Three encyclicals already with Caritas in their title. It looks like the Pope is bidding fair to become “the Pope of Caritapolis,” who sees the whole world—in all its cultural, political, and cultural dimensions—as to be best grasped within the long history of “The City of God”—the City of God’s Caritas in this world. By caritas, the Pope means a distinctive form of the love that humans experience—not eros, nor amor, nor affection, nor commitment in choice (dilectio), nor friendship, nor all those other forms of love that humans know and cherish, each in its own way. Caritas is the love proper only to God, among the Persons of the Divine Communion for One Another, All one in perfect Communion.
The Trinitarian Creator made us to share in this inner life and caritas of God, a love beyond our capacities. Our love is to give the ancient world of “eternal cycles of return” a fresh and real history of responsibility, of daring, of potential progress and of threatening degradation. It is a love that obliges us to take responsibility for its fate, under a kind Providence.
This is the drama of human history, the story of Caritapolis, as the Catholic people see it. We do not often display the whole story out in public, preferring a story sparser and less romantic to match the flatness of our own times. But cherish it deep in our hearts, we do.
Now our most learned among popes has published the fullest and most theological account of Catholic Social Thought, from its starting place right in the bosom of the Communion of Persons that furnishes us our experience of God—and also of our own nature.
The most holy, the noblest, the best, the most godlike things about us is our human capacity to learn personhood in responsible self-government (taking up personal responsibility for our own eternal fate) and to share in communion with other persons, and most of all with the unseen God.
It is as if Benedict is bringing back into play the long-neglected lessons of St. Augustine to Catholic Social Thought—re-presenting, as it were, The City of God—that is, the City of that caritas which the Divine Persons gratuitously pour into the human heart, that it might cast the burning desire for human unity into the kindling of hundreds of millions of parched hearts.
Without eternal perspectives and without the sense of our individual immortal value—the great Tocqueville reminded us—the sheer materialism and dreck of democracy and capitalism would wear us down to mean and petty creatures. Materialism radically undercuts our human rights. Simply to survive—let alone flourish—democracy and capitalism need soul.
For Catholics, all social energy flows from the inner life of the Trinity. Everything is gift. We signal our gratitude by developing our own talents to the fullness, by becoming free, responsible, initiative-showing, creative agents of a better world, and by aspiring to that full communion of all human beings whose vocation is written into the structure of human history.
And we say “thank you.” What most distinguishes the Jewish and Christian believer from the secular materialist is the frequency and the authenticity in which the believer responds to everyday events with deeply felt gratitude. Everything we look upon is gift.
Thus, it is no surprise when empirical research shows that people who are believers give more of their time and resources to the needy than do unbelievers, and people who cherish limited government (conservatives) give more than welfare-state liberals.
The truth is, though, that both liberals and conservatives belong, in their quarreling fashions, to one same national community and one same human community.
What Benedict XVI has not spelled out yet is another forgotten lesson from St. Augustine: the ever-corrupting role of sin in the City of Man. Augustine points out how difficult it is even for the wisest and most detached humans to discover the truth among lies—and how even husbands and wives in the closest of human bonds misunderstand each other so often. The Father of Lies seems to own so much of the real world.
What are the most practical ways of defeating him? The Catholic tradition—even the wise Pope Benedict—still seems to put too much stress upon caritas, virtue, justice, and good intentions, and not nearly enough on methods for defeating human sin in all its devious and persistent forms.
Even the Pope’s understandable nostalgia for the European welfare-state too much scants the self-interests, self-deceptions, and false presuppositions that are bringing that system to a crisis of its own making. This was a crisis John Paul II saw rather more clearly in paragraph 48 of Centesimus Annus.
Read Michael Novak's post on the First Thoughts blog here.
Published in First Thoughts - A First Things Blog, July 7, 2009