Pope Benedict’s latest encyclical: Caritas in Veritate

On July 7, Pope Benedict XVI published his latest encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate, “Charity in Truth.” Although this newspaper has already printed a detailed summary of this encyclical and I have made a statement concerning it, it is timely for me to cover this topic in this week’s article as well.

The Human Community

The Church does not generally favor a particular form of government in itself. Some forms are or have been more consistent with the Church’s teachings concerning the common good of society, others have even defended moral values in the face of opposition, but the aim of the Church is always what is best for the human person and, therefore, for the human community. This is an important concept to remember as we approach this encyclical because it is one of what are called “social encyclicals,” that is those which address the state of human society, especially in regards to labor and the economy.

It is common for different points of view to look for their justification in encyclicals such as these but that is not their purpose. The purpose of this encyclical, and indeed all the Church’s social encyclicals, is to proclaim and defend the dignity of the human person and proclaim the great possibilities and responsibilities that accompany that dignity.

Pope Benedict specifically states in this encyclical that the principles he puts forth here are consistent with those of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II, Pope Paul VI and all his predecessors before them.

Theme of the Encyclical

It can be said that because we live in an age of such instant communication there is a danger that we will become victims of what we can call “sound-bite philosophy.” In other words, we can easily be swayed by catchy phrases or appeals to our emotions. This manner of viewing the world robs us of the use of our great abilities as human persons: to know, to think and to reason.

This is one of the reasons Pope Benedict has titled his encyclical “Charity in Truth.” Charity is only genuine when it is based upon the truth concerning the individual as a creature of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ. When the truth of the human person, along with his origin and his destiny, is forgotten, untold ills can result. The last century has proven this to be all too true.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, recently summed up the contribution of Benedict XVI’s third encyclical. He said that the encyclical was an attempt to “rediscover the courage to plan the future of humanity, not with the illusions of worn out ideologies, but with the freedom of gathering together in an ample dynamic synthesis all the elements offered by the negative and positive experience of peoples, from the reflections of the various disciplines, from the toil of reason. All of that would be unrealistic and sterile without the breath of life that the inspiration of faith offers.”

The Experience of Gift

A central concept of the Holy Father’s encyclical is that of gift. First, there must be an acknowledgment on the part of each individual that he has been gifted by God with his life and his marvelous human nature, with all its possibilities. To forget the source of energy, ideas and success or to try to live as if we have forgotten them is never a recipe for peace or true charity.

This is why the Pope is encouraging all those of good will to seek charity in truth, and not apart from it. Otherwise, even the best efforts will result in an exercise of naked power and egocentrism.

By our very nature, we are made to live in community and so the gift we have received must be shared with others and exercised for their benefit as well as our own. Our experience of gift must extend to our neighbor and to the greater human community, always based upon a foundation of truth concerning the origin of this gift.

As I said in my statement on this encyclical: “Pope Benedict is saying that love itself, which is charity, is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace. He is proposing now, as a means for the development of peoples, as a means of promoting human dignity, as a means of facing the problems that we are faced with — all these economic problems and all their consequences — the Pope is saying, we do have a solution and we have to begin with love that expresses itself in truth.”

Father Lombardi also highlighted this concept of gift in his news conference, in which he expanded on and explained certain parts of the encyclical. He said: “Charity in truth places man before the astonishing experience of gift. Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension.”

Charity Not to be Reduced to Mere Sentimentalism

As we know, the Church always seeks to apply eternal truths, which do not change, to the realities of modern life, which do change. When reading the homilies and addresses given by our Holy Father, we see that he possesses a remarkable awareness of the realities of the modern world, with all of their strengths and weaknesses. Some have attributed the extremely large numbers of pilgrims going to Rome in order to see and hear Pope Benedict, to the ability of the average person to listen to and understand the Pope’s exhortations and challenges.

One of the observations he makes in Caritas in Veritate concerns the dangers of sentimentalism, which I addressed in this column last year. Pope Benedict points out that if charity is not understood in the light of truth and with a proper understanding of the human person, it can easily lead to an arbitrary sentimentality with a very weak foundation. It can also be manipulated for various purposes by appealing to the emotions alone.

The Pope writes: “Truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the ‘economy’ of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practiced in the light of truth. In this way, not only do we do a service to charity enlightened by truth, but we also help give credibility to truth, demonstrating its persuasive and authenticating power in the practical setting of social living. This is a matter of no small account today, in a social and cultural context which relativizes truth, often paying little heed to it and showing increasing reluctance to acknowledge its existence.”

The Pope observes that without a firm foundation in truth “charity degenerates into sentimentality and love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way” (paragraphs 2 and 3).

Pope Benedict also points out the tendency of our modern society to think that it can accomplish all things on its own. It can, therefore, plan and control success or failure based upon its own programs and ideas, often seen without the light of objective truth.

This temptation is summed up at the end of the encyclical with the Pope’s heartfelt exhortation to view charity in truth and not apart from it. We would do well to conclude our brief reflection on this encyclical by quoting the Holy Father’s words on this subject. He writes: “Development needs Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer, Christians moved by the knowledge that truth-filled love, caritas in veritate, from which authentic development proceeds, is not produced by us, but given to us. For this reason, even in the most difficult and complex times, besides recognizing what is happening, we must above all else turn to God’s love” (78).

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