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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Church, the Economy, and Social Justice: Reflections on Caritas in Veritate


Event Recap

As parts of the world began to recover last summer from the global economic crisis, Pope Benedict XVI released an important encyclical, or teaching document, on human economic development. Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”) brings Catholic social thought to bear upon global economic life in ways that have inspired, and confounded, readers across the political and theological spectrum. To gain some purchase on the implications and importance of this document, the Boisi Center hosted a conversation on October 8 (in front of a standing-room-only crowd in the Fulton Debate Room)
with three Catholic scholars who are expert in economics, ethics and systematic theology.
The keynote speaker was Daniel Finn, professor of theology and the Clemens Professor of Economics and the Liberal Arts at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Professor Finn, author of several books on economics and Catholic social thought, discussed the “Bologna school” of economic thought that undergirds Caritas in Veritate, which highlights reciprocity rather than altruism as a means of fostering right relations in the economic realm. The end goal is a more civil—meaning both civilized and non-state directed—economy that encourages profit a means for achieving human and social ends. “Hybrid firms” which pursue both commercial and social ends are necessary to achieving this goal, as is an active civil society.
The next speaker, Boston College theology professor Stephen Pope, focused on the ethical dimensions of the encyclical’s call for an “authentic humanism” that seeks to reintegrate morality into public life, including economic activity. Social justice and charity are the keys to this effort, which must foster a global morality that can overcome the “enlightened egoism” inherent in current economic and social life. Professor Pope’s primary critique centered upon the encyclical’s breadth; in trying to cover too much ground, he said, it favored theological abstraction over concrete ethical analysis. A focus on the ethical challenges, Pope said, are crucial when contemplating the universal implications of love, charity, and social justice in a pluralist society that holds divergent views of such concepts.
The final panelist was Robert Imbelli, a Catholic priest and associate professor of theology at Boston College. A systematic theologian like Benedict XVI himself, Fr. Imbelli reminded the audience that theology properly forms the center of the pope’s encyclical, as evidenced by several themes in Caritas in Veritate. First, the encyclical roots Catholic social teaching in the Gospel rather than natural law reasoning, Imbelli argued, and any analysis of Caritas based only on de-contextualized natural law reasoning “risks reducing religion to ethics.” Second, Imbelli noted, the pope’s central argument for an “integral humanism” that embraces “the good of every man and of the whole man” is itself ultimately grounded in Christology, which explores the meaning of Christ’s incarnation. Fr. Imbelli concluded by reflecting on the limits of regulatory policy, for “structural change, however necessary, can never substitute for authentic conversion of hearts and minds,” which itself requires ongoing spiritual exercise.