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The Encyclical Caritas in Veritate Through the Lens of Casa Juan Diego

Josh is a Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego, recently graduated from North Park University in Chicago.

Caritas in Veritate is an invitation to think differently. It is, above all, a challenge to think like a Christian in matters beyond one’s ‘personal religious experience’ or ‘private life.’ The Church has often-untapped resources, beyond that which the secular has, that speak to not only what it means to be human, but also (precisely because we can talk about this) the whole realm of human activity, from art to social theory to economics.

All we are and all we have is sheer gift.  Our very lives are freely given to us, and anything we may come across, even acquire, was not made of our volition but happily encountered as given. Gift is part of being human. Contrary to the ‘state of nature’ accounts of man on which Western politics is based, the Church tells us that we are not isolated, rational creators, but loved receivers, always in relationship with God, family, neighbor, culture. Perfection for humans means saying yes to receiving the gift of being, yes to the gift of God’s will in our lives (for a beautiful exposition on receptivity and perfection, see David Schindler’s Heart of the World, Center of the Church ).

As a volunteer at Casa Juan Diego, I have plenty of opportunities for giving.  More, truth be told, than I would prefer, especially when it’s coffee that’s needed at five in the morning, or yet another midnight ride to the hospital.  But there is a great deal of beauty in the work. The very great majority of what I give is not mine, but something given to us, which gives me a sense of great thankfulness for all those who work for the poor by giving to us.  Perhaps the most remarkable experience of gift I have had was on a recent trip to Mexico.  One of the guests had advanced cancer and wanted to die with his family, but could not make the trip on his own.  The few days I spent with his family were wonderful; their hospitality was heavenly and I could not but receive sweet gifts of food, time, and such. It was the very model of how we as a people should receive immigrants to our country, what Casa Juan Diego aspires to do: to happily give a warm bed, provide a good meal, to share stories and culture. Such sharing helps us to achieve brotherhood across borders, solidarity with those whom we previously didn’t know. Benedict XVI observes that beyond a lack of thought, lack of brotherhood with people whom we do not know but with whom, through globalization, we are inextricably in economic relation to, is a deep cause of problems. How sad that we don’t pursue brotherhood and understanding when there is such joy in it!

Benedict begins his encyclical letter with a discussion of the relationship of charity and truth, something a Christian is well-equipped to do.  Charity and truth both come from God: we must understand their relationship to both one another and to God, or we will not know what either really is. ‘Charity’ often means something we do – going to a soup kitchen for an afternoon around the holidays, giving away a few of our extra things. These can certainly be acts of charity, but charity is more. Charity, love, is what God is, and thus a part of what we are, as bearers of God’s image.

Our giftedness entails freely giving just as we have freely received; this is the groundwork for Benedict’s discussion of charity and truth. Truth without charity is left unauthenticated; charity without truth is sentimentality. Together, they reveal the truth about God and humanity.

On the personal, micro-level, this means that helping the poor should not be a red-letter event, but something ordinary, part of who we are. I think of our volunteer doctors, for whom giving medical care to the undocumented is a part of the rhythm of the week; I think of all who make and deliver sandwiches here to feed the hungry, making giving something ordinary. On the macro-level, if we want our economics to be shaped by what we know is true about individual people, it must account for and include charity. This is surely a sticking point for many, but we if we believe in true charity on a small level, denying it on a large level amounts to rejecting what we believe as true about people, clinging to charity’s evil (but easier) twin, sentimentality.

Since charity includes gratuitous giving, it must go beyond justice: I cannot give to you in charity until I have first given you what is yours according to justice.  Whatever foreign aid we give to poor countries is not yet charity; it is often only the beginnings of decency.

Many guests at Casa Juan Diego come north because the jobs in their towns pay less than one dollar an hour. “Cheaper cost of living down there,” we may say – true, but not fifteen times lower than ours. “That’s the going rate,” we may say – this is a supposedly morally neutral statement in a secular capitalist system, but is an indication of absolute scandal if we are Christians. Paying a Mexican seventy-five cents an hour to make Levi’s is an affront to human dignity and has no place in a human economy. It serves only as an example of a sinful economic structure, however well it works out for the bourgeois. It is an indication that we have wholeheartedly embraced the false anthropology given by Smith and Locke, of Milton Friedman, rather than a Christian view of what a human is. What we need is an economics rooted in the Common Good of Aquinas, the mercy and justice of the Hebrew Prophets. An economy based on freely giving and the pursuit of the integral development of the whole person and every person is the only faithfully Christian possibility

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXX, No1, January-February 2010.