Caritas and Economics

in 1995, Michael Novak wrote a lecture on the subject of “Caritas and Economics,” well in advance of Pope Benedict XVI’s approach to the subject. Novak’s essay, The Love That Moves the Sun has appeared in print in A Free Society Reader (Lexington Books, 2000). The original text is reprinted here in the hopes that it will shed further light on the widespread reflection on Caritas and economics about to be requested by Benedict XVI in his (unseen) new encyclical coming soon.


In one of the two greatest lines of world poetry, Dante bows gently toward "The Love that moves the sun and all the stars." Many moralists speak of love as the one fundamental and universal moral principle, the golden rule honored in all traditions. But what do we mean by love? In English we are hampered by having but one word for many kinds of love. In Latin at least six different terms are available for six different loves.

The most general term is amor—the term that Dante used for the force that moves the sun and choreographs the stars in their millennial dance across the skies. Amor means pull, attraction, being driven together. One can use it of Earth's gravity, the passions that pull the sexes to cohabitate, and "the force that through the green grass drives" (e.e.cummings).*

But eros is a love more driving, and obsessive, almost mad. A young man stricken by eros cannot get the image of the woman who is his current passion out of his mind. Even if he is with his favorite family members, or best friends, his mind is fixed on her—looking for a text message, eager to telephone her. Even if he has nothing to say, just to have contact. Just to “walk down the street where she lives.” A young woman may be so obsessed with a man that she tries to show up anywhere she might cross his path. Sign up for the same classes.

Eros may also drive the intellect, not only the heart. It is a hunger to discover knowledge, to keep asking questions, to explore one find after another. The one possessed may go without eating, or without getting up from her desk or library stack, unaware of time passing or hunger pressing.

What distinguishes eros is its drivenness. Abstract—not the person but the passion. It is not simply an attraction, or a beating heart, such as amor brings. It is a kind of madness, a lack of balance, an inability—or almost an inability—to calm one’s passion, to channel it, to slow it up, or to keep it in perspective with other goals and with a sense of all the years left to go forward gradually. “Easy does it,” says Frank Sinatra. But to slow down eros is by no means easy.

Nearly all love songs—not all, but a great many—are about eros. Most of the rest are about the blind attraction, the stopped heartbeat of amor.

The third term is affectus—a term referring to those movements of our feelings that kindle within us admiration for our beloved and a desire to be with her, feelings of compatibility and comfort, feelings that tend to have a longer run than hotter passions, and yield in daily life a quieter security.

The term dilectio introduces a more restricted notion still, that of a love born of deliberation and reflective choice; it comes from, but intensifies, the root electo (choose) as chosen one and means a love of singling out one, for commitment: “You are the one I choose to love forever.” That love can be relied upon, because it is deliberate; it follows from a weighing of the consequences. I am not swept off my feet. I mean it. It is the love on which friendship is built.

The term amicitia adds to dilectio the note of mutuality. If (perhaps as a teenager) you have ever loved anyone who did not reciprocate that love, you know the pain caused by the lack of mutuality. All the more, you appreciate the gift of love that someone freely makes when she returns the love you offer. Mutual love, amicitia (friendship), is far more powerful than any love, save one.

That love is a special form of amicitia, but its origin does not lie within us. We would not dream of pretending to it. We would not know how. It exceeds our powers utterly. It is caritas. It is God's own love, the love that is the fire of His nature, that in Him is so strong it generates another Person, and then their mutual love generates a Third. Caritas is the inner action of the Trinity.

Now when we Christians speak of the Trinity, the inner being of our God, we know not whereof we speak. The point we seize upon, however, is that our God has spoken of Himself in such a way that we are to imagine him—not as One in eternal solitude, as Plato, Aristotle, and many of the ancients imagined him, but rather as more like a community of love and friendship than like any other phenomenon of our experience. No one has seen God. Strictly, no one knows what He is like. Yet He Himself points our minds in these directions: He is to be thought of as Communion of Divine Persons—radiating His presence throughout creation, calling unworthy human beings to be His friends, and infusing into them His love so that they might love with it. Caritas is our participation in a way of loving not our own. It is our participation—partial, fitful, hesitant, imperfect—in His own loving.

We can even say, in a certain way of speaking, that our Creator's whole point in making the world was that some of His creatures should share in His love. The Love that moves the sun and all the stars is ours to give to others.

To make us able to share in His love, He had to make us capable of reflection, deliberation, choice, and commitment. He had to make us in His image. He had to make us provident of our own destiny, as He is provident. He had to make us free. Responsible, too. Capable of saying, “no.” And capable of evil.

