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Key Themes of Charity in Truth
By: Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.

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At the end of June 2009, on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, Pope Benedict XVI issued an encyclical, a major papal teaching, Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate). This new encyclical on social ethics stirred up a wide variety of reactions, based on this or that focus, but rarely on the whole document. So what did Benedict say in this long teaching (more than 30,000 words!)?  What does this encyclical mean for our lives?

Perhaps beginning with a very brief summary of the key themes will help in appreciating this Update’s overview of Benedict’s at-times-complex thought. According to Charity in Truth, globalization and technology offer great promise and profound threat to authentic human development. The promise will be fulfilled only through the gift of God and human work, work rooted in charity and truth and expressed in justice, the common good and a consistent ethic of life. Only an economy of communion, a business ethic centered in persons and not in profit, will be a sufficient response to the present economic and financial crisis.

Now for a more careful look at the encyclical.

Happy anniversary!

Charity in Truth was originally intended as a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s groundbreaking encyclical, The Development of Peoples (1967). Delays pushed Benedict’s encyclical into 2008, and then the financial crisis and global recession called for revision. The result was that Charity in Truth finally appeared in 2009, but still celebrates and builds on Paul’s encyclical about authentic human development.

In the Introduction of Charity in Truth, Benedict develops the theological foundation of the encyclical, focusing on human charity and truth that, in turn, have their origin “in God, Eternal Love and Absolute Truth” (#1). Jesus Christ reveals to humanity the fullness of love and truth.

Benedict proclaims that charity is the heart of the Catholic social teachings. “Love—caritas—is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace” (#1). Recognizing that such social love can be dismissed as irrelevant in political and economic areas, the pope links charity with truth. Here Benedict addresses one of his deepest concerns: the problem of relativism, the ethical approach that holds that each person determines the morality of an act. So he reaffirms the reality of truth, recognized “both in the distinction and also in the convergence” (#5) of faith and reason.

Charity in Truth provides the basis for justice and the common good, two topics “of special relevance to the commitment to development in an increasingly globalized society” (#6). Benedict understands justice as the “recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples” (#6). Blessed Pope John XXIII described the common good as all those conditions of society that enable people more fully to achieve their own perfection as human beings. Benedict emphasizes that in a globalized society this description must be extended beyond one’s own nation to the whole human family.

In the footsteps of Pope Paul VI

In his landmark 1967 encyclical The Development of Peoples (Populorum Progressio) Pope Paul stressed that authentic development included not only economic needs but also cultural, social, political and religious ones. Paul called this “integral human development,” that is, the development of the whole person and of every person. Though the encyclical concentrated on economic issues, it also included these other areas. Benedict makes Paul’s focus and emphasis his own, allowing him to address a wide range of topics, even while highlighting economic ones.

In Chapter One of Charity in Truth, Benedict discusses key themes from Paul’s encyclical, beginning with the emphasis on integral human development. In this context Benedict stresses that societal institutions alone cannot guarantee authentic development, because this “requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God” (#12). Without God, Benedict warns, humans fall into the trap of thinking they can bring about their own salvation.

Benedict develops this theological conviction by building on Paul’s reflection on vocation. Integral development, then, can be understood as a calling from God, and so is a proper object of the Church’s concern. Accordingly, Benedict points out that development, as a calling from God, requires a free and responsible answer, demands respect for the truth, and has the love of God and neighbor as its center.

Benedict also mentions three other statements by Paul VI that contribute to the full understanding of development: A Call to Action (1971), Evangelization in the Modern World (1975) and On Human Life (1968). As he reflects on marriage and family life, Benedict links life ethics with social ethics in a way somewhat similar to American Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s lectures on a consistent ethic of life and to Pope John Paul II’s The Gospel of Life (see #15). He repeats this link a number of times throughout the encyclical.

Life in our time

Benedict describes in Chapter Two some of the major changes that have occurred in the last 40 years. Economic progress has lifted many people out of poverty. Yet, the “scandal of glaring inequalities” (#22) increases, calling out for a new vision and new solutions.

