Taking the Pope’s Thought Seriously

A thoughtful and not unsympathetic discussion of a papal encyclical in a secular, liberal political journal? After all, why not? David Nirenberg’s treatment of Pope Benedict XVI’s economic encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) in the September 23 New Republic is one of the best short commentaries on this papal document that I’ve read to date.

Nirenberg is a professor of history at the University of Chicago. His analysis is a temperate and thought-provoking look at the encyclical that merits consideration in its own right.

He begins by noting that although people on both the left and the right have been free in their criticism of the Pope’s document, “nobody is much interested in debating the crucial argument…the fundamental claim that economic exchange requires love.” Perhaps, he speculates, that’s because religious believers see “the economic relevance of God’s love” as “self-evident” while non-believers consider it “absurd.” In both cases, there is a tendency to dismiss the idea as a platitude.

Yet from Plato to Marx, Nirenberg points out, the competing claims of self-interest and forgetfulness of self to be the guiding principle of economic activity have been debated. Only in modern times, and preeminently in the West, has self-interest triumphed. “It is this victory that Benedict XVI is questioning,” he says.

Nor is Benedict the first pope to do that; the questioning extends back at least to Leo XIII and his classic social encyclical of 1890, Rerum Novarum, and can be found also in major teaching documents of pontiffs like Pius XI, Paul VI, and, most recently before Benedict, John Paul II, whom Nirenberg quotes at length.

The professor speaks respectfully of what he calls “the scope of Benedict’s ambition,” which, as set out in Caritas in Veritate, he describes this way: “His idea is that every act of exchange should approximate the gratuitous gift of divine love. Every coin should approximate a Eucharist.”

Nirenberg does not embrace this idea, but neither does he reject it out of hand. He holds that it should be taken seriously—far more so than it has to date—in order truly to grasp what Benedict’s encyclical fundamentally is saying.

But he does have a bone to pick with the Pope. It is that in Benedict’s estimation only Catholicism possesses intellectual and spiritual resources capable of sustaining an approach to economic life grounded in selflessness. According to Nirenberg, this is unacceptable religious exclusivism that creates an insuperable obstacle to persons of other faiths who otherwise might wish to draw upon the Pope’s thinking.

Whether this is or isn’t an accurate critique of Benedict can be left to another day. Nirenberg’s unexceptionable point is that religious teachings in these pluralistic times must be presented in “a way that seeks to transcend the boundaries of the traditions that produced them.” If “transcend” here means “reach out beyond,” his point is well taken. But if it instead means “put aside” or “abandon,” he is making an ecclesiological assertion that no self-respecting religious tradition could possibly accept.

At the very least, it seems to me, if persons of other faiths do not accept papal claims for the Catholic Church (and pretty clearly they do not, for otherwise they would become Catholics), it doesn’t follow that they are thereby prevented from drawing whatever they do find true and helpful from the thought of Benedict or any pope. In the present instance, Professor Nirenberg (whose religious affiliation I do not know) appears to have done that with success, and for that we owe him thanks.

Russell Shaw


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

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  • yblegen

    I read David Nirenberg’s treatment of Pope Benedict XVI’s economic encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) in the September 23 New Republic and I also read the comments from readers. I agreed with Mr. Shaw’s review of Nirenberg article.

    I was appalled at how cavalier readers were about Pope Benedict in general. Without reading the encyclical themselves, they are experts in their own mind. As I was reading the encyclical all that came to mind was that if the world would only apply this knowledge, what a better place we would all live in.

    Since everyone would rather criticize what they don’t even know what they are talking about, I guess my dream of such a world will remain wishful thinking.

  • goral

    The Pope’s point is universal because it’s Catholic.
    Last week George Weigel made the point about JP2 being “too Polish”.
    Because John Paul’s paternity was so particular and culturally specific,
    it was paradoxically recognized and accepted universally.

    The Pope puts forth an objective truth that is recognized by the major religions.
    He presents the narrow gate of Catholicism accessing that truth because it’s precisely Christianity in general and The Catholic Church in particular who has made that truth known throughout Western Civilization.
    The respect for human dignity and worth is built into these systems be they capitalist or socialist.
    The Pope simply gives us a reminder of how to love each other in any economic setting.

    The leaders of the other religions can very well make the same claim. The fact is that none have the same power, influence and universality as the Supreme Pontiff.
    We Catholics are powerful like the elephant and like the mammoth we allow ourselves to be tethered by a rope that we could easily snap.