, the Gospel will remain. In light of this, it is incredibly important that we come to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, «Caritas in Veritate,» as a document that should inform our outlook.

We might sum up the Pope’s thinking on the economy this way: Each of us must answer Christ’s question, «Who do you say that I am?» If we, with Peter, answer «The Messiah,» then that should direct the axis of our life. Our most important reality must be the truth of our relationships. In this way, we can understand how the law and prophets could be summed up in Christ’s two commandments: That we love God totally, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Thus we are able to speak of «caritas in veritate.»

Once we accept Christ and these two commandments, we can no longer ask Cain’s question: «Am I my brother’s keeper?» Instead, we must realize that our exercise of freedom cannot take the form of simply amassing the most wealth that we can. Rather, all that we do in freedom must reflect that reality and all our actions must take into account the effects of those actions on others. We need look no further than the first two words of the «Our Father,» which Pope Benedict XVI quotes at the end of this document to see the common human family to which we belong.

To this end, we should remember several important facts:

First, we should ask not how this encyclical validates our worldview, but rather, how our worldview should change in response to this document.

Commentators should avoid the temptation of trying to analyze the encyclical from their own perspectives or through a political lens. The Pope’s thesis makes clear that an ethical foundation must transcend politics, and as the document makes explicit, the technical solutions belong to policy makers.

Second, the world deserves a market economy with a conscience, as the events of the global economy have made clear in the past year. Pope Benedict XVI in a 1985 paper criticized Marxism for excluding both God and a proper human role and thus for being too «deterministic.» He also warned that market economies too risked collapse if they too excluded or ignored the ethical component of individual decision-making. Certainly, recent events have borne out his conclusion, and thus this encyclical, and its call for a moral system, are all the more compelling.

Third, while the debate around the world focuses on the technical fixes to the economic crisis, Pope Benedict XVI is asking us to re-evaluate the very foundation of our system — and to build on the bedrock of ethics rather than the sand of determinism.

Fourth, the pope has called us to an economic reality that must respect the life of every person — even the smallest and most helpless. This is both notable and timely, as is the fact that he has highlighted the necessary role religion must play in the public square.

Fifth, this encyclical is both a Catholic document and a catholic document. For anyone to view it purely through a national lens would be as misguided as viewing it politically. Take for example the Pope’s call for just «redistribution.» I doubt anyone can point to a country that doesn’t redistribute the wealth of its citizens in some way. The Pope asks whether, regardless of country, this is justly done. Those of us who live in economically vibrant countries, with a standard of living far beyond what much of the world can imagine, must pause to reflect on this.  Certainly we have a responsibility to help our neighbor.  We can and we should do more.

But we are not the only ones. Is it just when a «president» of a country in a poor corner of the world retires with billions of dollars in a Swiss bank account, while his people live on a dollar a day? Is it just when a population starves while an oligarchy grows wealthy? Certainly all have a right to food, and to basic services.

A Christian must be a person for others. Indeed, not only Christians, but all people are called to live this way.

For too long, far too many people have behaved as if their only allegiance was to themselves. We have all seen the results of such behavior, and know that it is a poor model — ethically and economically.

Now, people are looking for a moral compass, and they know that Pope Benedict XVI has one. But while a compass can point the way, it is up to us to follow it.

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Carl Anderson is the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus and a New York Times bestselling author.

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