Many commentators read Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate as if it were a think tank white paper, and ask whether he endorses their particular policy preferences. It is a mistake to read the encyclical in this way. A close look at the document’s introduction makes plain that Benedict is not a man of the Left or of the Right: He is a non-ideological man of God.
The opening sentence soars above any political platform: “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal force behind authentic development of every person and of all humanity.” This is our first clue that we are not dealing with a technocrat or ideologue. “Authentic development” points away from the deliberations of politicians and policy wonks. Benedict does not define his objectives in material terms, such as maximizing GDP. Neither does he conduct focus groups or consult experts to figure out what people want. Rather in this encyclical, Benedict reflects on what it means to be authentically human and what the human good actually entails. That is to say, he seeks the truth about man in society.
Some readers will no doubt assume that it is hubris to believe that one can know Truth with a capital “T.” Others may fear that Benedict will somehow impose his “ideology” on the rest of the world. Now, how a city state a few miles across, defended by a handful of guys with medieval weapons is going to impose its will on anyone is beyond my imagining, but put that to one side. Truth has taken such a beating in our time that our contemporaries routinely flinch at its mere mention.
But Benedict is not now, nor has he ever been, afraid of the concept of truth. He is not intimidated by postmodern doubts. He knows where the truth is to be found. The Truth is a person: Jesus Christ.
His theory about Truth is not his own, but the traditional teaching of the Church, as it comes to us from the Apostles and as it has been safeguarded and interpreted over the centuries. His theory is quite simply that every person longs for both truth and love. This longing can never be suppressed, in spite of modern pretensions to being ever-so-above-it-all. “All people feel the interior impulse to love authentically: love and truth never abandon them completely because these are the vocation planted by God in the heart and mind of every human person” (no. 1). Therefore, we will never be able to completely suppress the human desire to know the truth and to live in accordance with it.
Benedict’s perspective on Truth has its own view of human freedom as well as of the human good. “Each person find his good by adherence to God's plan for him,… in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free.” Two possible objections come to mind, from opposite intellectual poles. From the relativist side, we can practically hear the sophisticated eye-rolling over the idea that freedom means anything other than “doing as I please.” But consider these reasons why it is reasonable to follow God’s plan for our lives: (1) God knows more than we do; (2) He has the good of more people in mind, whereas honestly, most of us are mostly thinking of ourselves most of the time; and (3) He has a longer time horizon.
From the objective side, people may fear that Benedict is descending into postmodern relativism when he refers to an individual truth for each person. Benedict’s recognition of this unique path for each person takes nothing away from his affirmation of the existence of eternal and universal truths. Compared with the dehumanization of modern culture, Benedict’s vision of each person living in accordance with God’s distinctive plan for them is positively refreshing. Our emphasis on Equality smashes individuality. The combination of mass media and consumer culture, while it indulges choice in trivial matters, nonetheless creates a tendency to conformity in the most significant aspects of life.
“The search for love and truth is purified and liberated by Jesus Christ from the impoverishment our humanity brings to it.” Pause for a moment on this phrase, “the impoverishment our humanity brings.” Some of our contemporaries may interpret it as evidence of hostility toward humanity. But I believe it is evidence of a realism that is far superior to the modern alternatives.
We are not gods, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving. Instead, we are limited human creatures. We easily confuse temporary goods with permanent goods, partial goods with complete goods and particular localized goods with universal general goods. Benedict knows well that we have a tendency to take one really good and important idea, make an idol out of it, and in so doing, “impoverish” it.
The modern ideologies fit this pattern. Consider Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality. The varieties of liberalism, including some free market versions, treat Liberty uncoupled from truth as the ultimate good. The fascists took the very natural desires for belonging and identity, Fraternity, and created a political system that worshiped the State and the Volk. And the various communist and socialist ideologies take the one noble idea of Equality and apply it where it is truly inapplicable.
