It’s five years now since the publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. The document is dated June 29, 2009 (though it was made public over a week after that). Though we didn’t know it at the time, of course, it proved to be Benedict’s final encyclical letter to the Church.
Here’s an interesting way of looking at this document: it is probably the most significant and lasting contribution to the doctrinal heritage of the Catholic Church to come of Benedict’s pontificate. Considering Benedict(/Ratzinger)’s place in 20th century ecclesial history, that’s saying a lot.
Consider: Benedict published three encyclicals. The previous two – on the virtues of love and hope – are rich, profound, and well worth prayerful reading by all of us. I read ‘em both from beginning to end within days of their publication, and gained much from the effort. So nothing I say here is intended to denigrate them.
But neither of them offers much that is original or doctrinally consequential. They have a more meditative and devotional character to them than a doctrinal one (though there are doctrinal elements, too, to be sure). And so they are (we might even say unfortunately) unlikely to have much lasting impact. Because of this – though for several positive reasons, too, which we’ll consider in the coming days – the most lasting and consequential encyclical from Benedict, is Caritas in Veritate. It’s the one that will still be referred to a century and more from now.
There is, to be sure, probably one other among Benedict’s documents (though it’s not an encyclical) that has been, from where we now stand, more consequential, and that is, of course, Summorum Pontificum. With it, Benedict made the liturgy as it was celebrated prior to the Vatican II reforms widely available to the Catholic faithful, and some communities have taken advantage of this option. It has certainly impacted ecclesial life to some degree. But it’s my opinion that this impact will be short-lived. It was an unfortunate move on Benedict’s part — Andrea Grillo’s Beyond Pius V, which I translated from its original Italian, makes a good case for this — and I think it will, over time, either be rescinded by another pope or, more likely, quietly dismissed and forgotten. If this is the case – and of course, I could be completely wrong here – that will leave Caritas in Veritate as the most important, lasting, and (hopefully) consequential document of Benedict’s pontificate.
Let’s use the anniversary to have another look. I’ll do that in a series of short posts, offering a few points worth pondering, over the coming days.