With the Pope Benedict XVI’s release of his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Nancy wondered if we should do a short post pointing to Laurie Goodstein and Rachel Donadio’s article in The New York Times or the press release issued by the Vatican. I recommended we hold off and suggested that perhaps Martin Marty might weigh in Monday’s issue of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

It never came, but last Thursday Rick Elgendy, a doctoral candidate in Theology, took the reins. His piece is smart and helpful, giving us perspectives from several sides and some historical context for this social treatise. We reprint it here for you:

The Radicalism of Caritas in Veritate?

The Vatican recently released the long-awaited papal encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which ranges from theological to political and economic themes. Now that the dust has settled, the encyclical and reactions to it can be seen to be rather remarkable.

Papal comment on social ethics is not itself unusual; Caritas in Veritate is the latest in a long line of encyclicals exploring Catholic social thought. What might be surprising, however, is the character of this encyclical, given its source. Benedict XVI, frequently remembered (from his days as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) for his participation in the institutional resistance to Latin American Liberation Theology, has long been perceived as reactionary by the masses and the media. Yet, this encyclical adopts positions about distributive justice that defy the presumption of papal partisanship. Benedict argues that charity goes beyond but “never lacks justice,” and that “I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice.” Thus, “charity” given under the conditions of systemic injustice is not charity.

Elsewhere, Benedict discusses development (“authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension”), world hunger (food and access to water being “universal rights of all human beings”), the moral responsibilities of corporations (to shareholders, workers, clients, suppliers, and “the community of reference”), and the role of the market (which requires forms of solidarity and mutual trust to fulfill its own function), as well as the usual “life” issues. In doing so, he represents the “seamless garment of life” described by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin: the essential continuity between the Church’s concern with issues ranging from abortion and euthanasia to structural inequality and international peace.

Though frequently presumed to be the source of authority for those who would, say, deny communion to pro-choice politicians, Benedict here refuses to accept the ideological categories assumed in American politics: The same theological commitments that inform his convictions about the integrity of life demand a reimagining of prevailing social arrangements. Catholic and non-Catholic onlookers alike might hope that the encyclical will inspire political discourse that reexamines the standard binaries and turns to principled and civil conversation before partisan rancor (as Benedict himself did, by most reports, in his recent meeting with President Obama, in sharp contrast to how others dealt with the president’s Notre Dame commencement appearance).

Reaction from some commentators has been as remarkable as the encyclical itself. Michael Novak, for instance, echoes Benedict’s theology, emphasizing that, “[f]or Catholics, all social energy flows from the inner life of the Trinity. Everything is gift.” Yet, Novak draws starkly different ethical conclusions: “Thus, it is no surprise when empirical research shows that people who are believers give more of their time and resources to the needy than do unbelievers, and people who cherish limited government (conservatives) give more than welfare-state liberals.” Whatever its “empirical” status, this is a strange response to an argument that charity is specifically not best expressed in noblesse oblige. Novak’s further comments clarify his intention, though, as he suggests that “[t]he Catholic tradition - even the wise Pope Benedict - still seems to put too much stress upon caritas, virtue, justice, and good intentions, and not nearly enough on methods for defeating human sin in all its devious and persistent forms.”

George Weigel argues that the encyclical is the latest episode in a sordid history of attempts by The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to insinuate its social thought into the mainstream. As a result, it is “a hybrid, blending the pope’s own insightful thinking on the social order with elements of the Justice and Peace approach to Catholic social doctrine,” and those in the know could easily enough “go through the text…highlighting those passages that are obviously Benedictine with a gold marker and those that reflect current Justice and Peace default positions with a red marker.” Weigel finds those Benedictine sections “strong and compelling,” and exhibits suspicion about the other sections (because, at Justice and Peace, “evidence, experience, and the canons of Christian realism sometimes seem of little account”). He concludes, “Benedict XVI, a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include…these multiple off-notes, in order to maintain the peace within his curial household.”

