Your Life Is a Gift

The pope’s new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (CV), is a “big” document, and I won’t pretend to dispose of it with a brief commentary. Like its ancestor, the epochal Rerum Novarum, it will work its way through the mills of hundreds of thinkers for decades to come — provoking responses by writers of every political stripe and stirring us to act for the Common Good. In due course, it will be supplemented — and perhaps on some points corrected — by the teaching of a future pope.
One hopes this document will not be unjustly neglected, like Quadragesimo Anno, or reduced by commentators to ideological sound bytes, as Centesimus Annus often was. It will surely age better than Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio — which Pope Benedict XVI cites respectfully, striving to find what is of enduring value in that document. Tellingly, Benedict authoritatively rejects the assertion that there are “two typologies of social doctrine, one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new” (CV, 12).
Here the pope is insisting once again on a theme he announced early on in his reign and reaffirmed in Summorum Pontificum: what Benedict calls the “hermeneutic of continuity.” Indeed, in his previous role at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger rejected the widely treasured heresy that the pastoral Second Vatican Council was a kind of “super-dogma” that invalidated 1,900 years of preceding Catholic tradition.
The Church has no particular authority, Benedict notes, to offer the best technical solution to a given political crisis or economic conundrum. Instead, she points to enduring principles we deduce from the Natural Law “graven on the human heart,” and she echoes the prophetic call of the gospel to rescue our fallen reason through Faith and correct our self-serving versions of justice by pointing to the higher standard of Charity.
Given the Fall, our reason really does need faith just to steer clear of the grossest errors — ranging from human slavery and racialism to Communism and eugenics. What is more, as the pope asserts repeatedly in this document, no “science,” human or natural, that cuts off the “vertical” dimension of transcendence — that pretends that man is anything other than the purposefully created image of God — can fail to go astray. Economics is no exception.
The pope’s theological claims here, while tactfully phrased, are unusually bold. Rejecting the overly strict divisions frequently made between reason and revelation, nature and grace, he asserts that Charity drained of Truth collapses into mere sentiment, while the quest for Truth without Charity leads to empty ideology. Since it’s clear from the overall context that by Truth he means the Logos — that is, Christ — and by Charity he means the kind of love that indwells in the Trinity, the pope here is insisting that the basic, universal desire for justice, order, and prosperity will come to nothing absent Christ. Pope Pius IX couldn’t have said it any better.
There is nothing radically new in this document; no one is really surprised to hear that the pope is in favor of peace, responsible stewardship of the environment, or sane regulations designed to prevent the abuse of workers. Even those with strong libertarian instincts won’t be shocked to hear that the pope favors “redistribution” of income among the economic classes inside developed countries, or increased foreign aid from rich countries to poor. Admirably, throughout the document he points out that rights beyond the basic ones (such as food, water, and education) are conditioned by duties; neglect the duty and you forfeit the right it implies. That point alone is a major “take-away benefit” from the encyclical.
From now on I will cite Caritas in Veritate whenever someone asserts (sometimes selectively citing a Church document) a univocal “right” to something or other; I will ask, “What duty comes with it?” Already, the Catechism states that the right to immigrate into a country comes with the duty “to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.” In this document, Benedict notes that the right of the poorest countries to receive foreign aid for the sake of economic development is chained to a different duty — to administer the funds responsibly, in a manner that helps rather than stunts native initiative.
The pope points to “corruption and illegality” in rich and poor countries alike, and notes, “International aid has often been diverted from its proper ends, through irresponsible actions both within the chain of donors and within that of the beneficiaries” (CV, 22). I deduce from this that it is the right — and perhaps the duty — of countries sending aid to demand its proper use, and be prepared to cut it off when it proves counterproductive. The exercise of such political prudence, guided firmly by the principles taught by the Church, is the proper role of the statesman, the layman, the citizen.
In most ways, the pope’s encyclical is a gradual, organic development of the writings of previous popes. Perhaps the most “creative” contribution to be found here is the pope’s strong emphasis on the need for a rebirth of “civil society,” of non-governmental institutions ranging from the family to charitable organizations, the churches, and even consumer cooperatives. He rejects the stark polarity between the individual and the State that characterizes American politics, noting that this dismal pairing is a deeply modern error. The pope calls specifically for the greater development of enterprises intended to serve economic ends that are not purely driven by the calculus of profit — such as co-ops, credit unions, and non-profit banks that offer “micro-credits” to aid small businessmen and farmers. The point made here by the pope is that the vast range of human interactions should never have been artificially reduced to the simple triad that motivates modern life: We keep our friends for pleasure, do our jobs for profit, and pay our taxes at gunpoint.
