I’ve been fiddling with this post for ten days or so now. One reason for the delay is that the topic is really too big for a blog post. Re-reading the encyclical, marking passages, and making notes, I realized that I needed to scale back my intended commentary quite a bit. The thing is just too big and complex, and covers too much ground, for me to go into much detail about it in less than, say, 15 or 20% of its 30,000 words. So I’m going to try to make just a few broad points.
And for another thing, the fact is that social and political and economic affairs are not high on the list of things I’m interested in these days, and frankly I had to more or less force myself to carry out my stated intention of commenting on Caritas in Veritate.
So I don’t want anyone to take this as any sort of summary or in the least bit a substitute for reading the encyclical itself, or even to think that I’ve covered its major points, because I haven’t. You can only get it all that by reading it, which I recommend that you do. This is only an account of what I find most interesting and significant in it.
To get the negatives out of the way first: CiV has been criticized from both sides of the American political-religious spectrum for being poorly written. The critics have a point. George Weigel had at least a half-point in saying that it seems the work of two different hands. As I noted a few days ago, there are passages of lucid and piercing insight of the sort familiar to anyone who has read much at all of Benedict’s writings, including (or especially) his pre-papal ones. And there are passages that are…not lucid and piercing. In general, it seems that the more the encyclical approaches advice about specific situations, the more clumsy it seems, the more it seems to take on a sort of ponderous bureaucratic tone, a tone of some authority but insufficient and of the wrong kind, the authority of a committee rather than a magisterium
By way of illustration, I’ll insert something I said in a comment a few days ago:
“...international tourism often follows a consumerist and hedonistic pattern, as a form of escapism planned in a manner typical of the countries of origin, and therefore not conducive to authentic encounter between persons and cultures. We need, therefore, to develop a different type of tourism that has the ability to promote genuine mutual understanding, without taking away from the element of rest and healthy recreation. Tourism of this type needs to increase, partly through closer coordination with the experience gained from international cooperation and enterprise for development.”
This lends credence to the suggestion that the pope simply included too much. The quoted passage is certainly good counsel, and it isn’t as far out of the way as it may seem in isolation, because the topic is the positive and negative aspects of globalization, but this sort of thing does make the document longer and duller than it might have been, and reports to that effect may be discouraging people from reading it, even (or especially?) those who make the attempt.
There is so much here that the world so badly needs to hear, that it’s a shame to have its impact blunted. The sentences I quoted are preceded by a denunciation of “sex tourism,” in which people from the wealthier nations go to places like Thailand and pay for sometimes thoroughly perverted sexual practices. But that, too, is denounced in the same colorless and detached way.
But on to the good stuff: one of the marginal notes I made on my first reading was a Christian theory of progress. And I think that’s a good thumbnail description of the encyclical. There are a good many superficial and even mindless notions of progress around: notions that any and all technological progress is always good, notions that any and all elimination of traditional moral limits is always good, and the like.
In response to these, the pope is not reactionary or merely negative. He doesn’t deny that real progress is possible, and has been achieved. He does not denounce the modern world in toto. But he calls attention, urgent attention, to the areas in which progress has been incomplete or false. And his call is not so much for mankind to embrace the Church directly as for it to listen to its own best instincts. As far as I remember he doesn’t use the phrase “natural law,” but that’s what he’s talking about. He appeals to the world to assent to what is written in every heart, though often denied: that we did not create ourselves or the world, that we are more than our bodies and our appetites, that we owe to each other what we ourselves expect, that justice is a moral imperative binding on everyone, that the human race is fundamentally one before it is an assemblage of nations and cultures,.
So un-reactionary is the encyclical, in fact, that one striking feature is its complete acceptance of certain fundamentals of the modern world, things having to do with material progress and the expansion of liberty: technology, science, the enterprise economy, democracy. It considers these to be basically good things, and is concerned that they be guided and corrected and that their fruits be widely distributed. It insists on a conception of progress articulated by Paul VI and repeated several times here: “the development of each man and of the whole man”—this is the Christian theory of progress I mentioned.
The acceptance is far from uncritical, of course; in fact, to put it that way is an understatement. The pope is deeply concerned about the dangers of inadequate or misguided development which is often the result of a misapplication of some advance. He is concerned, for instance, about ideologies which would consider the workings of the market and of technology to be properly beyond the reach of ethics, and any product produced by them acceptable, as long as it is produced freely. He is concerned about the imposition on some societies of a sort of unofficial practical atheism, which practically forbids the application of ethical principles to social and technical questions if they can be shown to have any foundation in religion. He is of course concerned about what we generally call the “life issues,” and links them directly to questions of material welfare. (Somewhat to my surprise, he says relatively little about the link between poverty and the collapse of marriage.)
In short, he is insistent that any development which purports to be for the benefit of mankind must be grounded in the truth about mankind, including acknowledgment of the fact—the pope does not hold this to be a matter for debate—that man is more than a material being. This is charity in truth. The progressive impulse, no matter whether its details are of a “left” or a “right” slant, leads inevitably to some form of abuse, and to a deformed sort of development, if it is ungrounded in and unbounded by truth.
