Caritas in Veritate - A Critique
By Thomas Dugan

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Caritas in Veritate - A Critique

By Thomas Dugan

Pope Benedict's new encyclical, Caritas In Veritate (Charity in Truth), June 29, 2009, is a remarkable departure from traditional Catholic social doctrine. The pope is at pains, in the document, to emphasize what he sees as a continuum of evolving doctrine over the years, culminating in his new letter, the ultimate expression of a pre-existing commitment to social justice. But in this he is mistaken. The encyclical, in many important ways is not just a departure from the doctrine initiated by His Holiness Leo XIII, but actually a reversal of established doctrine.


One hundred eighteen years ago Pope Leo published one of the most important, and historical, encyclicals in the history of the Vatican, his masterpiece, Rerum Novarum. Long recognized, even by critics of the Church, as an immensely influential step in the development of the concept of dignity of the poor, and the working classes, the document ranks perhaps with Magna Carta, The Gettysburg Address, and the American Declaration of Independence.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth Century, the forces of revolution were everywhere on the verge of triumph. The progress of industrialization had long held sway over societies and abuses had worked their way into the labor system. Both women and children workers were sometimes victimized. Even fully employed male laborers were sometimes unable to support their families on their wages. Worker safety was not a priority with employers. Of course the Industrial Revolution had broadened the middle classes, enriched millions of skilled and educated employees and made widely available consumer goods which eased the lives of and permitted more leisure time to the masses.

But revolutionaries were only interested in emphasizing, and exaggerating, the plight of the largely urban working classes who had not prospered to the same extent as the middle classes and the rich. By the end of that century Europe already had a number of collectivist societies and socialists were working hard in every nation to overturn the prevailing centrist European, Asian and, yes, American regimes. Those regimes mistrusted, often with good reason, the union movement and other representatives for labor. Tension between the factions was approaching a critical point.

It was in this context that Leo published Rerum Novarum. Instead of criticizing the excesses of the labor movement which had already begun to give that movement a bad name, the Pontiff spoke of the important role that organized labor could play in advocating for the relatively defenseless working class. The welfare of the worker, and the protection of his dignity, and safety, was important, he said, to the progress of mankind and for the avoidance of revolutionary catastrophe.

Leo acknowledged that there had been abuses in the labor movement, owing chiefly to the ease with which the laboring classes might be influenced by unscrupulous demagogic tactics. But management and ownership were also sometimes guilty of unscrupulous conduct such as the exploitation of children, women and others unsuited for difficult and dangerous occupations.

The solution to these problems was twofold according to the Pontiff. First is a heartfelt effort at mutual accommodation between management and labor; and second is the recognition of the high importance of private ownership of resources (land and material). To follow the dictates of radical socialists in interfering with property rights is morally reprehensible and eliminates the possibility of the laborer to better himself financially by careful investment and sensible expenditures. Thus, Leo's encyclical laid the foundation of the Church's policy on social justice; acknowledgement of the dual principles of (1) dignity of the worker and (2) the sanctity of private property rights.

His statement was simple and forthright. The responsibility for material betterment of the individual, lays with that individual, not with the state and not with others. "True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid since each family is part of the commonwealth." Rerum Novarum (Para. 14) (emphasis added).

In the Church's view the role of the public authorities in the alleviation of poverty is to be extremely limited. According to the Leonine philosophy the principal purpose of the state -- "government's whole reason for existence" --is to preserve itself and provide for the safety of its citizens (Ibid. Para. 35).

The reason for this restraint in the public role lies with the Church's view of the nature of poverty itself. Poverty is the permanent condition of a part of humanity. Disparity of the ownership and enjoyment of resources is part of the human experience. Far from envying the rich man, the poor man should aspire to better himself financially and his family, by exercising controlled spending habits and other virtues, with a view to providing his own children a material legacy.

There is a place for charity for needy families, said the Pontiff. But it is private charity, not institutional and not governmental charity; and it is charity to the poor family, not charity to cities, or countries or regions. The source of funding for such charity is, necessarily, the private funds of wealthier individuals. Therefore, it is important to the poor that private ownership of property be protected by the public authority. Attempts by either individuals or groups to interfere with property rights must be firmly put down. Property rights are a natural right and the temporal advantages enjoyed by some are entitled to the protection of society, against the depredations of the jealous, social reformers or excessive takings by the state itself.

II - Caritas In Veritate

The difference between the Leonine doctrine and that of the new encyclical could not be more pronounced. Pope Benedict does not speak of charity to individuals but of the "development" of nations and regions. This concept of development has utterly supplanted the personal charity envisioned by Church tradition. Instead of the personal, intimate transactions characterizing personal charity, Benedict envisions massive international distributions of cash and material resources funded by "wealthy" nations, corporations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The continuity that Benedict speaks of, linking the social encyclicals of the last twelve decades is not to be seen. The pope cites Rerum Novarum only in passing and only for marginal points. He encourages us at several points in his statement to think of the Church's policy on justice as an organic whole and not to concentrate too closely on particular encyclicals. (Para. 12). Presumably if we don't pay too much attention to "particular" writings (e.g., Rerum Novarum) then we will not notice the startling departure from the Church's seminal social policy. There is practically no resemblance between the two papers; they represent two entirely different philosophies of economics and world views concerning social issues.

Authentic development in our globalized society, according to Pope Benedict, focuses on the concept of "justice" and the "common good." By these he means a recognition of the legitimate rights of individuals and the rights of peoples (justice); and an effort to improve the "whole human family" (the common good) (Para . 7). Manifestly he intends projects, the dimensions of which bear no resemblance to the Leonine model. Leo nowhere speaks of "peoples" having ascertainable rights, but only individual people having them.

The pope states that there is an urgent need to address the "great problems of injustice in the development of peoples…" (Para. 19) but, oddly, he does not stipulate what those injustices are; nowhere in the encyclical does he enumerate unjust actions of people or nations. He mentions from time to time the universal and perpetual problems of hunger, disease, poverty and absence of educational opportunities but these are conditions, not injustices. It is no more unjust that a man have freckles than that he is poor. Both are simply his circumstances. Stealing from a man thus rendering him poor would, of course, be an injustice but if the pope had that in mind as an example of injustice, he does not say so.

Nowhere is the break in the Church's doctrine more noticeable than in the discussion of material inequality. To Leo, the unequal control of resources is the natural condition of mankind. "... [T] here will always be differences and inequalities of condition in the State. Society cannot exist or be conceived of without them" (R.N. Para. 33).

To Benedict, one suspects, inequality is one of the forms of injustice to which he refers so mysteriously. While acknowledging that modern economics and the phenomenon called "globalization" has increased the wealth of the world, nevertheless, he says "inequalities are on the increase." (C.V. Para. 22). Notice well that poverty is not on the increase -- the reverse is manifestly true -- but inequality. He refers to inequality as a "scandal" (quoting Pope Paul VI, Id.), the opposite of Leonine doctrine.

The pope is vague about the form of the reforms that he calls for but a review of the few specifics that he does suggest is not encouraging. He calls for a "network of economic institutions" to "guarantee" food security by promoting agricultural development (Para 27). (One wonders how the United States, practically bankrupt at its birth, developed into the most productive agricultural society on earth, without the aid of even one foreign nation, much less a vast international economic network).

The pope also mentions: "agrarian reform," a term taken straight from Stalin's playbook, (Para. 27); "wealth redistribution" (one of the Marxist evils that caused Leo to write Rerum Novarum in the first place (Paras. 36 and 51); "solidarity" and "fraternity" among men, concepts that originated in the catastrophic French Revolution (together with the Russian Revolution, the most godless political upheaval in Western history (Para. 38); worldwide redistribution of energy resources (Para. 49); international institutional management of non-renewable resources (Id.); creation of autonomous international "intermediate bodies" to manage and direct the global economy (Para. 57); elimination of tariffs (see generally, Ch. 3); and efforts by government to allocate a still greater portion of its citizens resources to foreign aid (Para. 60).

