Sunday, July 26, 2009

Aidan Nichols on Caritas in Veritate

Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., reflects on the pope's latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Here is an excerpt:
For Benedict, charity needs illumining by both reason and faith (3; 9), two distinct yet convergent ways of knowing. Not surprisingly, then, there is more genuine theological doctrine in the new encyclical. Sometimes it is upfront, sometimes it is expressed in a coded way which is one of the reasons people may find this letter difficult to read - something which certainly could not be said about Paul VI's enviably clear and far more straightforward document. The upfront theology is easy to spot. Benedict's thought about social engagement is Christological and even (54) Trinitarian. Let me take some examples of his Christocentrism, itself a sine qua non of genuinely Christian thought. The "charity in truth" of his title is the human face of the divine person of the incarnate Word (1). It reflects the God who is simultaneously Logos and Agape (3). If "humanism" is what you are looking for, only Christ is the revelation of what humanity is (18), a passage indebted to Pope John Paul II's 1979 letter Redemptor Hominis (which itself initiated a more Christocentric reading of the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes). The Church's social doctrine points, therefore, to the "New Man", Christ "the principle of the charity that 'never ends' " (12).

Like Benedict's earlier letter Spe Salvi (2007), Caritas in Veritate is also eschatological, and this is another litmus test of thoroughly revelation-grounded thinking. If global society could achieve unity and peace it would, to that extent, prefigure the final City of God to which the Church directs her own longing (7). The cosmic nature in which human society is set and which it inevitably transforms will be re-capitulated in Christ at the end of time (48): a difficult concept but essential for any distinctively Christian attitude towards the environment.
What does the pope like?
He likes treating justice as inseparable from charity. He likes an objective account of the common good (not a subjective one based on opinion surveys). He likes human rights if they are fundamental ones that are genuinely linked to virtuous practices, and people recognise the corresponding duties. He likes markets so long as they operate in a humane fashion, and state intervention on condition it doesn't reduce people to passivity by welfarism. He likes helping farmers, whether by introducing new methods or improving traditional ones. He likes scientifically based industry if it is marked by generosity in making know-how available. He likes trade unions and, in general, institutions intermediate between the state and the individual - so long as their goals are genuinely civilising (or, in the case of trade unions, just). He likes ecology when it avoids neo-paganism and incorporates a "human ecology" which, among other things, shuns contraception and abortion, eugenics and euthanasia. He likes globalisation if it leads to a sense of a single worldwide interdependence of people, a kind of secular analogue to the catholicity of the Church.
What doesn't the pope like?
He doesn't like treating technology as the means to utopia, nor deploring it as an interference with our naturally paradisiac condition, à la Rousseau. He doesn't like single-minded entrepreneurs motivated exclusively by the profit motive, nor financiers who juggle with notional assets in pursuit of miracles of unnatural growth. He doesn't like the diversion of aid to improper ends, whether by donors or beneficiaries. He doesn't like treating different cultures as obviously equal in every respect, nor does he like homogenising cultures and making them all the same. He doesn't like the mass media when they don't care a hoot for their possible effects in undermining human dignity.
How are things connnected?
The overall shape they belong with owes something to the more than half-century long concern of the popes with the interplay of "subsidiarity" and "solidarity" in economic and social life: roughly speaking, when to leave people or groups to act alone and when - by appeal to the sovereign - to make the members of a whole society act together. But just as John Paul II liked to filter these ideas through his (philosophical and theological) personalism, so Benedict XVI, without abandoning that personalism, fine-tunes them by reference to his key concept (philosophically and theologically) of relation. This helps him to articulate his master idea in Caritas in Veritate, the idea of a "person-based and community-oriented cultural process of worldwide integration that is open to transcendence" (42).
Read the whole analysis.

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