A Jesuit Looks at Charity in Truth

by William R. O’Neill, Society of Jesus (Jesuits)

In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, the aging Cardinal Wolsey admonishes Sir Thomas More: “You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see the facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman.”(1) Wolsey’s heirs are quick to upbraid our latter-day Mores for their sentimental “moral squint” at public policy. Yet even statesmen of Wolsey’s stripe seldom see the facts “flat on.”  Invariably, our perceptions betray our moral squints, the common sense with which we see the world.

Beginning with Leo XIII’s magisterial encyclical on the rights of workers to a living wage (Rerum novarum, 1891), the Roman Catholic Church looks at public policy through the moral squint of its social teaching. Shortly after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum progressio (1967) promoted “integral human development” for all the world’s peoples. Some twenty years later, Pope John Paul II renewed Paul VI’s call for recognition of the global common good in Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987). Commemorating the fortieth anniversary ofPopulorum progressio, Pope Benedict’s Caritas in veritate (Love in Truth), assesses contemporary globalization in light of this rich heritage, “ever old and ever new.”

While “the Church does not have technical solutions to offer,” and acknowledges the legitimate autonomy of the political sphere, she must, by her very nature, fulfill her “mission of truth” (9). Inspired by this evangelical imperative,Caritas in veritate works its own variations on major themes of the Church’s social teaching. Let me note three: (i) the integral relationship of love and justice; (ii), the ethical integration of the economy, and (iii) a recognition of both personal and collective responsibility for the (global) common good.

Love and Justice

Love (caritas) for Benedict is never mere sentimentalism, nor can it be confined to the purely private sphere. Proclaiming the “truth in love” (Ep. 4:15), demands no less “the proclamation of the truth of Christ’s love in society” (5). And this Gospel truth attests to the inseparable unity of love and justice; for though the command of caritasexceeds justice, love is never less than just. (There is no “suspension of the ethical” in the Church’s social teaching.)

Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI’s words, “the minimum measure” of it, an integral part of the love “in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:18), to which St. John exhorts us. (6)

As the very title intimates, Caritas in veritate underscores the social dimension of love which “every Christian is called to practice” (7, 15). Justice bids us give the other her “due,” and foremost among all the requirements of justice is respect for the innate dignity of every person created, Benedict reminds us, “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). Indeed, the entire body of the Church’s social teaching is based upon “the inviolable dignity of the human person and the transcendent value of natural moral norms.” (45)

Love enjoins respect for every person as neighbor, near and distant. And the implications of this respect are, in turn, specified by natural moral norms, i.e., a rights-based conception of justice comprising the “minimum measure” of other-regard. Catholic social teaching not only ratifies, but enriches our notion of rights. For in the Church’s social teaching, basic human rights encompass not merely the “negative” civil-political liberties enshrined in our American tradition, e.g., the freedoms from interference or coercion, e.g., our rights to freedom of worship, assembly, speech, etc.; but the “positive” socio-economic rights of security and subsistence, including employment, minimal health care, education, etc.-rights necessary for a dignified life in community.”

In modern Catholic social teaching, our “rights talk” serves as a lingua franca in mediating the Church’s theological beliefs regarding covenantal fidelity (sedaqah) in a religiously pluralist context. Just as our freedom is bonded in covenant fidelity, so human rights are never mere immunities from interference by others. Rather, says Benedict, “rights presuppose duties,” for precisely as claim-rights, basic human rights preserve and protect persons’ equal dignity. Basic human rights, that is, impose “reciprocal duties” for such duties “reinforce rights and call for their defense and promotion as a task to be undertaken in the service of the common good.” (43)

In offering an integral and comprehensive account of rights and duties, Benedict joins what many modern political theorists have sundered: the “politics of rights” and the “politics of the common good.” While the modern liberal philosophic tradition gives pride of place to our negative freedoms or immunities and communitarian ethicists favor the virtues of particular traditions, the Church’s social teaching offers a via media. In modern Catholic teaching, the common good is conceived distributively, not en masse, as “the sum total of those conditions of social living” which protect and promote the dignity and rights of every person. The common good thus comprises the institutional (civil, political, economic) protection of basic human rights at every level of social organization, including, a fortiori, the rights of effective participation of those historically denied place and voice.

