Sermon at Matins on Sunday 2 August: Caritas in Veritate 1

2 August 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian

On June 29, Pope Benedict XVI published his third Encyclical Letter. An Encyclical Letter is an open letter in which the Pope gives teaching on a particular subject.  Benedict’s first two Encyclicals were addressed ‘To the bishops, priests and deacons, men and women religious and all the lay faithful’. In other words, these open letters were addressed to Roman Catholic Christians.  Benedict’s third Encyclical, on ‘Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth’ is addressed ‘To the bishops, priests and deacons, men and women religious, the lay faithful and all people of good will’ – so, hopefully, that includes you and me. There is a tradition of Catholic social teaching being addressed to people of good will or even, as with the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, to ‘the whole of humanity’. Without a doubt, we can say that the Pope wants us to read and think about the teaching in this new document. 

Encyclicals take their names from their first words in Latin. This one is ‘Caritas in Veritate’ (‘Love in Truth’). You wouldn’t know from these opening words that it is actually about social and political aspects of the world we live in. It ranges over development issues, the market, politics, population, the environment, education, tourism, migration, banking; it even calls for the reform of the United Nations ‘so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth’ (67). Two of its key themes are love and truth. It begins by restating the centrality of love for all people, because ‘everything has its origin in God’s love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it’ (2) – which is what Benedict writes about in his first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, (‘God is love’). This new Encyclical is also concerned with the truth of the moral law. Benedict teaches emphatically that there is a ‘natural moral law which God has written on our hearts’ (68), that we can know this moral law, and that if we want our societies to be healthy, human development will have to be in accord with the moral law. This is why the Encyclical covers such a broad range of political and social subjects: it is trying to sketch ways forward that would be in accord with the moral law, in other words with God’s truth.

This raises a number of important issues such as, ‘How do we know this moral law?  Is it possible to agree on what it teaches?  Does it develop and change? and so on. Even to sketch an answer would need a whole sermon, so I shall turn to this on a later occasion. What I want to do today is to show that Caritas in Veritate is the next step in a coherent unfolding by Benedict of a Christian vision, and that it builds on his first two Encyclicals.

This is made pretty clear by the title of his first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, God is love, published in 2005. The whole Encyclical is a meditation on the nature of love, helping us to see that the understanding of God as Love is at ‘the heart of the Christian faith’. In Benedict’s second Encyclical, Spe Salvi (‘in hope we were saved’), published in 2007, he discusses the nature of Christian hope.  At one point he speaks (wonderfully) of God as ‘Truth and Love in person’(39). This is the underlying theme which unites all three of his Encyclicals: God is ‘Truth and Love in person’, so, as human beings we can only find real fulfilment when we live together in societies of truth and love. Even in the world of globalization, of international markets, of threats to the environment and financial uncertainty, we can and we must construct societies of truth and love. Of course, we ask, ‘how can we do this?’ This is the question Benedict seeks to answer in his new Encyclical. He stresses that the Church has a very special part to play. As Christian people, who have been given the gift of a share in God’s love, God’s hope and God’s truth, we can help – along with all people of goodwill – to build a better world. Benedict suggests how we might make progress in a whole variety of areas.

Benedict makes it clear that he wishes this new Encyclical to be seen as the next step along a path the Catholic Church has been travelling for over a hundred years. This is the path of Catholic social teaching, a series of Encyclicals and authoritative statements which began with Rerum Novarum in 1891. In his first Encyclical (27), Benedict briefly runs through some of these statements. He is keen to show that charity and justice go hand in hand: a church which has at its heart love for humanity must be concerned with issues of justice. The tradition of teaching which he describes shows how this concern has been understood by Catholics and related to the needs of several generations. Twenty years ago, the alternative vision of atheist Marxism collapsed in ruins, so, as he puts it, ‘In today’s complex situation, not least because of the globalized economy, the Church’s social doctrine has become a set of fundamental guidelines offering approaches that are valid even beyond the confines of the Church: … these guidelines need to be addressed in the context of dialogue with all those seriously concerned for humanity and for the world in which we live.’ 

Already, in 2005, he was thinking about adding to this tradition of teaching, and he was clearly hoping to promote a dialogue about issues of love and truth in society. In the spirit of dialogue, perhaps I can respond by commenting that when Catholic liberation theologians sought to do the very thing Benedict’s teaching calls for – to develop a critique of political and social structures which has love, truth and justice at its heart - they were restrained and in some cases silenced by their own Church. In societies where there are huge inequalities of wealth, power and opportunity, and where poor or indigenous people are shockingly oppressed, the path to ‘integral human development in charity and truth’ (as the Encyclical puts it) will have to be fought for every step of the way. Jesus said that if anyone wished to come after him they should ‘take up their cross’ and follow him (Mt 16:24 and parallels). Caritas in Veritate raises the question of the cost of ‘integral human development in charity and truth’. In his second Encyclical, Benedict clearly recognised the place of suffering in the Christian life. In a powerful meditation on the cost of living in truth, he says (superbly) that ‘the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity’ (39). If we put that together with the sustained reflection on human development in the third Encyclical, we might say that ‘the capacity to suffer for the sake of integral human development in charity and truth’ is a measure of Christian love. Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, who spoke the truth about the situation of the poor in his country, and was gunned down for it when celebrating Mass in 1980, knew this only too well.

What the Pope offers through all his three first encyclicals is a wonderful vision of ‘Truth and Love in person’, in other words a vision of God. This vision of ‘Truth and Love in Person’ of which Benedict speaks has the human face of Jesus Christ.  Each of the gospels shows us in its own way what it cost Jesus to be ‘Truth and Love in Person’. Benedict is calling us to be faithful disciples of the one who was and is ‘full of grace and truth’ (Jn 1:14) yet died on a cross. He is asking not just Roman Catholic Christians, but all of us, whether we are prepared to pay the price of love.

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