Instead of this hedonistic, rationalistic calculus, the pope urges us to recognize the fundamental truth that each of our lives is in fact a gift. Not just from God — which, of course, is most fundamental — but from our fellow men. When a follower of Ayn Rand (for instance) demands of me why he should give a penny of unearned charity to the unfortunate, I like to respond this way: “Did you invent the English language? Did you develop Common Law, or write the Constitution that protects your cherished rights? Did you build up urban civilization, or invent the technology that lets you live better than what man is by nature — a hunter-gatherer? I didn’t think so. It seems to me you inherited a great deal of social capital that you did absolutely nothing to earn. So now it’s time to pass along a little bit of the largesse you received. Or else you really ought to strip naked and go hunt wildebeest on the savannah.”
Drawing, I think, on the insights of Lewis Hyde in his vastly influential book The Gift, the pope makes the bluntly realistic observation that most of the central actions we take in this life are made not based on rational calculation, or the explicit hope of receiving back tit-for-tat, but rather as gestures of creative generosity. We don’t bear children principally in the hope that they will care for us when we’re old — although, of course, they should. Acts of love between parents and children, lovers or friends, are rarely subject to careful scrutiny as to whether everyone is getting enough deposited in his “emotional bank account” (to use Stephen Covey’s well-meaning but deeply depressing metaphor for interpersonal relations). It is only when relationships turn abusive that we even start to examine them, to find the source of imbalance and rectify it if possible.
Likewise in a healthy working environment, employees and employers do not in fact seek at every turn to extract the maximum benefit from each other, the consequences be damned. Neither sweatshops nor featherbedding finally make for good business, the pope suggests. Indeed, for the market economy to work — as the great market economist and architect of post-war German recovery Wilhelm Röpke observed, and the pope reiterates — the participants require an atmosphere of trust and fair-dealing that are drawn from deeper sources than mere compliance with formal contracts or the desire to stay out of jail.
The market is, at heart, an amazingly efficient mechanism of human cooperation for common ends. We all want to live well, and it makes sense to divide up our labor so we each do what we’re good at. Period. When we lose sight of that deep truth, and see the economy as a Darwinian struggle for power or a vast Vegas casino, we tear up the roots that nurture our common garden and make way for bureaucratic collectivists to “order” the chaos we’ve made — by cementing over it.
There is only one statement in the encyclical that frankly troubles me. Let me quote it at length:
To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago. Such an authority would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth. Furthermore, such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties, and also with the coordinated measures adopted in various international forums. Without this, despite the great progress accomplished in various sectors, international law would risk being conditioned by the balance of power among the strongest nations. The integral development of peoples and international cooperation require the establishment of a greater degree of international ordering, marked by subsidiarity, for the management of globalization. They also require the construction of a social order that at last conforms to the moral order, to the interconnection between moral and social spheres, and to the link between politics and the economic and civil spheres, as envisaged by the Charter of the United Nations (CV, 67).
Is the pope calling here for a worldwide state, with coercive authority, that will govern all men at once? I know that medieval Catholics treasured the dream of a universal Empire — and the Holy Roman Empire was seen as the seed of such a state. As the steward of a Church that transcends nations, the pastor of souls without regard for race, language, or culture, it may be perfectly natural for the pope to feel the attraction of such a super-state.
Perhaps I am too Augustinian, but I cannot help deeply suspecting that any such state would by its very nature begin or (more likely) end as a tyranny. The very monopoly of its power, and the fact that there was not one square inch of the earth from which anyone could escape its clutches, would remove any check or balance from its bureaucrats. Its tax codes would be uniform, with no threat of “competition,” so they could rise astronomically high. Its laws could grow ever more Draconian, since there is nowhere its citizens could flee. Its ideology, backed by all the coercive power of the ruling class of the planet, would — in the hands of the fallen men who administered it — quickly become a global religion.
If such a State (as I think it inevitable) decided to persecute the Church, there would be no exile we could seek — no Douai from which to send out Jesuits, no refuge from martyrdom. Indeed, as prophetic writers from Vladimir Soloviev to Robert Hugh Benson have warned, the man who steps forward as the architect of a world state is less likely to prove the humble servant of the truths taught by the Church than he is to be the Antichrist.
I know that the pope suffered deeply, and personally, from the sick excesses of nationalism. Perhaps if I’d been drafted into the Hitler Youth, and seen my nation ruined and dishonored by a cancerous tribal cult like National Socialism, I might also daydream about a universal benevolent State. But there’s only one thing worse than a national bureaucratic tyranny — and that’s an international one. A reading of Orwell’s 1984 might have reminded Benedict that centralization rarely leads to liberty. And a world-state administered by the kind of people who currently get involved in supranational organizations like the EU and the UN would make its first order of business the liquidation of the Church — which wouldn’t even have a Liechtenstein where it could hide. On this point I must say respectfully to His Holiness: Not in this lifetime.

John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for
Image: AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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