My Initial — But Belated — Reaction to Caritas in Veritate

I have been meaning to comment on Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate, published on July 7 of this year. I don’t have time to do it — to begin to do it — justice right now, but there are two points worth making.

There is always a need for caution in the treatment of papal encyclicals. They are written to hold up values, more than solutions and are often written at a level of generality that leaves much unresolved. As John Paul II wrote, “the Church proposes; she imposes nothing.” The second is that — although we can’t help but read them with American eyes — they are not written only for us.

Still, I think an American reader should be struck by two insights — neither particularly new — “proposed” by Caritas.

I believe that Catholic Social Teaching – for all of its emphasis on the “signs of the time” — often does not adequately account for economic reality. This is related to a paper that I am presenting at St. Thomas in November, so I’ll probably bloviate on that in the coming weeks.

But at the same time, there is no way that a faithful conservative Catholic could not come away from Caritas without a sense that his or her presuppositions on economic matters have been challenged. Again, this is not new (although Caritasfeels less market friendly than, say, John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus).  While recognition of the right to own property and the value of markets and “for profit” entities is robust in CST, it is always qualified by the notion of the universal destination of goods and the idea of ownership as stewardship and not exploitation.

But, at the same time, there is no way that a faithful liberal Catholic could not come away from Caritas without a sense that his or her presuppositions about social issues have been challenged. In particular, there is a sharp break between the notion that social issues are “distractions” that create a kind of false consciousness that causes the poor and middle class to ignore their “true” (i.e., economic issues).

There is a robust anthropology in CST that makes claims about what is and is not part of the good life and an asserted connection between that anthropology and economic life. In other words, the “seamless web” often said to connect a series of “life” issues also connects assertions about the nature of human beings and the family to considerations of economic justice. 

There are, of course, rich implications for the law. Should the idea of stewardship in the control of private property be better reflected in law and public policy? Or would that violate notions of subsidiarity? To what extent ought law and policy be framed to encourage – if not require – certain ideas about who the human person is and how she ought to live?

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Daniel Suhr

    Hey Professor,

    I think you are right on that Caritas is less friendly to free markets than Centissimus. First Things is holding a symposium on Caritas right now with contributions from Michael Novak et al – today’s essay delineates clearly the tensions between the two encyclicals.

    In addition to being overly solicitous of wealth redistribution, Caritas (following a long-standing trend in CST) is also far too friendly to unions (see, e.g., Detroit) and the United Nations Organisation (I join this crew in “hesitat[ing] to uncritically endorse the current models in the U.N., I.M.F., World Bank and W.T.O.”).

    There is much to praise in this encyclical. But there was concern from the start that it was being written by a committee of Vatican peace & justice bureaucrats, and unfortunately those fears were vindicated by the policy proscriptions contained in the final text.

  2. Ed Fallone

    As a liberal Catholic who disagrees with the official Vatican position on many social issues, such as birth control, I sympathize with the dilemma that Caritas in Veritate creates for those who embrace conservative free market economic theory. The document’s strong support for unionized labor and call for an international body to oversee economic policies are both hard to reconcile with the standard free market position.

    I am curious whether those who believe strongly in free markets will react to the Pope’s encyclical by using the same tactics that we liberals use when justifying our dissent on social issues.

    For example, the liberal response to Vatican pronouncements on issues of human sexuality is often to deny that the Vatican is really saying what is says. Perhaps the language can be characterized as vague, or overly general, or not specific to the American situation and therefore irrelevant.

    When that doesn’t work, we typically assert the right to follow the Vatican’s pronouncement’s selectively, either because the offending position has no basis in scripture (i.e., “unions” are nowhere mentioned in the Bible) or because this particular pronouncement is the work of rogue “conservative” elements within the Vatican (or in your case rogue “liberal” elements) and therefore not truly indicative of the official faith.

    Like you, I look forward to following the reaction to Caritas Veritate among American Catholics very closely.

  3. Peter Heyne

    As a former Classics major, I am disheartened that the Holy See has yet to post the authoritative Latin text of the Encyclical Letter on the Vatican website, which has the Latin text of the Holy Father’s two prior encyclicals “Deus Caritas Est” and “Spe Salvi” (

    The unassailable authority that is Wikipedia reports various release delays due to translation issues, e.g., rendering the Latin text into one of the Chinese languages. (

    What gives, esp. given Pope Benedict XVI’s support of Latin (see, e.g., “Summorum Pontificum”)?

  4. Richard M. Esenberg


    I agree that this is the way both liberals and conservatives tend to respond to papal pronouncements they do not like. (I have seen all of the above in conservative responses to Veritas.)

    In part because of some work I am doing, I am interested in responses that engage these pronouncements from a perspective on which the Church can claim no particular expertise. In other words, the problem is not that the Bible does not mention unions or state (as opposed to moral) mandates of a just wage, but that the Vatican does not understand the economic consequences of what it proposes. In this sense, it is misreading the “signs of the time” because it is misreading what we can discern from general revelation.

    I imagine that there may be similar responses on social issues.

    At the same time, however, even if a conservative criticizes the Church’s application of moral fundamentals, it seems to me that it is harder to criticize the fundamentals themselves. I can say that the Pope does not know how to reduce poverty. It’s harder for me to say (and, in fact, I don’t) that reducing poverty is not something we are called to seek.

  5. Daniel Suhr

    I think here too we need to bring in the concept of competence (as that term is used in Catholic circles). The question of the morality of birth control, for instance, is something that can be resolved definitively by reference to biblical text, church tradition, and natural law.* The Pope could write Humanae Vitae and issue a rule about birth control because it is within his competence to do so.

    But take a contrasting example. A bishop may say as a moral/Biblical principle that a worker is entitled to a fair wage for his labor (but see, perhaps, Matthew 20:1-16 on the freedom to contract, esp. v. 13). To say, then, that workers are entitled to unionize is a prudential application of that principle, since one may argue that unionization advances that principle. To say further that unions may insist on card-check elections is a further application of prudence.

    Of course, a bishop may opine on matters of prudence, and we should respectfully consider his opinion. But it is not binding as a matter of faith and morals, and we should remember that bishops have no particular competence in labor markets or effective business management.

    Let me put it simply. We should not conflate “liberal” subversion of papal teaching on certain social issues, where the bishop is teaching on a matter of faith and morals, and certain applications of economic issues, where prudence is the order of the day and competence is a fair caution.

    *I enter here my caveat that I am writing as a conservative Catholic would argue, I think, not that I myself believe all this.

  6. Peter Heyne


    Thank you for the link to the article by the late and much missed Fr. RJN, who quotes from “Deus Caritas Est” (

    “Christian charitable activity must be independent [‘seiuncta,’ lit. ‘severed’] of parties and ideologies** [‘factionibus et doctrinis’]. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.” 31(b).

    Pope Benedict then criticizes Marxist opposition to charitable initiatives as “really an inhuman philosophy. People of the present are sacrificed to the moloch of the future — a future whose effective realization is at best doubtful.”

    [Recall that the Canaanites, and later some people of Judah, burned their children as sacrifices to Moloch (see, e.g., Lev. 18:21, Jeremiah 32:35).]

    It is also worth noting that the encyclical later declares that “[c]harity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. . . . Those who practise charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others.” 31(c).

    There is a superb Swiftian Onion article regarding this last point — “Poverty-Stricken Africans Receive Desperately Needed Bibles” (

    **Contrast with “We are God’s partners in matters of life and death.”

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