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When the pope’s new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, appeared this summer, its ambitious scope and curious composition left many scratching their heads. The frequent rhetoric about human solidarity, embodied in institutions with global reach and authority, for example, left some wondering whether they had picked up the latest white paper from the United Nations. But, no, it was Benedict XVI, leader of the Catholic Church, who was calling for “a worldwide redistribution of energy resources” and “a true world political authority” by means of which “the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth.”

The teeth may be a touch added by the English translators, for the French edition speaks only of une réalité concrète. But, regardless of the translation, Caritas in Veritate raises serious questions. International problems no doubt require international solutions, as John XXIII said in his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris. But is it wise to renew the call for universal authority? Hasn’t experience since Pope John’s day taught us to be wary of entities like the United Nations? Besides, isn’t the Church itself the réalité concrète that God has given to the family of nations—the form, as St. Ambrose said, that justice takes? What could a world political authority be besides a competitor to the Church, intent on imposing its own very different concepts of security, justice, and rights?

Even with these questions, however, it would be a mistake to read the encyclical as a naive and dangerous venture into the realm of international problems. At work in all of Benedict’s writings is a profound theological vision of the human vocation and destiny. The proposals for world government that he makes in Caritas in Veritate arise from the same impulses that animated this pope’s two previous encyclicals: the far more theological Deus Caritas Est in 2005 and Spe Salvi in 2007. Born from Benedict’s vision of the human purpose, Caritas in Veritate presents us with both an invitation and a warning—and the challenge for the reader is balancing the two.

World government is not a term that appears in the new encyclical, just as it does not appear in Pacem in Terris or even in Populorum Progressio (Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical, which Benedict expounds in Caritas in Veritate ). Still, all three encyclicals propose something that warrants the label. Pacem in Terris, for example, insists that Catholic social thought must concern itself with the common good on a global level; today’s problems require for their solution a “public authority which is in a position to operate in an effective manner on a worldwide basis.” “The moral order itself,” we are told, “demands that such a form of public authority be established.”

Meanwhile, in Populorum Progressio, Paul VI speaks as if no elaboration is necessary: “Who can fail to see the need and importance of thus gradually coming to the establishment of a world authority capable of taking effective action on the juridical and political planes?” Some, he allows, “would regard these hopes as vain flights of fancy.” But, he responds, “it may be that these people are not realistic enough, and that they have not noticed that the world is moving rapidly in a certain direction. Men are growing more anxious to establish closer ties of brotherhood; despite their ignorance, their mistakes, their offenses, and even their lapses into barbarism and their wanderings from the path of salvation, they are slowly making their way to the Creator, even without adverting to it.”

Both these 1960s encyclicals are open to argument. John’s, because it contains hidden premises that are not easily proved. (Are today’s problems really so different from yesterday’s?) And Paul’s, because recent examples of humanity’s straying from the path of salvation suggest a less optimistic reading of modern history. (Aren’t 50 million abortions annually since the 1970s sufficient proof?) Significantly, John Paul II—who spoke pointedly of “an objective ‘conspiracy against life’ involving even international institutions”—did not pursue his predecessors’ line of thought.

So why has Benedict so boldly taken it up again here? For bold it is in Caritas in Veritate. Benedict uses the unforeseen rapidity of globalization—making the current economic crisis a particular teaching moment—to raise the stakes in the long history of papal discussion of development. Extending the logic of Pacem in Terris and Populorum Progressio, he redirects it toward a different and even more theological end.

Globalization, Benedict insists, is something more than the inevitable consequence of technology. In fact, it tells us something about the way humanity is made. Globalization, in other words, is a consequence of divine design. It is no mere accident of history affording “unusual opportunities for greater prosperity,” as John Paul II said. History, as Paul VI suggests, is the site of development, and development is the function of the human vocation, at once personal and corporate, to an end that lies beyond history. On the way to that end, something like globalization was bound to happen. Humanity has been called together by God in Christ, and it will come together.

The speed with which globalization has happened, however, raises the question of how it is functioning today. This may be part of the path shown us by God, or it may be the place where we diverge from that path—opting for some lesser end and perverting human history.

