Pope’s Important Message Should Not be Mangled

Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on economic issues Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) appears to have stirred up a lively discussion, and that’s all to the good. This is a long, complex, thought-provoking document with an important message for the Church and for the world. The more discussion it gets, the better.

Thus it’s without any wish to choke off the debate that I note two kinds of response to the encyclical that strike me as more or less unhelpful.

One is the claim that on a number of the issues discussed in the document, the Pope comes down somewhere to the left of President Barack Obama. The other is the explanation that, where the encyclical says things the commentator doesn’t agree with, faceless Vatican bureaucrats rather than the Pope are to blame.

Take those remarks one at a time.

To begin with, saying that the Pope comes down to the left (or to the right, for that matter) of the American president is embarrassingly parochial. Should the encyclical then be judged in France by situating it left or right of President Sarkozy, in Germany left or right of Chancellor Merkel, in Great Britain left or right of Prime Minister Brown? The Pope is not writing here for just one country or one part of the world, and this way of reading him smacks of crass chauvinism.

Moreover, even on its own terms the remark is meaningless. Let’s suppose that Pope Benedict and President Obama are more or less in agreement on the analysis of economic issues and more or less in disagreement on the question of legal protection for unborn human life. (As far as I can tell, that is roughly the case.)

The crucial — and remarkably creative — thing about the encyclical nevertheless is the powerful case made by the Pope for the inseparability of what he calls “life ethics” and “social ethics.” This flows naturally from the emphasis — here and in other documents of the papal magisterium — on integral human development, the development of persons in relation to the totality of human goods, as the fundamental measure of social and economic policy.

To say that the Pope is to the left of Obama on some things and to the right on others misses this fundamental point.

But so does the second reaction: blaming things in the encyclical that you don’t happen to like on apparatchiks in the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, as if the Pope were unaware of what his document says or went along with it under protest.

Consider. Several times in the last year and a half the publication of Caritas in Veritate was said on the record to be imminent and then was postponed. The reason each time was that Pope Benedict wasn’t satisfied with the draft and wanted it revised to bring it in line with the facts of the global economic crisis.

Whatever anyone makes of this, it hardly suggests a pope who is disengaged from the writing process and does not know (or doesn’t care) what’s going on. On the contrary, it makes it clear that Benedict was closely involved in the drafting process and very much in control. The final product, one can safely conclude, says what it says because that’s what he wants it to say. Critics need to face up to that instead of blaming apparatchiks.

All of which is simply by way of clearing out some underbrush so that the discussion can proceed. Caritas in Veritate and its author deserve as much.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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  • cpageinkeller

    Thanks, Mr. Shaw for a great title. You said, “Let’s suppose that Pope Benedict and President Obama are more or less in agreement on the analysis of economic issues…” I think this supposition is seriously flawed and “mangles” the message. In essence, you argue against this supposition in the next paragraph: “the powerful case made by the Pope for the inseparability of what he calls “life ethics” and “social ethics.”

    I believe, therefore, that there is fundamental disagreement regarding the cause, status of, and fix for economic issues. It seems to me that Pope Benedict’s economic analysis (failure of “Caritas in Veritate”) is quite different from that of Obama: failure of Government Regulation. Their solutions are therefore quite different. Pope Benedict speaks to economic policy based in subsidiarity and solidarity. Obama speaks in terms of more government and a progressive socialistic society.

  • I think Mr. Shaw can perhaps be forgiven, if by his statement he means that both the Pope and President Obama would approve of a society where wealth is apportioned roughly in line with Distributivist ideals. (So too would I.)

    Where they vary widely is in how they think such a society can best be reached: President Obama is certain that massive government intervention is required, while both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II seem to have very serious doubts that a highly intrusive government can achieve any such good.