The Ethical Integration of the Economy

The economy, for Benedict, is a complex social process that must finally serve social purposes: “The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly.” (45). And it is these purposes, we saw above, that are governed by the “transcendent value of natural moral norms”-the dignity of persons, their basic human rights and correlative duties, and the common good that preserves the rights of all, especially the most vulnerable. For Benedict, a “moral logic” both precedes and informs the “economic logic” of markets. (32)

The “explosion of worldwide interdependence” thus raises anew the question of how best to promote the global common good today. For the new millennium is marked by massive poverty, systemic deprivation, and growing inequalities (22). “Hunger,” writes Benedict, “is not so much dependent on lack of material things as on shortage of social resources, the most important of which are institutional. What is missing, in other words, is a network of economic institutions capable of guaranteeing regular access to sufficient food and water for nutritional needs, and also capable of addressing the primary needs and necessities ensuing from genuine food crises, whether due to natural causes or political responsibility, nationally and internationally.” (27)

Systemically redressing such inequities, including “new forms of colonialism” (33) demands the institutional imagination to craft fitting safeguards, including effective regulative and re-distributive mechanisms. (37) We must, says Benedict, “civilize the economy.” (38) For, no less than the norms of contractual fidelity (commutative justice), the norms of “distributive justice and social justice” are internal to a well-ordered market. They are not imposed from without as externalities. Rather, “without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function.” (35)

We must, then, understand globalization “in relational terms, in terms of communion and the sharing of goods” cognizant both of the dignity of work and of the worker. (42, 63) For the economy is not so much a “given,” as a network of global solidarity leavened with the “logic of gift.” Solidarity must be expressed within market transactions, as norm and end (telos). In concert with Benedict’s “integral humanism,” the development of all, especially the most vulnerable, takes moral precedence over the “superdevelopment” of those who like “Dives” in Luke’s parable, neglect their neighbor in need. (29)

Personal and Collective Responsibility for the Common Good

Benedict, like his predecessors, is not a rigid ideologue, but a spiritual pragmatist. His appeal to the common good is never monolithic; nor does fitting economic regulation imply bureaucratic centralization. (67). Rather, for Benedict, economic integration, e.g., the transnational mobility of capital, finance, and labor calls for ethical integration, through both state actors and civil society. (33) And such ethical integration, in accord with the principle of subsidiarity, necessarily respects the relative autonomy of mediating institutions, e.g., labor unions, that promote effective and inclusive participation. For the “primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is …the human person in his or her integrity.” (25)

Reflecting the “centrality of the human person” and persons’ rights of effective participation, “development programs, if they are to be adapted to individual situations, need to be flexible; and the people who benefit from them ought to be directly involved in their planning and implementation.” (47). Authentic development will be characterized, then, by the inclusion of those historically excluded from the spheres of economics, politics, and civil society, e.g., migrants and refugees (58, 62)

Neither can we safeguard our human ecology while neglecting the natural ecology. (51) Benedict memorably underscores the “duties arising from our relationship to the natural environment.” By nature, we are stewards of nature; for in Christ, nature itself is fulfilled and “destined to be recapitulated.” “Consequently,” writes Benedict, “projects for integral human development cannot ignore coming generations, but need to be marked by solidarity and inter-generational justice.” (48)


Benedict’s integral and transcendent humanism summons us to a new “humanistic synthesis” as we face the crises of our day (18, 21). Such a synthesis belies the mythology of impotence, that we are slaves to the “technocratic” work of our hands. For if our love of wisdom bears fruit in the complex social processes of globalization, so these very processes are subject to the wisdom of love: caritas in veritate.

1.Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons (New York: Random House, 1990), 19.

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