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Christian Beck

The Social Encyclical Caritas in Veritate


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 9/2009, P. 631-637
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    On 29 July 2009 Pope Benedict XVI published his social encyclical "Caritas in veritate". CHRISTIAN BECK, Professor of Social Labour at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt represents the papal doctrinal writing and comments on the main points from the perspective of people on the margins of society.


After "Deus caritas est" (2005) and "Spe salvi" (2007) Pope Benedict XVI has with date of 29 June 2009, the Feast of the Saints Peter and Paul, published his first social encyclical. It has the name "Caritas in veritate" (love in truth) and is directed at the entire Catholic Church and all people of good will {1}. The letter is about "the integral development of man in love and in truth."

With the publication of the encyclical the Pope addresses a world that is in the midst of one of the most dramatic crises of recent history. Globalization and the financial world show clearly their negative aspects; the basis of many people's livelihood is threatened. In this respect, the encyclical appears at the best time. It could be a basic textbook and guidance for all people who suffer under the crisis and in particular feel left alone by the institutions. If Caritas in veritate had already been published two years ago, as it was actually intended, many contents of the letter would almost certainly have been drowned by the daily intoxication of news.


Love and Truth

The papal circular consists of an introduction (1-9) {2}, six chapters (10-77) and a final part (78-79). In the introduction the pope emphasizes, like in Deus caritas est, the relation of love and truth in theology, in faith and finally in the social teaching of the Catholic Church. The explanations are very fundamental and in a traditional way theologically oriented towards natural law. The Pope says that charity was "at the heart of the Church's social doctrine" (2) and has been and continues to be misconstrued and emptied of meaning and time and again "detached from ethical living" (ibid.). Benedict XVI then speaks of the complementary pair of "veritas in caritate" and "caritas in veritate" (ibid.). It thus becomes clear that truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the “economy” of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practised in the light of truth. The reader is thus drawn into the innermost core of the Christian message, which is finally expressed in the double commandment of love for God and man:



"A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world. ... As the objects of God's love, men and women become subjects of charity, they are called to make themselves instruments of grace, so as to pour forth God's charity and to weave networks of charity." (4 f.).

In consequence of this religious truth the Pope describes the Church's social doctrine about which it is in 'Caritas in veritate' as a "proclamation of the truth of Christ's love in society" (5). One had hoped for a similar clarification already in the first encyclical Deus caritas est, which deals with the love of one's neighbour - also realized by church institutions as e.g. by the Caritas Association in Germany. The latest clarification is an excellent foundation for pacifying and removing within the academic theology, in the context of practical theology, e.g. the differences cultivated over the years by the various movements and representatives of the Catholic social doctrine and of the so-called Caritas science. No pope has ever in an encyclical more clearly and urgently formulated than Benedict XVI: It is about truth, love (of one's neighbour) and the society to which it is spoken. He who takes this seriously will no longer be able to discover gaps between social doctrine and practical activity (of Caritas). He will rather become convinced that the two are - so to speak, hand in hand - the realization of God's will. However, in particular the organized Caritas would do well internally to review whether its actions today do still justice to this principle.


Justice and Public Good

The further explanations of the pope in the context of the introduction are marked by the reflection on justice and common good (cf. 6ff.). But it seems regrettable that Benedict XVI does also this time not decide to define a concept of justice leading ahead. That charity goes beyond justice and that every society draws up its own legal system (see 6) must severely hurt the ears of many people in numerous countries around the world, since they experience every day that just the states in which they are living withhold the most fundamental rights from them or that they are to put up with discrimination, torture and death if they stand up for their rights. The "earthly city" described by Benedict XVI (ibid.) has to be realized in concrete terms. But this cannot be the case if higher officials of the church, as e.g. the former Cardinal of Managua, Miguel Obando y Bravo, form an alliance with statesmen who are corrupt to the core and pervert the course of justice.



