A mind for the poor, revisted: Caritas In Veritate

Caritas in veritate [charity in truth] is the principle around which the Church’s social doctrine turns…” writes Pope Benedict XVI.

The title of this, his most recent encyclical, is taken from Ephesians 4:15, “Instead, speaking the truth in love…” It is a densely argued case for what Pope Benedict feels “truth in love” means on a vast range of issues from economics, politics, human rights, and technology, to human reproduction and the sanctity of life.

The encyclical is expansive and makes for slow reading, but the introduction demands every Christian’s attention. “Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity…. 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.”

Well spoken. Without truth, love becomes an empty shell.

Benedict goes on to describe the “truth” to his readers.

But is it the truth?

My August column, “A mind for the poor,” took its title from a speech given by Rwandan president Paul Kagame in which he argues that aid money has, on balance, hurt rather than helped Africa. His appeal was poignant: those sending aid have a “heart for the poor. But they also need to have a mind for the poor.”

Shocking argument

Kagame draws heavily from the book, Dead Aid, by Dambisa Moyo. Moyo’s message is even more blunt. Aid has corrupted Africa. Aid is the cause of much of Africa’s grief. It is a shocking argument, expounded on by pages of statistics and the conclusions of studies.

Her premise is captured in a quote from the chief economist at the British Department of Trade and Industry that “they know it’s cr-p, but it sells the T-shirts.” Moyo’s language is less papal but she is saying the same thing as Benedict.

Dambisa Moyo is describing the “truth” about aid.

But is it the truth?

There are few things more controversial and even inflammatory than when we try to combine truth and love. The notion that I am carrying the banner of truth is intoxicating, with all the attendant problems. However, for all the abuse Ephesians 4:15 has suffered because of this, it is the principle around which not only the church’s social doctrine, but the kingdom of God itself, turns.

But if we believe “the truth in love” is that important we have no choice but to wrestle with the “truth.”

Different conclusions

Moyo and Benedict both agree that compassion for the poor of the world is non-negotiable. Both also agree that compassion without a rigorous pursuit of the truth makes matters worse. But they also see truth from different perspectives and on several key points come to radically different conclusions.

Benedict approaches the problem from a cosmic level. The problem, he argues, is that “without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space….it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth.” A world that does not acknowledge the Creator of life cannot function in truth.

And therefore his solution is that the church must bring leadership that “allows faith, theology, metaphysics, and science to come together in a collaborative effort in the service of humanity.” He speaks of redistribution of wealth, protection of social security, more aid.

Moyo approaches the problem from a pragmatic perspective. Those attempting to solve the problem of poverty must examine what works and what doesn’t. She implies that those sending aid to Africa have failed to acknowledge how easily and thoroughly money corrupts the channels of aid.

The solution, therefore, according to Moyo, is in the marketplace. This is why China is the true friend of Africa. “The mistake the West made was giving something for nothing. The secret of China’s success is that its foray into Africa is all business.”

Two perspectives of the world, two honest and intelligent minds at work, and two radically different solutions. But which is truth?

The kingdom of God is about both truth and love. We are probably more accustomed to the mystery of love than the mystery of truth. We are quite certain that we cannot put easy boundaries around love but we may be tempted to capture truth in a phrase, a concept, or an argument. It rarely works.

And in the face of this challenge we can easily despair and abandon the quest for truth.
That is not the kingdom way. Truth and error do exist. Benedict reminds us that truth “is both the light of reason and the light of faith.” When it comes to truth, the best we can do is to listen carefully, research thoroughly, and reason critically.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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