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Jul. 15 2009 - 6:51 pm | 6 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

The pope’s progress encyclical: dense, overlong, and great


Most papal encyclicals are ignored and forgotten. Who recalls Populorum Progressio (1967), Centesimus Annus (1991), or Spe Salvi (2008)? The same fate probably awaits Caritas in Veritate, the new social encyclical about globalization and the economic crisis. Certainly its publication last week garnered little attention from print reporters, who wrote about the document in a polite, faintly bored tone.

Part of the blame for the encyclical’s poor reception deserves to go to its authors, Pope Benedict XVI and his aides. Caritas in Veritate makes a CBO report look like The Great Gatsby, as it is filled with dependent clauses and academic phrases. It’s too long — a 30,000-word document that should have been cut by half. And its opening lacks context, leaving readers unclear about its subject matter. (By contrast, Rerum Novarum, perhaps the best known of the papal encylicals, is if not in the stylistic league of A Communist Manifesto, sharply written and engaging).

And part of the blame for the encyclical’s poor reception deserves to go to its commentators, most of whom are Catholic. A reader who knew nothing about the document except what she read on the blogosphere could be forgiven for wondering what in the hell it’s about. On the left, Caritas in Veritate was portrayed as an affirmation and challenge to the Democratic Party’s economic policies. On the right, it was depicted as if not an embrace of the GOP’s cultural positions, at least a rebuke to liberal social engineering and a warning about the perils of technology. On the center-right, it was characterized as a “crunchy con encyclical” and a work of “left-right fusionism.”

But the last thing the document deserves is to be gathering dust in libraries and unclicked on the Vatican’s website. Caritas in Veritate deserves a wide hearing. For all of its sins against style, its content represents a kind of state of grace. And anyway, City of God and the Summa Theologica endure despite and not because of their lucidity.

The topic of Caritas in Veritate could not be timelier. Every “serious” non-fiction writer in the West is writing about globalization and the economic crisis – Thomas Friedman, the late Samuel Huntington, Robert Kaplan. And every major elected official has been forced to deal with the topics, whether it’s the president or the governor of a Midwestern state.

If the theme of the encyclical were platitudinous, if say it argued that globalization offers promise and perils, its timeliness would not matter. But in the current political debate, its message qualifies as radical: the royal road to human development does not lie down the paths of adopting techniques or structures, although some are better than others; it lies down the path of embracing gospel values, what Benedict calls “the light of the Gospel.” Similar to that of Dickens, Benedict’s message is one of Christian humanism: Behave like a real Christian first, and worry about the shape of society later.

One of Benedict’s main points is that most techniques are morally ambivalent; a technique by definition is a tool, something that can be used for good or for ill. Economic markets, for instance, are not inherently good or bad. As he writes,

Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations. Admittedly, the market can be a negative force, not because it is so by nature, but because a certain ideology can make it so. It must be remembered that the market does not exist in the pure state. It is shaped by the cultural configurations which define it and give it direction. Economy and finance, as instruments, can be used badly when those at the helm are motivated by purely selfish ends. Instruments that are good in themselves can thereby be transformed into harmful ones. But it is man’s darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the instrument per se. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.

By the same logic, globalization is portrayed not as a solution or problem for humanity, but rather as an amoral force of nature. “It will be what people make of it,” Benedict writes. On the one hand, globalization can beget massive redistribution of wealth. On the other hand, it begets sex tourism, especially that in which adults travel abroad to prey on children.

A conservative writer criticized the encyclical on the grounds that it ignored the great wealth that free markets have produced. Although Benedict writes that emancipation from poverty is an inherent good, he cautions that it does not necessarily lead to true human advancement or progress. In fact, “new sectors of society are succumbing to poverty and new forms of poverty are increasing.” Besides the vast economic inequalities between rich and poor nations, many wealthy countries endorse and export abortion “as if it were a form of cultural progress” Only openness to life, he writes, represents genuine human development:

Openness to life is at the centre of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away[67]. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fibre and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual.

To Benedict, adopting the proper techniques and structures are less important than adopting Gospel values. Human dignity is one tenet of his vision, not to mention that of Catholic social thought. So is human solidarity. Early in the encyclical, Benedict states that providing food and water to poor countries is an ethical imperative:

hunger still reaps enormous numbers of victims among those who, like Lazarus, are not permitted to take their place at the rich man’s table, contrary to the hopes expressed by Paul VI[64]. Feed the hungry (cf. Mt 25: 35, 37, 42) is an ethical imperative for the universal Church, as she responds to the teachings of her Founder, the Lord Jesus, concerning solidarity and the sharing of goods. Moreover, the elimination of world hunger has also, in the global era, become a requirement for safeguarding the peace and stability of the planet. Hunger is not so much dependent on lack of material things as on shortage of social resources, the most important of which are institutional. What is missing, in other words, is a network of economic institutions capable of guaranteeing regular access to sufficient food and water for nutritional needs, and also capable of addressing the primary needs and necessities ensuing from genuine food crises, whether due to natural causes or political irresponsibility, nationally and internationally. The problem of food insecurity needs to be addressed within a long-term perspective, eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it and promoting the agricultural development of poorer countries.

Benedict does not dismiss techniques and structures altogether. As the passage above suggests, he endorses methods to alleviate social problems. Unions promote economic and social solidarity. Micro-financing helps enable the poor to enjoy the bounty they make and produce. A global economic institution would help regulate hazardous markets. The family is the first unit of society.

These institutions form the backbone of civil society, and Benedict argues that they should be strengthened at the expense of the market and state. In fact, he decries the “exclusive binary model of market-plus-State (a)s corrosive of society” because they promote the logic of giving in order to acquire (the logic of the market) and giving through duty (the logic of public obligation, imposed by the State). Better that people act from an ethic of giving and communion.

If Caritas has a flaw, it is an ironic and no doubt unintentional one: its message does not embrace Catholic social thought adequately. While the encyclical endorses the principle of subsidiarity, it is silent about the family wage: the principle that a laborer deserves to earn enough money from his or her job to enable the spouse to raise the kids and to keep the Sabbath holy. Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus, to take two examples, endorsed the concept of a family wage repeatedly.

I would urge all people of good will to read Benedict’s new encyclical. Tear yourself away from the TV, sit down for two or three hours, and wrestle with the arguments of one of the world’s greatest thinkers. I doubt many people will take me up on the offer, but then again, nothing worthwhile is accomplished easily.


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    Mark I am one of those who is unlikely to take you up on your offer to read the encyclical. Not because what it states might be important stuff but frankly I never understood the point of papal encyclicals. Certainly encyclicals regarding the policy and procedure of the church having meaning but as far as one attempting to address the world situation I think they have very little impact in the scheme of things today.

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    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party (Encounter Books, 2007). He was born in San Francisco in 1970 and raised in the Bay Area. He graduated from Santa Clara University and the University of Chicago (M.A. in Social Sciences, '97). In between, he worked, as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, for an inner-city housing agency in Baton Rouge, La. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard, among other publications. He, his wife, and two daughters live in the Washington, D.C. region.

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