A Vincentian Looks at Charity in Truth

by Richard Benson, Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians)

Pope Benedict XVI latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, provides a timely challenge to a contemporary world in which the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” continues to grow, where materialism and individualism are sought after in place of authentic human fulfillment and where the “consumer” and short term “profit” have become the benchmarks of too many capitalists and too many capitalist enterprises.

If anything is clear after a thorough reading of the encyclical it is that despite the “fall of communism” in the former Soviet Union and its satellites, capitalism has not triumphed as means that has guaranteed integral human development. The melt down of Wall Street, the personal and institutional corruption that has come to light in the world of banking, investment and politics has provided just the right context to prove the need for a call to all members of society to rekindle a vision of a human society based on true charity, a charity based in truth. The encyclical takes as its primary point of departure, the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio. Celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the publication of that encyclical, Caritas in Veritate is both a theological reflection on the meaning of integral human development and a systematic analysis of the challenges to that integral development in the contemporary world. “More than forty years after Populorum Progressio, its basic theme, namely progress,remains an open question. (33) In other words, this encyclical is primarily concerned with developing an understanding of “progress” and “development” that is meaningful for human society at the beginning of the twentieth century and particularly one that works within an increasingly “global” society.

In articulating an integral vision of human development Pope Benedict XVI teaches that there are three essential themes to Catholic Social Teaching, three themes that make love a truly authentic love, make it truthful: 1) that persons are made as the imago Dei (the image of God); 2) that the common good is the only true guarantor of theindividual good; 3) that the imago Dei and the common good can only be authentically pursued and protected with a commitment to a consistent ethic of life.

The encyclical makes it clear that authentic human development must include God and the understanding of every person created in God’s image. “Such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to humanity, which falls into the trap of thinking it can bring about its own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development. Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature, to recognize thedivine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that ‘becomes concern and care for the other.”(11)

The encyclical raises up another essential lynchpin of Catholic social morality, the common good. “Another important consideration is the common good. To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it. Besides the good of the individual there is a good that is linked to living in society: the common good. It is the good of ‘all of us’… It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community.

Thirdly, the encyclical clearly articulates the moral disjunction that erupts when social “progress” is divorced from a consistent ethic of life. It is impossible to address the issue of poverty without addressing abortion and euthanasia, among other life issues. As Pope Benedict XVI says, “…the social question has become a radically anthropological question.” (75) “While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human.” (75)

The Pope then addresses some particular issues; issues that deserve attention if this encyclical will have any direct moral impact on the Church and society. He identifies “speculative financial dealing, large-scale migration of peoples, and the unregulated exploitation of the earth’s resources.” (21) He shows concerns for the downside of “outsourcing,” the “downsizing of social security systems,” the difficulties that trade unions are experiencing “in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers” For the Pope, these are not themes to be identified with any particular political party, rather they are part and parcel of the theme of authentic human development. Every society needs to develop just policies and laws that protect the integrity of every citizen. He is clear, the excesses of laissez faire capitalism are antithetical to full human development. In all of this, we are reminded that the “primary capital to be safeguarded and valued” is the human person. “The human being is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life.” (25) The encyclical is a timely reminder that the Church in her wisdom has always taught that “people” come before “profit.” Capitalism must have a human face and spiritual soul otherwise it becomes a cold and evil taskmaster.

While the encyclical is rich in all its teaching, I might suggest that a significant message for us in the United States is found in the section where Pope Benedict XVI discusses the connection between the environment and authentic development. “This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles ‘in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of the common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.” (51) Following up on this is the reminder that “consumer choices are always moral choices.” In other words, for those of us who enjoy a developed economy, there is a moral imperative to ask ourselves before every retail purchase, “Is this something I and my family ‘need’, or is it simple something I ‘want’? The reality is that the greatest threat to the environment is not the earth’s population but the developed worlds thirst for unfettered consumerism. Solidarity with my sisters and brothers who share the same planet means that I make environmentally sane purchases. How many people who own Hummers really ‘need’ them?

In the end, it is clear that the underlying message of this encyclical is a call to authentic spirituality. Pope Benedict XVI reiterates in different places that unless each person realizes that everything we are and have is gift, integral human development cannot even get off the ground. If development is only measured by the amount of material wealth owned by individuals and countries, we will have missed the essential message of the encyclical. While we are called to address and remediate the evil of poverty and to dismantle the sinful structures that support injustice and continue to impoverish so many of our sisters and brothers, we also have to admit that any vision of development that does not include spiritual and moral growth is a false god. “Development needs Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer, Christians moved by the knowledge that truth-filled love, caritas in veritate, from which authentic development proceeds, is not produced by us, but given to us. For this reason, …we must above all else turn to God’s love. Development requires attention to the spiritual life, a serious consideration of the experiences of trust in God, spiritual fellowship in Christ, reliance upon God’s providence and mercy, love and forgiveness, self-denial, acceptance of others, justice and peace.” (79)

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