Charity in Truth – Caritas in Veritate
Pope Benedict VI, Charity in Truth – Caritas in Veritate. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009. 157 pp. Hardback, $14.95. ISBN 978-1-58617-280-0.
In 1967 Pope Paul VI published the encyclical Populorum Progressio, in which he laid out the foundations and direction for the mission of the Roman Catholic Church in the modern world. It declared that the Church was to be about promoting human development. Charity in Truth by Pope Benedict VI is designed to build upon that document for the new context of the twenty-first century. As a prelude to his own exposition, he goes into detail about how the world has changed in the last four decades. The primary difference, the Pope says, are the realities of globalization (ch. 2). The jacket states that this is his encyclical on social justice, hence the importance of this book.
Charity in Truth is a classic example of the methodology of Roman Catholic social teaching. In the first chapter Benedict says that the Church’s doctrine is “single,” “consistent,” and “coherent” (pp. 23-24). He traces several contributions of several other documents by Paul VI (e.g., Humanae Vitae, 1968; Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1975) and John Paul II to show that they—and by implication, this new declaration—speak as one voice, even as each in its own way advances Church teaching. References and footnotes cite Church documents, with Scriptural passages appearing only occasionally in the body of the text. This kind of argumentation is foreign to many evangelicals, who tend to limit ethical discussions to a listing of verses or explanations of key biblical verses. There is often a lack of historical perspective or an awareness of reflections on topics by church bodies of any sort, whether in the past or more recently.
As the title indicates, Benedict wants to ground this work in the twin themes of charity and truth. They should characterize the presence of the Church in the world. The former is “the heart of the Church’s social doctrine” (p. 8) and is based on the love of God for each person. At the same time, truth informs charity and makes it believable and reliable.
The Pope appeals to themes that are fundamental to Roman Catholic social teaching throughout Charity in Truth. These include:
- Natural Law: The existence of transcendent values allows humanity to come to a degree of agreement on issues and to work together, even across religious lines. These, however, ultimately need the input and added teaching of the Roman Catholic Church for the fullness of truth.
- The Common Good: This is all-inclusive. That is, basic goods and benefits for human flourishing should be shared and experienced by all, not just a few. This must be the objective of all social activity and institutions. This goal should be guided by those transcendent values of Natural Law (at a minimum).
- The inseparability of faith and reason: Each informs the other, and neither should be pitted against the other or exclude the other. Technology and all other expressions of human intellectual endeavor should not bar metaphysics and faith. Of course, this faith is understood ultimately is defined by the input and presence of the Roman Catholic Church.
- Subsidiarity: This may be a term with which readers may not be acquainted, but it is central to Roman Catholic social teaching. The idea is that society should be organized in such a way that space and responsibilities are granted to small and intermediate sized voluntary associations, institutions, and communities; states should perform those duties, which cannot be taken care of at those lower levels. This state of affairs honors human dignity and independence. Thos encyclical mentions this principle specifically (pp. 118-22), but its spirit permeates the entire document.
- Human development must be holistic and integral. In other words, it should be directed at every sphere of human existence in society and at every dimension of the human person (the material, emotional, intellectual, and the spiritual)—all of which are interconnected and inseparable. The divorce of one element from any other leads to imbalance and potential abuses.
Charity in Truth touches on an impressively wide range of topics, from economics (the market, business, development projects, etc.) to the environment to education to bioethics. This breadth is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it demonstrates how Roman Catholic social teaching truly is coherent and uniform in many ways. This characteristic provides for a powerful moral vision, which can challenge the reduction to one or two topics that can typify much evangelical social thought. On the other hand, so much is dealt with that the reader wonders how truly well-informed the Pope is on each of the issues and how much of the articulation of this vision actually might be thin, impressionistic ethical commentary. Benedict does say that “the Church does not have technical solutions” and that its mission is to be the voice of charity and truth in the public arena, a moral compass and exemplar, as it were. Perhaps expectations for this document need to remain at that level. An index, which this volume does not have, would have been a helpful tool for readers to find teaching on these topics.
This reviewer is involved in a dialogue of leaders of the Catholic and evangelical traditions, who feel that we can work together on three important issues of our day: poverty, the protection of the unborn, and immigration. This gathering, called Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good, has been meeting for a few years, and our Catholic partners point to this and other documents as basic to their positions. This book and its call for a “Christian humanism” (p. 153) is a wonderful window into their social thinking, and I highly recommend it. At a time when Christian ethical views are sometimes caricatured, marginalized, or even attacked in the media and politics, it is good to get to know better the perspective and commitments of one of our allies in the struggle for a common good grounded in a shared faith. There is much to learn here!
M. Daniel Carroll R., Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament