[This is the fourth and final post in a series intended to mark the fifth anniversary of Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. See also: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)
Five years after the publication of Caritas in Veritate, what is there to say that was not said at the time? What do we see now, with a perspective of five years, that we might not have seen then?
Most importantly, we see it from a vantage point of the Pope Francis pontificate. In this sense, a look back at CiV should remind us that Benedict’s successor is not nearly the radical break with his predecessors as many would have us believe he is. Indeed, CiV caused the same sort of agita among conservatives five years ago as Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium did upon its November 2013 release.
In fact, it may be fitting that we mark not only the fifth anniversary of CiV’s release, but also of one of the clearest examples of cafeteria Catholicism since the invention of the term. On the very day of the document’s release, National Review Online published an essay by commentator George Weigel, who could only explain the presence of so much in CiV that made him uncomfortable – advocacy of a more just redistribution of wealth and a world political authority, for example – by suggesting that Benedict found himself unable to say no to officials at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace who wanted to include them.
“Benedict XVI, a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include in his encyclical these multiple off-notes, in order to maintain the peace within his curial household,” Weigel wrote. He suggested one might mark the “obviously Benedictine” passages with a gold marker and those that “Benedict evidently believed he had to try and accommodate” with a red one. (It is fascinating to note, given Benedict’s lionization among conservatives, that the encyclical that garnered this sort of reaction will likely stand as his most lasting contribution to the Church’s doctrinal heritage.)
Still, we should recall that such anxiety five years ago was mostly limited to those most familiar with the intricacies of Catholic doctrine, while Francis’s similar teaching on economic morality has been blasted by the likes of radio commentator Rush Limbaugh radio show and Fox Business host Stuart Varney. This surely says something about the effectiveness of Francis’s communication style or, perhaps moreso, of his lifestyle in getting people to listen to and understand what he has to say. It is a bracing reminder of Pope Paul VI’s insistence two generations ago, in his landmark encyclical on evangelization, that people of our age listen more attentively to witnesses than to teachers, and if we do listen to teachers, it is because they are also witnesses (Evangelii Nuntiandi 41).
We find echoes of CiV throughout Evangelii Gaudium, perhaps most strongly in its second chapter, where the Pope calls us to offer a courageous “No to the new idolatry of money.” Francis’s assertion that the recent financial crisis “originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person!” and his call for a financial reform rooted in ethics and “a more humane social order” where “Money must serve, not rule!” sounds a lot like Benedict’s insistence that “[t]he economy needs ethics in order to function correctly – not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered.”
The combined efforts of both these popes have now decisively moved modern Catholic teaching firmly beyond a conception of social ministry as founded solely upon justice, that is on moral duty and obligation (though neither leaves any question that it is). Both insist that this ministry ultimately is rooted in love and flows generously and gratuitously from our awareness of God’s love for us and for others.
Both have also called us to a greater capacity to be shocked by the conditions under which too many of our sisters and brothers live and die on a daily basis. Benedict laments in CiV that “[i]nsignificant matters are considered shocking, yet unprecedented injustices seem to be widely tolerated. While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human.” This sounds a lot like Francis’s warning of a “globalization of indifference” that results from a “culture of prosperity” that “deadens us.” He continues, “[W]e are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
The fifth anniversary of CiV offers a good opportunity to appreciate this rich contribution of Benedict XVI to the Catholic doctrinal tradition and to note that neither he nor Francis can easily be fit into ideological categories of today’s politics. Indeed, if what we proclaim can be, it probably is not the Gospel of Jesus.