On Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI released his first social encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate." Social encyclicals are fascinating documents that demonstrate some of the best synthesis of theology, anthropology, economics, philosophy, and so on. This latest encyclical, translated "Love in Truth," addresses key issues of our time, ranging from moral relativism to globalization to caring for the environment.
The strongest and most compelling portion of the encyclical is the introduction, where a necessary connection is made between love and truth. Without truth, that is, the truth, love (referenced in the letter as "charity") cannot be fully realized:
Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. 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. Truth frees charity from the constraints of an emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content, and of a fideism that deprives it of human and universal breathing-space. In the truth, charity reflects the personal yet public dimension of faith in the God of the Bible, who is both Agápe and Lógos: Charity and Truth, Love and Word.
Moreover, a Christianity without love is nothing but good sentiments, helpful for social mercy, but in the end, limited and temporal. Without full submission to the truth, love becomes distorted, confused, and misdirected. If we, as Christians, are committed to improving human society, we must be committed to giving people the truth that sets them free to be the people God created them to be.
Many will raise questions about the unclear economics in the encyclical, with the language of wealth "redistribution," economic "inequalities," the support of labor unions, and so on. Pope Benedict, however, has very strong critique of laissez-faire capitalism devoid of any moral direction or end. A healthy and free market seeks to create conditions where profit is a means to greater ends like social solidarity and the common good.
As would be expected, there is an excellent section describing the consequences of artificial contraception and abortion. Low birth rates in formerly prosperous nations are contributing to their decline, and when a nation's best social and economic resource, i.e. people, are kept from contributing to society because of pills, plastics, and other synthetics, the entire nation suffers. Here's how the encyclical addresses the life issue:
Openness to life is at the centre of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man's true good. If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fibre and makes people capable of mutual help.
Pope Benedict is also careful to note that a right understanding of the environment as "God's gift"---to be used with responsibility, and as display of his wonderful "creative activity"---keeps us from the extremes of nature worship and abuse. The natural world is good and should be used for good ends.
On balance, the pastoral letter is a timely contribution to the international dialogue on the role of religion in public life in a world that is increasingly globalized. There is much more to do as we discern the most effective ways to stave off moral relativism while creating contexts, oriented by virtue, for sustainable wealth creation in the developing world so that things like clean drinking water and well-built homes are internationally normative.