A Magna Carta For Our Time

A little book was published a few years ago entitled “Speeches that changed the world”. It’s not really a very serious book – more a curiosity – and its title was a little less than apt. It really should have been called “Speeches that changed the world, some for better, some for worse and some that thankfully didn’t.” But while that title would be a more accurate guide to what was between the covers it probably wouldn’t have brought the editor much by way of royalties.

But the book did leave me thinking of great human documents that did or should have changed the world for the better as I once again leafed through – on my way to a second reading – of the latest encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI, “Caritas in Veritate”. This is a truly amazing tract for our troubled times. I suppose it was too much to expect – but what a great disappointment and failure of duty – that our media of communication, printed press, radio and TV and numerous participants in the blogosphere, have so abysmally failed to recognise it, analyse and relay it to the sorry world at large. It answers so many questions, points to so many fundamental causes of our current malaise and offers so much hope for a better future for the world if only we would listen to its wisdom. Its marginalisation betokens nothing less than a tragic blindness to truth.

A few years ago there was some talk that Tony Blair’s thinking on matters of social policy was grounded in his reading of the social teaching of the Catholic Church. Whether that was true or false we do not know but in making that observation someone said that as far as any basis for a Christian social policy was concerned he had little choice: Catholic social teaching was really the only show in town. In this encyclical, nothing less than a Magna Carta for the 21st century, Pope Benedict has taken the show to a new high.

The great themes of this papacy – so far, and who doubts but that there will be more – are Love, Hope and Truth. Having led us to consider the first two in his first encyclicals he now draws them together in a third. He unites them in harmony with Truth and applies them to the pressing problems which confront mankind trying to get its collective act together with regard to living decently and happily on this planet of ours.

Charity – Love – he tells us is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine. We sometimes subject Charity to the cliché, “charity begins at home”. This is the charity to be found in what the Pope calls “micro-relationships” – with friends, family members or within small groups. But he reminds us that charity has also to be the dominant principle governing our “macro-relationships” – social, economic and political ones. It is here that the great flaw in the modern understanding of charity is to be found, leaving us with a charity which is, as the Pope says, “emptied of meaning”. Why? Because charity has become separated from Truth and separated from Truth it is separated from its very source, God himself. His words here might remind us of St. Josemaría Escrivá’s words written in The Way over 60 years ago: “If you lose the supernatural meaning of your life, your charity will be philanthropy,…” in other words, beginning and ending with the love of mankind.

The question here links into another malaise of the modern world of which Pope Benedict is so keenly aware. Charity, he explains, “needs to be understood , confirmed and practised in the light of truth.” Only in this way can it really have the credibility that both charity and truth need to have their proper effect and power “in the practical setting of social living.” A real problem arises when mankind in immersed “in a social and cultural context which relativises truth, often paying little heed to it and showing increasing reluctance to acknowledge its existence.”

So this encyclical is both a call to Charity and a call to Truth. “Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith, through which the intellect attains to the natural and supernatural truth of charity: it grasps its meaning as gift, acceptance, and communion. Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite. Truth frees charity from the constraints of an emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content, and of a fideism that deprives it of human and universal breathing-space.”

The Pope goes on to elaborate the consequences for a society in which charity and justice – or what passes for charity and justice – are divorced from truth and are determined and guided by the common will rather than by true discernment of the common good. How familiar we are with this mantra from politicians who leave their individual consciences at the door as they proceed to enact laws for the “good” of our society? Truth is irrelevant to them. What matters to them is what the electorate thinks. Truly representative democracy – which advocates for Truth first and foremost – is a dead letter in this kind of populist politics. Leadership means nothing.

“In the present social and cultural context, where there is a widespread tendency to relativize truth…a Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world. Without truth, charity is confined to a narrow field devoid of relations.” Towards the end of the encyclical the Pope deals with a number of practical consequences of this sterile set-up where a society anchored on true human values is replaced with soulless technical ones.

He points out that deviation from solid humanistic principles that a technical mindset can produce is seen today in certain technological applications in the fields of development and peace. Often the development of peoples is considered a matter of financial engineering, the freeing up of markets, the removal of tariffs, investment in production, and institutional reforms — in other words, a purely technical matter. How sadly familiar are all these terms!

He admits that all these factors are important but asks us to consider the clearly mixed results they have had, arguing that human and social development will never be fully guaranteed through automatic or impersonal forces, whether they derive from the market or from international politics. “Development is impossible without upright men and women, without financiers and politicians whose consciences are finely attuned to the requirements of the common good. Both professional competence and moral consistency are necessary. When technology is allowed to take over, the result is confusion between ends and means, such that the sole criterion for action in business is thought to be the maximization of profit, in politics the consolidation of power, and in science the findings of research.”

Among all the other things that this great encyclical is, it is profoundly pro-life. How could it not be since Truth is at its heart. Needless to say this aspect of the document has been largely sidelined. One commentator in the blogosphere has noted how its  insistence (echoing John Paul II) that life issues – specifically abortion, euthanasia, and the eugenic planning of births – are at the core of justice questions and that to ignore these specific issues is to acquiesce in enormous damage to human culture. He points out  that these same people are also deeply unhappy with Caritas in Veritate’s repeated referencing of Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humane Vitae, which reaffirmed orthodox Christianity’s vision of sexual morality, because many of them have invested enormous energy over the past 41 years trying to nuance away or outright deny Catholicism’s defined teachings in these areas. (Samuel Gregg in http://blog.acton.org).

But this is only scratching the surface of a magnificent document. It needs books to be written about it. It needs and will reward multiple readings, discussions, seminars, conferences until such time as it penetrating thought and practical observations sink into our shallow heads and begin to bear some fruit in our 21st century waste land; before that waste land becomes a true desert, that desert of deserts alluded to in Benedict XVI’s own inaugural address back in 2005.

“The pastor must be inspired by Christ’s holy zeal: for him it is not a matter of indifference that so many people are living in the desert. And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. The Church as a whole and all her pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.”

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