A sense of calamity loomed around the world just 10 years ago as people witnessed the fallout of the 21st-century’s Great Recession, whether in their own lives or the lives of those around them. Lost jobs, lost homes and lost life savings dominated the day’s news.
The world’s economy was in crisis. People sadly relearned how uncertain the future can feel.
Against this background Pope Benedict XVI published “Charity in Truth” (“Caritas in Veritate”), his 2009 encyclical laying out the necessity of love and justice in financial planning for the future. “For the church, instructed by the Gospel, charity is everything,” he observed (No. 2).
The Great Recession illustrated plainly that the economy, the market, is all about the lives of actual people like you or me. It can wreak havoc with hopes, well-being and one’s sense of worth. Pope Benedict’s topic, with its broadened understanding of “the economy,” was inescapably timely.
Indeed, his encyclical indicated that people of all kinds, the “broader society,” are “stakeholders” in society’s business and financial enterprises (No. 40). But how often are they viewed that way? Not to be overlooked are workers, consumers, suppliers and producers of products from “deprived areas of the world” (No. 66).
“The current crisis obliges us to replan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment,” Pope Benedict stressed (No. 21).
This encyclical’s title, pairing love with truth, must have perplexed a few. Pope Benedict was addressing the truth about love. But he affirms that this truth intertwines in the Christian vision with the truth about justice toward others.
If love and justice are not identical twins, for Pope Benedict they are “inseparable.” The truth about justice is “intrinsic” to love (No. 6).
An uncompromising attitude toward human dignity pervades “Charity in Truth.” A remark by this scholarly pope included in a recent collection of his writings titled “Faith and Politics” casts a bright light on his Catholic moorings here.
His urged people to learn, “not just theoretically, but in the way we think and act — that in addition to the real presence of Jesus in the church and in the Blessed Sacrament, there is that other, second real presence of Jesus in the least of our brethren, in the downtrodden of this world.” Jesus “wants us to find him in all of them.”
Pope Benedict’s encyclical considered an ethics of love essential to the economy. The aim is to pave the road into the future with justice and authentic respect for others.
But yes, love “goes beyond justice,” he stated. That is because “to love is to give, to offer what is ‘mine’ to the other.” However, “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.”
Said the pope, “I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other without first giving him what pertains to him in justice” (No. 6).
It may be a tough guideline to absorb if one thinks financial profits represent the economy’s singular goal. Of course, Pope Benedict did not aim to demean the necessity of business profits.
He believed that space should “be created within the market for economic activity carried out by subjects who freely choose to act according to principles other than those of pure profit, without sacrificing the production of economic value in the process.”
In the “economic process,” ethics should not be left to arise merely as an afterthought. “The canons of justice must be respected from the outset,” the pope said (No. 37).
Did the timeliness of his encyclical, appearing in a time of financial crisis, mean his message about the inherent need for ethics in the economic realm resonated with everyone? Surely not.
But “every economic decision has a moral consequence,” he maintained. “The economic sphere,” in his view, is “part and parcel of human activity, and precisely because it is human it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner” (No. 36).
Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.