The proclamation of justice must not theologically one-sidedly lead to putting off people until the hereafter; then it does not take people seriously. Justice is in direct correlation to the goods which are distributed to people and to the public good enabling them to a life in dignity. The common good is not abstract. On the contrary, the institutions are to enable life and to serve people. In this context it would be interesting to know what the Pope in his encyclical means with the implicit reference to ethical conduct. In section 8 Benedict emphasizes the tradition of his encyclical, which he sees in line with Pope Paul VI's letter "Populorum Progressio" (1967) and as its continuation. The Pope refers to the "development of the whole man and of all men", as Paul VI has formulated it. He wanted to take up and to "apply them to the present moment." (8). Such references allow us to consider whether there was actually the possibility anew to formulate ethical approaches in a time of social differentiations.


Integral Development of Man

The first chapter of Caritas in veritate (10-20) is devoted to the fundamental message of Populorum Progressio. Benedict XVI underlines that reading anew this papal letter had induced him to place his own encyclical in this tradition; with it it is clear that Caritas in veritate is no social encyclical that deals with a selected topic or a specific question. Caritas in veritate is a social encyclical that deals with the (social) situation of people in the world, and with the corresponding key and marginal issues. It is therefore not surprising that the Pope gives full attention to the integral development of man and its significance for the realization of love in truth. The message seems necessary in a world that increasingly celebrates its egocentric conception of the world and of man. People do no longer take interest in each others' life, work and dwelling. Benedict XVI says, "As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbours but does not make us brothers" (19).

In the second chapter (21-33) the pope describes under the title "Human Development in our Time" the general world situation, especially with regard to globalization, man's development, and finances. Despite the apparent dealing with the distortions and problems in detail (e.g. speculative financial activities, exploitation of earth's resources, protection of knowledge, corruption, etc., see 21 et seq) the explanations remain superficial. The well-known truths of the Catholic social doctrine are admittedly taken into consideration, but they lose their argumentative power with regard to specific requirements, which the Catholics around the world had expected in their partly quite difficult living conditions.



Here in particular the encyclical Populorum Progressio to which Benedict refers is more succinct, although one naturally cannot demand the verbal salvation of the world from a papal encyclical.

In the same second chapter it remains incomprehensible what the Pope means with his words about culture and understanding of culture. He speaks of the fact that today an uncritical cultural eclecticism could increasingly be observed:

"This easily yields to a relativism that does not serve true intercultural dialogue; on the social plane, cultural relativism has the effect that cultural groups coexist side by side, but remain separate, with no authentic dialogue and therefore with no true integration." (26).

The present text does not make clear who is responsible for the eclecticism and the uncritical relativization of culture. Does Benedict mean individuals, society(ies) or even the religious manifestations of culture in different countries and regions? If this issue was answered, the next one would read: From whose standpoint the relativization was to be recognized and, should the occasion arise, to be modified? In a further observation on culture the pope admittedly diagnoses rightly the "levelling of types of conduct and life-styles" (ibid.) but offers no solution to the in his opinion grave, problematic understanding of culture in the present time.

In the final analysis this reflection on culture can only be explained and interpreted against the background of the pope's continuing to stand by the uniqueness and universality of the Catholic doctrine, without establishing contact on an equal footing with other cultural forms of human living together. Neither ethnology - to which the church has never really given serious thought - nor other disciplines of research on culture and life can accept this kind of statements. Without any further explanations and clarifications the Pope shuts the door in the face of certain forms of intercultural dialogue. Culture and human nature cannot be separated in their interaction. But this does not only apply to Christianity. However, it is possible that particularly Christians have still to learn again to practise this interaction, the function of which is to promote life and to form society.


Economy for the People

In the third chapter (34-42) the Pope reflects on "Fraternity, Economic Development and Civil Society." Here the papal encyclical deals a bit deeper with interdependences of humanity and market as well as with justice and economic development.



Some sentences in this section then actually offer the kerygmatic precision which one had whished for from the entire text:

"Then, the conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from “influences” of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way." (34).

At another place it says:

"The Church's social doctrine holds that authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or “after” it. The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner." (36).

Those clear sentences can be understood by everybody and can re-orient towards man the relation which got into a threatening imbalance: the relationship between interpersonal creative power and capacity for work and money-oriented (virtual) systems. Man is and remains centre and goal, starting-point and end of economic action, which has to serve him and to support him in preserving creation. Everybody has then corresponding rights and obligations {3}.

