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?