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Caritas in Veritate: an awkward hybrid, an important breakthrough-- or both?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 22, 2009

Why is Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), Pope Benedict XVI's new encyclical on the world economy and authentic human development, so poorly written?

Thus did Peter Steinfels open his analysis for the New York Times. Steinfels continued:

The matter is all the more confounding since Benedict has often shown himself a graceful writer, and one who has insisted on the importance of beauty in communicating his church’s message.

Exactly. As a theologian, prior to his election as Roman Pontiff, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger churned out many thousands of pages of very readable prose. His writing style, clear and limpid, violates the stereotype of the ponderous German scholar. He has that admirable ability to express difficult ideas in easy language-- to make things seem simple even when they are complex.

Caritas in Veritate is not written in that admirable prose style. There are passages, certainly, that show the hand of the same master. But then there are whole sections of convoluted prose, and the overall structure of the document does not have the clarity, the logical flow, that one expects from the work of Pope Ratzinger.

George Weigel has argued convincingly that an astute reader can work his way through the encyclical, marking some passages as the work of Pope Benedict and others as the product of a laborious drafting process supervised by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The result, he concludes, is "a hybrid, blending the Pope’s own insightful thinking on the social order with elements of the Justice and Peace approach to Catholic social doctrine, which imagines that doctrine beginning anew at Populorum Progressio."

Peter Steinfels, in the Times, is not quite so decisive in his judgment of the writing, but he does agree with Weigel insofar as he says that the maladroit prose of the encyclical is a sign that there were too many hands involved in the drafting process. It is indeed hard to avoid the conclusion that Caritas in Veritate was the product of a committee-- with all the awkwardness that implies.

This encyclical was published only after an unusually long and contentious process of preparation. As Weigel reports, most Vatican-watchers are persuaded that Pope Benedict rejected at least two early drafts of the document, submitted by the Justice and Peace office.

Caritas in Veritate was originally scheduled to appear in 2007, to mark the 40th anniversary of the landmark encyclical by Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio. That year passed, and 2008 followed, and rumors of the new social encyclical swirled around Rome, and still the document did not appear. Obviously the Vatican bureaucracy (to be specific, the Justice and Peace council), failed to produce an acceptable document on the timetable the Pope had anticipated. Obviously there were debates about the content of the encyclical, and those debates delayed its appearance.

But maybe the delays were providential. When it did finally make its debut, Caritas in Veritate spoke to a worldwide audience keenly interested in social justice, and quite prepared to consider fundamental changes in the global economic system. The collapse of the world's financial system forced people to re-think basic questions; the meeting of the G8 powers-- who gathered in Italy just after the publication of the encyclical-- helped to focus still more attention on the Pope's prescriptions for reform.

Yes, the encyclical's appearance was overdue. Yes, the document is ill organized; the writing is uneven and sometimes turgid. Nevertheless Caritas in Veritate can and should have an impact on the discussions of our global economic system.

If the encyclical is a "hybrid," as Weigel contends, that fact does not make it less important. Whether or not he drafted every sentence himself (and clearly he did not), Pope Benedict signed his name to the encyclical, and gave it the authority of his teaching office. We know that the Holy Father did not this lightly. He rejected earlier drafts of the document. He allowed the project to slip behind schedule, even to the point of embarrassment. He was evidently determined to wait until he had a document that satisfied him. Caritas in Veritate satisfied him.

Nor is the Pope alone in thinking that this encyclical-- despite its stylistic defects-- is an important contribution to the discussion of economic justice. While the mass media showed only passing interest in the papal document-- dropping the discussion quickly when it became clear that Pope Benedict had not thrown his support between either liberal or conservative economic policies-- more discerning readers showed their appreciation the depth of the Pope's analysis.

Take, for example, the reaction of Lord Brian Griffiths of Fforestfach, who comes to the discussion with a unique set of credentials: a former economic adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a current member of the House of Lords, a vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs International, a devout Evangelical Christian. Lord Griffiths, whose everyday work forces him to weigh the future prospects of the global economic system, makes this extraordinary statement on the importance of the encyclical:

Despite heavy competition from some of the world’s finest minds, it is without doubt the most articulate, comprehensive and thoughtful response to the financial crisis that has yet appeared.

Remarkable, isn't it? A leading executive of the world's most powerful financial firm-- a man with experience in setting national policy for a major economic power-- thinks that Caritas in Veritate is the most important intellectual response yet made to the world's economic crisis. If Lord Griffiths is right-- and I believe he is-- this encyclical deserves far more attention than the media have provided.

NEXT: How does Caritas in Veritate fit into the body of teaching of Benedict XVI, and his grand plan for this pontificate?

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