Weigel’s redaction recalls the work done in the Jesus Seminar, attempting to reveal the sayings and actions of the “historical Jesus” behind the veil of the New Testament. Though the Jesus Seminar uses four colors instead of Weigel’s two, the presumption that one can sort out the wheat from the chaff, the genuine meaning of the authoritative author from the accretions of inexpert subordinates, remains common to both. Apropos, then, is Albert Schweitzer’s well-known suspicion, expressed after decades spent on his own such searching: that the person resulting from such quests often bears a striking resemblance to ourselves. To assimilate the encyclical to our own status quo, however, would mean the tragic loss of its potentially prophetic voice.

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Johnny-Come-Lately Catholicism: The Pope’s missed opportunity to deliver a “social” encyclical by giving us “much ado about nothing”

Since the advent of Social Encyclicals (viz., Rerum Novarum), each Papacy has made an effort to offer an insightful, inspirational, and hopeful message for the “social justice” issues of their respective ages and contexts. Usually such letters as Pacem in Terris, Populorum Progressio, and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis tended to concentrate on the concrete experiences, struggles, and challenges faced by the poor and marginalized. For me, they seem to put the Praxis back into our faith and ground us in the gospel imperatives of love and justice. It is, as though, the works is put back into the faith and works equation. I look forward to these encyclicals as a restorative balm after reading so many casuistic, mind-numbing doctrines and documents which cover the faith and morality issues. In a sense, it is the poor’s turn to have their day in court.

Most of the Popes have humbly addressed their social encyclicals to those who suffer and live at the “margins” of life. Not this Pope! Benedict has used the occasion to roll out the old tired arguments about cultural relativism (which I would define as being sensitive to “cultural context” – the Sitz im Leben of Biblical scholars). Obviously, this Pope has little time or regard for the crushing poverty, hunger, AIDS, and sundry little deaths that ¾ of the world suffer each day. For him, we need to address the “underlying system of morality” which has been so neglected by those liberation theologians intent on fomenting revolution and championing a culture of death; hmmmm?

If it were not for the Pontiff’s excessive use of Paul VI (his thought and his encyclical), I find it hard to glean even a few original and relevant messages for the poor today. For a man with advanced degrees in theology, Benedict is not very adept at constructing an argument using anything more recent in Church ethics and morality than Augustine and a few other irrelevant Medieval ghosts from Trent. It was also hard to follow his thought processes when discussing “social problems” or “economics”, because he would (out of the blue), drop in a non-sequitur about the sanctity of the human family. In paragraph 44, he writes, “…States are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family found on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society.” How relevant and uplifting is that message for all the single mothers living in abject poverty, or the abused divorced women, or the single gay man, or the blended families that live and thrive from their love for one another and not from some Father Knows Best nightmare. Wake up Benedict, IT IS 2009.

But what was really unnerving for me as I read the encyclical was how the Pope started heaping laudatory praise on individuals and organizations who have been addressing AIDS in Africa (where was the Church?), protecting the environment (Sierra Club was fighting for it long before Rome joined the party), and reaching out to those who are oppressed daily by being denied ordination and castigated as “grave” and “mortal” sinners (you know who you are LOL). Nota Bene; this Pope is the same man who (as head of the Congregation of Doctrine & Faith) as Cardinal Ratzinger, was instrumental in silencing Matthew Fox, Leonardo Boff, Hans Kung, and Charles Curran. At the risk of stating the obvious; I suggest to the Holy Father that justice, truth, and charity begins at home and in Rome!!

Such is my title of this op-ed. The Church in history always seems to be arriving at the time the party is breaking up and proceeds to offer their own last minute observations and agreeing with the general conversation of the party earlier in the evening: “Oh yes, we forget to tell you that we were concerned about 10 million AIDS orphans, while all the time forbidding people to use condoms”. The majority of Catholics do not obey the “magisterium” when they practice contraception, engage in pre-marital sex, and even (God Forbid), re-marry after a divorce. The dis-connect between Rome and the laity only highlights how irrelevant and unrealistic these papal encyclicals are perceived by the average lay person such as myself. I guess that I happen to be one of those “moral relativists” who embrace diversity and pluralism (i.e. one “grave and disordered sinner” who promotes the “culture of death”).

