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Love and Capitalism

Caritas in Veritate:

On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth

By Pope Benedict XVI

(Ignatius Press, 157 pp., $14.95)


Are we facing an economic crisis? I do not mean the crisis of the credit markets that has wiped trillions off the global balance sheet and plunged the world into recession. I mean a spiritual crisis, of which the crash is but a symptom. According to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, we are in the midst of a “late capitalist . . . countdown to social dissolution and the triumph of infinite exchangeability and timeless, atomized desire.” The only way to interrupt this countdown, he suggests, is for all of us to pattern our actions on divine love. A number of intellectuals--ranging from former Maoists such as Alain Badiou to dialectical materialists such as Slavoj Žižek--have made similar diagnoses, and proposed similar solutions. And to their company must now be added the pope.

With his first encyclical--Deus Caritas Est, or God is Love, in 2006--Benedict XVI gave notice that he intended to make the struggle against this crisis a corner-stone of his pontificate. Now, with his new encyclical Caritas in Veritate: On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth, the Vicar of Rome has given us his manifesto on the need for love in a globalizing age. “Love--caritas--is an extraordinary force,” he tells us. Without love “there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society at difficult times like the present.” Caritas--the word means both love and charity in Latin--is the force that ties us together in society. “To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it.” Owing to this love we strive for “the common good,” the good of “ ‘all of us’ . . . individuals, families, and intermediate groups who together constitute society.” Without love we become isolated and alienated, “a ‘stranger’ in a random universe.” In fact, the lack of love is itself the cause of material deprivation: “if we look closely” at poverty, “even its material forms,” we see that it is “born from isolation, from not being loved or from difficulties in being able to love. Poverty is often produced by a rejection of God’s love.”

But not just any love will do. Love, Benedict instructs, "needs to be understood, confirmed, and practiced in the light of truth," something that is too often forgotten in our "social and cultural context which relativizes truth . . . showing an increasing reluctance to acknowledge its existence." He goes on: "Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. . . . Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word 'love' is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite."

And not just any truth will do. Jesus Christ "is the Truth" (John 14:6); and "Charity in truth" is "the Face of his Person." Only in the truth of God's word (logos) is dialogue (diá-logos) "authentic," and only that truth makes genuine communication and community possible. "Adhering to the values of Christianity," the pope explains, "is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development. A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. . . . There would no longer be any real place for God in the world. Without truth, charity is confined to a narrow field devoid of relations. It is excluded from . . . promoting human development of universal range, in dialogue between knowledge and praxis." In sum, only "love in truth," true love, Christian love, can bring about authentic "social, juridical, political, and economic" development.

The blogosphere--a profane realm if ever there was one--bristles with criticism of this or that aspect of the pope's specific recommendations. Some shake their heads at his call for a strengthening of international governance and the United Nations. Others, conversely, are disappointed in his stress on the ongoing sovereignty of states, and in his insistence that "the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity." Still others, such as Peter Steinfels in The New York Times, never even engage the contents, but complain instead about the difficulty of the prose. But so far as I can tell, nobody is much interested in debating the crucial argument that runs through Benedict's encyclical: the fundamental claim that economic exchange requires love.

This silence is odd, given that nowadays, in the midst of a crisis of confidence in the ability of markets to regulate themselves, we hear any number of calls for their moral reorientation. Princeton University, for example, recently hosted a conference on "Natural Law and Economics." One might therefore expect a "value-oriented" approach from a personage as prominent as the pope to attract serious discussion. Perhaps the problem is that believers treat the economic relevance of God's love as self-evident, while non-believers (especially those trained as economists) consider it absurd. Both, I think, are wrong. Benedict is an influential voice asking a basic question about our markets and our societies: can the values they require to function properly be produced from within themselves, or must those values come from beyond themselves? His question, and his answer, deserve our critical attention.


