There is a lot about the content of Caritas in Veritate that is worth paying attention to, and I’m not going to explore it all in this little series of posts. I would mention three in passing before turning to the one I want to focus on here.
First, like Populorum Progressio, the major theme of Caritas in Veritate is authentic human development. And with Paul VI before him, Benedict XVI insists upon a broader understanding of the topic than it commonly receives. He considers the factors that promote development and those that threaten it, covering topics like hunger, economic aid, population, and the participation of the poor in the decisions that affect their lives and well-being. He reiterates the call (made earlier by John Paul II, Paul VI, and John XXIII) for the development of some world political authority.
Second, Benedict’s comments in CiV on the environment are not to be overlooked. Indeed, they are – according to Catholic social teaching expert John Carr – “groundbreaking.” Benedict insists that “the Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere.” In other words, just as Catholics need to be involved in the legal and social protection of the unborn and of marriage, so they must be actively involved in the legal and social protection of the environment. He reminds us of the harmful consequences of our consumerism upon the environment, and he ties authentic human and economic development with protection of the environment. In one of my favorite passages of the document, he connects the Church’s pro-life concerns directly with its environmental concerns (and so those who think Pope Francis was the first to insist that we consider abortion within the broader context of the Church’s social teaching are mistaken):
In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.
Third, also notable is the Pope’s sustained attention to business and, in this context, a new papal call for a type of business enterprise that falls somewhere between for-profit and non-profit, for which making a profit and serving the common good are equal priorities.
In additional to all of that, though, perhaps the most significant aspect of Benedict’s teaching in CiV is his insistence on the central place of love in the architecture of Catholic social teaching. Theologian Donal Dorr calls this “the distinctively new element” in CiV, noting (in his excellent book Option for the Poor and for the Earth):
Earlier social encyclicals rightly stressed the fact that our response to issues of poverty and oppression is an obligation of justice and is not ‘merely’ a matter of charity. But now that there is no longer any doubt about that, Benedict sees it as essential to insist that love must animate and permeate all our efforts to create a more just world.
Prior to CiV, Catholic social teaching was lacking something essential. It’s interesting that when I check two of the finest resources published on Catholic social teaching in the past decade — Kenneth Himes’s Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations and Charles Curran’s Catholic Social Teaching, 1891-Present: A Historical, Theological, and Ethical Analysis — the index of neither of these go-to books includes an entry on love. This is not because their authors ignored it, but because there just was not that much to say about love in CST before Benedict.
Benedict brings love to the foundational place is ought to have in the architecture of that tradition. The Christian pursuit of social justice is not, fundamentally, about carrying out a moral obligation or assuaging our own guilt upon witnessing the suffering of others. For a Christian, it’s not even, at its heart, about making the world a better place. Christians, Pope Benedict writes, are compelled to pursue justice first of all because we have come to know and experience God’s love for us and for the people and the world around us, and we want to live and proclaim that love. Benedict writes:
As the objects of God’s love, men and women become subjects of charity, they are called to make themselves instruments of grace, so as to pour forth God’s charity and to weave networks of charity. This dynamic of charity received and given is what gives rise to the Church’s social teaching, which is caritas in veritate in re sociali: the proclamation of the truth of Christ’s love in society. (n. 5)
This is expressed in particular in Benedict’s distinctive call for economic, social, and political systems marked by “gratuitousness,” that is, by a spirit of generosity, compassion, and unselfishness.
This aspect of CiV is not surprising, since love was a key theme of Benedict’s pontificate from its start. His inaugural encyclical, of course, was Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”). Though this encyclical will probably never be listed among the social encyclicals of the tradition, it includes a lot on the Church’s social teaching. You can’t talk for very long about love — it is as though Benedict tells us — without talking about Catholic social teaching. Love is social in nature, so how could you possibly try to? Similarly, you can’t conceive of Catholic social teaching (and shouldn’t be able to) without talking about love.
For this very real and important contribution to Catholic social teaching, a corrective one that deepens that tradition’s connections with the Christian gospel, we owe Pope Benedict a debt of thanks. And we are challenged to form our own understanding and living of the teaching in accord with it.
(I’ll post Part 4 of this series in a few days.)