It is sad though, that the Pope could have given us some new information, some new hope, and some new points of reconciliation and promising dialogue with this encyclical of “Love & Truth”. Instead, I finished the encyclical feeling as though I had just read another Curial snoozer that had little to do with my real life and had about as much to do with social problems as a celibate has to do with giving us advice on sexuality.

Oh well! Maybe there will be a sequel Benedict’s magnum opus – how about “Blessed Are The Poor”?

“Too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of other human beings”

- Robert F Kennedy

Thank you,
Rick in Kansas City

It is great that you seem to think an encyclical has the potential to solve the worlds problem - which incidentally exists because of the complete disregard of the truth and morality which the magisterium, commissioned by Christ, passes on to us.

For example, the spread of diseases such as aids is not due to the lack of condom use but to promiscuity (and other sins). In contrast the Church teaches the proper place for sex is in a marriage. Let's not quibble about 'thou shalt not commit adultery' which God carved on the stones and gave to Moses. It's quite obvious to you that God surely didn't intend such meaningless rules to us enlightened creatures of 2009.

I have not read the encyclical but from the above article and your comments I summise and simplify the situation as follows, seek first the kingdom of God and all else will be given to you.

Yes Father does know best but in typical fashion children always throw a tantrum when they can't do what they want unrestricted, this is nothing new. The magisterium can teach truth and morals, but each one of us is responsible for working out how to live the truth practically in our daily lives.

You may wish to recall Jesus, the Son of God, who came down from heaven, taught us the truth for a few years, was crucified and then went back to heaven. Jesus, the fullness of truth, preached the truth and left it with the people. He did not wipe out poverty or injustice, that task He bestowed upon us.

It was disobedience that caused the fall of man. Sin entered the world and infected everything. It was through complete obedience of Jesus to the Father's will which restored us to life.

The poverty that you seem so concerned about will not disappear by works but by eliminating sin. Sin is eliminated by living according to the truth. So I reiterate, seek first the kingdom of God and all else will be given to you.

Bless you Charlie for your realistic and timeless “God first, and all else will be given to you” command. This is a radical lifestyle always. Today, it is an ultimatum for humanity: God or what? It seems we can not talk about social justice, virtue, truth, good intentions, and ethics, if we have not the willingness to “walk the talk.” Hence, many blessings for Richardfolker, who addressed the point that charity starts at home of every individual, organization, and community, specially the religious organizations who command the leadership of loving each other in a way we can share food and water, belongings, money, and time on this earth.

We are not making nearly enough on methods for defeating human suffering, poverty, and misbehavior due to our extremely poor commitment with the Lord.

It starts (1) with many unbelievers who have the right and free will to dismiss a God who does not take care about humanity because does not exist for them; thus, they undertook the mission of taking care about themselves in their own, and some of them take care about others also. For many of them, there is not a thing as salvation. To live to them is to die anyway.

(2) We find many believers - in many kinds of religious settings - who believe in a supreme being in a way that make them survive mediocrity between faith and reality. Sometimes regularly, they pray to overcome the throes of depression, uncertainty, and bad times, with the support of their faith and their jobs in a basis of “yes we believe, but we need to eat first and make sure about our survival necessity.”

The final (3) group, the radical people who believe like Charlie and I the craziness of ignoring the priority of this world, making God the most important in our lives who will provide everything in addition - if we believe with all our heart, mind, and soul - are those who are talking and walking the word of God in a way that creates a method of survival highly controversial, risky, and out of touch of “reality.”

I don’t know about you Charlie, but I left everything: job, family, friends, country, and decided to follow 24/7 our God Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace and savior definitely.