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Caritas in not-quite-enough Veritate

Some thoughts I typed up in response to the recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate for Theology and the Global Economy class:

Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate is in some ways a breath of fresh air, but in other ways, leaves a nagging sense of “more of the same that got us into this mess.” It is refreshing to hear a Christian leader speaking out so authoritatively for causes that would be considered “liberal” or even “socialist” in my background, deemed to have little or nothing to do with Christianity’s values. It tickled me that Benedict speaks so casually at a number of points of the need for “redistribution of wealth”--a phrase that would give conservative American Christians a heart attack, or perhaps we should say a Red Scare. I appreciated in particular his emphasis on the need for both commutative and distributive justice in the marketplace, which really helped some things click into place for me. Capitalist ideology has insisted on the need for only commutative justice, and treated distributive justice only under the heading of “mercy,” and for whatever reason, conservative American Protestantism has leapt on board with that definition, jettisoning the traditional emphasis on the need for both.

However, despite being quite pleased with the document as a whole, I was left with some nagging concerns. First, what is the role of the State, and of large-scale political organizations, in all this reform that needs to happen? It seems to be a very large role for Benedict. He assumes the central importance of the State, and indeed, in many places, seems to want to increase its role as the institution that oversees justice in society and in the marketplace. In many places, he seems to be addressing this encyclical more toward national governments than to individuals, telling them the reforms they need to implement. But this seems to contradict his repeated insistence that economic justice is not possible without Christian truth and Christian love, in other words, the Augustinian dictum that we encountered in week 1 of this term--true justice between men is not possible unless God is being given his due. Now, if all this is true, and we can’t simply expect justice to come from improved human wisdom or good intentions, then how could we possibly expect economic justice to come from some of the most corrupt and godless engines of secularism in history--namely, national governments? Now, I admit my American anti-government bias, but still...it would seem that, on Benedict’s own principles, the state could not be the main source of this justice unless it first confessed Christ. Of course, he also puts a lot of faith in the UN, which seems to me even more dubious than most nation-states.

Second, what is the role of the Church? I was surprised that a Catholic--the Pope no less--who should have as high an ecclesiology as anyone, barely mentioned the Church as a social body. Is the Church’s role simply to act as the conscience of economic society, giving moral advice about how to run things better? Or is the Church supposed to act as a visible social body in economic society, acting out and living out more just means of exchange? It seems to me that the latter is more effective, and more in line with what we see in Scripture. I am willing to grant that the Church may well need to do both, but Benedict hardly mentioned the latter. I would like to see a creative exploration of the way in which the Church, as a body, can encourage just economic arrangements which lead to human flourishing, both in local congregations, and on a worldwide institutional level. I mean, the Catholic Church is a bigger worldwide institution than the UN, isn’t it? Why shouldn’t it be a greater institutional engine for bringing about charitable economics than the UN?

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