Far from irrelevant, the question that Benedict is posing about the proper relationship between love and markets may well be the oldest one in economics, though no professional would ask it today. Plato fired an early salvo in his Laws, writing that "there is an evil, great above all others, which most men have implanted in their souls. . . . It is the evil indicated in the saying that every man is by nature a lover of self, and that it is right that he should be such." According to Plato, this self-love, once set loose, knows no bounds: "when [men] desire, they desire without limit . . . and when they can make moderate gains, they prefer to gain insatiably." In pursuit of profit, every individual attempts to exact the highest possible price, treating fellow citizens not as friends but as "foemen," thereby destroying the love of fellow citizens that is necessary for the common good of the polity. In order to promote the love of the common good over the love of self, Plato banned the citizens of his ideal city from trading with each other, assigning foreigners to carry out the misanthropic work of the markets.

Athenians were not the only ones worried about the place of love in economics. At more or less the same time as Plato was writing--give or take a few centuries--and in a not-too-distant neighbor-hood of the Mediterranean, Yahweh was instructing his people how to deal with the same problem. If they followed his commandments, he promised, they would have a positive balance of payments (Deuteronomy 15:5-6). But chief among those commandments was to "love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). God was clearly worried that his people, left to their own devices, would prefer the wealth they might amass in the world to either of these two affections. Hence he established some strict principles to govern how the resources of this "nation of priests" should be shared among its members. He even provided the economy of ancient Israel with a reset button. Every fifty years, at the Jubilee, all debts would be forgiven, all accumulations of land re-distributed into their original allotments: what a modern philosopher might call a "return to the starting gate" system of distributive justice.

Christianity married the concerns of Athens and Jerusalem, adopting, adapting, and adding others to them. Jesus himself was studiously indifferent to the business of getting and spending--when he needed a coin to pay his taxes, he drew it from the mouth of a fish--and actively hostile to the accumulation of capital. "It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:24). Far from short-term, his investment horizon was eternal: "store not your treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store for yourselves treasure in heaven" (Matthew 6:19-20). This widening of the distance between heavenly and earthly goods threatened to reverse the traditional metrics, making prosperity in this life an index not of the properly pious love of God and neighbor, but of the one thing every would-be Christian had to overcome: self-love. "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself. . . . For he that will save his life shall lose it. . . . For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul? What exchange shall a man give for his soul?" (Matthew 16:24-26)

Given these strictures, it is small wonder that by the Middle Ages, "merchant" and "Christian" were nearly mutually exclusive terms. In the words of Gratian's Decretum, the foundational work of medieval canon law: "a merchant can rarely or never please God. And therefore no Christian should be a merchant, and, if he wishes to be one, he should be expelled from the Church." Or in the more modern and moderate language of a Pius XI: "What will it profit to teach [men] sound principles of economic life if in unbridled and sordid greed they let themselves be swept away by their passion for property, so that 'hearing the commandments of the Lord they do all things contrary'?"

In short, for more than two thousand years, self-love was among the most stigmatized sentiments, thought to stand in stark opposition to the love of God and neighbor, and therefore to be the greatest enemy of a godly and well-ordered economy. Today, of course, self-love--or self-interest, as we prefer to call it--is the governing principle of all mainstream economics, widely believed to be the only sentiment capable of maximizing the common good by coordinating human industry and distributing its fruits as efficiently as possible. This reversal of a millennial moral consensus must surely rank among the greatest revolutions in human thought, and it happened with astonishing rapidity.

In the early eighteenth century, when Bernard Mandeville published his Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, his suggestions were met with public outcry and with prosecutions for immorality. But the same century would celebrate the appearance of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Smith's arguments for the sound functioning of markets were predicated on the prerequisites of his earlier Theory of Moral Sentiments, but within another century the more fervent advocates of markets would forgo moral sentiments altogether, preferring to ground society entirely in self-interest and its rights of contract and property.

