Understanding Caritas in Veritate

I was struck once — struck and annoyed — with a vagrant remark made to me by the Canadian philosopher George Grant (1918-1988). It came up in a conversation about Vietnam. He was using such terms as "technology" and "hegemony," which he’d employed elsewhere more abstractly in condemnation of the whole modern world, in pedestrian ways to condemn U.S. military operations against the Vietnamese Communists.

Grant was my hero and, for various reasons, always will be. He was a man who would go to the wall for the truth. He possessed real historical insights into the nature of modernity. He was a sharp observer of many moral facts. He was of a truly Socratic disposition, and he walked through the poisoned halls of post-War academia in a deeply humane and beneficent fog. But he could also talk nonsense about party politics, the economy, foreign policy, etc.

I had gone to some length to tell him, as a journalist who had been in Vietnam, that he had no idea what he was talking about; that he’d been felled by a frozen northern chunk of cheap leftist drivel; that he was parroting sources far more materialist, hegemonic, and malign than anything he could then have found in the Pentagon or White House. (Not that he’d find angels in there.)

The dear man took my critical explosion in good sort and admitted that he was a bit of a fool in politics. "I’m sure you are right about the Communists. There are far worse accounts of justice than we find in John Locke." He then added, defensively: "If I’d wanted to get into politics, I would have studied current events when I was younger, instead of the things I did study."


That was the remark that annoyed me. "If you admit to knowing nothing about these subjects, why do you publish opinions on them? Why do you allow cynical people to set you up with false information, and manipulate you with flattery, in order to exploit your reputation?"

Grant looked hurt, confused, and so very innocent. We went back to discussing matters on which he was infinitely better informed: the lives of Anglican bishops, for instance.

There were moments, in first reading Caritas in Veritate, when I came very close to the same bad reaction. There are moments when I almost think that Pope Benedict XVI — unquestionably one of my heroes — is surrounded by leftwing political operators who set him up with very false and twisted information about how the world works, in the hope of exploiting his magisterial authority. There are even moments when I think that people who live all their lives among "officials" of one kind or another may themselves believe that everything on earth requires central administration. So much, at least, for certain "new world order" passages, on subjects such as how energy supplies should be distributed internationally. I wish such ideas could remain unexpressed.

But in the main, and in its spiritual depths, the encyclical is a wonderful thing. It seems to me that the Holy Father has begun the long process of recovering for the Catholic Church a view of politics and society that is organically related to her salvific faith, rather than an afterthought to it.

He does, I think, a better job of avoiding "policy prescriptions" than his immediate predecessors, and helps un-write much that I thought unfortunate in the Populorum Progressio of Pope Paul VI, which went some distance to identify Christianity with "social democracy."

Benedict instead delivers what at first seems a gentle, but on re-reading an excoriating rebuke of political sentimentality and posturing. He declares that, without hard truth, "Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. . . . It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word ‘love’ is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite."

He touches upon the narcissism of the age and incidentally makes a subtly brilliant defense of "capitalism" in connection with this: pointing out that the person who trades must serve the needs and wishes of others, rather than consulting only his own. Moreover, the pope refuses to condemn the instrument of free markets, condemning instead the ideologizing of them, by persons who think it is possible to detach economic decisions from ethical imperatives.

The pope is teaching that justice cannot be disconnected from truth and love; that beauty, too, is not a "separate issue"; that there are no strictly autonomous values and thus no final role for specialized expertise. Man can only understand who he is in light of his Creator, and when the world’s business is conducted outside this light, it merges into the inhuman darkness.

This is the true humanism: a humanism not divorced from God.


David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is www.davidwarrenonline.com.

David Warren


David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is www.davidwarrenonline.com.

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