What on Earth Is Caritas?

The Catholic sense of the world as a gift of God's love is the central theme of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. For him, caritas means the love proper to God's own inner life, dispersed throughout The City of God. Yet that City, St. Augustine stressed, is under constant siege by the self-centered, egoistic City of Man, characterized by lies and self-deceptions. That is why Benedict's new encyclical tightly links caritas to veritas. You can't have the one without the other.

This approach touches on the American experience by its evocations of St. Augustine. No other religious writer so much influenced the realism about man expressed, say, in The Federalist, and in the choice of friendship expressed in the name of Philadelphia. Therein are foreshadowed both "the City on the hill" and the assertion that men are far from being angels. Indeed, men called to form "a Republic of Virtue" are deeply in need of checks and balances, divisions of power, and other practical methods for limiting the great evil of which humans are capable. To this point, Benedict prefers to stress God's love, rather than the division of powers, open competition, and other checks and balances upon men's destructive appetites.

Still, against the invisible gas of relativism Benedict does good work in showing the link between the pursuit of truth and a workable democracy. Civilization is conversation--that is, a close listening for the truth in the words of the other, and a bit of suspicion about one's own undetected blindness. If such conversation in the pursuit of truth is blocked up by indifference, thugs will emerge to enforce consensus. Relativism was a prelude to tyranny in the century just passed. It can always return.

Catholic social thought does not provide technical solutions and does not prescribe specific programs and policies.

In its practical recommendations about political economy, however, this encyclical appears to be riding two horses--the russet horse of those who think the state is the main road to the common good, and the pale horse of those who think the strictly limited state should spur a thousand free initiatives and civic actions as a surer carrier toward the common good.

But as the pope takes pains to remind us, Catholic social thought does not provide technical solutions and does not prescribe specific programs and policies. On these, Catholics of left, center, and right can continue to disagree. Still, the pope's own practical reflections on political economy and current perplexities help to sharpen the arguments. Here, too, the parts of the encyclical that most clearly bear the familiar marks of Benedict's own caritas are the ones most likely to endure.

Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at AEI.

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