There were alternatives to this view. Marx, for example, understood the purely self-interested exchanges of a society oriented around private property to be the enemies of true humanism. As he put it in his early notes on the economic writings of James Mill: "the mediating process between men engaged in exchange is not a social or a human process, not human relationship." Marx posited an alternative society, one without private property, one that "carried out production as human beings," for the sake of relation rather than exchange. The benefits that Marx imagined for such production sound oddly similar to those that Benedict is seeking: "In my production . . . I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognized and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and in your love." Only within such a society can I realize "my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature."

For roughly a century, Marxism and its ideological kin provided a powerful political antagonist to the free market. But with the collapse of Marxism two decades ago, the economic victory of self-love seemed complete. It is this victory that Benedict XVI is questioning, and he is far from the first pope to do so. Leo XIII laid the modern foundations for Catholic economics with his encyclical of 1890, "Rerum Novarum: on the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor." That document conceded the necessary power of contract and market, but subjected it to the higher law of "natural justice": "Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to wages; nevertheless there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man." Leo's encyclical proved so important that later popes often issued their encyclicals on economic topics on the anniversaries of Leo's teaching (Pius XI's Quadragesimo anno, in the fortieth year, in 1931, or John Paul II's Centesimus annus, in the hundredth year, in 1991).

Reading through this thick stack of encyclicals, one certainly finds prescriptions that seem out of date, such as the strictures, in Pius XI's encyclical, against women's engagement "in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties." Others--such as this one by the same pontiff--sound as relevant as they did in 1931:

The easy gains that a market unrestricted by any law opens to everybody attracts large numbers to buying and selling goods, and they, their one aim being to make quick profits with the least expenditure of work, raise or lower prices by their uncontrolled business dealings so rapidly according to their own caprice and greed that they nullify the wisest forecasts of producers. The laws passed to promote corporate business, while dividing and limiting the risk of business, have given occasion to the most sordid license. For We observe that consciences are little affected by this reduced obligation of accountability; that furthermore, by hiding under the shelter of a joint name, the worst of injustices and frauds are penetrated; and that, too, directors of business companies, forgetful of their trust, betray the rights of those whose savings they have undertaken to administer.

And one finds also that pontiffs have often disagreed on the specific policy implications of the moral values that they invoke. Leo, for example, stressed that "excessive taxation" was against natural law, whereas Paul VI, in his famous Populorum Progressio, or The Development of Peoples, in 1967, urged the rich to examine their consciences and "pay higher taxes, so that public authorities may expand their efforts in the work of development." Benedict now suggests--true to his principle of "subsidiarity"--that each taxpayer should be allowed to designate how his or her taxes are spent. (I suspect that the result would make California look well-governed.) But despite the shifting sands of detail, papal economics are built upon a shared bedrock of belief: the conviction that material prosperity is important, but that humans were created for a higher good; that they cannot escape the dangers of mere materialism and achieve that higher good without God's help; and finally that the price of failure in this effort is nothing less than the loss of our humanity.


Benedict's teaching differs from that of his predecessors in at least two important ways. The first is evident in the key term in his analysis: "love," rather than "justice," "natural law," or "human reason," the terms that were favored by some of his predecessors. Benedict does want economic exchange governed by some standard of distributive justice. He wants much more than that. In addition to "contracts," "just laws, and forms of redistribution governed by politics," he maintains, "economic life . . . needs works redolent of the spirit of gift." "In commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity." All of us, whether producers, consumers, governors, or financiers, should make room for this "logic of gift" as we carry out our "specific social responsibility."

As Wal-Mart shoppers, for example, we must divide our attention between 1) a self-interest in the lowest possible price for whatever object we desire; and 2) the needs of that object's producers, of the environment in and from which it was made, and of the moral and fiscal balance of global trade (hence "consumers should be continually educated regarding their daily role, which can be exercised with respect for moral principles without diminishing the intrinsic economic rationality of the act of purchasing"); and 3) an openness to the loving "spirit of the gift." Benedict is not simply suggesting a moral yardstick for the marketplace. He is claiming that every commercial exchange needs to become a loving act modeled on the gratuitous gift of Jesus Christ. When we achieve that, he promises, we will be able to "shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God."

