All you need is love?

Nov/Dec 2009, Volume II, No. 1

This is an overview of the papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.

Caritas is not only a teaching about social ethics in the age of globalization. It is also a spiritual and theological treatise on the primacy of love in God's whole creation. It's about how divine love thirsts to transform the world, through converted human hearts, into God's healing kingdom of justice and peace, for the sake of every living human being; for the life, and the growth into full humanity, of every human being.

Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate is a wonderful piece of work. It brings together into one powerful vision things that are too often separated into unconnected pieces. Its thinking goes very deep into reality. At that deep place, spirituality, theology, and right-here, right-now social justice and ecology issues reveal themselves as inseparable dimensions of one divine challenge.

Yes, it’s a social encyclical in the tradition of Rerum Novarum and the other great letters that define what Pope Benedict calls the “social magisterium” of the Catholic Church. Especially, it celebrates Populorum Progressio of Paul VI, calling it the Rerum Novarum of the present age.

Caritas in Veritate is spiritual reading as well as practical ethics. It’s guidance for vocational discernment, written by someone who knows that the powerful new patterns of economic globalization are capable of helping, and capable of hurting, every man, woman and child on the planet. Those human beings are all precious to God, and are therefore our brothers and sisters: they have every right to call on us to help them live with the fullness God desires for them.

In recent years there has been a valiant effort to help Christians understand that we can’t separate Christian faith from justice. We can’t disconnect the proclamation of the Gospel from the struggle for justice in the world. Benedict takes this deeper by insisting that love also is inseparable from justice, and vice versa. But then what Benedict understands when he says “love” is much, much more than the word usually means in ordinary English.

“Everything has its origin in God’s love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it. Love is God’s greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope”, says this passionate encyclical (paragraph 2).
If we are living in the way God makes it possible for us to live, then love gives life and substance not only to personal and family relationships but also to professional, economic, and political relationships. Think about that for a minute.

But before you reach for that old Beatles song and start humming “All you need is love”, you have to grapple with Benedict’s other central insistence: love needs truth. Without truth, says Benedict, caritas degenerates into sentimentality and no longer has the muscle to change the world.

Our hearts need our minds.

To love powerfully, we need what reason and faith, working together, can give us—the capacity to love truth and embrace it and move with it. One of the most dangerous biases in the modern intellectual world, according to this scholarly pope, is its tendency to relativize everything until truth becomes a kind of myth, beyond human reach.

He says: “Truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the “economy” of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practised in the light of truth.” (paragraph 2)

So what is God really doing in the great drama of human history, in the infinitely complex and interconnected reality of the human world?

This is what God is doing.

Through the redeeming work of Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, God is lighting the flame of divine love in human hearts, so that love, enlightened by reason and faith in dialogue, will be able to act through personal virtues and personal work, and also through human cultures, institutions and structures, to overcome the chaos of evil and bring about integral human development for every human being.

Catholic social teaching has always insisted on the inalienable God-given dignity of every human person. Benedict expresses this tradition more dynamically, by insisting that the goal of creation is the authentic, integral human development of every person and every society and culture. Nothing less than that.

Development—integral human development—is a vocation. It is our vocation. It calls for the commitment of everyone. And the voice doing the calling is God’s voice, the voice of divine love.

For Benedict, integral human development includes evangelization, because of the indispensable importance of the Gospel for building “a civilization animated by love”.

Of course it includes the pro-life dimension too. Here, Benedict does not limit himself to condemning abortion. For him, being pro-life means being pro integral human development; and the only way to promote the true development of peoples is to provide a culture in which every human life is welcomed and valued.

Ecology is also, and essentially, integrated into authentic human development. Human and natural ecology are one—harm done to one is harm done to the other.

Some have been disappointed that the Pope does not speak more about climate change, in view of the crucial importance of the upcoming special assembly in Copenhagen.

It’s true that the encyclical does not emphasize the Copenhagen agenda, but it does strongly remind us of our obligation to future generations where environmental issues are concerned.

In particular, the Pope speaks at length about the need to provide adequate sources of energy that will remain available to the poor of the world as present energy sources dry up and prices soar. He points out that research into alternative sources of energy is needed, and so is conservation.

But he adds: “What is also needed is a world-wide redistribution of energy resources, so that countries lacking those resources can have access to them. The fate of those countries cannot be left in the hands of whoever is first to claim the spoils.” (paragraph 49)

So what does Benedict think about the big new development of the past forty years, namely economic globalization?
In a way, he welcomes it. He sees growing interdependence or connectivity as the most significant new phenomenon since Populorum Progressio.

