By Father James V. Schall, SJ
WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 8, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI’s new social encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” takes its place in the Church’s on-going effort accurately to state the fundamentals of human living. It is not what our eternal life is about, but what our temporal life is about, seen in the light of our eternal life. We do not de-emphasize one or the other, but take them according to their own truth as related to each other.
Though it repeats many of the matters that were dealt with in “Deus Caritas Est” and “Spe Salvi,” Benedict’s two previous encyclicals, this new document is not really intelligible without the profound analysis of modern ideology and the last things that were found in the earlier encyclicals on love and hope.
In “Spe Salvi,” the Pope stated that politics could not be politics if it confused itself with eschatology. That is, if we think that our political life is our transcendent life, we in effect lose the proper dimensions of both. In the present encyclical, Benedict XVI basically states what we can and should do in this world seen now as the arena of the actions that form our souls.
The title of this encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” is significant. Of the three basic kinds of love — philia, eros and agape — none is safe if it is not pursued according to the truth of things, of the proper object of love. Just as we cannot love something that is not loveable, so we cannot love something unless we know what it is, which is saying the same thing in other words. The separation of truth and love in the name of love or “kindness” is the characteristic of our times. Love, it is said, covers a multitude of sins. In the modern world, it eliminates them altogether if truth is not a component of love. “Two loves built two cities,” very opposite cities, as Augustine said.
One of the first things to note in this encyclical is that everything is seen against a metaphysical and theological background. Much is made of justice; even more of “gift.” Our very existence is a “gift.” We do not create ourselves, nor does God need to create us for some completion in himself.
The encyclical, distantly following Aristotle on friendship and benevolence, is quite aware that more is needed and expected of us than just what is our “right” or what is “due.” An ancient criticism of Christians was that they were so interested in the next world that they did not have time for this world. This encyclical suggests the opposite is true. Only if we have the next world right will we act rightly and nobly in this one.
The encyclical is also a reflection on Paul VI’s “Populorum Progressio,” written just over 40 years ago. Benedict rethinks the notion of “development,” a word that relates to the old Aristotelian notion of habits and how we acquire them. Benedict XVI follows a fine line that seeks to accept everything in modernity that is good and defensible, while at the same time pointing out its real problems. He is a natural law thinker.
But on the other hand, he always begins from where we are. Whether he speaks of business, finance, tourism, political structures, world poverty or economics, he begins with human beings already having acted in their public lives to make themselves into a certain kind of being based on what they are given to be in nature. Catholic social thought is not utopian, even when it insists that things can and ought to be better.
Particularly pleasing was the way in which Pope Benedict finally came to terms with the ambiguity from modern political philosophy in the word “rights.” In many ways, nothing has been more destructive to Catholic social thought than its uncritical use of the word “rights.” Benedict admonishes us that we first begin with “duties.” We can use the word “rights” provided it has a fixed content and does not mean — what it in fact means in modern philosophy — whatever we want or legislate.
When it comes to essentials, “Caritas in Veritate” is frank and to the point — that is, what it means to be “charitable,” what it means to be “truthful.”
— — —
Jesuit Father James V. Schall is a professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University and a prolific author. He most recent book is “The Mind That Is Catholic” (CUA Press).