Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, has given a full assessment of Pope Benedict XVI’s first social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), in an address to the Italian Senate July 28, saying it is directed to believers and nonbelievers alike, since it is based on natural law.

Quoting a famous line from the character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street (that “greed is good; greed is right”), Cardinal Bertone observed that giving legitimacy to greed as a kind of civic virtue has had serious consequences. “The greed market has substituted the free market,” he said.

He also gave a measured critique of both the pitfalls of the free market and state intervention.

In his presentation, written in consultation with Benedict XVI while he was on vacation in the Italian Alps, Cardinal Bertone explained how the encyclical helps people to understand that charity and truth “are not extrinsic to man or imposed in the name of an ideology, but rather are deeply rooted in the human person.”

He stressed that in his search for the moral good, “the human person harkens to what he is and becomes aware of the fundamental inclinations of his nature, which move the person toward the goods necessary for his moral fulfillment.”

Man, the cardinal continued, is therefore made to know “the truth in all its fullness, that is, he is not limited to acquiring technical know-how so as to dominate material reality, but rather open to encounter the Transcendent and to fully live the interpersonal dimension of love, the principle not only of microrelationships — relationships of friendship, family and groups — but also of macrorelationships — social, economic and political relations.”

“Precisely, veritas and caritas indicate to us the demands of natural law that Benedict XVI presents as the fundamental criteria for reflection of a moral order on the current social-economic reality,” Cardinal Bertone affirmed. Thus, the “proposal of the encyclical is neither of an ideological character nor reserved for those who share faith in divine Revelation, but rather based on fundamental anthropological realities, as are, precisely, truth and charity.”

Turning to broader themes in the encyclical, Cardinal Bertone stressed it was not calling for government control of the economy or the market. Instead it stresses that democratic governments need to be aware they have an obligation to protect and promote the common good of their citizens, including their economic well-being.

As well as asking governments to take their regulatory responsibilities seriously, the cardinal called on governments “to allow, or rather to favor, the birth and growth of a pluralistic financial market, a market in which subjects that have different goals for their activities can operate in conditions of parity.” Governments, he said, must look at how their regulations may have hindered the activities of credit unions, microcredit lenders, cooperative banks and ethical investment funds.

Such institutions “play a complementary role to agents of speculative finance and, therefore, provide balance,” Cardinal Bertone said. “If financial authorities had removed the many restrictions that weigh on subjects of alternative financing over the past few decades, today’s crisis would not have had the devastating power we are seeing,” he said.

He also said a main point in the Pope’s encyclical is that the crisis is the result of human greed and a mistaken idea that the maximization of profit is the only value a free market is ethically obliged to follow.

Cardinal Bertone added that the Pope recognizes that the market economy is the economic model most respectful of human freedom and democracy, but he also recognizes it is a fallacy to believe that the economy can or should operate independently of human values.

“An economic activity that does not take the social dimension into account would not be ethically acceptable, just as it also is true that a purely redistributive social policy that does not take the availability of resources into account would not be sustainable,” Cardinal Bertone said.

The Pope’s encyclical calls people to recognize that, because the market is a human invention involving human participants and having an impact on other human beings, it must be guided by and judged according to its impact on people, he said. And Cardinal Bertone added that in calling attention to the moral obligation to promote the common good, Pope Benedict calls for a movement from solidarity to fraternity, recognizing everyone as brothers or sisters and providing for their needs.

Fraternity is best learned in the family, the cardinal added, which is why the Pope calls on governments to promote the centrality and integrity of the family.

Since its release on July 7, the encyclical has been widely welcomed as a means to inspire political leaders and individuals with a moral vision for the future of the world’s economic system. Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute, said he thought the opening pages on charity are “quite beautiful and forceful, and very trenchant for a papal encyclical.” He said it was “good to have Benedict XVI’s observations.” However, like some commentators, he criticized the document, which was also drafted by scholars and Vatican officials, for lacking coherence and clarity. “It has been characteristic of modern encyclicals: that their reach exceeds their grasp in these matters,” said Royal, who wrote a paper on the 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 1991. “Even the experts in political economy aren’t entirely clear about the causes and remedies of the crisis.”

But Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, said he saw the encyclical as especially timely and useful, drawing attention to the moral underpinnings of the economy which until now have been largely neglected.

“For too long, far too many people have behaved as if their only allegiance was to themselves. We have all seen the results of such behavior and know that it is a poor model — ethically and economically,” he said. “Now, people are looking for a moral compass, and they know that Pope Benedict XVI has one. But while a compass can point the way, it is up to us to follow it.”

(Zenit and CNS contributed

to this story.)

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.