Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) is a complex document of which the constituent parts have given rise to various reactions by commentators, some of them contradictory.

In terms of practical policy recommendations, Benedict’s first social encyclical shifts Catholic social teaching toward the more statist, redistributionist line favored by popes from Pius XI to Paul VI. It does not entirely abandon the more personalist, liberty-centered approach of Leo XIII and John Paul II, but Benedict does not draw out the same conclusions that his predecessor did, namely that economic liberty was an essential dimension of the liberty proper to man and also the most efficient path to economic development.

The continuity with John Paul lies at a deeper level, namely the conviction that, as Caritas in Veritate puts it, “the social question has become a radically anthropological question.” That is to say that a correct understanding of the human person lies at the heart of what Benedict calls “integral human development.” Caritas in Veritate therefore links together questions that often have been treated separately — economic justice, environmental stewardship, religious liberty, abortion, marriage and contraception.

At the same time as Benedict calls for an array of redistributive programs, he underscores the danger to human liberty and subjectivity from the bureaucratic welfare state. It will therefore be a challenge to work out what practical applications will follow from Caritas in Veritate. While the balance of the encyclical points to greater state intervention in the economy, there are warnings too against state power. Commentators on the encyclical have already been using different sections to buttress competing arguments.

Yet Caritas in Veritate also suggests a deeper project at work. It is not exactly Benedict’s first social encyclical — Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) addressed the social question, too. Indeed, the two encyclicals together indicate something important in Benedict’s thought.

Deus Caritas Est began life as a draft for John Paul II on the Church’s charitable work — a sort of indirect social encyclical after the late Holy Father decided that Centesimus Annus (1991) was to be his most complete treatment of the question. Benedict took that draft and recast it within a deeply theological and anthropological meditation on man’s need for love and God’s ultimate fulfillment of that need.

With Caritas in Veritate, the Holy Father has repeated the same approach. Many in the Roman Curia desired a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, the 1967 encyclical on development. Over the last few years and several drafts, Benedict decided not simply to update that document’s call for a greater redistribution of goods, but to recast it in terms of the fundamental desire to love and be loved.

For Benedict the social question — culture, politics, economics — arises from the basic reality that man is social, and, therefore, desires in his relations with others not merely cooperation or even justice, but an experience of love. In both Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate, Benedict tries to apply this vocation to love and be loved to the social question in general and the economic question in particular.

“A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church,” Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est. “Love — caritas — will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the state so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbors is indispensable.”

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict takes his argument one step further. In Deus Caritas Est, the vision was of justice being the work of politics and economics, to which the Church brought the work of charity to make society more fully human. Now, Caritas in Veritate argues that economic enterprises in themselves should be motivated by charity, and not merely justice.

“Globalization makes peoples neighbors, but not brothers,” he writes in one of the novel expressions of Caritas in Veritate. Is economic life intended to make us brothers, or is that asking too much? Benedict makes his claim here that it is not too much to ask. Charity is essential so that our treatment of each other is not limited to mere contractual obligations, but to the real flourishing of others.

This is a bold development, to say that economic life should be characterized by charity — a theological virtue — rather than the humbler natural virtues of justice and prudence. Caritas in Veritate understands that existing economic language and concepts don’t really express this, so develops a new principle.

The underlying principle — replacing justice with charity as the principal motivation of economics — is articulated as the “principle of gratuitousness” and the “logic of the gift.” “Gratuitousness” and “gift” encourage people to think not of their interest, but of service. So Benedict argues that labor unions should think not of their own members alone, but of the good of even foreign workers who might compete with union labor.

More far-reaching, Benedict endorses the idea that corporations should answer not only to shareholders, but also “stakeholders” — all those who have a stake in a company’s activities, including, it must be supposed, those who consider that the company’s financial health is a secondary concern.

This “principle of gratuitousness” is a novel contribution and might add something significant to the older Catholic social principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. It certainly expresses an ambition for social doctrine that animates Benedict’s broader magisterium, namely to bring the supreme virtue of love into even the mundane world of politics and economics. The challenge of Caritas in Veritate is to see how effectively that argument is received against the tradition of Catholic social teaching and the real world of social experience.

Father Raymond J. De Souza was the

Register’s Rome correspondent

from 1999 to 2003.