Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical letter is a dense read by anyone’s standards. It’s called “Charity in Truth,” and is a “social encyclical” in a long line of such letters in modern times.
No matter what topic the pope writes about, he relates it to truth. This latest encyclical is full of observations and judgments about political and economic topics. He writes of financial speculation that weakens or destroys economies, the unregulated exploitation of the earth’s resources, equitable agrarian reform in developing countries, the need to lower domestic energy consumption in technologically advanced societies, the perverse phenomenon of sexual tourism, migration among nations and the need to reform the United Nations. He writes clearly, as one would expect, that religion cannot be a cloak for violence and that respect for life “cannot in any way be detached from questions concerning the development of peoples.”
These and many other particular topics in the encyclical will be discussed in classrooms and legislatures, newspapers and talk shows; but it is the context in which the Holy Father discusses them that shows the originality the faith brings to the questions surrounding the development of peoples.
The encyclical relates all the topics and questions about development to the human person. People are not just actors in a political or economic order. Human development is the goal of political and economic plans, and their success is measured to the extent that all people are respected and able to live with the goods that constitute the common good of all.
The pope notes, “In an increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family.” The solutions to our problems are not simply technological, because technology can reduce human beings to instruments in some grand scheme for “bettering” individuals; the world has seen too much of these dictatorial schemes in the last hundred years. Rather, the solutions to our problems must take into account all the requirements of the human person, body and soul, and thus must safeguard and foster our relationship to God.
The pope comes back, in considering who we are and who God is, to the biblical revelation about love. Love is God’s life and should be at the center of our lives and of society. Justice is destructive when divorced from love. We see that every day in our courts and in corporations. But love is “an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way,” without truth. Charity in truth is the principle around which revolves the entire social doctrine of the church.
The truth about love is that it is always a gift, something freely given. This means that profit alone cannot determine the ethical value of an economic system that truly responds to human dignity. The truth about progress is that it must create human solidarity, beyond the clash of personal and national interests. The truth about society is that political life is not an end in itself and that the state’s public respect for our relationship to God saves us from despotism.
During his recent visit to the Holy Land, the pope spoke about truth, including religious truth, as the bulwark of society: “Truth should be offered to all; it serves all members of society. It sheds light on the foundation of morality and ethics, and suffuses reason with the strength to reach beyond its own limitations in order to give expression to our deepest common aspirations. Far from threatening the tolerance of differences or cultural plurality, truth makes consensus possible and keeps public debate rational, honest, and accountable, and opens the gateway to peace. Fostering the will to be obedient to the truth in fact broadens our concept of reason and its scope of application, and makes possible the genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”
This is the context of the pope’s teaching in this latest encyclical, and everywhere else. It is not often enough the context in which we read a social encyclical, or anything else. Because the social doctrine of the church brings the light of truth and moral judgment to political and economic questions, some will warn about the “separation of church and state.”
First of all, this complaint is almost always politically motivated, since different political factions raise it only when one of their favorite causes is judged. In other words, the church’s teaching is acceptable when it condemns theft or perjury; these are still considered immoral by most people, and nobody complains when the church says they should be illegal. But the church is not supposed to instruct the left about the evil of abortion or the right about strengthening international political agencies. In other words, politics trumps morality and truth.
Secondly, it is not the church but the state that is the greatest threat to separation of church and state. The threat becomes real when the state takes it upon itself, especially through the courts, to tell the church what the church can say and do. Preaching morality is what the church is supposed to do. Because, for example, the state has decided that abortion should be legal, penalties for objecting to it on religious grounds are multiplying in medical schools and corporations. When the state determines what is religious and how religious people should think and act, when it meddles in religious affairs, the reach of religious freedom is reduced. There is a problem in this country about the separation of church and state, but the problem is generated by the state, not the church.
Pope Benedict has contributed to the ongoing discussion about social and economic life by bringing to it the light of God’s self-revelation. In that light, justice fails when separated from love, as we see and experience it in God’s goodness to us. That’s the basic truth about human life and society. God bless you.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago