Gratuitous Foundations: Benedict XVI’s Humanism of the Gift, Part I


Devon, PA. A couple weeks back, Jeremy Beer kindly drew FPR readers’ attention to a new little magazine, The Publican of PhiladelphiaIts charitable and ambitious young editor, Matthew Chominski, charts the Publican’s mission as to serve the Universal Church and to honor the loyalty, duties, and joys of one’s home, one’s inevitably local place in the world. Chominski was kind enough to sollicit a contribution from me for a special issue on Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, and was even kinder in granting me permission to republish the essay on FPR in two installments.  I’m honored to have been included in this project, and hopeful that FPR readers who take a look at the journal as a whole will find much to interest and occupy them.  They may do so here.

What follows is the first of my two part essay on the theological form of Benedict’s great encyclical.  Months ago, I expressed concern on FPR that rumors of the encyclical’s globalizing economic vision did not bode well.  When I was finally able to study it closely, I found, first of all, that the theological vision expressed was brilliant and inspiring. As someone who believes Catholic Social Doctrine in general and its admonition in favor of the Subsidiary function in society (“subsidiarity”) in particular furnish the intellectual foundations for a just and flourishing society, I also found much to inspire me in the encyclical.  However, in precisely this matter I also found reasons for concern and even occasions for doubt.  While these doubts are of the greatest relevance for the concerns central to FPR as a whole, my reflection on them has been slow in progress.  And so, I hope readers will take an interest in this essay on the theology of Caritas and will remain patient and charitable enough to await a later essay on the economic and political dimensions of this social encyclical.

When Benedict XVI issued Caritas in Veritate (2009) last summer, readers were quick to note his curious modification of what had become a tradition in Papal social encyclicals of having them in some way commemorate Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891).[i] Leo’s encyclical has rightly been understood as the founding document of Catholic social doctrine.  It was intended to provide guidance to a modern society characterized by industrialization, an increasing division between the capitalized or propertied classes and those who labor for a wage, and a rapid dissolution of those “pre-modern” or natural institutions such as the family, the rooted local community, and other free associations proper to a culture with a “rich social life.”[ii] And so, when Pius XI turned his pen to social doctrine, he did so by marking the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum in Quadragesimo Anno.  Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1967) cited Leo’s encyclical as first in a string of Papal encyclicals seeking to “shed the light of the Gospel on contemporary social questions.”[iii] And John Paul II issued two of his three social encyclicals to commemorate the anniversaries of Rerum: Laborem Exercens (1981) marks the ninetieth anniversary, as Centisimus Annus (1991) marks the hundredth.  One might be surprised, then, to see Benedict issue his first social encyclical to commemorate not Leo’s cornerstone, but the fortieth anniversary of Paul VI’s Populorum.  To what extent did this stylistic break constitute a magisterial or doctrinal break as well?

To a great one, I would suggest—even as Benedict’s encyclical draws the thought of Paul VI into closer relation to that of Leo XIII and Pius XI than Paul himself had troubled to do, and so seeks to polish away what had come to look like cracks in the unity of Catholic social doctrine during the last half century.  One need only look to the first sentences of Caritas to see this simultaneous break and reconciliation at work.  Benedict writes,

Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity.  Love—caritas—is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.[iv]

Such phrases stand forth like a palimpsest, a smoothed layering, of the thought of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict himself, even as they set aside, for the moment, the traditional starting point and concern of social doctrine as presented by Leo and Pius: subsidiarity as an alternative to modern economic and political ideologies.

For these earlier popes, the Church’s intervention in the “social question” was compelled by the revolutionary upheavals laissez-faire capitalism had provoked and to which communistic socialism claimed to be the answer.  They saw that classical liberal economics stood out as the most potent secular ideology of all time: of itself, it was capable of dissolving nearly every traditional social institution, above all that of the family and the household founded on the ownership of private property capable of sustaining the family.[v] This had led, in their age, to the radical division of society into the classes with capital who did not work and those who worked and owned nothing.  Under such conditions, the call for absolute expropriation—for the state’s management and distribution of all property and the socialization of wealth—looked increasingly attractive to the poor but laboring masses.