The greatest change, certainly, has been the “explosion of worldwide interdependence, commonly known as globalization” (#33). Benedict recognizes this process as a great opportunity but also a great threat, for “without the guidance of charity in truth, this global force could cause unprecedented damage and create new divisions within the human family” (#33).

Many issues related to our lives today are discussed in this chapter of the encyclical. The long list includes:  the impact of international trade and finance on the political power of nations, abuse of workers’ rights, poverty and access to water, religious freedom.

Benedict concludes this chapter by responding in a general way to this litany of challenges. What is necessary is a broad and orderly exchange of many different areas of knowledge and expertise. To lead to authentic human development, Benedict states that this knowledge “must be ‘seasoned’ with the ‘salt’ of charity. Deeds without knowledge are blind, and knowledge without love is sterile” (#30; see also #31-33).

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Economics and gift

In Chapter Three the pope offers his new vision for economic life. He affirms that neither the market nor globalization is inherently evil, but adds that excessive emphasis on profit has led to disastrous results, as seen in the present economic and financial crisis.

What is needed is a new form of economic activity, one driven not merely by commutative justice (fairness in contracts) but also by distributive and social justice (the pursuit of the common good). “Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution” (#36).

Later, in Chapter Five, Benedict speaks of a reformed United Nations to help achieve this goal.

Benedict’s vision rests, of course, on charity in truth, and the solidarity and mutual trust that flow from it. Here the pope develops these ideas by reflecting on “the logic of gift” (#34). Humans are made for gift; indeed, faith, hope, charity, and truth are all gifts of God. “Gift by its nature goes beyond merit, its rule is that of superabundance” (#34). These gifts empower humans to build community and to develop economic markets that embody a principle of gratuitousness (the capacity to give freely).

After emphasizing the need for justice in all phases of economic activity and pointing out that human development is also good economics in the long run, Benedict returns to the spirit of gift. “Space also needs to be created within the market for economic activity carried out by subjects who freely choose to act according to principles other than those of pure profit, without sacrificing the production of economic value in the process” (#37). Benedict describes profit-making businesses, exemplified by the Focolare movement, that are committed to the common good.

To conclude this chapter, Benedict returns to the theme of globalization, noting that it is not simply a socio-economic process but the growing interconnectedness of humanity. He promotes “a person-based and community-oriented cultural process of worldwide integration that is open to transcendence” (#42). If other choices are made, he soberly acknowledges the possibility of increased poverty and inequality and even global crisis.

Rights and duties

Pope Benedict begins Chapter Four with a reflection on rights and duties, expressing his concern that rights are being emphasized even while corresponding duties are ignored. “A link has often been noted between claims to a ‘right of excess’…within affluent societies, and the lack of food, drinkable water, basic instruction and elementary health care in areas of the underdeveloped world and on the outskirts of large metropolitan centers” (#43).

In this context Benedict then addresses three topics: population growth, business ethics and care for the environment.

The pope denies that population increase is the primary cause of underdevelopment. As part of his reflection, Benedict speaks about responsible procreation and the inalienable values of life and the family. The deeper meaning of sexuality “needs to be acknowledged and responsibly appropriated not only by individuals but also by the community” in its laws and education (#44).

“The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly” (#45). Not any “ethics” will do, but only a people-centered ethics that has not become “subservient to existing economic and financial systems” (#45).

Here the pope returns to his example of profit-making companies that are also committed to the common good. This “economy of communion” does not exclude profit, “but instead considers it a means for achieving human and social ends” (#46). Benedict adds his hope “that these new kinds of enterprise will succeed in finding a suitable juridical and fiscal structure in every country” (#46).

The chapter ends with a long section on the environment. “The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole” (#48).

Benedict affirms a responsible stewardship over nature, including new lifestyles in which respect for life and “the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments” (#51).

Conflicts over energy reveal the urgent need for renewed solidarity that, rooted in charity in truth, can lead to a “worldwide redistribution of energy resources, so that countries lacking those resources can have access to them” (#49).

