Academic journal article Theological Studies

Metaphysics and Society: A Commentary on Caritas in Veritate

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Metaphysics and Society: A Commentary on Caritas in Veritate

Article excerpt

EXPECTATIONS HAD BEEN HIGH. There had not been a social encyclical since Centesimus annus in 1991. Even though Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had made numerous pronouncements on the ecological crisis, environmentalists were eager for a fuller statement on the topic. (1) In the meantime globalization had swept the world during the 1990s, and many people wondered how Catholic social teaching would adapt to the new complexities of economic life brought about by the phenomenon. Some thought a new social encyclical would appear in 2007 on the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's Populorum progressio, but it did not. (2) Then came the financial crisis of 2008, and many observers wondered what the Vatican has to say about the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. Finally, some devotees of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's early critiques of political theology were longing for a retrenchment from the Catholic Church's heavy involvement in social action, an engagement that, the suppression of Liberation Theology aside, had proceeded apace under his predecessor John Paul II. When, on July 7, 2009, the Vatican released Caritas in veritate, Benedict XVI's third encyclical and his first social encyclical, it was clear why the pope had delayed. (3) He had tried to meet all but the last of those expectations, and in the course of doing so he offered the most radical teaching on economic life any modern pope has given, calling for an economy marked by "gratuity and communion" (no. 39).

The resulting text is both long and unwieldy, demonstrating the pope's desire to address many questions for many audiences as well as to give his own theological reading of the modern Catholic social tradition. The document's language is alternately highly abstract and surprisingly concrete. Its treatment of particular social issues is in some places as sophisticated as anything to be found in Catholic social teaching, save for some technical papers prepared for major international events, like the UN conferences on racism or meetings of the World Trade Organization, and not widely circulated even in the Catholic world. The letter's title, Love in Truth, as well as its theological method and framework bear the imprint of Benedict's own preoccupation with Truth as the antidote to the ills of secular relativism. (4) So intimidating was the language, however, that some commentators never got beyond objecting to its style to consider its rich and challenging content. (5)

THE DOCUMENTARY TRADITION

Most surprising of all was the encyclical's dedication to the memory of Paul VI and Populorum progressio, a document often seen as the fullest expression of liberal postconciliar activism. (6) "At a distance of over forty years from the Encyclical's publication," Benedict writes, "I intend to pay tribute and to honour the memory of the great Pope Paul VI, revisiting his teachings on integral human development ... to apply them to the present moment" (no. 8). (7) The pope goes on to express his "conviction that Populorum progressio deserves to be considered 'the Rerum novarum of the present age', shedding light upon humanity's journey towards unity" (no. 8). Clearly implied in that commendation is a proposal that Paul's encyclical needs regular commemoration just like Rerum novarum. The opening chapter of the current encyclical, moreover, provides an extended interpretation of "The Message of Populorum progressio" as a foundation for its treatment of integral human development (see the subsection "The Meaning of Truth" below).

The letter also situates itself in a direct line with John Paul II's Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987), a pivotal letter in which the late pontiff adopted a more progressive social teaching, thematically more in line with that of Paul VI, Vatican II, and John XXIII than his early teaching had been.s Sollicitudo had been rejected by neoconservatives, who previously had disparaged the pope's teaching in Sollicitudo because of its allegedly drawing a "moral equivalence" between the moral deficiencies of Eastern and Western blocs at the end of the Cold War and for its stinging critique of consumer-driven capitalism. …

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