Why Did the Creator Create?

It is a law of being that being is good, and that good is diffusive of itself. You can see this when you hear a good joke and can hardly wait to tell it to others; or when you surmise, by the happiness and generosity she is suddenly showing to others, that your usually uncommunicative teenage daughter has fallen in love.

Thus, we may surmise that when God thought to create the world, He could not quite show us the fullness of His loving merely by creating the world in its splendor and goodness, although he did that. He also had to show us a special characteristic of His love, one that St. Thomas Aquinas called the most divine characteristic of His being, His mercy. That is, God had to make us capable of evil, so that in our wretchedness He could show us the power of a love that sees sin quite realistically, but wipes it away and gives us to share in His own power of loving. Mercy—misericordia=miseris + cor—God gives his heart to the miserable ones, even when they have turned against Him. His is, in Dostoyevsky's favorite term, "humble charity," the most powerful force in the universe.

Not only in the glory of creation—these mountains, this lake, this great night sky of the Alps—and not only in his misericordia did God share with us insight into the special characteristics of His love, but also in sending us a human model of it in sending us his Son, who called us His friends, and sacrificed His life for us. Divine love is as glorious as a summer day high in the Alps; it is merciful and makes our sins, though they be as scarlet, vanish into insignificance, replacing them with His own action in us; it is, finally, self-sacrificial unto death, for it seeks not its own. It is in being lost that it is found. It is in dying that it gains life.

In short, love is no simple thing. It is not what we might at first think it is. We spend a lifetime being instructed in its secrets. Love is shallow enough for ants to walk safely across, deep enough for elephants to drown in. Saints of great soul endure many torments being inflamed by it.

In this vast cosmos, such as science knows it, we humans (even as an entire race, from beginning to end) are barely a speck in silent space, unimportant, less enduring than galaxies and stars—less so even than many plants, insects, and viruses—here today like the grass of the field, tomorrow gone. Yet for us in our unimportance, God wished to show what He is made of, to let us look behind the veil at the Love that moves the sun and all the stars, and to draw us into acts of caritas.

Caritas as Realism

One thing should perhaps be stressed about caritas. It is realistic. To love is to will the good of the other as other. To will, not what you wish for the other, nor what the other wishes, but the real good—which neither of you may yet recognize. Love is not sentimental, nor restful in illusions, but watchful, alert, and ready to follow evidence. It seeks the real as lungs crave air.

If we try, then, to imagine a civilization based upon caritas, we must be careful to think realistically. For caritas shows itself as mercy to sinners, and it is love aimed at the real, not the apparent, good of the other. One almost infallible sign of the presence of caritas is the steady exercise of realistic judgment. Love based upon appearances, illusions, and sentimentality is the opposite of caritas. A civilization of caritas is a civilization acutely aware of, and provident for, human sinfulness.

The first step in such providence is to differentiate the three fundamental human systems, thus separating the three great human powers: economic, political, and cultural. Since every person sometimes sins, we wish to prevent any one person (or group) from coming into possession of all three powers. The point of differentiation into three is to check the errant ambition, each of the others.

Put another way, the point of differentiation is to bring about three liberations. The first is liberation from torture and tyranny through civil and political liberties. The second is liberty from poverty and want through economic liberties. The third—and most basic—is liberty of the human spirit, through religious liberty, liberty of the press, the liberties of inquiry in the arts and sciences, and the free exercise of the moral authority of conscience.

Liberty of spirit is fundamental, since the free society is founded on respect for truth—specifically, upon openness to the light of evidence. If it were based merely upon opinion (unhinged from evidence), or upon relativism, the free society would have no footing on which to stand against raw power. Truth is its defense against wealth and power. One word of truth has more power than all the wealth of earth and all the armies of the world together. The dignity of the powerless and the vulnerable is rooted in truth. This is why our forebears said: "The truth shall make you free."

Caritas: Economics for Sinners

In the civilization of caritas, what sort of economic system must there be? (Let us set aside for another time consideration of the political system and the moral system.)

First of all, such an economic system must be aimed at liberating all the poor of the earth from the prison of poverty. This implies that it must have an international vision and international institutions, and also that it must have a theory and practice of development—that is, of wealth creation of universal reach. In short, it must be an economic system better at raising up the poor of the world—and more quickly—than any known alternative.

