Fr Aidan Nichols says there is more genuine Christian doctrine in the Pope’s new encyclical than in Paul VI’s 1967 letter Populorum Progressio Maybe it’s my Protestant upbringing, or my philo(Eastern) Orthodox proclivities, but social encyclicals that present themselves as, essentially, essays in natural ethics leave me uneasy.
I understand, though, why they are written. Since the Fall of man, the vices have always run riot in society. But since the middle of the 18th century a whole range of moral dystopias have actually been argued for. That makes a difference to the world in which the Church works. If political elites, and their accompanying intelligentsias, no longer grasp the fundamental principles of what is good for man in society, then the popes will have to recall them to some basic natural decencies. You might think that for bottom-line wisdom about how people should live together, statesmen and philosophic sages would be enough, without a divine Incarnation to found an infallible Church. And you would be right. But desperate times need desperate measures.
There is some supernatural sense in popes instructing people about matters of entirely common sense. The supernatural presupposes the natural. In salvation grace gives new resources for good works done according to the law of creation. But the wide hearing these encyclicals get in the world of the modern media – beginning with the invention of the telegraph – means the popes have to be careful. Envisaging basic good order in society is not giving people the vision of the Church for a deified humanity in a consummated cosmos thanks to the descent of the Trinitarian energies in the God-man Jesus Christ. If the launchers of these humane appeals are not savvy, statements of “integral humanism”, however well-intentioned and even necessary, will tend to reduce the imaginative horizons of their Christian readers to the natural level. Historians will be able to show, I think, how this was an unintended consequence of Pope Paul’s VI 1967 letter Populorum Progressio, “On Furthering the Development of Peoples”. It helped usher in an age of humanitarian moralism, as distinct from a full-blooded dogmatic Christianity, in the western Catholic Church.
I re-read that letter for the sake of understanding Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which presents itself as a commentary, in changed circumstances, on its Pauline predecessor. (Had it not been for delays, at first in the papal timetable, and then through the need to make some reference to the recent economic recession, Caritas in Veritate would, no doubt, have been published in 2007, for the 40th anniversary of Populorum Progressio.) Populorum Progressio is not without strong hints of the real framework of Christian thinking, which turns on God, Christ, salvation, the mystery of the Church. And its “final appeal” carefully distinguishes three registers in which it wants its readers to take away its message: Catholics; other Christians; non-believers. Above all, it reiterates that humanism will not be “integral” unless, in its pursuit of all the conditions that make up a good human life, it is oriented towards “the Absolute” which is God himself. In such words Paul VI echoes the writings of the French Neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, his chief inspiration in social matters and whom he cites. The trouble was, people took the conditional – the account of the conditions – but they largely left the Absolute behind. Which is what an increasingly secularised culture expected (and wanted) anyway.
Does Benedict XVI do any better in this new letter? It will not surprise those who have followed the very different paths through life of Montini and Ratzinger to hear that he does. For Benedict, charity needs illumining by both reason and faith (3; 9), two distinct yet convergent ways of knowing. Not surprisingly, then, there is more genuine theological doctrine in the new encyclical. Sometimes it is upfront, sometimes it is expressed in a coded way which is one of the reasons people may find this letter difficult to read – something which certainly could not be said about Paul VI’s enviably clear and far more straightforward document. The upfront theology is easy to spot. Benedict’s thought about social engagement is Christological and even (54) Trinitarian. Let me take some examples of his Christocentrism, itself a sine qua non of genuinely Christian thought. The “charity in truth” of his title is the human face of the divine person of the incarnate Word (1). It reflects the God who is simultaneously Logos and Agape (3). If “humanism” is what you are looking for, only Christ is the revelation of what humanity is (18), a passage indebted to Pope John Paul II’s 1979 letter Redemptor Hominis (which itself initiated a more Christocentric reading of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes). The Church’s social doctrine points, therefore, to the “New Man”, Christ “the principle of the charity that ‘never ends’ ” (12).
Like Benedict’s earlier letter Spe Salvi (2007), Caritas in Veritate is also eschatological, and this is another litmus test of thoroughly revelation-grounded thinking. If global society could achieve unity and peace it would, to that extent, prefigure the final City of God to which the Church directs her own longing (7). The cosmic nature in which human society is set and which it inevitably transforms will be re-capitulated in Christ at the end of time (48): a difficult concept but essential for any distinctively Christian attitude towards the environment.
Moving on to the “coded” theology, this concerns chiefly the idea of gift or gratuitousness (34; 37; 39). Gift theory entered sociology in the Twenties and reached philosophical theology some decades later. The practice of giving, or gift exchange, can be seen as a signal of transcendence, and a clue to how to understand the doctrine of creation. That reminded theologians of a theme of ancient Christian thought, the self-diffusiveness of the divine goodness, itself with a background in the best paganism (the gods are not envious). Benedict uses a lowkey version of gift theory to promote the idea that connatural with the divine plan are forms of economic activity with a built-in element of the gratuitous: in effect, preferential treatment by business in dealing with the poor. There is a touch of the divine about it.