The words are Augustine's, though he might not have agreed with their deployment. In The City of God, the Bishop of Hippo frowned on claims that a sphere of human activity such as politics or economics, which "has its good in this world, and rejoices in [the material world] with such joy as such things can afford," could ever prefigure the city of God. At the end of time, he taught, such activities would be "committed to the extreme penalty." Doubtless some Augustinian theologian could mount a critique of Benedict's attempt to fashion an "economic theology," just as in 1935 Erik Peterson--who fled his native Germany and found asylum in the Vatican--attacked the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt's articulation of a Catholic "political theology." I am certainly not that theologian. I wish only to point out the scope of Benedict's ambition. His ideal is that every act of exchange should approximate the gratuitous gift of divine love. Every coin should approximate a Eucharist.

To some extent, Benedict's predecessors shared this ideal. In 1987, in Sollicitudo rei socialis, John Paul II also described the desired order in terms of sacrament: "This supreme model of unity, which is a reflection of the intimate life of God, one God in three Persons, is what we Christians mean by the word 'communion.' This specifically Christian communion, jealously preserved, extended and enriched with the Lord's help, is the soul of the Church's vocation to be a 'sacrament.' " But while John Paul maintained Catholicism's "jealously preserved" prerogatives, he did not make them a prerequisite for responding to his message:

I wish to appeal with simplicity and humility to everyone, to all men and women without exception. I wish to ask them to be convinced of the seriousness of the present moment and of each one's individual responsibility, and to implement--by the way they live as individuals and as families, by the use of their resources, by their civic activity, by contributing to economic and political decisions and by personal commitment to national and international undertakings--the measures inspired by solidarity and love of preference for the poor. This is what is demanded by the present moment and above all by the very dignity of the human person, the indestructible image of God the Creator, which is identical in each one of us.

In this commitment, the sons and daughters of the Church must serve as examples and guides. . . . [But] I [also] wish to address especially those who, through the sacrament of Baptism and the profession of the same Creed, share a real, though imperfect, communion with us. I am certain that the concern expressed in this Encyclical as well as the motives inspiring it will be familiar to them, for these motives are inspired by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We can find here a new invitation to bear witness together to our common convictions. . . . I likewise address this appeal to the Jewish people, who share with us the inheritance of Abraham, "our father in faith" and the tradition of the Old Testament, as well as to the Muslims who, like us, believe in a just and merciful God. And I extend it to all the followers of the world's great religions.

John Paul understood that an encyclical addressed to global problems cannot speak in parochial terms. Certainly he was a Defender of the Faith; but like Paul VI, whose Populorum Progressio he was commemorating, he left the bulk of that defense for other encyclicals. Benedict's new encyclical also presents itself as a celebration of Populorum Progressio, and it, too, claims to be addressed to peoples of all faiths. But here the complications, and the narrowings, set in. Benedict's second key term, again, is "truth"--and this points to vast differences in strategy, if not in dogma. Unlike those previous encyclicals, Benedict's Caritas in Veritate foregrounds the argument that only Catholicism contains the "Love in Truth" that is necessary to address our global problems. Only Catholicism produces the synthesis of faith and reason, of spirit and flesh, necessary to produce an "authentic" economic development that does not lapse into either "mere" technical knowledge (materialism) or fanatical rejection of the world and its wealth. And only Catholicism, Benedict tells us, can achieve the universal fraternity necessary for authentic community: "Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is."

Undoubtedly there will be those who disagree with some of Benedict's specific truths. Myself, I am not convinced that love, charity, or empathy require "universal fraternity." In the words of Proverbs, "better a close neighbor than a distant brother." But disagreement is not the problem: popes have the right, indeed the obligation, to teach believers the truth as they are given to perceive it, no matter how controversial. The problem is that Benedict is claiming to offer general answers to global questions that affect people of every faith (and sometimes of no faith), while at the same time insisting that the only possible answer to those questions is Catholicism. Such a suggestion might be a plausible prescription for global peace and development in a Catholic world, but the world is not Catholic.

