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Charity in Truth

From the Bennington Banner, Aug. 15, 2009 
Mark E. Rondeau

Pope Benedict XVI's new encyclical letter on social issues offers Catholics in the U.S. a valuable opportunity to re-examine many of their convictions about the world and their role in it. "Caritas in Veritate," ("Charity in Truth"), concentrates on the economic development of poor nations and regions, the effects of globalization and the current global economic crisis.

Released in July, this is Benedict's third encyclical letter since he became pope in 2005. Papal encyclical letters are one of the most authoritative types of church teaching.

Though it deals with economics, politics, civil society, culture, and globalization, "Caritas in Veritate" cannot be understood without first referring to its foundation in Catholic beliefs about God.

Made in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, human beings have an inviolable dignity.

Our creation by God -- "Eternal Love and Absolute Truth" -- leads Pope Benedict to argue that there are unalterable truths about human life that humanity ignores at its own peril. One of these is the moral law, and he points to the world economic crisis as the result of this being violated through greed and dishonesty.

Another unalterable truth is the biological integrity of human beings, which the pope sees as threatened by, among other things, the technological manipulation of human life in laboratories and clinics.

That is the "veritate" side of Benedict's vision. On the "caritas" side, the free gift of life and the world we live in by God, combined with the love we have received from God in Jesus Christ, enables us to love others and to express this love both in solidarity -- concern for their well-being -- and in generosity toward them.

In line with Catholic social teaching, "Caritas in Veritate" argues that people of good will who are not believers can still grasp the truth of church social teaching through reason.

Indeed, "charity's power to liberate in the ever...changing events of at the same time the truth of faith and of reason," Benedict writes.

A few major points

Here are some of the major points of "Caritas in Veritate" : * The current economic crisis is an opportunity for us to mobilize ourselves at the level of the heart to build a more humane world, an opportunity for discernment "in which to shape a new vision for the future." * Business needs to be concerned not only with the interests of its ownership "but must also assume responsibility for all other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business." These include workers, clients, suppliers and the communities in which it does business.

"Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty." * Globalization needs to be directed by reason and put to the service of people and human values. "As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers," Benedict writes.

Part of what is needed is "a greater degree of international ordering...for the management of globalization. A reformed United Nations, as well reformed economic institutions and international finance, are needed "so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth."

Yet, the pope is not arguing for the one-world government so feared by the right. "In order not to produce a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature, the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together." * In addition to profit-oriented private enterprises and public-oriented non-profits, Benedict calls for more businesses and economic enterprises that, while making a profit, "aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself."

Development of such hybrid forms of economic activity would help in finding ways of "civilizing the economy."

Such businesses do in fact exist. Focolare -- "the family hearth" in Italian -- a Catholic spiritual and activist movement begun in Italy in 1943 has gathered more than 750 companies from around the world to take what the group describes as a new approach to business activity.

Being profitable is the initial goal, but a portion of the earnings from each "economy of communion" firm are sent to a central office in Rome and used to fund development programs, charitable activities, and programs of formation and education in disadvantaged areas. * More than ever before in papal teaching, Benedict erases the false distinction -- particularly sharp between the right and left in the U.S. -- between "life" and "peace and justice" issues.

Concern for human dignity, justice and peace are not on a solid foundation when societies act to the contrary by allowing or tolerating ways in which life is devalued or violated, such as abortion and euthanasia, he argues.

Similarly, over-population is not the primary cause of underdevelopment. The family, not the state, is the proper place for decisions about the number of children. "Populous nations have been able to emerge from poverty thanks not least to the size of their populations and the talents of their people."

On the other hand, some developed nations are facing problems because of their falling birth rates, he writes.

When open to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of the poor and avoid consumerism, instead using economic and intellectual resources in ways that respect the right to life of everyone, he writes.

Benedict also sees the need for agrarian reform in developing countries: "The right to food, like the right to water, has an important place within the pursuit of other rights, beginning with the fundamental right to life." * More development aid to poorer countries makes sense not only from the perspective of charity but because increased demand for consumer goods from these nations would also help wealthier producer nations.

Benedict also contends that rich countries should not hoard energy resources and should share them with poorer countries. * The environment is another area of concern: "The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa."

Protection of the environment, resources and the climate oblige leaders to work together in good faith, respecting the law and showing solidarity with the poorest regions of the planet.

Drifting and drifting apart

Benedict offers what I and many others think is an exciting updating of Catholic social teaching for a new century. We need an inspiring "new vision for the future" in what is a time of drastic change in many areas of life.

It's no secret that the U.S. Catholic church is adrift -- and drifting apart. In recent years there has been a steep decline in the percentage of native-born American Catholics who still identify with the church.

The explosive revelations in 2002 of how badly so many U.S. bishops handled the problem of sexually abusive priests severely damaged their credibility. Too many bishops followed this up, unfortunately, by ineptly injecting themselves into politics with the single-issue focus on abortion.

Along comes Pope Benedict with a large-minded and big-hearted vision for the future. Studied, promoted and propagated, "Caritas in Veritate" could be a force for unity in the U.S. church. It challenges many of the entrenched notions in both our major political parties, pointing the way to change we can believe in.

Mark E. Rondeau is the Banner's religion editor and a Roman Catholic. He can be reached at