This larger injection of theology indicates one of the things Benedict is seeking to do in this encyclical, which is to shoe-horn papal social doctrine into tradition with a capital “T”. In other words, he wants to argue that, thanks to its consonance with elements in Scripture and the Fathers, and its affinities with confessors or martyrs who died for defending the demands of the common good, these documents, whose continuity before and after the Second Vatican Council he stresses, cannot be regarded as merely prudential or exclusively natural in character (12). It will be interesting to see how far this line of thought is allowed to go. Pope John Paul II’s first encyclical began a process of linking the content of Church comment on social issues more closely with key doctrines. But what is now being suggested is that the authority of the apostolic Paradosis in some way also covers social encyclicals of this kind.
Without prejudice to that question, let us formulate it more modestly. What does the Pope like? And what doesn’t he like?
So what does he like? He likes treating justice as inseparable from charity. He likes an objective account of the common good (not a subjective one based on opinion surveys). He likes human rights if they are fundamental ones that are genuinely linked to virtuous practices, and people recognise the corresponding duties. He likes markets so long as they operate in a humane fashion, and state intervention on condition it doesn’t reduce people to passivity by welfarism. He likes helping farmers, whether by introducing new methods or improving traditional ones. He likes scientifically based industry if it is marked by generosity in making knowhow available. He likes trade unions and, in general, institutions intermediate between the state and the individual – so long as their goals are genuinely civilising (or, in the case of trade unions, just). He likes ecology when it avoids neo-paganism and incorporates a “human ecology” which, among other things, shuns contraception and abortion, eugenics and euthanasia. He likes globalisation if it leads to a sense of a single worldwide interdependence of people, a kind of secular analogue to the catholicity of the Church.
What doesn’t the Pope like? He doesn’t like treating technology as the means to utopia, nor deploring it as an interference with our naturally paradisiac condition, à la Rousseau. He doesn’t like single-minded entrepreneurs motivated exclusively by the profit motive, nor financiers who juggle with notional assets in pursuit of miracles of unnatural growth. He doesn’t like the diversion of aid to improper ends, whether by donors or beneficiaries. He doesn’t like treating different cultures as obviously equal in every respect, nor does he like homogenising cultures and making them all the same. He doesn’t like the mass media when they don’t care a hoot for their possible effects in undermining human dignity.
Placed on the lips of a modern pope, it can scarcely be said that much of this comes as a shock. But, in a way, to reduce the encyclical to a set of such likes and dislikes, recommendations and caveats, is to miss the point. The point, or most of it, lies in the way the various items listed in the recipe are connected up.
How are they connected up? The overall shape they belong with owes something to the more than half-century long concern of the popes with the interplay of “subsidiarity” and “solidarity” in economic and social life: roughly speaking, when to leave people or groups to act alone and when – by appeal to the sovereign – to make the members of a whole society act together. But just as John Paul II liked to filter these ideas through his (philosophical and theological) personalism, so Benedict XVI, without abandoning that personalism, fine-tunes them by reference to his key concept (philosophically and theologically) of relation. This helps him to articulate his master idea in Caritas in Veritate, the idea of a “personbased and communityoriented cultural process of worldwide integration that is open to transcendence” (42).
As I read the encyclical, I tried to ask myself what this master-idea would entail in the two countries I currently know best, England and Ethiopia. I soon found that answering my own question would be no easy task. This is the price one pays for a style of writing which avoids particular examples for the sake of universality. But behind and beneath the operation of the master idea is another – hardly facile but possibly more manageable – leading question, and it links this, the Pope’s third encyclical, with Deus Caritas Est (2005), which was his first. In his forthcoming book Dante in Love, A N Wilson says that the question which exercised the medieval poet-statesman in all his many and seemingly quite disparate interests was, what is love? Love at every level: personally, emotionally, mystically, socially, politically, divinely. This is also the question driving the Pope.
With the integration of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the pontificate is drawing near to one of its greatest challenges. By satisfying the followers and sympathisers of the late Mgr Lefebvre about the real continuity joining the state of Catholic teaching before and after the Council, can this pontificate simultaneously entrench in Catholic consciousness a feeling for that seamless, unruptured garment in the wider theological community and Church? Granted the importance to traditionalists of not letting go of “Christendom”, the question of the social doctrine of the Church will be central to this task.
Caritas in Veritate speaks of the need for a supernatural perspective on society (3; 18). It talks of the requirement that God have “a place in the public realm” (56). It claims that, as the religion of the “God who has a human face”, Christianity – and by implication, only Christianity – carries within itself the criterion of a transcendence-linked integral humanism society requires (55). These, then, will have to count in place of the older emphasis on the impossibility of social life without the true religion and the Christian prince. It is difficult to feel confident that the juridically recognised worldgovernmental authority for which the Pope, following Paul VI, looks for assistance (57) would be much of a substitute for the Byzantine Basileus or the Holy Roman emperor in some pertinent regards. Am I being cynical in asking whether that is why this encyclical ends (79) with a request for prayer?
Fr Aidan Nichols’s latest book is From Hermes to Benedict XVI: Faith and Reason in Modern Catholic Thought (Gracewing)