19 July 2009

Caritas in Veritate: A Manifesto for the Right and Left

In martial arts, a basic principle of dealing with two simultaneous attackers is to maneuver oneself so that they are both in view in one direction: in front or to one side.  To be confronted by two enemies at once is problem enough, but to be between them is exceptionally difficult - one’s attention is split, and it is necessary to continually shift focus from one attacker to the other.  It is the same in military affairs.  A war is more difficult when it is fought on two fronts.  An army’s resources are divided and spread thin, and if the attacking enemies have dissimilar natures, an effective repulsion may require different strategies and equipment for each enemy even when one’s fundamental defensive principles are constant.

I introduce this concept because it holds to some degree in the realm of ideas.  If Pope Benedict XVI is going to throw his intellectual weight over to the political left, as he has done with his released encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, then he is doing us, the defenders of reason, a service.  As the premier religious leader of the world and infallible composer of Roman Catholic doctrine and opinion, the pope surely qualifies as an intellectual representative of religion in general - of what we would call conservatism or the “religious right” in America.[Note 1.]  We have come to understand the intellectual foe of the pope and Church to be the political left, consisting of modern “liberalism,” “progressivism,” multiculturalism, relativism, subjectivism.  

So, it is significant that Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate is essentially a socialist manifesto.  In it, the pope has faithfully articulated the platform for a worldwide, paternalistic welfare state.

Our enemies are consolidating.  The political right and left are, in many ways, starting to line up on one side; the two fronts in our intellectual war are converging.  While modern “liberals” and conservative claim to be opposed to each other, they reveal through their actions their common root: altruism, which requires the sacrifice of the individual to the group.  This consolidation might make it a little easier to convince minds that for the free world to be saved, the fundamental philosophical choice is not between right and left, but between reason and anti-reason.

This mingling of left and right is indicated in the very title - the theme and motivation of the encyclical: Caritas in Veritate.  (Charity in Truth.)  The pope’s explanation for this concept is contained in a relatively murky passage early in the document.[Note 2.]  The passage is difficult largely because it takes some practice to glean the new meanings of words that are otherwise familiar.  For instance, truth for the Church does not mean the quality or state of being a fact of reality.  It refers to facts or revelations from God; truth really means revealed, doctrinaltruth,” or Truth with a capital T (though it is not generally capitalized in the text).   Similarly, charity is not confined to its common meaning of voluntary giving, but seems to be a social duty and responsibility “at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine,” replete with economic and political mandates.

The motivation for issuing the encyclical seems to be that the pope is concerned that charity, in the modern world, is divorced from truth - that is, a subjective view of charity strips it of moralityTruth, to remind the reader, is “revealed truth”; charity is the duty of a citizen in the welfare state.  Thus, roughly speaking, the encyclical rescues charity (international socialism) by propping it up with truth (religious faith).

The parade of left-leaning policies in Caritas in Veritate is relentless and comprehensive.  The document, though lauding the principle of property redistribution expressed in the 1891 Rerum Novarum, considers mere redistribution to be old-fashioned, “insufficient to satisfy the demands of a fully humane economy.”  It is the 1967 Populorum Progressio that first introduced the truly international, all-embracing socialism that Caritas in Veritate advances, urging the State to “convince [men] that they must accept the necessary taxes on their luxuries and their wasteful expenditures in order to promote the development of nations and the preservation of peace.”[Note 3, emphasis mine.] 

As is typical of the left, Caritas in Veritate rails against “inequalities” of wealth, “consumerism,” and “superdevelopment.”  The raison d’etre of work is not to produce but to provide a man with a wage, dignity, and a comfortable retirement; the purpose of creating wealth is to deliver aid to the poor in developing countries.  The encyclical expresses a “strongly felt need” to reform the United Nations “so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth” - teeth apparently being the apt tool to hand to an organization half composed of thuggish dictatorships.  Justice is upheld not by institutions that defend property rights, but by institutions that distribute wealth to the poor.  The environment is an intrinsic value that must not be “abused” by productive men.  The financial sector must be regulated to “safeguard weaker parties,” who are “exploited” by greedy capitalists.  But these same greedy capitalists should “promote new ways of marketing products” from countries that produce little or nothing of value, “so as to guarantee... a decent return.”  Wealthy nations have no right to “stockpile” energy while poor nations lack the ability to produce their own, just as wealthy individuals have no right to consume what they earned while there are hungry bellies in the world. 

Above all, the encyclical holds an utter contempt for the individual - a contempt made all the more insidious by the occasional lip service it pays to rights and freedom.  The document explicitly emphasizes the inseparability of “life ethics” and “social ethics.”  Every obligatory mention of “freedom” and personal “development” (obligatory because without them the Church would not be able to plausibly maintain its charade of standing for freedom) is subverted by the “transcendent” command to serve God and humanity.  Pope Benedict XVI echoes Pope Paul VI: the purpose and duty of exercising one’s freedom consists of service.  The primary goal of this earthly life is “rescuing peoples, first and foremost, from hunger, deprivation, endemic diseases and illiteracy.”  Note the unambiguous emphasis on the standard of value: others.  The paradise of the Church is not one in which every man lifts himself from poverty and squalor, but one in which every man lifts his neighbor.  For the Church, man must be free; free to serve.