Turning to the robust Catholic tradition of natural law, especially as found in the “philosophy” of Thomas Aquinas, and to the Church’s own self-understanding as the Body of Christ and the Perfect Society, Leo and Pius were able to suggest a “third way” that reformed the evil of liberalism and forestalled the even greater evil of socialism.  The institutional Church was a world-wide organization with a Supreme Pontiff, but through which authority diffused among the bishops, priests, and religious without any intrinsic systemic tension.  It was truly Body and Society: perfectly united as a living being, but with visible organic divisions each of which operated individually but for a shared end.  Catholic social doctrine effectively looked to apply ecclesial structure to secular society.  This was hardly a utopian leap.  The Church’s structure had itself emerged from the juridical forms of the Roman Empire and had at once shaped and been shaped by the organic orderings of fidelity and love typical of feudal political institutions.  Furthermore, in the medieval craft guild system, one could see such corporate social forms had thrived (beyond the ecclesiastic and political) in the economic sphere—precisely the location of those modern tensions that threatened to disrupt society, State, and Church alike.

The third way thus proposed, which came to be understood as the principle of subsidiarity, was a social doctrine founded only analogously on the Gospel or on theology.[vi] Certainly, the Church as the apostolic, universal Mystical Body of Christ was a doctrinal principle that informed the Church’s internal structure of authority.  But this theological foundation inspired and completed what Leo and Pius understood as a structure already intelligible and compelling in terms of the philosophy of natural law.  An organic political body in which authority is widely distributed according to a subsidiary function was, after all, hardly an idea that required the illumination of faith to accept; Romantic thinkers such as Edmund Burke, William Wordsworth, and Novalis, throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, had affirmed the Church’s organic form as the logical model for any flourishing society.

Thus, while the popes sought to transform society in light of the Gospel, they did not do so specifically by means of their social doctrine.  Rather, their encyclicals were concerned to preserve and restore those intermediate institutions—from the family to trade guilds and unions—that give a society its “rich” pluralistic life and mediate political power over a vast and uneven institutional terrain.  If the modern world should ever resolve itself into a system of all powerful states and isolated, dependent individuals, then human beings would become so weak and enslaved to the State that they would likely become incapable even of hearing the Gospel.  Maintaining a natural order receptive and deferential to faith, rather than sweeping away traditional political structures in favor of one purely derived from the Gospel, was their concern.[vii] In keeping with the neo-Thomist division of the orders of nature and grace, the popes’ encyclicals suggested that good social order was no more than a preamble, a condition of possibility, that would allow the Church to operate freely.  As such, the language of the early social encyclicals is almost entirely concerned with matters of justice regarding intermediate institutions, private property, and the role of the State in economic matters, and does not address at length calls to personal conversion or the life absorbed entirely in the order of grace and charity.

Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio would mark a twofold shift in language and theme in Catholic social doctrine.  Most evidently, and controversially, Paul relativizes the principle of subsidiarity; it would serve as one necessary component in his call for a concerted global effort to reduce the inequalities between rich and poor countries.  John Paul II, in Laborem Exercens, would note the development from the earlier social encyclicals’ focus on social and labor questions to John XXIII and Paul’s concern with the “whole world,” what Paul calls a needed “global perspective.”[viii]

One might suggest this understates the shift in argument.  Paul’s encyclical calls for a global authority that can meaningfully call rich countries to share the fruits of industrialization and to make concerted, organized sacrifices on behalf of the poor.  Subsidiarity, for Leo and Pius, had been the last best hope to restore intermediate institutions that allowed political power to diffuse in a graduated manner; it would reverse the hypostasis of class conflict or the dichotomy of individual and State.  For Paul, the individual and the State, the division between rich and poor, are realities not to be overcome but to be reformed for the good of the poor.  He would radically increase the power of the State—in what else could the call for world government result?—but he would preserve the principle of subsidiarity as one that secured the participation and dignity of individuals within this global system.[ix] This amounts to more than a mere widening of scope; it entailed a shift in what constituted society in the eyes of the Church, and for Paul, nations, nationalism and all such provincial attachments were inevitable realities but also obstacles to realizing the ecclesiastical Body of Christ as a political brotherhood of man.[x]