This is also the background for the employers' necessary re-orientation. The Pope notes that the so-called old spirit of enterprise is changing and needs new forms (40). As a principle applied the assumption according to which the "business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but ... also with all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business." A message that is admittedly heard by many and is also implemented, but it does not cope with the structures of multinational corporations and their understanding of finance and business. There remains a considerable doubt as to whether the message is heard there.

In particular in the Federal Republic of Germany the middle class is still the backbone of economy. At the same time precisely these middle-class entrepreneurs still know that they and others are obliged to a certain ethos; and they also implement it. Besides, they, too, are victims of the financial and economic crisis, which was primarily caused by the internationally active companies. Here, too, a clarification by the pope was necessary, particularly since he must know that the middle class is also the backbone of society and that societies without a so-called middle-class and medium-sized businesses are extremely vulnerable and fluctuating. In Argentina, Brazil and Mexico it has been evident for years what happens when the middle class erodes - not to mention the poorer countries in Central America or Africa.



Business Ethics as Social Ethics

The fourth and fifth chapters (43-52 or 53-67) are devoted to the development of people, their rights and duties, environment and poverty. On that occasion Benedict XVI makes the protection of life in general, combined with a sensible dealing with creation and the practice of a certain ethical way of life (especially in economic actions) the focus of attention. He warns quite rightly against the inflation and ideological discrimination of the concept of ethics and leaves no doubt that ethics has to be placed in the centre, "Efforts are needed — and it is essential to say this — to create “ethical” sectors or segments of the economy or the world of finance."(45). However, there is no connection with the above statement, in which the Pope focuses on the employers. The solution might perhaps be that the Church's social doctrine opens by always regarding its observations on business ethics as arguments of social ethics.

Business ethics makes exactly then sense if it sees itself as social ethics. With it the relationship between people who also communicate with each other in a market or an organization becomes the centre of consideration. Current drafts of economic or business ethics - also such that are oriented towards the Catholic social doctrine - have a tendency to focus on the functionality of commerce and industry. It is not seldom that man in his actions and his responsibility is only added as a good which has still to be considered, too. If one, in a similar way as the pope lines up the issues, added the dealing with nature and environment, then the result would be the chance for an understanding of the Catholic social teaching as bioethics in the truest sense of the word.

On the other hand, the world in the 21st century can no longer seriously be based only on anthropocentrism. It is necessary, as the pope consistently emphasizes, to promote and support life:

"Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society." (51).

From this Benedict XVI derives his remarks on poverty, development, solidarity and other specific details of human life. All these explanations are knocking at a certain point the famous peg into the ground and give room for discussion.



Option for the Poor?

The statements on poverty are in every respect shocking, because they are made only in homeopathic doses. As already in his first encyclical, the Pope is also here not willing to condemn poverty in all its life-damaging dimensions and prophetically to set out the structural inequities. The "option for the poor" dwindles, if the negation of human existence resulting from poverty is not underlined. Twenty years after the collapse of the systems of the "really existing socialism" capitalism, too, has not yet shown how it intends to eradicate poverty. It has still not given any proof; but this does not mean to speak out in favour of returning to the old system rationality. On the contrary, the number of poor and poorest people increases all over the world. The gap between rich and poor continues widening. Hunger, severe illnesses and destroyed conditions of life are the reality for millions of Catholics and people of good will to whom the encyclical is directed.

Comments on the mechanization, the change of communication media and the functional feasibilities in the last chapter of his encyclical (68-77) cannot obscure this serious weakness, although in the first sections the fundamental ideas seem positively to exist. Is there really still the fear that too much solidarity with the poor and a life on their side would lead the church to an illegal politicization? Is one actually still of the opinion that the preaching of a liberating and solidary God was a blot on the jacket of Christianity? Caritas in veritate gives no answer about it. The first major social encyclical of a German pope throws away here a great opportunity: to get the "integral humanism", demanded in his own text, matured to an attitude towards life and faith that is close to the poor - and this at a time when just those people who are living at the margin of society must most intensively struggle with the consequences of the misconduct of others.



{1} See "Caritas in veritate", see hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate_en.html

{2} As usual in encyclicals, the numbering is done by sections not by pages (see details in text).

{3} The popes have time and again pointed to it in their encyclicals. But see especially the compilations in: Kompendium der Soziallehre der Kirche, edited by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (Freiburg 2006) 244 ff.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'