In paragraphs 5 and 6 comes the turn: “Development, social well-being, the search for a satisfactory solution to the grave socio-economic problems besetting humanity, all need this truth. What they need even more is that this truth should be loved and demonstrated.”

We need to see the truth of God’s love in the order of the world, and we need to demonstrate that truth, which is another name for charity. And, with that connection, we’re off to the central concepts necessary to take up the social concerns of the encyclical: justice and the common good.

Charity both demands justice and transcends it. Justice is the first order of truth, and those who fail at upholding truth will fail at justice. But charity, too, is true: “The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion.”

Here I wish Benedict had devoted more space to the interaction of justice and charity, for that interaction is central to his theme of love and truth. Abandoning the idea of justice in the name of charity, imagining that love somehow abolishes truth, leaves charity meaningless and ineffective. It is love in truth to which we are called.

The second concept necessary for the encyclical’s argument is the common good: “To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity.” Benedict continues:

Every Christian is called to practise this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path—we might also call it the political path—of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly.

Whew. This is a hard saying. “No less excellent”? The politician wheeling and dealing to pass AIDS legislation is enacting charity as excellently as the nun emptying bedpans at an AIDS hospice? The political path is more important, perhaps, in terms of absolute numbers helped, but it surely seems less heroic—which is to say, in the order of virtue, less excellent.

Now, there is work for everyone in their station, and the politician can do genuine good, manifesting charity in truth, for the social order is real and needs to be shaped by God’s truth. And that, perhaps, is what the encyclical is aiming at. But what we have here is the first example of what strikes me throughout the encyclical: a trust in political institutions and even a naiveté about them.

The cause for this wishful hope in institutions quickly appears: “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, that is to say, the community of peoples and nations.” But this, too, risks being naive. The world’s current situation is unique in the sense that every new situation is unique: 1939 was, too, and 1914, and all the rest, each demanding their particular appreciation. But the great boon of Catholicism to the world is that it can also stand outside the ebbs and flows of history to see that human nature—the truth in which love appears—remains unchanged from age to age.

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