On hearing the Pope has written another ‘Love’ encyclical, one is attempted to dismiss it out of hand. The term ‘Love’ is thrown around so much nowadays, by Catholics AND non-Catholics, the first thought which comes to mind is the encyclical could not have anything original to say. The Pope, aware you might be thinking this, addresses the matter head on: “…charity has been and continues to be misconstrued and emptied of meaning, with the consequent risk of being misinterpreted…” Yes, he says, everyone uses the term, but the term has been abused.
Now this IS interesting. How can such a popular term, one which everyone claims to understand, be abused? A brief look at the Culture Wars in the United States should answer that question. Abortion, Marriage, Stem Cell Research are all divisive issues and both sides in the debate articulate their views in terms of Love or Charity. Since both sides claim Love as their mantle, they must be providing different meanings to it. Being all things to all people, Love now means anything to anyone.
The emptiness of the term, the Pope argues, is the result of “a social and cultural context which relativizes truth…” We see here a reference to Relativism, a philosophical view which denies the absolute validity of any truth claim. Calling attention to the pervasiveness of this doctrine has been a reoccurring theme of the Benedict’s pontificate. Truth be told, it was a theme of his even before he became the Pontiff. Before he entered the Conclave which would elect him as Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger famously said, “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires.”
Why should any of us care about such an abstract idea? Because ideas have consequences and in this case the consequences are dire. The Pope tells us that without truth “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.” If Truth is a fiction, then might makes right. In light of these excerpts, one is given a prism to view current economic crisis. In a world where Relativism has run amok, do not be suprised to find speculators gambling, loan officers looking the other way, and borrowers lying on their applications. This Philosopher-Pope, far from having his head in the clouds, is addressing issues close to home.
“Without truth,” the Pope argues, “charity degenerates into sentimentality.” The Encyclical is titled Love IN TRUTH (Caritas in Veritate). Again, we can see the practicality of his point here. Love, without roots in objective truth, is reduced to mere feelings (what the Pope calls 'emotionalism'). And feelings can be fickle. Reliability is not the first thing which comes to mind when someone says he has “strong feelings” on the matter. When Caritas is simply a matter of the passions, then today’s “I love you” is tomorrow’s “I want a divorce.” Dealing with a person who is feeding off his emotions is like opening up Forrest Gump's box of chocolates-you never know what you’re gonna get.