On Caritas in Veritate
Robert P. Imbelli
Professor of Theology, Boston College
Paul VI, Benedict XVI and the matrix of social teaching

Pope Benedict's recent Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, has received a great deal of attention, with particular interest focused upon its implications for economic matters in a time of economic turmoil. Without denying the importance of such considerations, it is crucial not to ignore the strictly theological challenges that the Encyclical poses. For, in the Pope's view, economic concerns cannot be divorced from what concerns mankind ultimately: God's economy of salvation. Thus I suggest three features of the Encyclical that present challenges to Catholic reflection.

The first feature of the Encyclical may seem entirely self-evident. Yet, I think it is crucial to underline and not take for granted. The Church's social teaching is ecclesial its basis and matrix is the Good News of Jesus Christ entrusted to and proclaimed by the Church.

Pope Benedict writes: "Social doctrine is built upon the foundation handed on by the Apostles to the Fathers of the Church and further explored by the great Christian doctors. This doctrine points definitively to the New Man, to the 'last Adam who became life-giving spirit' (1 Cor 15:35), the principle of the charity that 'never ends' (1 Cor 13:8)" (n. 12).

Indeed, this conviction is already clearly enunciated in the very first section of the Encyclical. Here Benedict writes: "All people feel the interior impulse to love authentically: Love and truth never abandon them completely because these are the vocation implanted by God in the heart and mind of every human person. The search for love and truth is purified and liberated by Jesus Christ from the impoverishment that our humanity brings to it, and he reveals to us in all its fullness the initiative of love and the plan for true life that God has prepared for us. 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" (n. 1).

Now an implication to be drawn from this Christological orientation, given to the entire Encyclical, is that the Church's social teaching is rooted ultimately in the Gospel, not in "natural law". In saying this I do not mean to rule out all appeal to "natural law" reasoning which is certainly a characteristic aspect of Catholic reflection on social issues. There are certainly specific contexts of cultural and political dialogue in which such an appeal is appropriate and even necessary.

However, the well-intentioned desire to find common ground with all people of good will, can unintentionally uproot the Catholic appeal to natural law from the rich theological soil which alone can nourish and sustain it.

In other words, natural law discourse is an "abstraction" from a far thicker and more comprehensive Catholic language that articulates a vision for humankind and the world: the integral humanism, so dear to Paul VI and confirmed by Benedict XVI in his Encyclical.

Indeed, unless that richer Catholic language is invoked and drawn upon, as the Pope does throughout the Encyclical, one risks reducing religion to ethics, personal relationship and fraternity to the promotion of a cause (however just and desirable).

A second feature of the Encyclical is the need, precisely in order to foster authentic development, to have recourse to an integral vision of the human, one whose concern embraces "the good of every man and of the whole man" (n. 18, quoting Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, n. 14). This "truly integral humanism" (n. 78) weaves into a seamless garment the individual and the social, body and soul, effective concern for the earthly city and fervent hope for the heavenly city.

It is noteworthy that Benedict XVI brings together in one over-arching vision aspects of the magisterium of Pope Paul VI that are too often kept apart in Catholic circles, contributing, in no small part, to our present polarization: namely, Populorum Progressio, Humanae Vitae, and Evangelii Nuntiandi. Together, these Documents bear powerful witness to a vision of human being and destiny that is awe-inspiring in the horizon of hope that it proclaims and the scope of transformation to which it summons.

This vision of the human that the Pope sets before us, this theological anthropology of the Catholic tradition, is ultimately rooted in Christology. Pope Benedict's persuasion faithfully reflects the teaching of Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, which affirms "The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light... Christ, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22; cf. Caritas in Veritate, n. 18) .

Hence, the Encyclical issues a further challenge to Catholic thought and action. It is a pressing need in contemporary Catholic life and theology to promote an integral reception of Vatican II. In this effort we must seek to appropriate the four conciliar constitutions: for each illuminates the other and each must be accorded its full due. We cannot afford to be cafeteria conciliarists.

Thus the proponents of Gaudium et Spes and its social concern must develop its Christological underpinnings in the light of the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. The advocates of the liturgical reform, initiated by Sacrosanctum Concilium, must in turn see the Church's worship to be intimately conjoined with the witness demanded of it by Lumen Gentium's teaching regarding the Church as "sacrament of salvation" for the whole world.

A final consideration can take its point of departure from some words of the President of the United States, Barack Obama. In a speech marking the anniversary of the collapse of the Wall Street firm, Lehman Brothers, the President attributed the financial crisis to "reckless behavior, unchecked excess, and an appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses". Then he added: "this was not merely a failure of regulation or legislation; not merely a failure of oversight. It was a failure of responsibility!".

Of course, the President could not use the "C-word" on Wall Street the word "conversion". But Popes can proclaim what presidents can only whisper. Structural change, however necessary, can never substitute for authentic conversion of hearts and minds.

In the concluding section of Caritas in Veritate Benedict XVI writes: "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. All this is essential if 'hearts of stone' are to be converted into 'hearts of flesh' (Ez 36:26), rendering life on earth "divine" and thus more worthy of humanity"(n. 79).

And, since conversion is not a once and for all affair, but an ongoing imperative, the Church's social teaching is only complete when embodied in a spirituality that nourishes and sustains its commitment to charity in truth. Such a spirituality will daily "place man before the astonishing experience of gift" and foster the realization of "the gratuitousness present in our lives in many different forms that often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life" (n. 34). For Catholics such spirituality is always rooted and centered in the Eucharist in which the body of Christ is received for the nourishment of the Church and the well-being and salvation of the world.

If these remarks suggest that Catholic social teaching derives from and depends upon the Catholic tradition's ecclesial and liturgical matrix and its dogmatic affirmations, then I have been understood correctly. Someone may object: does this reading of the Encyclical impede dialogue with other traditions, perspectives and stances? Does it bespeak a narrowly sectarian attitude? I think not. It may however, spur those who share certain of the concrete values and proposals set forth in Caritas in Veritate to consider the basis for their own claims and convictions. In this way real dialogue and discernment can only be deepened (cf. n. 55).


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
18 November 2009, page 13

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