Not everyone agrees that commercial and industrial development as we know them are in fact good things. Those who find themselves fundamentally at odds with the modern world (and with whom I have some sympathy) will not find much here to support their view. There is in fact a direct rebuke to those who deplore all or most development. Agrarians and distributists will not find much direct support for their ideas—but yet there is plenty of room for them. For this document challenges everyone, of any political persuasion, to consider new ways of approaching problems in the light of those two words that appear in the title and over and over again in the text.
And that’s where the door is very much open for, say, distributism, which in my opinion has much to commend it as a means of implementing the balance of liberty and restraint which the encyclical carefully maintains. The pope is clearly impatient with the static conception of balancing big corporations against big government that occupies so much of our political debate (in this country, at least). Cooperatives and worker-owned enterprises would seem to be among the things he is thinking of when he speaks of new models of business that are not driven purely for the short-term profit of investors otherwise unconnected with the enterprise.
Much of the initial reaction to the encyclical, at least in this country, took the form of a predictable struggle by the political right and the political left to seize it as a weapon with which to beat each other. Within hours of its release, liberals and conservatives were mining it for quotes which would justify their political goals.
This is not only false to the details of the encyclical, which include much to discomfit both parties, but, in my opinion, to its fundamental stance, which is less to assert specific policies than to insist, over and over and over again, that everything pertaining to development must pass the tests of charity and truth. And this is nothing less than the fundamental address of the Church to the World which has been consistent from the very beginning: that the World has and should have a liberty which is proper to it, but that its liberty is bounded by the laws of God.
Instead of the Catholic right and left looking for approval of their favored ideas (and disapproval of the other side’s), each should embrace the imperative that everything, both existing and proposed, be judged according to its impact on the common good. And the common good must be defined as broadly as possible: again, “the development of each man and of the whole man.” Development that leaves out some people is inadequate; development that leaves out the spiritual or disregards the ethical is inadequate and often pernicious.
Rather than combing the encyclical for weapons to be wielded against political enemies, each side should permit itself to be challenged and purified by its demands. On a matter such as, for instance, reform of the U.S. health care system, there is no single obviously correct Catholic answer. But there is an obviously correct way of asking the question: how can we make health care available to everyone who needs it?
I don’t mean to say that there are no fairly specific recommendations here, and some fairly obvious conclusions to be drawn from some of the principles. Some are commonplace, almost platitudinous, some controversial. But these to me are less important than the fundamental attitude for which the encyclical calls, an attitude that is not content with a mechanical approach to problems, or with a superficial view of progress that leaves out the things that make progress worthwhile. If this basic approach could be widely shared, I have no doubt that a wealth of creative and effective approaches to our problems would follow. This is the job of the laity: to take the principles laid down by the Magisterium and figure out ways of implementing them.
I’ll balance my earlier inclusion of a dull passage from the encyclical with a finer one. It’s the closing paragraph of the first chapter, and unlike the passage about tourism it does sound like Benedict, and seems to delineate his view of the fundamental relationship between theology and social questions (the emphasis in the last sentence is mine):
The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.” She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation. Without truth, it is easy to fall into an empiricist and sceptical view of life, incapable of rising to the level of praxis because of a lack of interest in grasping the values—sometimes even the meanings—with which to judge and direct it. Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development. For this reason the Church searches for truth, proclaims it tirelessly and recognizes it wherever it is manifested. This mission of truth is something that the Church can never renounce. Her social doctrine is a particular dimension of this proclamation: it is a service to the truth which sets us free. Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church's social doctrine receives it, assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life patterns of the society of peoples and nations.
I’ve left off the footnotes. This 50-page document has 159 of them.
I’ve made no attempt to survey systematically or thoroughly the various reactions and commentaries to the encyclical. But here are links to some that I think are useful and/or encouraging. The first two, by Tobias Danna and Joe Hargrave, are from young Catholics who are approaching these questions with a refreshing lack of regard for our standard partisan battle lines, and with precisely the sense of commitment to the essential effort and attitude commended by Benedict that I see as being the essence of the encyclical. I don’t necessarily agree with every detail of what they say; for instance, I wouldn’t characterize, as Toby does, the American bishops overall as “right wing.” But they are pointing us in the way we need to go.
Joe Hargrave: A New Conservatism (at Inside Catholic).
Tobias Danna: Catholic and American, but Catholic Completely in Charitable Contradiction (at his blog, which regrettably he is discontinuing).
And here’s one, in a more practical and specific vein, from John Médaille at Front Porch Republic: Benedict on Business: What’s Love Got to Do With it? What I like especially about John’s piece is that he confronts at the practical level the prevailing assumption that we must choose between MegaCorp and MegaGov (or, if not choose, expect nothing more than to balance them against each other) with the former falsely held to represent enterprise and liberty and the latter falsely held to represent community and solidarity.
 I’ve been trying to think of a term other than “capitalism,” “the market,” “the free market,” etc. to describe the economies of the industrialized nations. The usual terms are not only often vaguely defined at best (there are few if any completely free markets) but loaded with assocations that are positive for some and negative for others. This seems to me preferable.