For commentators like First Things editor Joseph Bottum, one of the most unsettling statements in Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) — a dense and complex 30,000-word encyclical on the Church’s social doctrine — is the one that asserts an obligation to practice charity in all areas of public life equal to the obligation to practice personal charity:
“Every Christian is called to practice 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 neighbor directly”(No. 7).
But in fact, Benedict’s statement is a logical development of the vital principle that lies at the heart of his new encyclical: a radical commitment to the implementation of a “political” charity in order to serve the common good. While surprising coming from a pope who is considered less political than his predecessors, this assertion of an “institutional path” of charity should not surprise anyone who understands the all-encompassing social implications of the Pope’s radical theology, first made known to a wider public in his 1968 book, Introduction to Christianity.
And although Benedict’s encyclical is completely in line with prior social encyclicals, as the Pope makes clear early in the text of Caritas in Veritate, what’s unmistakably new is the emphasis given in the document to ideas drawn from the Communio school of theology and the influence of Communio-inspired economic initiatives such as the Focolare movement’s “Economy of Communion” and the Communion and Liberation movement’s “Company of Works.”
Communio was the “third way” theological movement spearheaded at the Second Vatican Council by then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) and then Father Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). Neither conservative nor liberal, Communio theology seeks to purify the Church’s stance towards the world by going back to the radical Christianity of the Church fathers, from Thomas Aquinas back to the first centuries of the Church.
Unlike traditionalists at the council, Communio theologians didn’t want to cram the world into conformity with the existing structures of the Church, a harmful tendency that some call “integralism.” Instead, they wanted to take the Gospel out into the world and thereby transform it in the image of the self-giving love of the Trinity.
It’s important to understand that the social implications of Communio theology can’t be reduced to mere policy, whether liberal or conservative. (Although, contrary to some reports, the encyclical doesn’t shirk from making concrete recommendations about reforming a dysfunctional financial system). That’s why Caritas in Veritate isn’t being fully understood by many Catholics — those who see themselves as “social justice” or as “free-market” Catholics or as “pro-life” Catholics alike.
The encyclical’s vision of “integral human development” is based on a radical opening to God, a vision as audacious as the utopian secularist conceptions of recent centuries in its call for the transformation of every aspect of life through charity. The crucial difference: The Church offers its vision based not on false ideologies that reject God but instead on the realism of Christian hope, which recognizes man’s dependence on God.
Caritas in Veritate’s vision of social life is inspired not by the collectivist ideas of communism or even the less coercive approach of socialism; it is inspired by the “Communio-ism” that ordered the common life of the early Christians who lived in a spirit of mutual dependence in relation to God as his sons and daughters in imitation of the Trinity.
As Benedict declares, in his radical yet realistic call to action at the conclusion of Caritas in Veritate:
“... man cannot bring about his own progress unaided, because by himself he cannot establish an authentic humanism. Only if we are aware of our calling, as individuals and as a community, to be part of God’s family as his sons and daughters, will we be able to generate a new vision and muster new energy in the service of a truly integral humanism. The greatest service to development, then, is a Christian humanism that enkindles charity and takes its lead from truth, accepting both as a lasting gift from God. Openness to God makes us open towards our brothers and sisters and towards an understanding of life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a spirit of solidarity. On the other hand, ideological rejection of God and an atheism of indifference, oblivious to the Creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values, constitute some of the chief obstacles to development today. A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism. Only a humanism open to the Absolute can guide us in the promotion and building of forms of social and civic life — structures, institutions, culture and ethos — without exposing us to the risk of becoming ensnared by the fashions of the moment. Awareness of God’s undying love sustains us in our laborious and stimulating work for justice and the development of peoples, amid successes and failures, in the ceaseless pursuit of a just ordering of human affairs. God’s love calls us to move beyond the limited and the ephemeral; it gives us the courage to continue seeking and working for the benefit of all, even if this cannot be achieved immediately and if what we are able to achieve, alongside political authorities and those working in the field of economics, is always less than we might wish. God gives us the strength to fight and to suffer for love of the common good, because he is our All, our greatest hope” (No. 78)
Angelo Matera is publisher and editor of GodSpy.com.