The Principle of Gratuitousness in Caritas in Veritate, By Elizabeth E. Carr

Posted on July 27th, 2009 | Filed under Faith and Politics, InterViews, IR News and Events

The Principle of Gratuitousness in Pope Benedict XVI's Encyclical Caritas in Veritate points the way to a world in which all live fully.

I reflect on Pope Benedict XVI's third and latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, from Saint Benoît-sur-Loire.  This is the French village where prose poet Max Jacob lived between 1921 and 1944, when he was taken to the deportation camp of Drancy, outside of Paris.  He would have been on the next train to Auschwitz had he not died of pneumonia, exacerbated by the terrible conditions in the Orleans jail and then in Drancy.

Surely the world could have then and can now profit from the kind of universal brotherhood and sisterhood--or gratuitousness, mercy and communion--for which Pope Benedict XVI appeals in this encyclical, On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.

Throughout this encyclical on the social teaching of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI urges personal and societal conditions that make possible the full development of each and every human being.  This seems nearly an impossible task, and left to purely human devices, it would be.  The Pope, however, cites love as the "driving force" of integral human development; and the love of which he speaks is powerful for it is a love infused with honesty and truth, not one of mere sentimentality.

This love is that unconditional love planted by the Creator in every human heart, making the human being always yearn "to be more."

This yearning to be more is the bridge between the human and the divine and it is the basis for the self-transcendence of which the human being is capable.  In Pope Benedict XVI's words, this ability to go beyond one's self gives the world the "breathing space" that enables a deep thinking and reflection, adding to human knowledge wisdom.  The Pope is calling the world to this space making possible even in these dire times "new efforts for holistic understanding and a humanistic synthesis."

Benedict is not speaking in the abstract but is addressing himself to the current global economic crisis and to a world suddenly marked by "an explosion of worldwide interdependence."  Globalization can, he writes, be a tremendous force for good. But with resources and economic strategies used in the wrong way, globalization can also do irreparable damage to the human family.

His message, then, is an urgent one and he admits that the Church does not have technical solutions to offer but does have a mission of truth; and the Church's social doctrine, which proclaims the dignity and freedom of the human person, is one particular function of truth.  Within this function, two of the vital principles on which the Pope elaborates are subsidiarity and solidarity, and in all cases transparency, honesty and responsibility.

Above all, and guiding all, however, is "love in truth."  It is only this unconditional love for one's brothers and sisters, "all of us," that will prompt the generosity necessary so that every person on this planet may know first-hand the full development to which she or he is called as a human being.  "Authentic and universal fraternity," born of gratuitousness, mercy and communion, is the Christian vocation.

It is noteworthy that this encyclical, like that of Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, is addressed not only to Catholics but to all people of good will.  Indeed, given the Pope's call for religious freedom and for a deep understanding of cultures not one's own, this encyclical could well serve as the basis for productive ecumenical and interfaith conversation, as well as for dialogue across cultures.  Too, the scope of the issues involved calls for interdisciplinary study, bringing together people involved in such fields as politics, economics, business, theology, environmental biology and other sciences, philosophy, and more.  While densely written, Caritas in Veritate is well worth careful study and reflection.

Time will tell what will be the impact of this encyclical both within the Church and in the world at large.  How transparently will finances be administered?  What investment policies will change due to a renewed call for "the preferential option for the poor"?

How will social security systems ensure the well being of the people for whom they are intended?  What daily decisions will people make to guide buying and how much responsibility shall we all take for our own education as ethical and responsible consumers?  How tightly will intellectual property be guarded and at what expense to the health of people whose medical and pharmaceutical needs are at stake?

How responsibly will international aid be administered and how will technology be used to upgrade and not degrade the quality of life for all people on this planet?  How will workers' rights be protected and what sort of new international organizations are needed to safeguard them?

How will religious freedom be respected and promoted?  And how will the most local and most global communities of people become communities of gratuitousness, mercy and communion?  These are just some of the issues and questions raised by this papal letter.

One overarching issue raised by Benedict is the isolation that human beings experience and that gives rise to so many social ills.  Max Jacob found too often in his experience that the natural law of humanity is indifference and that the only solution is the supernatural law of pardon.  So, too, gratuitousness, mercy and communion come from the graced place where human beings transcend themselves and they make up the "authentic fraternity" of the human family for which this encyclical calls.

