Why You Can't Just 'Love Your Neighbor'
Editor's note: On Tuesday of this week, Pope Benedict XVI issued "Charity in Truth," a new encyclical or general letter to the Roman Catholic Christians around the world. Popes use encyclical letters to teach the church what they believe is the Christian viewpoint on key issues.
In the past, evangelical Christians have sometimes cheered, sometimes demurred, when an encyclical has been issued. Among the encyclicals evangelical Protestants have welcomed are John Paul II's "The Splendor of Truth" and his "The Gospel of Life." They were less thrilled with his 1987 letter, "The Mother of the Redeemer."
The new papal letter is being touted as an instruction on global economics—a subject it addresses at length. But Benedict XVI is not backing a particular school of economics so much as laying the theological and ethical foundation for an approach to the economic, social, technological, and moral development of peoples. Benedict's fundamental point is that you cannot do good for people without a proper understanding of what people are—that is, what God made them to be and destined them to be.
CT asked Baylor University philosopher Frank Beckwith to examine the document, analyze its theology, and explain why evangelical Christians should care.
Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (or “Charity in Truth”) is a brief against secular materialism in its economic and metaphysical forms, and its harmful consequences on the human family’s common good. Secular materialism in an ideology that maintains that there are no theological truths that can be known. Among these unknowable theological truths is the nature of human beings, and their intrinsic purpose and natural ends that help us understand the common good and what constitutes human flourishing. Hence, the title, “Charity in Truth.” For without true knowledge of the human person, one cannot know how to properly direct love (or “charity”) to a fellow human being. As Benedict writes, “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society at difficult times like the present” (5).
Although mainstream media outlets have already spun this encyclical as one that focuses on the global economic crisis—and it most certainly does address that—that is clearly not the pope’s point of departure. For those who have eyes to see, the animating principle of this encyclical is virtually on every page of it: theological anthropology is the only proper starting pointing from which we can come to know the common good.
Why "what we are" matters
For Benedict, who and what we are—the question of theological anthropology—is the key to a proper understanding of our relationship to one another, our economic progress and regress, the nature of the family and marriage, humanity’s stewardship of the environment, the rule of law, intergenerational justice, as well as our openness to human life. Yes, Caritas in Veritate mentions all these topics, and several others. But the answer to the question of what constitutes integral human development—what are we and what is the good for us as individuals and as a whole?—is the unifying principle that connects them all.
Take, for example, the concept of freedom. As Benedict rightly points out, our understanding of the meaning of freedom depends on what we know to be true about ourselves and our nature as given to us by God: "Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. John 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development" (9).