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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Charity in Truth: A Book Review

In 2008, my 401(k) and IRA portfolios were reduced to a tenth of their former value. What had taken my wife and me 20 years of scrimping and saving to accumulate was reduced to almost nothing in a few days. I was powerless to act and could only watch helplessly as forces beyond my control destroyed our diminutive nest-egg with breathless and brutal efficiency. The destruction of my minor wealth was, in the scheme of things, a trivial event compared to the misery and pain being felt by others around the globe. In fact, I could not help but be struck by how many people were so deeply affected. The global financial crisis was, and continues to be, not simply a problem of governments or multi-national financial entities, but a dilemma for everyday persons who suddenly realize that their lives are interconnected in innumerable ways; did the people of Iceland ever imagine that their existence could be so troubled by a mortgage company in California whose annoyingly ubiquitous advertisements they had never even seen? When I learned that Pope Benedict's encyclical Charity in Truth was written in response to this global crisis, I was anxious to read what he thought, to see what problems he identified and what solutions he saw.

Benedict begins his encyclical by identifying Christ's mission to humanity as  the “principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity” (1) and by firmly committing the Church to “promoting integral human development” (11). In fact, he describes human development as a vocation, a definition that raises human development from mere human activity to the level of a sacred calling, to human and divine activity working in concert. Understanding human development as a vocation introduces God into an otherwise mundane process. With God, human development is not merely having more or doing more or knowing more, but it is being more. Human development then is a matter of becoming. This, of course, begs the question, “what is it that we are to become?” In short, we are called to become a whole person, more human, and in becoming more human to “love our brothers and sisters in the truth” (1). Human development, in all its facets and varieties, is the vocation of all persons, and all persons aid and benefit from the doing and the being, from growing and from helping others to grow. As a vocation, one must understand themselves not from the point of view of a “giver” alone, as a person who “has” giving magnanimously to those who “have not,” but as a person partaking in a reciprocal encounter in which both parties give and receive. Finally, as a vocation, human development is a calling that one must constantly discern, not as a personal choice alone, but discerned in and with a community of persons. The discernment process applied to this vocation, as to all vocations, includes the rational, the personal, the communal, and the sacred.

Understanding human development as a vocation has implications beyond one's own personal growth. In fact, it is most important that one's vision extend to the growth of community and culture. Benedict rightly asserts that, as a vocation, human development “offers a wonderful opportunity for encounter between cultures and people” (59) and can be an avenue to become Christ to others and to discover Christ in others. In the act of performing the vocation of human development, both the persons serving and being served find Christ in each other. In being Christ to those of another culture, new ways of understanding how to be Christ and how to build the Kingdom can emerge. In this way, cultures interact not on a purely human level, but also on a sacred level that raises the cultures to the life of the Trinity, to be sanctified in the life of the divine. What is good in a culture is made better and what is lacking is exposed to the light of charity and truth. However, charity finds what is lacking in any culture, so that not only the culture that is being served but also the culture providing the service benefit from God's truth and love. Developed nations may rediscover in their roots what contributed to their level of human development in the first place, and emerging nations may discover that they have a real contribution to make - a contribution of wisdom and understanding - and that they are not merely subservient receivers of charity, as it were, but vocational partners in the growth and development of persons.

The interactions that occur between cultures frequently take place in the context of the global economy as transactions between distinct parties. Benedict identifies commutative justice as regulating “the relations of giving and receiving between parties to a transaction,” (35) while distributive justice applies not only to the parties involved in the transaction, but also to "the wider network of relationships within which [the market] operates" (35). Transactions in the marketplace can never take place in isolation: the existence of the marketplace itself attests to this fact, given that so many are involved in its creation and maintenance. The human activity in the marketplace occurs in the context of local, regional, national, and global communities. Therefore, not a single transaction can be thought of as isolated, but must be understood by the breadth and depth of the various relationships that support, create, are sustained by, and are affected by the means and ends of the transaction itself.

In this increasingly diverse and global marketplace, the meeting of peoples and cultures has yielded the fruit of human development in what Benedict identifies as “hybrid forms of commercial behavior” (38). In fact, what Benedict identifies in terms of potentiality is already an actuality, and rather old news at that. Hybrid forms, that “without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents,” (38) have already emerged, as is seen in the OpenSource movement in software development. OpenSource provides a unique model of subsidiarity and solidarity in which anyone with the skills needed can contribute to the development and use of sophisticated systems and computer software[1].