I am reminded of the teaching of the twelfth century Doctor of the Church Catherine of Siena and her image of the tree.  The tree that will flourish is the tree that is surrounded at its roots by a full circle: the human being in partnership with the Creator who so loves the people of this world, thus calling upon them to act in a truthful love toward one another.   The tree that does not flourish is that one surrounded at its roots by only a partial circle: the human being who attempts to solve all problems by one's self, without a connection to divine and supernatural aid and wisdom.

Charity in Truth is a document of vision and hope and it calls for imagination and courage on the part of all who have a stake in the future of this earthly city that points to the city of God, signaled by the love and truth implanted in human hearts.   It is to these human hearts that this encyclical is finally addressed.  The Pope calls all people to a deeper life of the spirit for "the question of development is closely bound up with our understanding of the human soul."  "All this," the Pope writes, "is essential if 'hearts of stone' are to be transformed into 'hearts of flesh.'" (Ezek. 36:26).

We owe this to the memory of Max Jacob and to all people who have unduly suffered by "man's inhumanity to man."  We owe this to all who dwell on this planet, in all kinds of conditions, and who yearn for wholeness and to be more.  We owe this to all who will inherit this earth that their world be symbolized by the flourishing tree that in its fullness will grow to ever-new heights.


Elizabeth E. Carr is Catholic Religious Advisor at Amherst College and Catholic Chaplain at Smith College. She holds a PhD in theology and Christian spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union at the UC Berkeley.

7 Responses to “The Principle of Gratuitousness in Caritas in Veritate, By Elizabeth E. Carr”

  1. Kelsey says:

    There’s a tendency to look inward during these tough times. I’m glad the Pope addressed this.

    Last night I was talking at a Library about my book “Where Am I Wearing?” After 1.5 hours of introducing the audience to the people who made my clothes in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China a man said, “I’m not worried about those people. I’m worried about people right here in Indiana.” That’s scary.

    We are already isolated in our near limitless opportunities in the West. We must, especially now, not forget those who are less fortunate.

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. Frances Gussenhoven says:

    I enjoyed this readable and scholarly review of Caritas in Veritate – an invitation to consider the encyclical through the lens of “gratuitousness,” the experience of Max Jacob, and the insights of Catherine of Siena.

  3. janice McLaughlin says:

    Thanks Liz. You helped make it understandable and relevant. Janice

  4. JEFFREY says:

    Liz :Merci de tout coeur comme toujours.. you get to the heart of the matter..Im warming to Pope Benedict with your help///In fact I started this morning and this will encourage me to make the full journey through the winding text .Be well Blessings
    to you in France and back home at Smith Greetings from NC …La Paix,La Paz
    PAx Christi tecum ,Jeffrey Eastman

  5. Jane F. Morrissey says:

    Thank you for an inspiring reading, and an invitation to read and think and pray the more, as I begin another Sabbath Day. In its concise expression and broad vision, this article invites me more deeply to enter the world of “love in truth.”

    sister jane

  6. Judy E. Lam says:

    Caritas in Veritate is no easy read, yet you have encapsulated its essence with generous passion and global compassion. By appealing to the human soul, human transformation, and the ‘heart of flesh’, you explicate clearly that love is our Christian vocation. Inspiring writing! Looking forward to more ….

    Special blessing from Hong Kong,
    Judy E. Lam

  7. Peter Cassar Torreggiani says:

    Thanks. Fraternity may have been a French revoluton cry, but here it becomes the cry of “The Trinity at the lance”. Surely the greatest enterprise of man has been Christ’s creation of the Eucharist as the promise which redeems human fraternity from descending into destruction and instead snatches us up into the greatest human happiness possible in this life in Trinitarian love through Christ.

    St Catherine of Siena and Saint Theresa Benedicta under the Cross, both among the six patrons of European unification, found this path in Christ for our future.

    Maybe its in the laboratory of faith there will be some among the young who can discover the inner personal generative love in the first part of the pope’s first encyclical “Deus Caritas est” to help them live out the second part on public charity, with the help of these insights on gratuitousness you have mined from this new encyclical.

    Peter Cassar Torreggiani