Second, it must have institutions that rest upon, and nourish, voluntary cooperation. Such cooperation will manifest caritas only to the extent that it wells up from below, and is not coerced from the top down. A maximum of worldwide coordination (possibly even instantaneous) based upon a minimum of control from above will be one sign of its good functioning. It will exhibit a sort of universal solidarity, married to the healthy practice of subsidiarity. Most of its decisions, initiatives, and energies will originate in vital local communities.

Third, an economy of caritas will respect the human person as the originating source of human action, the imago Dei, homo creator, the chief cause of the wealth of nations. It will, accordingly, afford constitutional protection (or the equivalent, among the rights tacitly retained by the people) to the fundamental human right to personal initiative, including economic initiative. For the state without due process to repress that right is a grave offense against human rights, a disfigurement of the image of God in humans, and a serious step in social retardation.

Fourth, the economy of caritas must provide the necessary (but not sufficient) cause for the polity of caritas, whose best approximation in history so far is democracy under the rule of law. It must help conspicuously to defeat envy, the greatest of the social sins (worse even than hatred, because more often invisible, and itself one of the causes of hatred). It must also help to divide the material interests of people, so as to help prevent democracy from degenerating into a tyranny of the majority (its abiding deformation).

Fifth, the economy of caritas must take realistic precautions against the besetting economic sins of all eras and times, but particularly its own. For example, in order to promote innovation and openness to creativity, it needs to avoid concentrations of economic power. It checks monopolies by promoting peaceable competition.

Sixth, the economy of caritas must be based upon the presupposition that humans often fail in love, and only rare ones among them base all their actions thoroughly upon realistic love. Caritas is the ideal in whose light economic practices are judged, and it is the magnetic lode drawing ever more actions to itself. In all realism, the institutions of this world must presuppose mercy and forgiveness, not the expectation of perfect love. To ask too much of human beings is not fair to them; it is to fall short of caritas. For this reason, Charles Péguy wrote, at the heart of Christianity is the sinner. Caritas is the light that attracts all things to itself, from whose brilliance all of us sometimes turn away. That is what sin is. For the economics of caritas, therefore, the perfect must not be allowed to become the enemy of the good. The economics of caritas is realistic, not utopian.

Capitalism for the Poor, Capitalism for Democracy

Democracy, Winston Churchill once said, is a poor form of government, except when compared to all the others. Much the same might be said of capitalism. Especially in Europe, capitalism is a term supposed to be spoken with faint—or not so faint—moral disapproval. It is what all are supposed to be opposed to, not only by Marxists, who spent more than a century vilifying (and misdefining) the term, but also by humanists, poets, playwrights, churchmen, journalists, and all sensitive spirits. In Britain, even more than half the Tories appear to be opposed to it. European conservatives tend to dislike capitalism as much as socialists. Such universal disapprobation is often a good sign. It is typically from among the rejected and despised things of men that God chooses to draw humble good.

My friend Irving Kristol writes of Two Cheers for Capitalism. That may be excessive. One cheer is quite enough. The other economic systems known to history have done far worse. Especially for the poor.

What do I mean by capitalism? It is not a term accurately defined by (a) private property, (b) market exchange, and (c) private accumulation or profits. That is the way Marx defined it, and that definition applies to virtually every economic system in history, even in biblical times. It is not sufficient to distinguish capitalism from the pre-capitalist systems that prevailed everywhere until the end of the eighteenth century and still prevail in most of what is called "the third world." Max Weber, R.H. Tawney, and many others noted that something new entered the economic world some time after the Protestant Reformation. (Post hoc, of course, is not propter hoc.)

What is new about capitalism is that it is the first mind-centered system. It is the system constituted by social institutions that support human creativity, invention, discovery, enterprise. In this new economy, the most important form of capital is not land, as it was in feudal times (that is, most of human history); nor the cold instruments of production referred to as “capital goods”; nor even financial assets. The most important form of capital is human capital. The best resource a country has is its own people. The human person is the chief cause of the wealth of nations, deploying human skill, knowledge, know-how, inventiveness, and enterprise.

In Poland, for example, capitalism did not begin when in 1990 the Socialist planning board was abolished and market exchange began; or when private property rights were again respected in law; or when private profit was again regarded as a social good. All these were insufficient.

Capitalism was born in Poland when the Polish people began looking around to see what needed doing, and began to do it. Capitalism only begins with acting persons. Its constitutive act is the activation of the habit (virtue) of enterprise—the act of discovering and doing what must be done—an act of creativity, innovation, and invention.

