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  • On Method, Nature and Grace in Caritas in Veritate
  • Vincent L. Strand S.J.

POPE BENEDICT XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate [hereafter, CV; cited by § no. in parentheses below] elicited an enormous immediate response by religious and secular commentators. Vatican Radio reported that, two weeks after the encyclical’s release, 1,800 articles had been written about it.1 While the document received some critique from the Catholic left—such as from the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, who exclaimed, “How good a dose of Marxism would be for the Pope!”—in general, the encyclical drew heavier fire from neoconservative and libertarian supporters of free market capitalism.2 [End Page 835] For example, according to George Weigel, CV “resembles a duck-billed platypus” with incisive passages written by the Pope himself mixed together with passages reflecting current Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace default positions that Weigel finds unimpressive. He suggests that the reader of CV note the former passages with a gold marker and the latter with a red marker, distinguishing those valuable passages to be kept and pondered from those to be disregarded.3 In a similar spirit, Michael Novak praises elements of the encyclical, in particular its “beautiful” discussion of caritas, but nonetheless insists that, “if we hold each sentence of Caritas in veritate up to analysis in the light of empirical truth about events in the field of political economy since 1967, we will find that it is not nearly so full in its veritas as in its caritas.”4 Thomas Woods, author of The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, offers a boisterous libertarian critique of the encyclical, saying that, at worst, CV is “bewilderingly naïve, and its policy recommendations, while attracting no one to the Church, are certain to repel.”5 [End Page 836]

These responses are noteworthy, given that the previous social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, was lauded by Weigel, Novak, and other Catholic neoconservatives.6 Upon first consideration, we might attribute the critique that CV elicited from these authors solely to the document’s specific economic and political policy recommendations: for example, its calls for redistribution of wealth and a world political authority (§§ 37 and 67). I would like to propose, however, that the [End Page 837] disagreement is more fundamental: it is not about the value of one economic theory or another, but instead about the role of economics as an autonomous science and about the degree to which Christianity should shape our economic and political thinking. The first part of this article will set a backdrop against which to consider these questions. It will offer a cursory exposition of the debate between Catholic neoconservatives (the so-called “Whig Thomists” long associated with the journal First Things7) and those thinkers associated with the journal Communio (sometimes referred to as “Augustinian Thomists”8). Second, I will argue that CV places Benedict’s thought in the latter camp. As I will show, this is due less to the content of Benedict’s theology than to its structure. I will suggest that CV contains a methodological newness that distinguishes it from earlier, more Thomistic social encyclicals: in CV, economic positions are obtained through revelation and a theological anthropology developed from Christological and Trinitarian reflection. Third, I will suggest that this methodology is an expression of Henri de Lubac’s position on nature and grace. The essay will conclude by naming several issues that merit further consideration.

Christianity and Capitalism: A Debate

A prolifically sustained argument in recent decades about the Church’s relationship to society has occurred between Catholic neoconservatives and the Communio school.9 It is not my intent here to offer a full exposition [End Page 838] of this debate. Instead, I would like to focus on their argument concerning the relationship of the Church to economics. Neoconservatives generally see the possibility of a smooth merger between democratic capitalism and Catholicism.10 At times, particularly in the work of Novak, this entails the strong claim that capitalism can be a source of spirituality.11 For his part, Weigel has proposed this merger by underscoring the virtue of creativity, which he finds present both in democratic...


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