Think of Benedict’s work as a three-step process. In his first encyclical, he said the Church is the community of love that mirrors God’s own being. In his second, he noted the hope of salvation that the Church announces to the world. Now, in his third encyclical, Benedict announces that, what the Church is, human society is meant to become. He takes the catholicity of the Church as a sign of promise for the wholeness of humanity, and he offers, along with his encouragement, an admonishment and a warning: This way forward, not that.

In Spe Salvi Benedict rehearsed, without the policy-oriented interruptions that complicate the present encyclical, how modern Western history made various attempts to build a new Tower of Babel—attempts that claimed, in the name of reason and freedom, to find a redemptive unity based on something strictly immanent in humanity and history. There is an authentic hope of redemption, taught by the Church and founded on the recovery in Christ of man’s vocation for God. The world learned of hope from the Church, but, all through modernity, that hope was twisted into a false vision of redemption based on human effort alone.

Progress, Spe Salvi points out, is ambiguous: “Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become, and has indeed become, a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict speaks of globalization in much the same terms. “Globalization, a priori, is neither good nor bad. It will be what people make of it,” he notes, quoting from John Paul II. “We should not be its victims, but rather its protagonists, acting in the light of reason, guided by charity and truth. Blind opposition would be a mistaken and prejudiced attitude, incapable of recognizing the positive aspects of the process, with the consequent risk of missing the chance to take advantage of its many opportunities for development.”

Indeed, globalization will fail if it does not turn to God: “As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers. Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is.”

Caritas in Veritate has real literary and practical flaws; it reads, much of the time, like a set of high-minded but vague pieties randomly interspersed among a hodgepodge of questionable prudential judgments. And yet, viewed in the light of Benedict’s earlier encyclicals, Caritas in Veritate can be seen as one long call to conversion. A “civilization of love” requires willing participation in the divine economy opened up to man through the Incarnation, and such willing participation can come by way only of a profound change in individuals, peoples, and nations. “It requires new eyes and a new heart, capable of rising above a materialistic vision of human events.” It requires a spirit of receptiveness, an openness to “the idea of gift” as a fundamental principle of human existence, operative in all spheres of human life, including bioethics, economics, and governance.

Bioethics is particularly important, because it so plainly presents the alternatives: “Is man the product of his own labors or does he depend on God?” The same either/or is present in the political sphere: Either we will have a world government fit for a civilization of love, or we will have a world government that serves a civilization of death.

On the one hand, Benedict warns us against the alienation that results “when too much trust is placed in merely human projects, ideologies, and false utopias.” He is well aware that “a humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism,” and he is conscious of the risk that globalization will produce “a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature.”

On the other hand, he refuses to draw back from the notion of world government. That would involve a denial of the vocation to development and to unity, which would itself be faithless and godless. “The idea of a world without development indicates a lack of trust in man and in God.” “Precisely because God gives a resounding ‘yes’ to man, man cannot fail to open himself to the divine vocation to pursue his own development.” The Christian especially must take this to heart, reckoning with the power of “charity in truth” to convert and transform the city of man, fitting it for God’s salvific purposes: “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, in such a way as to shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God.”

We must not read too much into the words “cannot fail.” Benedict makes no attempt to say how or when history will reach its goal. He does not tell us whether he believes that global governance of the kind he is calling for will actually materialize in the present age. He tells us only that we cannot rightly refuse to aim at it.

And yet, taking even that milder claim on its face, we are forced to ask what has become of St. Augustine’s doctrine of the two cities. Benedict certainly deploys the Augustinian distinction between the earthly city and the heavenly city, meaning the temporal form of human community that we generate with God’s help and the eternal form that only God can generate. But he does not deploy to good effect the equally vital distinction between the Church and the world. At points he seems even to treat the city of man and the city of God as hypothetical alternatives between which we must choose in deciding our collective future, rather than as coexisting communities between which individuals must decide: “The development of peoples depends, above all, on a recognition that the human race is a single family working together in true communion, not simply a group of subjects who happen to live side by side.”

Only if we read Caritas in Veritate as a call to conversion can we avoid the misimpression that Benedict has confused the Church and the world, in some more or less Hegelian way, by supposing that history must sooner or later produce their synthesis. He does not make the mistake—a mistake Augustine himself had to correct—of thinking that history must move the world ever closer into the heart of the Church. Rather, he thinks that the Church must move ever closer into the heart of the world. It must extend to the city of man, as Christ extended to Israel, an urgent invitation to embrace both the means and the ends of the city of God. Mankind has entered the rapids of globalization, and its destiny draws near.