Where John Paul II or Paul VI cultivated an ecumenical voice when they wished to speak about global problems, Benedict cultivates a dogmatic one. In his famous Regensburg address in 2007, he invited the Muslim world to a tolerant "dialogue," but set the Catholic synthesis of faith and reason as a prerequisite for that dialogue. Now he offers the peoples of the world some valuable insights into the current problems of our global order, but again he expresses them in an insular manner, as a defense of Catholicism's exclusive claims to truth.

Benedict can be a subtle thinker about the role of religious values in modern life, so if he chooses dogmatism, he doubtless has his ecclesiological reasons. But our current debates about the economy are the poorer for the choice. We are living through a time of sharpened questions about the role of values and moral sentiments in the marketplace. Our economic crisis has rightly refreshed the debate about our economic principles. And we are learning that after decades of triumphant liberal capitalism, we lack--at least in the United States--a political or philosophical discourse of sufficient resonance to temper the claims of self-interest.

Religions offer one of the few reservoirs of moral values still deep enough to nourish popular visions of a more "common good" (as the Obama campaign realized when it adopted the scriptural tag "Am I my brother's keeper?"). But if by "common" we mean "global," as Benedict says he does, then the prescriptions that we produce from within our own communities of conviction must be intelligible and adoptable outside of them. They must make sense to people who do not already share all of those convictions. If they do not, then what we are issuing is simply a call for conversion to our own cult or culture. And such calls are unlikely to contribute to global unity, even when they are made in the name of universal love, because that love contracts readily into a sectarian one, in which "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) comes to mean "love your fellow Christian" (Hebrews 13:1).

If this last point sounds extreme, it may help to remember that Benedict's Catholic solution to the problems of globalization is not the only religious one on offer, nor the most widespread. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, Islamist thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb first proposed and then achieved a muscular mobilization of the demands of a transcendent God against those of a globalizing market. Qutb understood Islam--much as Benedict understands Catholicism--as the only religion capable of dialectically reconciling humanity's material and spiritual needs. The Christian West--deliberately undermined by Judaism--had succumbed to an atheistic materialism, worshipping only rationality and technical prowess, with which it now threatened to overwhelm the rest of the world. According to Qutb, Islam alone was capable of resisting this materialism and rescuing true humanism (a claim similar to, but incompatible with, Benedict's claims for Catholicism). Islamism is today one of the most widespread movements of resistance to the perceived injustices of globalization, but it has hardly succeeded in bringing the world unity and peace. Why should we expect, unless we are ourselves already believers, that any other exclusive claim to divine economic truth can do any better?

We do not require religion in order to find ways of aligning the many types of exchanges so necessary to human society with some large vision of distributive justice. We can draw on philosophical theories (such as John Rawls's); on theories of empathy and other moral sentiments (such as Adam Smith's), and on legal traditions (such as natural law); on rapidly accumulating research about perceptions of fairness, reciprocity, and symmetry in the psychology of economic behavior; and even on recent studies of capuchin monkeys, in which test subjects refused to perform the behaviors they had been trained for when they saw another monkey receiving greater reward for the same trick. And yet Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, and many other religions have produced an immense body of thought about economic morality, and that thought has great resonance.

In a de-secularizing age, and with our faith in self-interest shaken by economic crisis, we should want to draw on the wisdom in that ocean of thought. But if those teachings are to contribute to global "unity and peace," they will have to be taught in a way that seeks to transcend the boundaries of the traditions that produced them. This does not mean, as Benedict fears, that Christianity (or any other religion) must become "more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance," or that "there would no longer be any real place for God in the world." Values are not a zero-sum game. God's place in the world is not lost when one religion tries to translate some of its truths into helpful good sentiments for those of other or no faith, something that Pius XI and John Paul II both understood. Benedict presents his encyclical as a continuation of their teaching, but in this regard he did not follow their example. His "love" is narrowed by his "truth."