Headline Bistro, a news service of the Knights of Columbus, published a new roundup of commentary on Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate encyclical. I am joined in “Catholic Thinkers Reflect on Caritas in Veritate” by Michael Novak, Kirk Doran and Carl Anderson. Here’s the introduction and the article, which was written by Elizabeth Hansen:
Last month, Pope Benedict XVI released his much-anticipated social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. While it addressed the global economic crisis and the need for reform in business practices, the document was marked overall by its underlying premise of fostering true, integral development of the human person: a goal achieved by practicing charity in truth. Three Catholic economists and social thinkers shared their reflections on Caritas in Veritate via email correspondence with Headline Bistro.
Balance: In a word, that is what Michael Novak, Father Robert Sirico and Kirk Doran would name as the strength of Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical released one month ago today.
From discussing the pros and cons of development aid to a treatment on the theological principle of gratuitousness, the span of Caritas in Veritate is wide. The document’s suggestion of reform of the U.N. – “so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth,” the English translation said – grabbed headlines in the mainstream press, while Catholics noted Benedict’s insistence that true development involves the whole human person, on a spiritual as well as economic level.
Indeed, anything beyond a superficial read of the encyclical reveals its depth, which is what makes Pope Benedict’s ability to balance numerous perspectives and proposals on the technical end – even more, to transcend them – all the more impressive.
“The pope is reminding us of how to balance principles because it is surprisingly easy for even intelligent people to forget how to balance them – and even forget the principles themselves,” said Doran, assistant professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame. “Perhaps the encyclical should have come out ten years ago.”
Likewise, Catholic philosopher and author Michael Novak praised the pope’s “refusal to indulge in ideology” but rather write from a perspective that “raises the mind to other dimensions of the truth, and avoids squabbles that belong more to the City of Man than to the City of God.”
It’s a point made here at the Knights of Columbus, as well, with Supreme Knight Carl Anderson stressing since before its release that an encyclical is not meant to validate worldviews but rather, to challenge them to respond.
“Commentators should avoid the temptation of trying to analyze the encyclical from their own perspectives or through a political lens,” Anderson wrote in a Zenit column last month. “The pope’s thesis makes clear that an ethical foundation must transcend politics, and as the document makes explicit, the technical solutions belong to policy makers.”
In the wake of the encyclical’s release, some Catholic commentators on the right expressed reservations over the more technical elements in Caritas in Veritate, such as mention of U.N. reform and redistribution of wealth. Others hailed the pope’s work as a liberal document well to the left of conservative Catholics and politicians in the United States, focusing more on its economic proposals than its strong language about abortion and other life issues.
Novak himself was critical of what he called poor staff research that went in to Caritas in Veritate. For one, he said, the encyclical’s treatment of capitalism was lacking in descriptions of its tangible benefits to the poor.
Still, Novak said, in terms of Benedict’s assessment of current affairs, “his practice follows his intention. He lets both horses run, and does not himself choose to side with either one.”
Father Sirico, a priest in the Diocese of Kalamazoo and founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, called Caritas in Veritate “an amazingly complex and subtle document,” and said that what some would call the document’s ambiguity might actually be its strong point.
“Were it too specific, not only would it limit its application in various areas, but it would appear to be inaccessible and perhaps irrelevant to others,” he said. “The fact that it addresses broad principles invites a robust dialogue and exchange.”
To return to the theme of balance, Novak said that Pope Benedict’s discussion of subsidiarity, placed within the context of solidarity both within and among nations, is a prime example.
Novak pointed out that that while the pope called for richer nations to “do all they can” to allocate large portions of their gross domestic product toward developing countries, “he then immediately frames this suggestion within the limits of subsidiarity and personal accountability” – a hallmark principle of the Catholic social tradition.
Father Sirico went further and called Pope Benedict’s discussion of “fiscal subsidiarity” “one of the more innovative and provocative suggestions of the encyclical.”
“As I understand the pope’s idea, he is basically looking at the possibility of what Americans would call a ‘tax credit’ system to directly fund local needs in developing nations,” Father Sirico said, explaining that such a system would make “mini-philanthropists” out of taxpayers and give them personal incentive to be concerned for the welfare of the poor.
Speaking as a scholar on developing economies and labor markets, Doran added that he “cannot emphasize enough” the importance of the pope’s call for nations to open up their agricultural markets to developing states. Pope Benedict’s balanced linking of subsidiarity with solidarity serves him well in his discussion on development aid, Doran said, and on this insight into agriculture trade, “the pope is right on the money.”
Even Caritas in Veritate’s urge for reform in the United Nations, Novak said, exhibits the pope’s sense of balance on the topic, as “he is quick to define this authority in terms of restrain and of adherence to the core principles of Catholic social thought.”
Furthermore, Novak said, because Pope Benedict avoids endorsing an ideology he gains a “higher perspective” that, for one, enables him to make a very practical argument “to link the gospel of life to the social gospel, so to speak.”
About 50 million children have been aborted in the United States since 1973, Novak said – what would be the state of our social security system had they been given the chance to contribute to society and join our workforce?
Father Sirico stressed the importance of Pope Benedict’s insistence for respect of the dignity of life, adding that by the Church’s call for a consistent ethic of life, “we don’t mean ‘the seamless garment’” – the expression commonly used to justify giving an intrinsic evil such as abortion the same moral equivalence as other evils such as poverty and war.
All forms of development that ignore or deny the right to life “will always be dysfunctional,” Father Sirico said. “Any development program, whatever its character, that involves denying this right in theory or practice, ought to walked away from, because it is intrinsically disordered at its root.”
This leads into Novak, Doran and Father Sirico’s conjectures about the legacy of Caritas in Veritate – a legacy, Doran said, that will follow that of Pope Leo XIII’s landmark Rerum Novarum.
In 1891, Doran said, Pope Leo’s encyclical addressed the current problems of socialism and capitalism, emphasizing “that it is possible to improve our moral, spiritual and material conditions without giving into the false ideologies of the day; and that we can do so by remembering our most important principles, by balancing them prudently and by working whole-heartedly.”
Doran said he thinks the most important things Pope Benedict offers in Caritas in Veritate are very similar: “a sense of balance, a sense of urgency and a sense of hope.”
Similarly, Novak said that “for myself … I love best the starting point in caritas” and Benedict’s beautiful exposition of the centrality of God’s love. The pope’s emphasis on caritas, the underpinning of a free society, Novak said, is a significant contribution to Catholic social teaching.
Father Sirico took away the pope’s recognition that a true love of neighbor hasn’t necessarily followed from a globalized society.
“The pope asks a cogent question: ‘Will it ever be possible to obtain this brotherhood by human effort alone?” Father Sirico said, quoting the answer from the encyclical itself:
As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers. Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity.
“As anyone who lives next door to people whom we do not even know,” Father Sirico said, “the call to become brothers and not merely neighbors gets to the heart of the matter.”