He knows that it has been the framework for rapid growth. But he thinks that the way we are handling it betrays its best possibilities. Markets, even global markets, must fundamentally be instruments of justice and of human solidarity.

Processes of production must be part of the overall human goal of just, authentic development for all participants. They must be structured so that the benefits they produce are equitably shared as the production process moves along; we must not leave it up to governments to do all the “balancing” and redistributing as an afterthought.

Profit fails when it becomes the single goal, as does economic growth when its products are not justly distributed. The role of government is indispensable, but—especially in these days when the production-consumption cycle is so international--governments can’t do everything that is needed for the common good.

Corporations must play a much larger, more deliberately social role. Here Benedict encourages the development of “social enterprise” in all its variety—non-profit enterprises, micro-credit associations, co-operatives, mutuals, foundations—anything that can be developed for the sake of mutually helpful exchange within the global common good.

This is a radical re-thinking of how the real world should work. But it is not Utopian: it can be developed.

It’s a matter of imagining what today’s systems would actually be like, if they took as their norm a Christian ethic of love of neighbour.

The economy exists for the development of people in solidarity and freedom: it is for all stakeholders. All those involved in the process of production must have a voice and share in responsibility for the whole.

That includes investors, managers, workers (also through their associations), and even consumers. And yes, since people are weak and often selfish, good laws and regulations are needed to keep commerce in healthy order.

In the age of globalization, justice demands that there be global authorities “with teeth”. He uses the example of the recent financial melt-down to illustrate the need for ethically-driven, internationally effective regulatory bodies capable of “civilizing” investment, trade and other international movements of capital and labour.

Technological progress will be needed by all these systems: but it is foolish to think that technological innovations by themselves can develop humanity. Benedict is vigorous in countering “technologism”. Indeed, he fears that future abuses of technology, especially of biotechnology, might try to re-create humans according to the ideological agenda of powerful interests.
He worries, too, about the media, with their global reach, imposing ideological models that destroy ancient values and drain the cultural energy from many human societies.

The framework of Caritas in Veritate engages all the well-known core principles of Catholic social teaching.

It is a framework of global common good and social justice for all, inside of which solidarity and subsidiarity balance each other to protect and strengthen not only public authority, but also the good of individuals and their families and the “gift exchange” that can freely happen in civil society.

There is far, far more to say about this long and carefully-written letter. I have only given some glimpses, some personal preferences.

I hope you now can’t wait to read it for yourself. You can download the whole 40-plus pages from, or you can order a printed version from the Bishops’ Conference at

How can this vision be made real? How can it help us change the world?

The really burning question remains: how are we going to spread this word so that the people of the Church can live it? How can we translate it into our own languages and lives and specialties and communities and workplaces, so that it can change the world?

Pope Benedict’s writing style is good for philosophy and theology. But it is very abstract. It will take a great deal of pedagogical skill to teach this encyclical to practical people. It will take faith and confidence to even begin the task. It will take leadership—eager, many-sided pastoral and lay leadership.

I believe Pope Benedict contented himself with setting an inspired direction—leaving it to leaders at all levels of the Church’s life to take this teaching into the real life of faith, the real life of the world.

I have two strong intuitions about how to begin. First, it is crucial that our bishops themselves make this “social magisterium” a clearly visible personal and corporate priority in their own lives and in their dioceses. If that does not happen, I fear this very rich but largely unknown treasure of the Church’s teaching will, because of the complexity of the thinking and language in which the Pope has offered it, remain the spiritual treasure of a select few.

Obviously, given the profound difficulty of learning how to act according to this vision, bishops can’t convey all by themselves what needs to be conveyed.

The vision needs to be studied by spiritual leaders together with men and women who are engaged every day in the working and decision-making structures of the world.

Surely the best approach would be a small-group setting. At all levels of the church, publicly engaged leaders could be invited to come together with committed clergy. They would need to stay together long enough to learn to trust each other and become a community.

Then, with their real lives before their eyes, and the Gospel in their hearts, they could together read/contemplate/study Caritas in Veritate until the possible practical applications begin to dawn on them.

Then just watch them!
It’s hard to change the world though!
It’s always exceedingly hard to change the world. It takes everything we’ve got. Of course we can’t do it alone. But we can begin with the resources that are available to every believer.
Small groups, meeting in faith and in the light of their world-immersed lives, can begin the journey. The “social magisterium” can walk with those small real communities, at their own pace. And they will grow, and change, and act, beyond all our timid expectations.
Here is how Pope Benedict expresses this hope: