The Power of Charity

Giorgio Vittadini, President of the Subsidiarity Foundation, comments on Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, starting from what moves social action: “The desire of the ‘I.’”
Davide Perillo

It was a long wait–two whole years–since 2007 when people began talking about “Pope Benedict XVI’s forthcoming social encyclical.” It was due to be published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio. Then, while the drafts were being prepared, the global crisis happened, necessitating some correction, rethinking and, revision. The text was finally signed on June 29th, Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and was published two weeks later.

Now the waiting is over, and the reading begins. It is heavy going, 79 paragraphs dealing with a broad range of matters, such as work, finance, international development organizations, technology, consumerism, and the environment. “The first fact that strikes the reader, however, is something else,” says Giorgio Vittadini, President of the Subsidiarity Foundation. “It is the link with this Pope’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. There, too, if one looks carefully, the Pope spoke of charity, linking it closely to truth. Here, he does the same, right from the first lines.”

As if to say that the social question, that of human relationships, is an ontological question, rather than an ethical one; we could say, a question of knowledge. What do think about it?
In defining charity as truth, the Pope sets aside any possible reduction of a moralistic kind. In this sense, it’s true, he links it precisely to knowledge. I remember an old leaflet we used in the 1980s, quoting John Paul II: “Truth is power of peace.” To found charity on truth means to bring it back to that aspect proper to the theological virtues–faith, hope, and charity. Sadly, the word “charity” is all too often understood in a reductive way.

The Pope says, “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.”
Exactly. He speaks of love, yes, but of love for man’s destiny, and he links it to the ontological aspect and to knowledge, knowledge as the point of departure for love, and for development. I believe that it is most important that, in this way, in the climate of confusion we are passing through, and in which these values have been separated from a human and historical experience, everything be brought back to objectivity.

And to a powerful affirmation: “…life in Christ is the first and principal factor of development.”
Because it is Christ who fulfills man’s destiny. This is a theme that emerges throughout the encyclical. The Pope mentions it in the first lines, when he refers to Populorum Progressio and avoids reading it in a reductive way. Benedict XVI notes that Paul VI expressed clearly the relationship between the Christian announcement, the person, and society. He takes it up again later on when he affirms more than once that the Church is the true point of reference for human progress. In addressing the theme of charity in truth, he affirms, “In Christ, charity in truth becomes the Face of his Person,” and that the Church preserves this conception of reality. The Pope speaks of the social doctrine, but shows how this, too, is born of the Christian event.

He speaks of development as “vocation” and not only as “having more.” Why?
He explains it in this way: “[I]n the design of God, every man is called upon to develop and fulfill himself, for every life is a vocation.” In the pages of the encyclical, there is a continuous counterpoint over the fact that human development has to do with “the meaning of man’s pilgrimage through history.” Think of how he speaks of poverty, at the beginning of Chapter 5. He sets it in relationship with insignificance because it is born of isolation,” of a “rejection of God’s love.” It is as if the Pope were putting us continually on guard against the fact that no public or social problem is dealt with in a complete and balanced way if we set aside the relationship with God. This is a very important factor, especially if we think of how the theme “evangelization and human promotion” has been dealt with over the years, even in some Church circles, as if they were two separate aspects. “Charity is not enough; we need justice.” How many times have we heard this repeated? As if charity could be unjust, or justice were something that man can give himself!

Isn’t it remarkable how up-to-date Paul VI’s encyclical still is?
Yes. It is striking that Benedict XVI refers to Populorum Progressio, which was one of the encyclicals most outrageously interpreted. While Humanae Vitae, another famous encyclical of Paul VI, was seen as a closing up against the world, Populorum Progressio was interpreted as a surrender. Benedict XVI reads it authentically, as an attempt to show how faith in God and Christian experience are determining factors for all-round human development.

Also striking is the relevance today of that intuition Fr. Giussani had in 1976. There was a convention of the Italian Church that year on the theme, “Evangelization and Human Promotion,” hinged on distinguishing between the two things. Fr. Giussani wanted to call it “Evangelization is Human Promotion.”
As I read the encyclical, I couldn’t help thinking often of Fr. Giussani’s book: L’ io, il potere, e le opere [The “I,” Power, and Works]. It is the “I” endowed with the desire for truth, justice, and beauty that lies at the basis of social action. The encyclical speaks at one point of “works,” not confining them to a marginal aspect of economic and social life; the “third sector” is seen as something alongside liberalism and Communism. For Benedict XVI, it is the market that must be embroidered with gratuitousness by enterprises that see profit as an instrument, but have something greater as their aim.

The exact expression is: “works redolent of the spirit of gift.”
Precisely. Therefore, these are works that arise from the Christian experience, entrepreneurial associations that are born with this aim. Here, the market and economic life itself is seen as something that is not left to opposing ideologies, but as the instrument of something greater. “This is not merely a matter of a ‘third sector,’ but of a broad new composite reality embracing the private and public spheres, one which does not exclude profit, but instead considers it a means for achieving human and social ends.” And he continues, “It would appear that the traditionally valid distinction between profit-based companies and non-profit organizations can no longer do full justice to reality, or offer practical direction for the future.” It is like re-reading the economic history of Europe, from 1850 to the present day, with the Catholic movements, the labor movements, and the development of an industrial reality driven by the desire to improve the conditions of human life.

What comes out of this re-reading?
We Catholics have had an inferiority complex for many years. There was the idea that society is what it is, with its own laws, and that our job is to give it ethical values and take care of the poor, and that’s all. The Pope overturns this, and shows that the market is something much more complex and varied than what is described in some newspapers. In the same way, he reads the financial crisis not only as the outcome of bad mechanisms, but as the outcome of the actions of men who acted with a reduced humanity. An example of this is one of the most serious problems of the present financial crisis: the crisis in mutual trust that amplified it. The crisis in trust is not a crisis produced by economic mechanisms, but by the crisis of man in relationship with other men. In this sense, the true theme of the encyclical is the human subject that stands behind economic activity and determines it.

Is this why the major thread is freedom? It’s a word that comes up 38 times.
Because the Pope is inviting us to go beyond a concept of economy tied to a mechanism that has nothing to do with man. If we look at the debate in certain newspapers after the financial crisis, it can be seen how the ways out that are proposed do not foresee a critique of the concept of man that guides economic activity. All that seems to be needed is to repair the broken machines, which will only break down again. Those who, like the Pope, ask who is the man who drives the economy and what he wants, show an absolutely innovative vision of economy and of society, which sets at its center the responsibility of the individual and of aggregations and intermediate bodies, in which man joins with others, in the name of shared ideal visions. It is not by chance that the other key word in the encyclical is “subsidiarity.” Benedict XVI speaks of it as a method linked to responsibility. “Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies.” This means that it is the instrument that enables the “I,” in intermediate bodies, to develop its potential. Subsidiarity “fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility.”

How do you see this definition?
In a dynamic way. Let’s say that subsidiarity sets down the conditions in which a person is enabled to develop all his creative capacity and, by means of intermediate bodies that he belongs to, is enabled to answer the needs of society–from the “I” to works. Desire becomes work, the construction of an organic answer to need. It is a concept of man and an experience in action that sustains the definition of subsidiarity.

Here we go back to the initial concept of development as “vocation.”
The finest thing is that the Pope says this both at the level of the individual and at the level of works, and even at the level of globalization. This is a very hard thesis to sustain, above all at the international level. The various G8 meetings and the like have accustomed us to the fact that the world goes ahead thanks to the Head of State summits. Here we are at the extreme opposite of subsidiarity. The Pope, instead, says that a world authority should “observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.” Think what it would mean, for example, for the European Union to be suffocated by Statalism, by national interests, by bureaucracy…

The Pope links subsidiarity to solidarity. Why does he insist so much on this?
We have to bear in mind that in other parts of the world, there is no universal welfare as there is in Europe. In America, for example, they don’t have this idea. But even in Europe, since we have lost sight of the aim of welfare systems, which is service of the person, we end up defending the State seen as the only guarantor of the good of the person, and private initiative without ideals as the only expression of freedom. To stress the link between solidarity and subsidiarity means that the first way of defending and fostering the development of the “I” and of the people means favoring the birth and growth of realities that, precisely because they are moved by ideal criteria, fight for the common good and answer the needs of those most in need. From this point of view, solidarity that joins with subsidiarity finds its root in that charity understood as “the gift of a self that is moved,” as Fr. Giussani defined it.

Paradoxically, in this sense, there is nothing more “subsidiary” than the Church itself; it was born and lives so as to enable the “I” to find the answer to its need.
In fact, strange as it may seem for a social encyclical, there is a whole paragraph on the freedom of the Church and on religious freedom. If there is not a subject that stresses the idea of a unique, unrepeatable self, of the value of the person previous in its conception to its operative expressions, I cannot build a reality that is subsidiary. Contrary to what its opponents maintain, the Church has, as its aim, the education of the person in the religious sense, in its relationship with the Mystery and, therefore, enhancing its freedom. In this sense, it is interesting how the encyclical affirms that only someone who lives fully this relationship with the Mystery can truly defend life and the environment, and use technology in a balanced way. From this point of view, we have the re-proposal of the traditional Catholic doctrine we have spoken much of in past years–where there is no freedom for the Church, neither can there be personal or social freedom.

Is this why the word “education” comes up continually?
Certainly. It is not by chance that education is strictly linked with subsidiarity. While it is true that the problem is to enable the “I” to develop, human desire needs to be educated, and it is not educated first and foremost in the functional sense; it is not educated first and foremost because I say, “I offer you the chance to run schools or to build hospitals.” It is educated in beauty, in truth, and in charity in truth. It is educated to open up, because as Romano Guardini said (and Fr. Giussani repeated), “In the experience of a great love everything becomes an event in its ambit.” In other words, this “I” becomes able to build, to join with others, to get committed and to sacrifice itself for the common good.

Without this dimension, everything falls into confusion. The Pope concludes, “Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is.”

You could also add, paraphrasing the title of a famous film, that “God needs men.” This is a challenge open to us all, in the practical things of day-to-day life.