Resistance to the idea of world government need not deny what recent popes have said. It can even admit the relative antiquity of the idea of global governance and its naturalness to Christianity—which, after all, inherited the whole Greco-Roman world as a vast site on which to spread its Jewish patrimony of monotheism and messianism. But the idea is fraught with peril and it is tainted these days by latent utopianism.

Perhaps there was a place for contemplating universal empire under the conditions of Christendom, where an attempt was made to avoid utopianism by public recognition of the strictly provisional nature of secular government and by the doctrine of the two swords. Those conditions, however, are long gone—as Benedict himself notes when he pleads against the “exclusion of religion from the public square.” There can be no substantial family of nations bound together by anything less profound than the love of God and kinship with Christ. But even Christendom failed to produce it. How then are Christians to help the world toward global governance with any assurance that they are not merely baking bricks for some yet more calamitous Babel?

In response, Benedict, I suspect, would not waste much time on the question of assurance. The only assurance afforded us in history is that God is sovereign and Christ will triumph in the end—which means, as Caritas in Veritate points out, that there could well be a “perverse end” to the current age’s project of global governance. Nevertheless, Christians must aim at global governance, the pope insists, because God in Christ wills the unity of mankind and because conversion to Christ must be held out as a real possibility. And this means proceeding as if Christendom, a wider and more authentic Christendom, lies before us rather than behind us.

In other words, Benedict is not making an unqualified call for universal empire. Urgent need for a true world political authority there may be. Yet that authority, he says, “would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth.” Indeed, “the integral development of peoples and international cooperation,” implied in the creation of such an authority, would “require the construction of a social order that at last conforms to the moral order.”

That is a tall order—though no taller, perhaps, than the creation of a just and stable economy, which on Benedict’s view requires the whole world to adopt “the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift” that the Church has learned from the Savior. If nothing else, it means that the work of evangelization must come before any attempt to establish world authority, for the construction of a social and political order that conforms to the moral order—of a political union that is also a form of communion-has the conversion of the peoples of the world as its condition of possibility. Benedict has given global government an evangelical mandate, which is the highest possible. But in doing so he has called into question every other mandate that one might try to give such an entity as the United Nations.

The Benedict who wrote Caritas in Veritate is the same Benedict who observed in his Epiphany homily last year that “thick darkness covers the peoples and our history.” People can and do get lost in the darkness. That is why they require the light of Christ, for they stumble without that light from the God of charity and truth. In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict emphasizes our responsibility not to reject the human impulse to unity, even where it lacks the knowledge of Christ. At the same time, he labors to infuse the knowledge of Christ into our efforts at unity.

Paul VI performed a similar balancing act when he followed the light-infused Populorum Progressio in 1967 with the darker Humanae Vitae in 1968. Paul looked ahead and saw what no one else wanted to see. He saw that human beings might, after all, refuse to acknowledge their Creator, with disastrous consequences. He saw that the path to freedom is not always the path we imagine—that not all progress is genuine progress, and not all development is true development. And he discovered, to his great pain, that this might be so even within the Church.

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict delivers a reading of Populorum Progressio that takes Humanae Vitae into account along with the later course of history and the pontificate of John Paul II. When humanity is guided by the gospel, earthly reality can indeed prefigure, however modestly, the heavenly reality that is to come. Unguided by the gospel, earthly reality will become a mockery—a false progress toward a false unity.

Benedict’s work would benefit from a more direct restatement of the doctrine of the two cities. It would benefit, too, from recognition that a gentle charity has kept us from the Curse of Babel—the charity with which God has thus far preserved the human race from its ultimate peril: a global union without communion.

Perhaps that is too much to expect from an encyclical that is already far too ambitious and sprawling. But any subsequent analysis of what Benedict calls the institutional or political path of charity will have to take more fully into account that, as St. Paul put it, “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” In every age, even our own, there is a “strong delusion” that threatens to pervert humanity’s vocation into a vicious unity—a unity that, rejecting charity and truth, binds humanity together only for the purpose of seizing the kingdom by force.

Douglas Farrow is professor of Christian Thought at McGill University in Montreal.