In response to the Rhetoric Society of America’s inquiry – what are Pope Benedict’s reasons for positioning the Catholic Church as an essential link between enterprise and justice, and as a significant voice in the public discussion of globalization – I suggest a “spiritual argument of restoration.”
Leaders of the Catholic Church since the rise of industrialization have affirmed the rights of labor. An argument could be made that without Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which criticized communism and capitalism while supporting private property and the growth of unions, Western labor movements would have been weaker. Such teachings have strongly recurrent themes: an emphasis upon the human person, the dignity of work, and the importance of community. These take strong precedence over the state and market, which must possess the moral foundation of a dignity inherent to humanity, and gifted by the Creator, to properly function…..
The rhetorical significance of Pope Benedict XVI’s July 2009 encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate, is a reaffirmation that language is at the center of Catholic philosophy. This philosophy, for all its great complexity, diversity, and heated argument, makes one incredible claim: its most visible and vital form, the Sacraments, were founded and ordained directly by God. In the Catholic understanding of its etymology, “the love of wisdom” means the love of the Divine through the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
For decades, this religious bias, experience, and background has stood firm as the lens through which a Pope has viewed politics and economics. It insisted that economic institutions and structures matter less for the construction of a good and humane society than the culture, the content, the virtue, of a people. There is conformity, this is to say, between the encyclical and earlier statements. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger argued in a 1985 symposium held in Rome, Church and Economy in Dialogue:
“It is becoming an increasingly obvious fact of economic history that the development of economic systems which concentrate on the common good depends on a determinate ethical system, which in turn can be born and sustained only by strong religious convictions. Conversely, it has also become obvious that the decline of such discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse. An economic policy that is ordered not only to the good of the group – indeed, not only to the common good of a determinate state – but to the common good of the family of man demands a maximum of ethical discipline and thus a maximum of religious strength.”
The morality of this ethical discipline is intimately bound with the word. For the Catholic, the Bible is not the literal “Word of God.” Jesus Christ is. Religious strength is drawn from this Word through the Sacraments, a conduit of grace connecting the physical and the spiritual. The philosophical pursuit, the love of truth, is the union of the mind with the physical, the union of reason and faith, the union of human understanding with theology.
Of society and solidarity, Caritas in Veritate informs the faithful: “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation.” This opinion is accompanied by a call for communion with God and with neighbor. Communion, in fact, is distinguished as the very purpose of existence – to love and to know love.
In light of such a view, it makes sense that Benedict – even when addressing economic matters – would strongly reaffirm, for example, controversial social teachings such as Humanae Vitae. In the Pope’s words, there must be a “fully human meaning of the development that the Church proposes.” Therefore, the “unitive and the procreative meaning of sexuality,” which places the married couple at the foundation of society, “in distinction and in complementarity,” makes clear to the audience his position of “strong links between life ethics and social ethics.” Just as morality is intimately bound with the Word that is Jesus of Nazareth, so too are the ethics of economy and personal virtue.
In our modern context, justice and the common good cannot abide with what Pope Pius XI in 1931 memorably labeled the “twin rocks of shipwreck” – individualism and collectivism. In Catholic philosophy, each generalized ideology relies upon a false human anthropology. People are born, Popes have stated, into societies. Markets of any form are a product of these societies, and a good society is built by the family. The familiarity of place, family, and God develops comprehension of the good in the public sphere and an understanding of duty and obligation. Perhaps, after that point, a stable operation of markets might exist.
When Benedict addressed the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on economic matters recently, he again appealed to Christian morality. He called for “comprehensive and objective standards against which to judge the structures, institutions, and concrete divisions which guide and direct human life.” Such principles are sourced in natural law. The principles of this ethical order, he continued, were inscribed in creation itself, were accessible to human reason, and should be adopted as the basis for practical choices.
Here we return to the key terms of the encyclical under discussion, charity and truth. In the Pope’s vision, truth preserves and channels the truly liberating power of charity – communion with God and other persons – amid ever-changing and confusing economic, political, and social structures. Without this truth, there is no enduring social conscience. Selfish interests and the embrace of power will contribute to social fragmentation.
In his introduction to Caritas in Veritate, Benedict states that the Catholic Church does “not have technical solutions to offer, and does not claim to interfere in any way in the politics of the States.” And yet the next sentence provides clarification that nearly invalidates this prior claim, if an observer did not recognize the context of communion and Christian morality. He states the Church’s “mission of truth”: to work “for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation.” Such a society requires “fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom” and of “the possibility of integral human development.” Caritas in Veritate continues: “The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner.”
In the Pope’s view, economics of any abstracted or concrete construction present no remedy for the conduct of hubris and harm. Its ethics must be founded upon the goodness capable by reason and sourced in the divine. This is the precondition for long-term success – in economy, in society, in family, in everything. Economics, it might be said, depend upon family formation. Economic crisis should force us all to pause in contemplation of moral weakness. It is not sufficient to trust a managerial class or the supposedly wondrous workings of a market. Any “morality” that assumes an ability to bestow technical knowledge is not worth following, as its moralizing demonstrates only a superficial relationship to true morality.
Humanity, by the Catholic view, is religious by nature and also limited by nature – incapable of perfection. A person should work in dignity as a member of a corporate body, where their nature may achieve its eventual fulfillment. In practice, this is a rejection of the liberalism – by which I mean “equal freedom” – that permeates many arguments of the politicized “right” and “left.” Instead, the state, the economy, and society should be orientated toward a support of relational, familial flourishing. Thus a consideration of questions of virtue, and of the work to build a social order that Pope Pius XI called for – “solidarity and subsidiarity,” with a crucial mediating role for religious institutions.
To conclude, Benedict’s arguments are a reaffirmation of language in what is perceived to be its most fulfilling form: the truth, charity, and communion that only God can offer. The person of Jesus Christ in the Sacraments exists as a rebuke to the extremes and misuse of philosophy. An abuse of His truth (for purposes libertarian, collectivist, and the many ideologies in-between) falsely elevates power over the reflected Triune God, a God ideally reflected by society and most especially by the family, where many become one.
Caritas in Veritate reaffirms that “deviation from solid humanistic principles” leads to spiritual emptiness and the inability to recognize that which cannot be explained in terms of matter alone. This is Catholicism itself, and the encyclical is a call to return to the Word. To not do so is one cause of a failed economy. What I term a “unity for the good” is Benedict’s spiritual argument of restoration, the latest in a line of papal contributions to the challenges of modernity. The goal is to avoid a vacuum of intimacy through a conduct of virtue more social than political. Benedict’s arguments, then, are concerned with the ways of life, not formal structures.