Benedict goes on to suggest the need for additional funding for underdeveloped countries from the more economically developed countries. However, it should be obvious that additional funding requires reform. The United States alone sends 5.7 billion USD in financial aid to Sub-Saharan Africa annually[2]. For this amount of money, we would expect to see some improvement in conditions in the continent, in the quality of human life and in human development, but accountability is lacking, and without accountability there can be no development. There needs to be cultural development in addition to fiscal aid and until that occurs, the vocation to human development is simply not there; it is purely technical aid at this point and aid without justice, at that.

Justice itself cannot be seen as limited to those who exist in one particular place or time, as Benedict points out in discussing intergenerational justice (48). Justice is a concept that crosses time and space, past, present, and future. We have received the fruits of human activity, “ecological, juridical, economic, political and cultural,” (48) from past generations who toiled to develop themselves and the world for our benefit. We have stewardship of the same ecological, juridical, economic, political, and cultural contexts for this moment. Having received what was given to us, we must remain mindful of what we intend to pass along to future generations for their own needs and development. Justice demands that what we do now must take into account the needs and dignity of future generations.

If we are serious about the task of intergenerational justice, the environment is one obvious area that will be of continued concern to future generations. Benedict invites us “to a serious review of [our] life-style” “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices” (51). As a small-holding farmer, I take the environment and my stewardship of it seriously. We use green technologies, such as composting and bio-fuels, as much as possible. We limit the use of herbicides, pesticides, and antibiotics on our food and animals. We buy locally as much as possible from fellow farmers, and we buy crops and goods that are grown with the same attention to the environment that we give. Even so, we can further decrease our environmental impact by reducing our fuel consumption, especially fossil fuels, through the pooling of resources, trip planning, and efficiency. However, I must point out that one of the major sources of fossil fuel consumption in my life is the weekly 120+ mile round-trip I make to Seton Hill every week. For my job, I am able to telecommute from home and collaborate on-line with fellow employees around the world in real-time, so I find it distressing that we waste natural resources in order to be physically present in a classroom. While I understand the need for community and formation in relation to ministerial education, new and more complex understandings of community need to be developed so that education and formation may be done on-line. This is not going to be optional. Soon, there will simply be no other choice, and I think it would be better to get started on making the transition now.

On the topic of technology itself, Benedict asserts “the development of peoples goes awry if humanity thinks it can re-create itself through the ‘wonders’ of technology” (68). Man has the ability to increasingly identify, predict, and control the material world, from atoms to weather patterns, from his own DNA to the forces that ignite the stars. Man's ability to control the material world has increasingly encroached on what used to be thought of God's domain alone. These things that we control were proven not to be God's sole domain at all. The former understandings of God that gave our life context and a sense of destiny have been lost. However, without God as a context and destiny, our purely human ability to predict and control the material world results in such horrors as the Holocaust and atomic warfare, embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning. Technology alone cannot solve our problems; we need new ways of understanding God as our context and destiny. We need to have God involved.

What became apparent to me as I read the encyclical is that reason and natural law, which form the basis of Benedict's encyclical, must be presented anew in order to find an audience in the post-modern world. The language of story, the sharing of an event as opposed to an academic presentation of facts and argument, is what appeals to the post-modern ears. The arguments that Benedict makes must be made real and present in terms of people's everyday lives, in ways to which everyone can relate. This is one of the challenges in using a document like Charity in Truth in a parish setting. In addition, the American concept of “rugged individualism” is a major obstacle to the sense of global community and interdependence that Benedict describes. For a great many people, human development is seen as a competition between individuals rather than a cooperative effort between persons. A certain dose of formation in the nature and practice of Christian community will be required before Charity in Truth receives a friendly welcome at many American parishes. Until then, I would continue to emphasize the reality of the very familiar and local forms of interconnectedness and interdependence that everyone is comfortable with, and I would work to build on this foundation to help develop a truly global perspective. For my part, I would hope to gain a new appreciation for the myriad of ways in which my friends and neighbors are already working to help each other, by living their vocation everyday, to develop and grow as persons.


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