Undoubtedly, one of the most important events of 2009 was the long-anticipated release of our previous Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI's third and final encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). This was the first social encyclical to emanate from the Vatican since Pope John Paul II published Sollicitudo Rei Socialis in 1987. Pope Benedict's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), drafted by John Paul II a few months before his death, had been completed and released in December 2005 within the first year of the new pontificate. Two years later in November 2007, Pope Benedict had issued his second encyclical, the first written entirely by him, Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope). This led some observers at that time to wonder whether a reverse pattern of the theological virtues was being set: with the new pope's first encyclical on love and a second about hope, would the third deal with faith? The late Father Richard John Neuhaus said in an EWTN interview with Raymond Arroyo that he did not think this would be the case. Although Father Neuhaus did not live to see the release of our present Holy Father's third encyclical, it turned out that he was correct. (However, Pope Benedict did declare a Year of Faith from October 2012 to November 2013, and he did begin drafting a fourth encyclical on faith that may soon be completed and published by Pope Francis.)
Early in 2007, Vatican sources informed the press that Pope Benedict XVI had begun working on his second and third encyclicals. The topics of these documents engendered various surmises ranging from marriage and family life to religious fundamentalism--areas to which His Holiness was devoting considerable energy at the time. Meanwhile, curial officials close to the Pope soon confirmed that the third encyclical letter would apply Catholic social teaching to globalization and poverty. A cardinal in Rome also made clear in the summer of 2007 that His Holiness was not in a rush to write and release this particular document, but that because of the complexity of the subject matter, the Pope was devoting much time to prayer and study as he drafted the piece.
I am glad that the Holy Father took his time in preparing this document, to ensure that it would carefully address all of the complex and interrelated modern global social issues. To synthesize these multifarious issues into a coherent perspective would be a challenging task for anyone given the interdisciplinary nature of the subject. Yet in Caritas in Veritate, our previous Holy Father has aptly set globalization and its effects within the clear perspective of Catholic social doctrine. Furthermore, in a few concise lines he has laid out for the Church of this era the theological basis for Catholic social teaching, in itself an invaluable treasure. With this landmark encyclical, Benedict XVI accomplished even more: in a simple, orderly fashion, he placed social teaching and issues within the context of love and truth, faith and reason, life, marriage and the family. Indeed, there is hardly a single aspect of the Catholic faith that is not woven into this beautiful tapestry. Caritas in Veritate is like the key to a code or the instruction manual of a celestial telescope kit in which the Holy Father shows how everything fits together and works. It is a long document, but to the point and jam-packed with information. As a papal encyclical, it presents the infallible magisterium of the Church on a subject of hard-to-exaggerate significance; as a work of theology, it is a distillation of Joseph Ratzinger's theological riches mined over the past sixty years; as a rationally sound philosophical treatise, it offers one of the finest examples of our previous Holy Father's intellectual giftedness; as a blueprint for the Church's social mission in the twenty-first century, it offers not just theoretical groundwork for the hierarchy but practical tips for the laity; as a letter from a spiritual father to his children, it is touched with the childlike humility and charming graciousness for which Pope Benedict came to be known; as a work of literature, it must surely rank among the great classics of human history. Caritas in Veritate may have been long-awaited, but the wait was well worth it.
Public anticipation of this encyclical was certainly heightened by unstable economic conditions worldwide, leading to the economic crisis that struck the globe like an asteroid in 2008. Just as the United States nonchalantly reveled in its seeming indestructibility prior to 9/11, a widely accepted notion held that the new post-Cold War global economy was immune to recession and failure. In both cases, when the popular myth collapsed, people were left with a sense of disillusionment and started hunting for truthful answers to the question of "what went wrong." In the current case, Catholics and non-Catholics around the world expected that the new social encyclical in the works would have some answers regarding the shortcomings of our contemporary globalization system and how these flaws might be remedied. Thus they looked forward with respectful eagerness to whatever words of wisdom our Holy Father would impart on this complicated issue. Caritas in Veritate does not disappoint at all in this respect either, as we will see.
