As the squabbling continues over the at-times contradictory policy-suggestions contained in Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, there’s a risk that the deeper – and more important – theological themes of the text will be overlooked. It’s also possible some of the wider implications for the Catholic Church’s own self-understanding and the way it consequently approaches questions of justice will be neglected.
For historical perspective, we should recall that before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council there was – and remains – an intense theological debate within the Catholic Church about, firstly, how it renews itself in order to spread the Good News contained in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ more efficaciously; and secondly, what this means for the Church’s engagement with modernity.
Putting the matter somewhat simplistically, one group of twentieth-century Catholic theologians – including Henri de Lubac, S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Danielou, S.J., and Jorge Medina Estévez – maintained that the Church could only authentically renew itself by going back to the basic sources of Christian inspiration: most notably the Sacred Scriptures, Tradition, and the Church Fathers. It was on this basis that they thought the Church should speak to the modern world about, for example, justice issues. They were certainly not disinterested in the insights offered, for example, by modern sciences such as physics or economics. They were, however, convinced that unless the Catholic Church spoke in distinctly Christian terms, the uniqueness of Christ’s message was bound to be lost.
Another cluster of theologians, however, had a different starting-point. They argued that Church renewal meant looking to the modern world for guidance. It included figures such as Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., and Hans Küng. On one level, they were concerned with making the Christian message comprehensible to self-consciously “modern” people. But most eventually went further and argued that the modern world itself contained the hermeneutic for how Christians should engage the earthly city, and even defined what it meant to be Christian.
The problem with the second approach is that it quickly degenerates into a set of circular propositions such as the following: the modern world (as defined by, for example, Hans Küng) says that equality à la John Rawls or Karl Marx is the content of justice; the modern world defines Christian self-understanding; therefore the Christian concern for justice should be Rawlsian or Marxist in nature.
In this schema of reasoning, there’s no obvious way of testing whether a particular modern proposition accords with Divine Revelation because the modern world itself is regarded as somehow summarizing the content of Revelation. In effect, whatever is considered to be modern – and whoever sets himself up as defining the content of modernity – becomes the arbiter of what is and is not Christian.
The manner in which this facilitates an emptying-out of the Christian message and its replacement by whatever happens to be the fashionable nostrums of the zeitgeist was especially evident with the now intellectually-exhausted liberation theologies. Since – or so said the liberation theologians – Marxism was the most sophisticated modern method of interpretation, Christian Revelation had to be reinterpreted through a Marxist lens.
Today, it’s not so much Marxism that is the interpretative lens, but rather other “isms” such as radical feminism and environmentalism. You need only consult the websites of any number of Catholic social justice agencies or religious orders and read the incoherent mixture of eco-babble, über-egalitarianism, therapy-speak, and any number of politically-correct positions to see that the problem is alive and well today.
This is where Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate comes into play. Joseph Ratzinger has always belonged to the “renewal-through-return-to-the-sources” school. Indeed, he was quite critical of early drafts of one of Vatican II’s key documents about modernity, Gaudium et Spes, for apparently marginalizing Christ and Christian faith. Ratzinger has also opposed for many decades the “modernity-as-the-key-to-interpreting-Christianity” idea. It was central to his opposition to liberation theology.
These factors are especially evident in the way Caritas in Veritate treats justice. Here Benedict goes back to the most basic Christian source of all: the Person of Jesus Christ.
Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the Church Fathers, Benedict writes, tell us that Jesus Christ reveals himself simultaneously as Agápe and Lógos (CV 3). He is not Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism, James Lovelock’s Gaia, or John Rawls’ veil of ignorance. However much one might admire or despise such thinkers, it follows that the Christian concern for justice must bring the biblical understanding of love and truth to bear upon such questions.
Christian truth demands that in addressing justice questions, we realize, like St. Augustine, that what fallen humanity can achieve “is always less than we might wish” (CV 78). Moreover, while justice is “an integral part of the love ‘in deed and in truth’” (CV 6) of which St. John writes, Christian love demands we go beyond the demands of strict justice. Though, as Benedict writes, “charity demands justice”, it also “transcends justice and completes it in the logic of giving and forgiving” (CV 6).
Justice delinked from truth becomes subject to the whim of the fashionable and the tyranny of the strong. Justice delinked from love darkens our ability to see the one whom we help as truly our flesh-and-blood neighbor. For Benedict, these are key Christian insights that ought to color the Christian approach to justice.
They also make human life more humane for all.