These modern ideas were supposed to take the place of religious superstition, but instead, have unleashed rivers of blood on humanity. And for all the power they usurped, these ideologies still do not have the capacity to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. Only a relationship with Jesus Christ can do this. This was one of the key points of Benedict’s earlier encyclical Spe Salvi, which translates In Hope we were Saved. Placing our hope in political platforms or leaders is certain to disappoint us. Only God Himself is worthy of this kind of ultimate hope.
With this prologue in place, we can turn to the core ideas of the encyclical: that charity and truth are not in tension with each other, but in fact complement one another. “Charity is at the heart of the Church's social doctrine... Everything has its origin in God's love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed toward it” (no. 2). God’s love is the great source of all legitimate and reasonable optimism. And this is necessarily grounded in the truth. “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love” (no. 3).
This close intertwining of charity and truth allows Benedict to avoid the problem of subjectivism that has plagued so much of modern political philosophy. We tie ourselves in knots trying to create a political system that is procedurally neutral toward all points of view. We try to hold the self-contradictory position that we must never say that some views are superior to others, while still maintaining that moral autonomy is itself a value that trumps all the others.
Benedict need not become embroiled in these debates over how to manage competing visions of the good life. He is proposing a “thick” conception of the good for the human person: “In Christ, charity in truth becomes the Face of his Person, a vocation for us to love our brothers and sisters in the truth of his plan. Indeed, he himself is the Truth.” Though our modern colleagues may be surprised to learn this, Benedict’s vision of Truth does not degenerate into warfare and hostility. Instead, the common commitment to the Truth allows genuine collaboration. “Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things” (no. 4). The commitment to truth provides us with a standard of goodness that exists outside our subjective desires. Thus, truth liberates us from the power struggles that inevitably accompany competing preferences. “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power” (no. 5).
Benedict is also freed from one of the vexing conundrums of modern political philosophy, namely, what is the goal of the polis? Some political philosophers emphasize things like “social justice,” which has come to mean little more than the redistribution of income. An even more revolting concept is Rousseau’s “general will,” which has come to mean that the people in power get to do whatever they want and claim it represents the will of the people. Both these terms smuggle in a thick conception of the good, even while being unwilling to defend the existence of “goodness” as such. Benedict, by contrast, is quite willing to defend a robust view of human nature, and the human good. This allows him to use the older, medieval term, “common good,” without irony. The “common good” denotes something more than an aggregation of individual preferences, or the management of competing preferences.
“The common good is the good of "all of us," made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society. It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it” (no. 7). In this way of looking at things, the role of the state or polis is not to give everyone every good thing. The role of the polis is to create a set of institutional arrangements that allow people to pursue their own good. But unlike modern subjectivism and relativism, we do not shrink from asking the really important question of what is actually good for us.
Of course, this requires us to have a reasonable understanding of how a social order actually works. Benedict offers the same disclaimer as his predecessor when he says, “the Church does not have technical solutions to offer” (no. 9). This leaves wide latitude for the laity in each country to figure out how to implement the general principles of Catholic social teaching to their own situation. This should put to rest the fears that the Church has some “agenda” to impose on the world.
So don’t read Caritas in Veritate with a checklist of policy prescriptions. I can almost promise you that the Pope will not conform to your whole list of policy preferences. If you read it this way, you will miss the larger point.
Benedict takes us to a world that once was, and could yet be: a world with noble aspirations for love and truth. It is a realistic world, not a utopian fantasy. This is the world we abandoned, these are the possibilities we forsook, when we exchanged truth for consensus and charity for self-interest. “Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom and of the possibility of integral human development. For this reason the Church searches for truth, proclaims it tirelessly and recognizes it wherever it is manifested” (no. 9).
In an age when many have lost even the idea of truth, not to mention the will to search for it, the Church is poised to illuminate corners of our experience that few others will even notice. And in an age of indescribable loneliness, the idea of a social order built on love is surely more appealing than any list of policy proposals.