Published July 22, 2009
Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), is a complex and occasionally obscure document, replete with possible implications for the future development of Catholic social doctrine. Sorting those implications out will take much time and even more careful reflection.
Along the information superhighway, however, careful reflection hit a few potholes in the early going, as sundry partisans sought to capture Caritas in Veritate as a weapon with which to bolster the Obama administration’s economic, health care and social welfare policies.
Thus in the days immediately following the encyclical’s July 7 release, we were treated to the amusing, if somewhat ironic, spectacle of self-consciously progressive Catholic magazines, bloggers and free-lancers, many of whom would have preferred to eat ground glass rather than see Joseph Ratzinger as Bishop of Rome, blasting those who dared raise questions about the encyclical’s intellectual provenance and some of its formulations.
Where were these stout-hearted crusaders when the going was tough — when, for example, the Pope was under fire for his Regensburg Lecture on Islam, or for attempting to reconcile four excommunicate Lefebvrist bishops to the Church?
But that was before we entered the new Messianic Age.
In any event, there is an important theme in Caritas in Veritate that, were all Catholics to take it seriously, might have a measurable impact on the American culture wars and on the U.S. Church’s internal struggle to define Catholic identity — and that is the encyclical’s insistence, repeated several times, that the life issues are social justice issues, so that Catholic social doctrine includes the Church’s defense of life from conception until natural death.
This teaching began with John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), in which John Paul warned that democracies risk becoming “tyrant states” if moral wrongs are legally declared “rights.” Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger went a step further in his homily at the Mass for the Election of a Pope, on April 18, 2005.
There, Ratzinger warned against a “dictatorship of relativism” in which coercive state power would be used to enforce the by-products of a culture skeptical about the human capacity to know the moral truth of anything: by-products such as abortion-on-demand, euthanasia, and “gay marriage.” Now, as Benedict XVI, Ratzinger has moved the discussion further still, teaching that the defense of life is crucial to building the “human ecology” necessary to sustain just economic practices and protect the natural environment.
Caritas in Veritate has now put Catholic legislators and politicians on notice: you can’t duck the life issues, or vote the wrong way on the life issues, by hiding behind an alleged commitment to the Church’s social justice agenda. Catholic social doctrine and the Church’s commitment to the right to life flow from the same source: the Catholic conviction about the inalienable dignity of every human life. A robust culture of life, the Pope proposes, is essential for economic justice and environmental protection; it is also necessary if we are to avoid the dehumanization of a brave new world of stunted and manufactured humanity, the slippery slope to which is paved with misconceived compassion and embryo-destructive stem cell research.
Caritas in Veritate thus reminds the whole Church that there is neither justice nor charity without truth. No society can claim to be promoting justice or solidarity if its law denies the truth of others’ humanity.
That is what Roe v. Wade and its judicial progeny have done in the United States; that is why laws protective of life from conception until natural death are an imperative of social justice; and that is why “common ground” efforts to lower the incidence of abortion, while welcome, are inadequate from the point of view of Catholic social doctrine — the moral equivalent of saying, in 1955, “OK, let’s see if we can’t get you black folks into one or two segregated restaurants in every county.”
Catholic legislators have been forcefully reminded of all this by the new Benedictine encyclical. The results in the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, and our state legislators should be instructive.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.