As one would expect with an encyclical from Benedict XVI, its strength lies in its use of theology to re-orientate Catholics and other Christians away from thinking in a merely secular — and sometimes hyper-politicized way — about questions such as economic and political questions.
The Christian understanding of truth and love and Catholicism’s careful integration of these theological and moral realities lifts us up and out of what the Pope calls the false ideologies and utopias that disfigure our minds and actions. Though they are mentioned sparingly, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are clearly two of the major influences upon the theology informing this text, alongside sacred Scripture.
In these respects, Benedict XVI is being faithful to his theological method of “ressourcement,” pioneered by figures such as Henri de Lubac, S.J., which involves renewing the Church through returning to the primary sources of Christian inspiration. This helps to explain, for instance, the language of gift that permeates the encyclical and reminds us that the model of Christ the Son as God the Father’s gift to us has implications for economic and political life.
Obviously, there will be intense debate about some of the prudential judgments about questions of economic policy expressed in “Caritas in Veritate.” Here we find an element of “on the one hand this, on the other hand that,” which is not always coherent. I would also suggest that the often-negative relationship between extensive wealth-redistribution and the prior necessity of wealth-creation have not been sufficiently considered.
Concerning the global economy, there is nothing new about the encyclical’s reference to a world political authority from the standpoint of Catholic social teaching. In fact, some argue that it represents a logical extension of natural law reasoning about the political order.
The problem is how a world authority could possibly manage the global economy — i.e., billions of economic choices by billions of people and institutions on a daily basis. The principle of subsidiarity provides us with some guidance, but the encyclical may underestimate the tendency of state and international bureaucracies to pursue agendas that have everything to do with their own interests and nothing to do with the poor.
Of course, there are many economic and cultural observations in the encyclical that bear repeating. Benedict XVI’s dismissal of dependency theory as ” erroneous,” his warning against protectionism, and his affirmation that it is people rather than the market economy per se that creates economic evils should be welcomed as helpful correctives to particular ideas that often prevail among social justice activists.
Above all, the insistence upon permeating commercial and economic life with Christian truth — especially moral truth — and Christian love represents a bold challenge for us to apply the Catholic faith to every aspect of our economic lives.
In this regard, Benedict XVI is neither an anarcho-capitalist from the pages of “Atlas Shrugged,” nor a socialist straight out of “Das Kapital.” He is nothing more and nothing less than a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Published July 9 on Zenit, the Catholic news agency.