Global solidarity

Benedict begins Chapter Five with some philosophical and theological reflections on the global interconnectedness of the human family. The pope encourages a “critical evaluation of the category of relation,” for persons are defined “through interpersonal relations” with God and others (#53).

The pope also notes that the emphasis on relationality and communion is expressed in other religions and cultures. These too can contribute significantly to integral human development. Religions can also contribute to the alienation of peoples, so careful discernment and dialogue are necessary between reason and faith (see #55-57).

Solidarity and subsidiarity, two traditional themes of Catholic social teaching, can express and balance global interdependence. Solidarity emphasizes the interdependence of the human family and the need to promote the common good.

Subsidiarity (shared authority) stresses that this action take place at the most appropriate level of government (for example, a city collects garbage, not the federal government). Benedict gives an example of international development aid and then addresses a rather long list of topics related to global interdependence.

The chapter ends with Benedict’s strong endorsement of a reformed United Nations. “To manage the global economy; to revive economics hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago” (#67).


Chapter Six introduces Benedict’s reflections on the meaning, value and limits of technology. The pope sees technology as an expression of human freedom, saving labor and improving the conditions of life. He also worries that the technical worldview can miss essential dimensions of the human.

In this context of appreciation for yet concern about technology, Benedict addresses four topics: peace-building, the media, bioethics and the soul.

“Even peace can run the risk of being considered a technical product” (#72), the pope claims. While diplomatic work, strategies to end military conflicts, and plans to deal with the causes of terrorism are all necessary, Benedict urges that these efforts “be based on values rooted in the truth of human life” (#72), solidarity, mutual understanding and love.

Modern media have a profound impact on people’s understanding of life and society. The pope worries about the media’s relationships with particular economic interests and political and ideological agendas. So again he urges a commitment to integral human development as the basis for media’s vision and work.

Bioethics is a special concern for the pope. He calls it a “particularly crucial battleground in today’s cultural struggle between the supremacy of technology and human moral responsibility” (#74).

Earlier in the encyclical the pope mentioned abortion, birth control, in vitro fertilization, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research (see #28 and 51); here he adds eugenics, clones and human hybrids to this list. Benedict strongly rejects exclusive reliance on technology, emphatically calling for meaning and value found in reason and faith (see #74-75).

This chapter ends with Benedict’s concern that technology considers the interior life only psychologically. As a result, human interiority “is emptied of its meaning” (#76). Therefore, Benedict concludes, authentic human development must include spiritual growth.

The entire encyclical ends with words of hope, encouragement and prayer.

“As we contemplate the vast amount of work to be done, we are sustained by our faith that God is present alongside those who... work for justice” (#78).

Invitations and challenges

So what does this encyclical mean for us members of the Church and for all people of goodwill?  Both “a great challenge” (#9) and a gracious invitation: a challenge for all to take it seriously, especially the parts that do not fit our convictions; an invitation for a thorough examination of conscience, including our usually unexamined assumptions. Do our political and economic values sometimes, in fact, take priority over the gospel and Church teaching?

Charity in Truth is a challenge to be open to Benedict’s global and countercultural message, calling for a change in our consumer lifestyle with its negative impact on the poor and the environment. It’s an invitation to consider carefully the pope’s reasons for his positions and to listen to other informed and committed wisdom sources (see #56). Ultimately, it’s a challenge to express charity in truth in our families, work, parishes, voting—and an invitation to trust that God really is with us.

Kenneth R. Overberg, a Jesuit priest, teaches theology at Xavier University, Cincinnati.

NEXT: Day-by-Day Through Advent (by Kathy Coffey)

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John Francis Burté and Companions: These priests were victims of the French Revolution. Though their martyrdom spans a period of several years, they stand together in the Church’s memory because they all gave their lives for the same principle. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1791) required all priests to take an oath which amounted to a denial of the faith. Each of these men refused and was executed.
<p>John Francis Burté became a Franciscan at 16 and after ordination taught theology to the young friars. Later he was guardian of the large Conventual friary in Paris until he was arrested and held in the convent of the Carmelites.
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