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.

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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.

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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).

Therefore, if the state embraces either evolutionary materialism or what the pope calls “practical atheism” (29), then human beings have no nature and no intrinsic purpose or natural ends. Deprived of any stable foundation for our rights or understanding of the common good, freedom has no meaning because it has no end. In other words, what’s the point of freedom, if there is no point to anything? Eventually, according to Benedict, we are forced to embrace some form of moral relativism, and this may lead to totalitarianism. Without theological anthropology, we are stuck as isolated choosers with only the power of the state to control our individual pursuits for personal pleasure, prosperity, and our subjective idea of “the good.”

But if what the Christian faith teaches about humanity and the good life are true, the exercise of true liberty requires that we recognize and embrace these truths. For without them, liberty loses its point. As Jesus succinctly stated, “Ye shall know the truth; and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). To put it another way, someone who can make more choices out of ignorance of his own nature would be less free than the person who knows the truth about himself and then makes choices. As Benedict writes: “God is the guarantor of man's true development, inasmuch as, having created him in his image, he also establishes the transcendent dignity of men and women and feeds their innate yearning to `be more.’ Man is not a lost atom in a random universe: he is God's creature, whom God chose to endow with an immortal soul and whom he has always loved” (29; note omitted).

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An economic approach

The categories that dominate our public discourse in the United States—left, right, liberal, conservative, etc.—play no role in illuminating the Church's social doctrines or the message of Caritas in Veritate. This is why it is a fool's errand to attempt to artificially divide Catholic social teachings into its left and right wings, as if the Church's rejection of economic libertarianism and the proclamation of the principles of subsidiary and solidarity are inconsistent with support for male-female marriage and the sanctity of human life.

Benedict does argue in this encyclical that free markets and the ownership of property are the best way people can produce the wealth that is necessary for a just regime. But free markets will not result in integral human development if they are bereft of sound ethical constraints and not directed toward the common good. This is why in Catholic social teaching the state has an obligation to protect, nurture, and help sustain the natural development and proper ends of certain governmental and private institutions. These include the family, civic and political associations (such as labor unions), organizations of social welfare (administered privately and/or by the state), and schools. According to Benedict, such institutions make morally sound markets possible because they provide the social infrastructure for the achieving of integral human development. So the Sermon on the Mount cannot be separated from “Honor thy Father and Mother,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and “Thou shalt not steal.” Thus, the “justice” in social justice refers to a rightly ordered community, not to the ideologies of a Ludwig Von Mises or a Karl Marx. In Christian theology, you can gain the whole world and lose your own soul (Luke 9:25). To paraphrase St. Paul, that’s a stumbling block to the Austrians and foolishness to the Marxists.

Therefore, it is not surprising that in Caritas in Veritate Benedict does not endorse any specific policies on economic matters. As he points out, “The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim `to interfere in any way in the politics of States’” (9, quoting from Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, 13; notes omitted). The pope is, after all, the shepherd of a global church, one that includes a wide diversity of cultures, ethnicities, sensibilities, practices, and levels of economic development. These nations also run the gamut in terms of their forms of government.

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But regardless of our differences, we share the same nature, the imago dei. We have intrinsic dignity because we are made in God’s image. However, we are also fallen creatures, prone to the same delusion and arrogance that captured the imaginations of our first parents. This means we can paint the Sistine Chapel as well as pollute Lake Erie. We can find a cure for polio while building gulags and concentration camps. We can fly our magnificent aircrafts into our monuments of prosperity in order to deliver in the name of God the angel of death. For these reasons, Pope Benedict XVI offers us an encyclical whose name affirms the only solution to what afflicts this mystery called man, Charity in Truth.

Francis J. Beckwith is professor of philosophy and church-state studies, and resident scholar in the Institute for the Studies of Religion at Baylor University. Former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, his most recent book isReturn to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic(Brazos, 2009).

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today has more articles on Catholicism, including:

Thinking Epistemologically about Obama and Notre Dame | Francis Beckwith explains why Notre Dame's invitation is so controversial, and what it says about higher education. (March 27, 2009)
Q&A: Francis Beckwith | Former ETS president speaks about what he takes from evangelicalism back to the Roman Catholic Church. (March 9, 2007)
The Promise of Benedict XVI | Evangelicals can be glad that the new pope is not likely to be a mere caretaker. (May 26, 2005)