Jennifer Roback Morse: Primacy of Culture in "Caritas in Veritate"

Encyclical Offers Opportunity to «Think With the Church»

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By Jennifer Roback Morse

SAN MARCOS, California, JULY 17, 2009 ( Benedict XVI’s «Caritas in Veritate» is his contribution to the course of Catholic social teaching.

Many commentators seem to read this document as if it were a think-tank white paper, and ask whether the Pope endorses their particular policy preferences. I must say that I surprised myself by not reflexively reading it in this way. After all, I spent many years teaching free-market economics.

I distinctly remember reading «Centesimus Annus» for the first time, and mentally checking to see if I agreed with it.

But this is not the correct way to read papal documents. The papacy’s prophetic role is to interpret the past, and provide guidance for the future, while avoiding the excesses of its own time.

In «Caritas in Veritate,» Benedict XVI argues for the centrality of moral considerations in both economics and politics. Without charity and truth, we cannot create a truly decent society, no matter how sophisticated our technology or how thorough-going our democracy.

Benedict XVI stresses the centrality of the social, cultural sphere for several reasons.

First, neither the economic nor the political spheres can function entirely on their own. Both the economic and the political sectors need to be peopled with individuals who have well-formed consciences. Therefore, economics and politics rely upon the Church, the family, and other social structures that shape the conscience.

Second, the cultural sphere needs its own defense. Both the economic and the political sectors have plenty of ideological defenders. The libertarian right seems to believe that the market can manage all of society. The socialist left seems to think that the government can solve every problem and wipe away every tear.

Extremists on both sides fail to respect culture’s distinctive role.

The modern ideologies that reify either the state or the market have difficulty understanding that the encroachments of their preferred sphere into the social and cultural sphere have the potential to dehumanize us.

Benedict XVI insists that we can’t allow the state to redefine marriage, simply to satisfy demands for equality more proper to politics. The drive for same sex marriage, as well as much of the feminist movement before it, took this form. And we can’t allow the market to take over the process of bringing forth the next generation.

Mothers and fathers give themselves to one another in an act of self-donation that can result in the bringing forth of new life. The child conceived in this way has been given an incalculable gift. By contrast, the child whose parents brought him into being in a laboratory, are made, not begotten. They are treated as though they are inferior to their makers.

But as I said, I surprised myself by agreeing with Benedict, even when the policy preferences implied in «Caritas in Veritate» did not line up with my own. That’s because I found myself in agreement with the deeper perspective that underlies the particular policy recommendations.

When I read Benedict XVI’s argument in paragraph 2 that we should not detach charity from juridical, political and economic fields, I realized that I had said something like that in my book «Love and Economics.»

When I read in «Caritas in Veritate» 44 that we must have «full respect for human values in the exercise of sexuality,» I realized that I said something like that in another book, «Smart Sex.»

Obviously, it would be presumptuous to claim that Benedict XVI got the idea from me. In fact, I got the idea from the papacy. I have been absorbing Catholic social teaching during the 20 years that I have been involved with the Acton Institute.

«Thinking with the Church,» means absorbing papal teaching and allowing ourselves to be changed by it. Every time I reread «Rerum Novarum,» or «Centesimus Annus,» I learn something new about the social order.

And of course, in my particular line of work at the Ruth Institute, rereading Pope John Paul II’s «Love and Responsibility» and «The Theology of the Body» always creates a fresh appreciation for the Church’s humane vision of marriage, sexuality and child-rearing.

No, the truth is that I get all my best ideas from the papacy. I have no doubt that «Caritas in Veritate» will likewise prove to be a rich source of wisdom for «All People of Good Will,» to whom it is addressed.

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Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse is the Founder and President of the Ruth Institute, which promotes lifelong married love to young people. She has been a Research Fellow of the Acton Institute since its founding in 1990.

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