Radical though this departure may have been from what we might call the Leonine social tradition, another shift in emphasis seems even more important—at least for the purposes of understanding the opening lines of Benedict’s encyclical.  Paul shifts the terms of social doctrine from natural law to theology and from intermediate organizations to the human person.  Much of Populorum Progressio calls for complete and authentic human development, for a new humanism, that recognizes man’s supernatural or transcendent destiny.[xi] Because the main theme of the encyclical’s practical dimension is the need for a global authority to act, in the name of social justice, for the provision of basic necessities to the poor, Paul is anxious to underscore that rich and poor alike must be understood in terms of a humanism that takes into account man’s end (final cause or telos), which is eternal life in Christ.  He thus pleads for a hierarchical scale of human values, beginning in the need for food and housing but necessarily culminating in the gift of faith and unity in Christ.[xii] This claim that the social, political, and secular order must already be ordered to the divine serves as Paul’s criterion for authentic human development.  So also it proves to be in the opening sentences of Benedict’s encyclical.  Although Benedict will iterate Paul’s advocacy of a global political authority with teeth, it is man’s supernatural telos, and the theological anthropology that derives from it, that most intimately unites the two encyclicals: thus, Benedict’s appropriation of the phrase, “authentic development” of “humanity.”[xiii]

Paul’s re-grounding of social doctrine on a new, transcendent humanism rather than on the restoration of intermediate institutions would find elaboration in the encyclicals of John Paul II.  John Paul’s pre-papal development of a philosophy, a phenomenology, of the human person grounded in his capacity to make decisions and to act of his own accord, would bear particular (if sometimes ambiguous) fruit in his teachings as Pope.  We need mention just two such moments.  In Redemptor Hominis (1979), John Paul would articulate a personalist account of revelation and the life of the Church.  Briefly, this entailed that the human person in his individuated, subjective fullness was the point of reference and, in a particular sense, the telos of religious life.  Christ became incarnate for man; the Church exists for man.  The self-revelation of God as Trinity—a relation of persons in perfect unity of nature—and as Christ (the God with a face) reveals man to himself precisely because it teaches us that personhood is the richest ontological reality in terms of which everything else must be understood.  Enlightenment rationalism (particularly Deism), and those forms of neo-Thomism inadvertently influenced by such modern thought, often privileged God as Being Itself, prescinded from His self-revealing Personhood as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Thus, the God of Revelation was thought to conceal behind it a more abstract, strictly rational set of divine principles that were in some sense more “real” than the Body of Christ.

Not so, John Paul’s phenomenology contended: personhood is consummate reality precisely because nothing can be prescinded (abstracted or isolated) from it without damaging its integral richness.  And so, when we come to understand the ontological depths of personhood, we arrive at the highest form of knowledge—at an encounter with God.  In Laborem Exercens, John Paul would apply this theological anthropology to social doctrine.  Work and labor exist for man, he is their end; Genesis provides us a Gospel of work, in telling us that man’s intellect is to set about subduing and dominating the earth, bringing the things of the world to order through the application of the intellect through work.[xiv] There is a subjective element to social doctrine—society’s orientation toward the person—that is much the most important element, and which relativizes all that is merely objective.[xv] Thus, Benedict’s particular insistence, at the opening of the encyclical, on the witnessing personhood of Jesus Christ and his apposition of “every person” with “all humanity”—and, his introduction of the person as one who makes decisions and acts, who opts in love “for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.”  The free human person is now the term, unit, and condition of all social doctrine—not simply because he possesses that great dignity of having a supernatural destiny, but because his already present experience of personhood reflects the eternal personhood of God.  Only within the condition of personhood does society come to exist, and so it is, again, as much a precondition of social doctrine as full human development is social doctrine’s completion.

The remaining phrases in the opening of the encyclical reflect Benedict’s particular account of the theological drama of human life.  The identification of logos and caritas, truth and love, of will and reason in faith; and the Christian Platonist emphasis on love (whether translated as caritas, agape, or eros) as the “extraordinary force,” the term expressive of all human desires whatsoever, and which is ordered ultimately to God—the rearticulation of this core principle of Christian doctrine has been the focus of Benedict’s pontificate, beginning with Deus Caritas Est (2006).  As was the case with John Paul II, Benedict’s preferred image of the Church and of Christian life is not that of divine kingship or the Body of Christ, but that of the nuptial romance of Christ and the Bride of Christ, expressed most powerfully in the Song of Songs, in whose drama “man can indeed enter into union with God—his primordial aspiration.  But this union is no mere fusion, a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine; it is a unity which creates love, a unity in which both God and man remain themselves and yet become fully one.”[xvi] The human person is present at the beginning and at the end of God’s plan for man as is he in every type of relation.

[i] This modification is not without precedent.  John Paul II’s Solicitudo Rei Socialis commemorates the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio as Caritas does the fortieth—but, as noted below, it does so while bookended by two encyclicals commemorating Leo’s.  I shall not attend to Solicitudo in what follows for one reason: it elaborates on a change in Catholic social doctrine regarding subsidiarity and the function of social doctrine itself.  But, in this essay, I shall attend chiefly to transformations in the theology or “theological styles” behind the social encyclicals, and shall save consideration of these other questions for another essay.

