As the squabbling continues over various policy suggestions contained in Benedict XVI’s Caritas in veritate, there’s a risk that the deeper theological themes of the text will be overlooked. It’s also possible some of the wider implications for the Catholic Church’s own self-understanding and the way it consequently approaches questions of justice will be neglected. For historical perspective, we should recall that before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council there was—and remains—an intense theological debate within the Catholic Church about, firstly, how it renews itself in order to spread the Good News more efficaciously; and secondly, what this means for the church’s engagement with modernity.
Putting the matter somewhat simplistically, one group of twentieth-century Catholic theologians—including Henri de Lubac, S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Danielou, S.J., and Jorge Medina Estévez—maintained that the church could only authentically renew itself by going back to the basic sources of Christian inspiration: most notably the Sacred Scriptures, Tradition, and the Church Fathers. Though they thought the church should speak to the modern world about, for example, justice issues, and were not disinterested in the insights offered, for example, by modern sciences such as economics, they were also convinced that unless the Catholic Church spoke in distinctly Christian terms, the uniqueness of Christ’s message would be lost.
Another cluster of theologians, however, had a different starting point. They argued that church renewal meant looking to the modern world for guidance. It included figures such as Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., and Hans Küng. On one level, they were concerned with making the Christian message comprehensible to self-consciously “modern” people. But most eventually went further and argued that the modern world itself contained the hermeneutic for how Christians should engage the earthly city, and even defined what it meant to be Christian.
The problem with the second approach is that it quickly degenerates into a set of circular propositions such as the following: the modern world (as defined by, for example, Hans Küng) says that equality à la John Rawls or Karl Marx is the content of justice; the modern world defines Christian self-understanding; therefore the Christian concern for justice should be Rawlsian or Marxist in nature. In this schema of reasoning, there’s no obvious way of testing whether a particular modern proposition accords with divine revelation because the modern world itself is regarded as summarizing the content of revelation. Thus whatever is considered to be modern—and whoever sets himself up as defining the content of modernity—becomes the arbiter of what is and is not Christian.
The manner in which this facilitates an emptying out of the Christian message and its replacement by whatever happens to be the fashionable nostrums of the zeitgeist was especially evident with the now intellectually exhausted liberation theologies. Since—or so said the liberation theologians— Marxism was the most sophisticated modern method of interpretation, Christian revelation had to be reinterpreted through a Marxist lens.
Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the Church Fathers, Benedict writes, tell us that Jesus Christ reveals himself simultaneously as Agápe and Lógos. He is not Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism, James Lovelock’s Gaia, or John Rawls’s veil of ignorance. However much one might admire or despise such thinkers, it follows that the Christian concern for justice must bring the biblical understanding of love and truth to bear upon such questions. Christian truth demands that in addressing justice questions, we realize— like St. Augustine—that what fallen humanity can achieve “is always less than we might wish.” Moreover, while justice is “an integral part of the love ‘in deed and in truth’” of which St. John writes, Christian love demands we go beyond the demands of strict justice. Though, as Benedict writes, “charity demands justice”, it also “transcends justice and completes it in the logic of giving and forgiving.”
Justice delinked from truth becomes subject to the whim of the fashionable and the tyranny of the strong. Justice delinked from love darkens our ability to see the one whom we help as truly our flesh-andblood neighbor. For Benedict, these are key Christian insights that ought to color the Christian approach to justice.