If all of these ideas sound familiar, it is because the pope's platform is basically a revival of the discredited proposal known as the "New International Economic Order" (NIEO). Thirty-five years ago a number of under-developed nations put forward the NIEO as a way of diverting billions from developed to emerging economies. The proposal foundered as policy but has never been abandoned totally by radical economists ,certain Third World politicians and a few Western activists. More recently the world has seen a renewed attempt to hijack money from the Western democracies in the Copenhagen proposals under which "wealthy" industrial nations would provide billions a year to poorer countries to assist in the founding of "green" industries. The pope's "charitable" platform would fit nicely into such a scheme.


Every reasonable person, and every Christian, must practice the virtue of charity. Giving voluntarily ("gratuitously" to use the Pope Benedict's term) to the needy is , as the Church has long held, a Christian duty. Charitable acts are enobling for the donor and helpful to the donee within limits. It is true that the acceptance of charity may lead some to become slothful and dependent but that danger can often be averted by due diligence on the part of the donor; in any case the problem of the creation and maintenance of widespread dependency is a lesser evil when compared to hunger and nakedness.

But Pope Benedict's proposals are not "charity" at all, notwithstanding the title of his encyclical. Redistribution of wealth, by nations, or by "intermediate" bodies is the opposite of charity. It amounts to confiscation. And it is anything but gratuitous.

The wealth that the pope want to re-allocate belongs to individual people and businesses. It does not belong to the nations or other entities which would effect the redistribution. No. The wealth must first be taken from its original owner by taxation. The money that a citizen pays in taxes is not a gift. It is an involuntary exaction intended for the limited purpose of funding core (and limited) governmental purposes.

Charitable acts, on the other hand, are freely made, and intelligently, deliberately focused. Many donors are concerned that the prospective donee is deserving. Some donors limit their altruism to people or groups which have an affinity with the donor. Needless to say not every donor approves the conduct or activities of every prospective donee. But in Pope Benedict's scheme, no donor would have any direct influence over what nation, what region, what group is to receive his largesse. Either his government, or some intermediate body would identify the recipient and the amount to be paid. It is easy to imagine unaccountable international bureaucrats funding quasi-terrorist groups in the guise of economic development. And even easier to envision one's tax dollars being sent to nations and peoples about whom the taxpayer - donor has philosophical or political objections. When that happens, the act is not charity. It is a confiscatory act of oppression under the pretext of generosity. It is an injustice to use Benedict's expression.


Of course the poor deserve our beneficence and the protection of government from exploitation and oppression. Pope Leo affirmed these truths in the first of the "social" encyclicals. Christians, other religionists, and even non-believers have always been generous with their advantages. Poverty is not as widespread and not as devastating today as it was, say, a century ago. Starvation is an evil, but it is not an "injustice." It is not "oppression." People do not starve because others steal food from them. They starve because of cultural deficiencies usually centuries old together with ecological catastrophes, poor agricultural techniques and the like.

These conditions are amenable to alleviation by traditional charitable impulses of the "advantaged" world. No amount of assistance, however, from traditional sources or otherwise, will eliminate poverty or prevent privation everywhere and all the time. Attempts to eliminate poverty, as we have seen from benighted experiments in various countries, are illusory and doomed to fail. But Christians will continue to act responsibly and give cheerfully to the needy, so long as governments leave us with sufficient, after-tax resources with which to do so.

The pope's proposals are ill-informed, naïve, based upon erroneous market and economic assumptions and represent a huge detour from the path struck by Leo XIII. They reflect a philosophy that demonizes profit and entrepreneurism; a philosophy that has more in common with radical third world ideology than Western capitalism and authentic Christian charity.