The moral principles that inspire capitalism, therefore, are three: creativity, community, and personal initiative. Capitalism is first of all a fruit of the human spirit. It depends upon, and nourishes, a special (and demanding) moral ethos. The formerly socialist countries are discovering how high and how difficult its moral standards are. (It depends, for example, on the rule of law and on respect for the free voluntary consent of persons. In nations where law does not rule and persons are treated as means or obstacles, capitalism withers.)

The most distinctive invention of capitalism is not the lonely individual, as is often charged, but social: the stock association, the business corporation (independent of the state, transgenerational, potentially international), the social market itself, practices of teamwork, brainstorming, and consensus building, and voluntary cooperation. The capitalist vision was the first to imagine the possibility (and moral imperative) of lifting every single person on earth out of poverty, to set the goal of universal economic development, and to bring about the embourgeoisement of the poor.

In the U.K. during the 19th century, standards of living for the working class rose by 1,600 percent. Poor vision began to be treated with eyeglasses, dental care began to be supplied. As late as 1832, the poor of France were described by Victor Hugo as Les Miserables; in 1789, Jefferson had written that a majority in France lived in conditions worse than American slaves. In 1800, only duchesses had access to silk stockings; by 1900, nearly all women in France did. By 1900, the poor were drinking coffee and tea, to which before they had no access, and meat was replacing bread as the chief staple. Famines, common before on a regular basis, disappeared. Decade by decade, new discoveries in medicine and hygiene kept extending human longevity. (This is the real cause of the "population explosion.")

Concomitant with the rise of the middle class came a marked decline in alcoholism, crime, and births out of wedlock. In the UK, France, and the United States, such indices hit all-time lows about 1850, where they remained with amazing steadiness through the 1930s. Post hoc is not propter hoc, but with the decline of personal responsibility and the rise of the welfare state, such indices have now formed a remarkable U-curve, except that new heights are being reached in all of them.

After some 150 years of distortion about the actual record of capitalism, and correcting for the failure of economists to analyze the moral springs of capitalism—its inner ethos and internal ideals and necessary standards—we need today to grasp this system's great internal moral possibilities. The vast majority of Christians in the world today, as well as those of other religions, find their calling within this system. It is crucial for moral progress to diagnose this system's moral origins and inner dynamism accurately, rather than lazily to accept its systematic denigration by its hostile critics, on the right as on the left. Traditionalists hate it because it is not aristocratic; socialists hate it as the bête noire they use to terrify themselves.

Space is limited, yet I want to mention two indications that the critics of capitalism have missed its essence. One of these concerns the poor, the other democracy under the rule of law.

The first empirical test about the nature of capitalism you might wish to employ is to watch the poor of the world. To which systems do they migrate? Which do they line up by the millions to enter—third world, pre-capitalist economies? Socialist economies? Or the relatively few truly capitalist economies, which trust, respect, and support the capacity of human persons to be creative? The facts speak for themselves.

In the United States today, for example, 99.9 percent of us derive from families that came to the United States in utter poverty—the "wretched refuse" of the earth, as the poem on the Statue of Liberty said of our grandparents. By official statistics, 13 percent of Americans are poor today—many of them immigrants of the last few years who will not long remain poor, and measured by a standard that counts as poor families with cash income (not income in kind, from welfare benefits, for example) up to about $20,000 for a family of four. By this standard, some 87 percent of Americans who started poor have already moved out of poverty, and 13 percent have still to do so. For the poor, capitalism has no rival in offering the opportunity to move out of poverty in a very short time. The poor show by the millions that they know this.

The second empirical test is to examine which economic system is present in every successful democracy in the world. (I mean genuine democracies, which respect the rights of individuals and minorities, live under the rule of law, have separated powers, and limited government. These are to be distinguished from fraudulent pretenders to the title such as Colonel Qaddafi's Popular Democratic Republic, the "Democratic Republics" of the old USSR, etc.) The sociologist Peter Berger, against his own earlier predilections, has shown in The Capitalist Revolution that among all existing nations capitalism is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for democracy. A free political system appears to require a free economic system. For example, respect for the initiative and responsibility of the person is common to both, as is a preference for voluntary cooperation, teamwork, and self-guiding coordination.

A civilization of caritas is not based on sentimentality, but on checks and balances and other remedies for human weakness. It is one of the today’s most urgent tasks that people of good will continue to explore the ways in which capitalism serves this function in working democracies. And business, especially small business, is the best hope of the world’s poor—their best hope of becoming economically independent, producing more wealth in their lifetimes than they expend.

* Eros is sometimes confused with amor—but more driving, obsessive, obstinent.

Published in First Things Online July 6, 2009