[ii] Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931), no. 78 provides a capsule summary of the historical vision implicit in both his and Leo’s social encyclicals.

[iii] Paul VI, Populorum Progressio no. 2.

[iv] Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate no. 1.

[v] As the English Distributists G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were quick to observe, liberal capitalism thus would eventually dissolve the natural institution on which it was founded: private property.  For them as for Leo, there was no real “choice” between capitalism and socialism, because both led to property’s domination by the few.  Cf. Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State.

[vi] Quadragesimo Anno no. 80.

[vii] Of course, there is no political structure purely derived from the Gospel, though theology and natural reason can arrive as principles that should inform any Christian society and limit the types of acceptable structure.

[viii][viii] John Paul II, Laborem Exercens no. 2.3 and Paul VI, Populorum Progressio no. 13.

[ix] See, Populorum Progressio no. 33 on the call for “private initiative and intermediary organizations” within a global authority, and no. 78 for Paul’s advocacy of a robust world authority like the United Nations enabled to take both political and juridical action independently.

[x] Ibid. 62-63 and 66.

[xi] Ibid. 12, 14, and 16.

[xii] Ibid. 21.

[xiii] The question we cannot enter into here is how we are to realize in practice Benedict’s explicit echo of John XXIII and Paul’s support for a global authority informed by the principle of subsidiarity (Caritas in Veritate no. 67) and underscored as “dispersed” and “effective on different levels” (no. 41).  This question, which I shall take up elsewhere, grows in importance when we consider the tendency of modern political institutions to absorb all lesser and secondary entities.  If this is not a necessary behavior of States per se, then there must be something perverse about modern statecraft.  And if there is something perverse about modern statecraft, there is something dangerous and naïve in suggesting that the creation of development global authority based on already existent institutions like the United Nations will result in a greater diffusion of political power—as both Paul and Benedict do argue.

[xiv] Laborem Exercens no. 4.

[xv] Ibid. no. 5.3

[xvi] Benedict XVI encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est no. 10.  Given the preponderance at which this image has arrived during the most recent two pontificates, it is worth noting that this is far from the only condign image expressive of the relation of God and man.  However, it may have about it a unique worthiness in its connotation, for surely the Gospel’s chief lesson is that the deepest longing (eros) of every person is set in motion and fulfilled only by the permanent love of eternal life with God.  The world is divided not according to who desires the personal God of Christ, but according to who longs for and knows His face and who longs but does not yet know it.

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James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. James. As a point of interest to rephrase one of your sentences do we not have “egalitarian social doctrine effectively looking to apply secular structure to ecclesial society” in the case of the calls for the current Pope to implement a policy of personal and institutional accountability in the case of pedophile priests? Is this not in general terms the same charge of “elitist free-riding” that the rank-and-file threw at the Catholic Church prior to the Reformation, and continue to throw at secular government and elite capitalism? A doctrine of subsidiarity whilst important is not enough on its own without the right of the rank-file to “sanction” the free-riders, the ones who believe they have no obligation to be morally accountable to others. What is the purpose of preaching a doctrine of Love, or Morals, without also having meaningful accountability? The same would apply to democratic government and the Invisible Hand.

  2. Note I don’t think he the Pope is correct about the absolute necessity of considering the divine as a wholly personal. Buddhism’s, Neoplatonism’s, Taoism’s and Vedanta’s approaches are perfectly valid(and one could include Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart of course.) while largely removing any necessary emphasis on the personal nature of God. One must distinguish, metaphysically, between that which in God is personal, the logos, the Tao that is seen, the second person of the trinity in Christian theology or supreme being, and that which is suprapersonal or transpersonal, the divine essence, Buddhist void, Platonic supreme Good, the Tao that is unseen or Vedanta Brahman. Yes the personal view of God is a very valid path but it is not the only one and suggesting it is leaves one open to accusations of anthropomorphising and bringing the infinite and absolute nature of the divine essence done to a finite and relative dimension when taken as the ultimate and complete view of God.

    This is not to open up an entry for enlightenment rationalism or deism whose God is either impersonal, rather than transpersonal, or of course basically non-existent. Rather I’m talking about traditional, metaphysically rooted perspectives on the divine from the major religious traditions.

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