To be sure, the encyclical peppers its socialist advocacy with enough assertions and denials to provide cover lest it be accused of being the socialist manifesto that it is.  It claims, for instance, that its notion of development “presupposes the responsible freedom of the individual.”  It warns of cultural relativism, insists upon religious freedom, and admires technology.  But none of this changes the overarching theme: that to be a human is to serve the common good.

In an article of this scope, it is impossible to enumerate and discuss all the examples of leftist policy advanced by Caritas in Veritate, but I have included a handful of excerpts in the notes.  (See Note 4.)

It becomes more clear as time goes on that the alleged opposites of the secular left and the religious right are not opposites at all... and more importantly are not the only choices.  A third choice exists, a view that neither dispenses with morality (as do the modern “liberals”) not plants it in a supernatural dimension (as do the conservatives).  This view regards reason as an absolute, rejects faith completely, holds morality to be an essential, life-sustaining code of values based in reality, and for precisely these reasons, defends each man’s right to his life, the property he earns, the freedom of his thoughts and actions, and the pursuit of his own happiness.  

If the socialist underpinnings of Pope Benedict XVI’s manifesto help to make clear that both the left and the right are enemies of freedom, then I welcome his words and beg him to keep talking and writing until thinking people grasp his real meaning.


1.  It’s true that conservatism and the religious right are driven also by Protestantism (especially Evangelical Christianity), which is often at odds with Catholicism.  Nevertheless, the general shift to the political left that I describe in this article applies to many of the Protestant sects as well, so my point remains the same.

2.  “Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate: Of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI to the Bishops Priests and Deacons Men and Women Religious The Lay Faithful and All People of Good Will,” 2009.  Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in the article are from this document.  Italics in the quotes are in the original, but bold emphasis is mine.

3.  “Populorum Progressio: Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Development of Peoples,” 26 Mar 1967.

4.  Below are a few selected quotes from Caritas in Veritate:

“Hunger is not so much dependent on lack of material things as on shortage of social resources, the most important of which are institutional. What is missing, in other words, is a network of economic institutions capable of guaranteeing regular access to sufficient food and water for nutritional needs...”

“It is therefore necessary to cultivate a public conscience that considers food and access to water as universal rights of all human beings, without distinction or discrimination.

“Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards 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.”

“Economy and finance, as instruments, can be used badly when those at the helm are motivated by purely selfish ends.”

Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift.”

“Hence it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere licence.

“...the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a ‘grammar’ which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation.”

“In the search for solutions to the current economic crisis, development aid for poor countries must be considered a valid means of creating wealth for all.”


Burgess Laughlin said...

Stephen, thank you for this article. It is clear and informative, especially for activists working for a more rational and therefore freer world.

Such activists struggle with the "problem of two definitions." Their opponents use terms/ideas that are invalid (usually because they are defined by nonessentials or are package deals). The conventional left/right distinction is an example.

Some of your readers might be interested in a lengthy discussion of the epistemological issue of defining "right" and "left":


Or go directly to the comments section to see Ron Pisaturo's concise summary.

And, for philosopher Ayn Rand's logical and concise definition, see "Rightists vs. Leftists" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon here:


Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the comment and links, Burgess.

For most of my life, I too held the political right to indicate the side representing freedom. (This applies to America, at least. In a European context, the right vs. left distinction tended to refer to fascism vs. communism, one of the indicators that freedom isn't even on the radar in Europe.) Republicans (i.e. the right, the conservatives) were nominally the defenders of limited government and free markets; they were the party that eliminated slavery.

However, looking back, it is hard to square what the Republicans stood for with what they actually did over the last four or five decades. Nixon killed gold and visited China. Reagan and especially the two Bushes spent and expanded the government beyond what Democrats would have dared. Worst of all, the recent Bush and conservatives in general permitted religion to seep in and fuel their sacrifice-driven agenda.

It may be that there is a lack of precision in using left and right as I did in the post. My intent was to highlight the difference between the Objectivist position and that of the two main schools of thought: subjectivism and intrinsicism. Today, roughly speaking (and in political terms), subjectivism corresponds to the left and intrinsicism corresponds to the right (specifically the religious right).

I chose to use left and right because I'm not sure that the terms subjectivism and intrinsicism are widely recognized and understood by a general audience. (Maybe I'm wrong about that.) I was deeply impressed by Harry Binswanger's excellent lectures at OCON a week or so ago, in which he dashed the false dichotomy of subjectivism vs. intrinsicism, showing that reality actually supports a trichotomy: the objective against the subjective and intrinsic. Of course, Leonard Peikoff's DIM Hypothesis makes the same observation.

On a related side note, one thing I worried about with my opening paragraph is that the analogy with being attacked from two sides would suggest that we (Objectivists) are somehow between the left (subjectivists) and the right (intrinsicists). That is totally false, of course. The Objectivist position is not a middle ground between two extremes, but is itself an extreme position: a radical, uncompromising advocacy of reason and individual rights.