Critics of Pope Benedict (who were a phenomenon unto themselves, as they had no rational basis for their criticism) foretold that this encyclical would be chiefly a condemnation of Communism or unrestrained capitalism, or both. But these folks ought to have learned by then that scolding and reviling were not the trademarks of Benedict XVI. While taking accurate and forthright account of the major problems with the current system of globalization, Caritas in Veritate is primarily a positive document. It is an exciting document, because here for the first time we have a truly insightful and accurate analysis of the phenomenon of globalization, enlightened by the full splendor of the Catholic faith, together with a vision of the vast potential that worldwide interdependence has for building a true human family on the basis of charity in truth. It is nothing less than a revolutionary new vision of globalization that Pope Benedict has presented to the Church and the world.
The introductory paragraphs of the encyclical, numbers 1 through 9, constitute the solid foundation on which Benedict builds his thesis. In these passages, the Holy Father defines charity and truth, and succinctly explains the link between the two. Both have their origin in God, Who is Eternal Love and Absolute Truth, and both are fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Thus "to defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are... exacting and indispensable forms of charity" (no. 1). In paragraph 2, Benedict says that charity "is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones)." In subsequent chapters of his encyclical, the Pope makes abundantly clear the importance of both the "micro-relationships" and the "macro-relationships" to human society, and that as Catholics we have a responsibility to promote charity and truth in both spheres. Charity and truth are two sides of the same coin: "Truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the 'economy' of charity," says His Holiness, "but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practiced in the light of truth." Furthermore, this light is lit by both reason and faith (no. 3). In paragraph 5 the Holy Father defines charity as "love received and given" (note the order of the words: love is first received from God and then given to others), and then points out that this dynamic of charity gives rise to the Church's social teaching, "which is caritas in veritate in re sociali: the proclamation of the truth of Christ's love in society."
In paragraphs 6 and 7, Pope Benedict examines two of the criteria that govern moral action which are relevant to human development in our increasingly globalized society: justice and the common good, respectively. First he deals with the interconnection between charity and justice, noting that we cannot be charitable to others unless we are first just towards them. Moreover, he says that "justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it" (no. 6). The pontiff quotes Pope Paul VI in calling justice the "minimum measure" of charity. In other words, to give people the basic requirements of justice is not a separate issue from charity, but an integral part of it. Then he explains that besides the good of the individual person, there is the good linked to living in society, the common good. "To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity" (no. 7).
But how do we strive towards the common good? In these same two paragraphs, the Supreme Pontiff weaves his answer to this question into a beautiful "theology of the city." Here the Pope is using the word "city" to mean "human community," and he identifies charity and justice as essential ingredients in building this community. He says in number 6 that the earthly city is built up not merely by relationships of rights and duties (justice) but "by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion" (love). Pope Benedict explains what striving for the common good means: "To take a stand for the common good is on the one hand to be solicitous for, and on the other hand to avail oneself of, that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it the pólis, or "city" (no. 7). He says that every Christian is called to practice charity "in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields" in public life. He then adds: "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 neighbor directly." Putting politics and charity together in the same breath might strike some people as odd, but after all the whole business of politics is to promote the common good. Here the pontiff also confirms the error of some misguided Catholics who have chosen to opt out of political life altogether, and he proclaims that active citizenship is a duty of charity. Thus the Pope echoes the Catholic bishops of the United States, who maintain that "responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation" (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, no. 13). In an increasingly interconnected world, says our Holy Father, the concept of the common good and efforts to obtain it must be broadened in corresponding measure to embrace the entire human family, "that is to say, the community of peoples and nations." Benedict goes on to say that "man's earthly activity, when inspired and sustained by charity, contributes to the building of the universal city of God" in unity and peace (no. 7); it is a prefigurement of the heavenly city, the ultimate goal of human existence.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to do justice to every aspect of this beautiful encyclical in a single article such as this. However, I would strongly encourage all Catholics and all people of goodwill to read this great and timely masterpiece of Catholic social teaching, to reflect upon it, to take it to heart, and to put it into practice in their own lives and apply its teachings to the modern global society in which we live. This troubled contemporary world of ours-enslaved by its own technological prowess, rocked by financial crisis, beset by economic uncertainty, torn by political strife and military conflict, burdened by environmental problems, dominated by selfish private ambitions, detached from true moral and ethical values, darkened by an eclipse of God, threatened by the dictatorship of relativism, and lacking a clear vision for its own future-is in desperate need of the light of Christ's saving truth and love that shines brilliantly through the third and greatest encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI. Truly, it is Caritas in Veritate - charity in truth - that will save the modern world.