"Caritas in Veritate" Presents a Challenge to Everyone
By James Stoner
BATON ROUGE, Louisiana, 10 JULY 2009 (ZENIT)
Faithful Catholics in America today often seem tempted
by cultural hostility to withdraw into our own circle of faith and
family, asking of law and government only that we be left alone.
To this tendency, Pope Benedict's new encyclical on the social teaching
of the Church, "Caritas in Veritate," is a thorough rebuke, for it is a
call to engage the world—not only through evangelization, but through
economic, social, and political thought and action; through commitment
to the cause of integral human development and social progress.
One can see why liberal commentators quickly seized on the encyclical as
friendly to their agenda. The Pope is critical of contemporary market
society, with its "scandalous speculation," its emphasis on short-term
profit, its ambivalent record in combating poverty, and its disregard of
the cultural fabric of societies it would modernize; moreover, he calls
for extensive global reform and even "for a reform of the United
Nations...so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real
One doubts liberals will cheer so loudly when they read more carefully,
because he also insists that the culture of life needs to be recovered,
that atheism and relativism are threats to genuine human development,
that "a metaphysical understanding of the relations between persons" is
essential, that cultural and religious syncretism is dangerous, and that
freedom is not autonomous license but formation under the natural moral
And he warns against "a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical
nature," which must be countered by the principle of subsidiarity.
On the one hand, the failure to think and act boldly for world-wide
justice indicates a dearth of charity, while on the other, charity needs
to be anchored in universal truth
as the title of the encyclical makes plain.
Vast in its sweep of topics
the Pope comments not only on major institutions of governance and
finance but on the environment, on migration, on international aid, even
— there is much that will bear further study and ought genuinely
to provoke fresh thought.
I found suggestive his notion that the categories of most 20th century
Catholic reflection on social justice have been altered, as many
economic and social institutions in contemporary global civilization
cannot be identified as clearly public or private; to debate state
versus market solutions to social problems is thus to miss the question.
The Pope's attention to the centrality of "the astonishing experience of
gift" or "gratuitousness," while not completely unknown in social
science, might prove fertile in the development of paradigms of social
and economic life that transcend the pinched model of economic man as
rational maximizer, without falling into the trap of totalitarian
His discussion of technology, as simultaneously a testimony to the power
of the human spirit and the characteristic engine of soulless
materialism, is lucid; recovering respect for nature as God's gift is an
imperative not only for planetary survival, but for self-knowledge.
Papal encyclicals studiously avoid being partisan documents
that's one reason why they are sometimes hard to read
but citizens who heed the Pope's call to enter the fray of political
"praxis" in the search for justice and the common good will rarely be
able to escape the pull of partisanship.
By giving each side a picture of its own strengths and failings and by
urging sustained dialogue over global policy, the Pope deepens his
project of reconciling faithful Christians and the children of
Enlightenment. His term "praxis," an ancient Greek word for "action,"
"deed," or even "business," known to modern intellectuals chiefly
through its use by Marxists, is, after all, in its plural form, the
title of the New Testament's fifth book.
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James Stoner is a professor of political science at
Louisiana State University. He is the author, most recently, of "Common
Law Liberty: Rethinking American Constitutionalism" (University Press of