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Caritas in Veritate

During the summer, Pope Benedict XVI issued a new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the latest in a series that commenced with Rerum Novarum, promulgated by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. Collectively, these are referred to as the Social Teaching documents. What are we to make of this new one?

Rerum Novarum was ambiguous on the subject of property. It stated that everyone had the right to own it, which G K Chesterton took to mean that nobody should own so much of it that others were left with none. Henry George felt that the encyclical could be interpreted as an attack on his teachings on private property in the products of labour, the value of land, and the proper source of public revenue. He therefore thought it necessary to reply, showing that his ideas were consistent with those in the encyclical and ‘the primary perceptions of human reason, and with the fundamental teachings of the Christian Faith’. This reply took the form of an open letter, “The Condition of Labour“.

Subsequent encyclicals such as Quadragesmo Anno (1931) and Mater et Magister (1961) attempted to clarify what Rerum Novarum had to say, emphasising the social dimension of property ownership and the duties that go with it. Unfortunately, and strangely, none of the Social Teaching encyclicals has spelled out the difference between that which is man-made and that which is God-given, both being included in the term “property”. As a result, the issue of land reform has arisen separately and within Catholic church circles is conceived primarily as a problem affecting the third world, and calling for a distribution of agricultural land.

A mission of truth

The latest offering takes a different stance entirely. The encyclical states unequivocally that the Church does not have technical solutions to offer but has a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance. Those of us who are campaigning for land value taxation should be pleased that the Church should in this way distance itself from practical policymaking, since it removes a potential source of conflict. However, there is much more to be welcomed in the document. Indeed, it provides an excellent starting point for the study of economics. The theme of the encyclical is contained in its title: “Caritas in veritate“, which, Pope Benedict writes, is,

“the principle around which the Church’s social doctrine turns, a principle that takes on practical form in the criteria that govern moral action. I would like to consider two of these in particular, of special relevance to the commitment to development in an increasingly globalized society: justice and the common good.”

Justice first, then charity

“First of all, justice. Ubi societas, ibi ius: every society draws up its own system of justice. Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his”, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them.”

“Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI’s words, “the minimum measure” of it an integral part of the love “in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18), to which Saint John exhorts us. On the one hand, charity demands justice: recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples. It strives to build the earthly city according to law and justice. On the other hand, charity transcends justice and completes it in the logic of giving and forgiving. The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion. Charity always manifests God’s love in human relationships as well, it gives theological and salvific value to all commitment for justice in the world.”

The common good

“Another important consideration is the common good. To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it. Besides the good of the individual, there is a good that is linked to living in society: the common good. It is the good of “all of us”, made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society. It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it. To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity. To take a stand for the common good is on the one hand to be solicitous for, and on the other hand to avail oneself of, that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it the pólis, or “city”. The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practise this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis. When animated by charity, commitment to the common good has greater worth than a merely secular and political stand would have. Like all commitment to justice, it has a place within the testimony of divine charity that paves the way for eternity through temporal action. Man’s earthly activity, when inspired and sustained by charity, contributes to the building of the universal city of God, which is the goal of the history of the human family. In an increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family, that is to say, the community of peoples and nations, in such a way as to shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God.”

Such a statement is remarkable and is to be warmly welcomed, since it draws precisely the distinctions between the private and the public good, which underpins the entire theory out of which land value taxation taxation emerges. This concept of charity also goes well beyond the usual notion of charity within the churches, which tends to confine itself to things like soup runs and projects for third world villagers. It is not that there is anything wrong with that kind of charity, which is necessary and beneficial for all sorts of reasons; it is simply that the laity are urged, in addition, to accept their responsibility to look at the bigger picture.

Charity rejoices in truth

There is more. At the very beginning of the encyclical, the Pope writes, “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principle driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace. It is a force that has its origin in God, Eternal Love and Absolute Truth. Each person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him, in order to realize it fully: in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free (cf. Jn 8:32). To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, “rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:6). All people feel the interior impulse to love authentically: love and truth never abandon them completely, because these are the vocation planted by God in the heart and mind of every human person.”

Shaky economics

The economics in the document is more than a little shaky. The term “capital” is used to refer to a variety of entities including finance, credit and actual physical wealth used to facilitate production, which last is its proper definition. “Land” is scarcely mentioned. These weaknesses are unfortunate but only to be expected given the nearly universal vagueness over the use of these words. They do not detract from the overall thrust of the message, which is the need to discover the truth and act out of a search for economic justice.

Those who have been campaigning for land value taxation, often for the best part of a lifetime, have been motivated by a desire to discover the truth about economics and to establish a society ruled by conditions of economic justice should take this latest encyclical as a powerful endorsement of their efforts.

The full text of the encyclical can be read here.