At the time of his election in April 2005, Pope Benedict XVI was widely perceived to be a “conservative” in our modern political parlance. It should not surprise, then, that many commentators have expressed either shock or joy, depending on their own affiliations, with last Tuesday’s publication of his encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), the first extended statement on social and economic issues of his pontificate.
Conservatives are dismayed by his calls for increased foreign aid, the redistribution of wealth, and a United Nations with “real teeth”. Liberals are wondering why the pope had to ruin such lovely sentiments by bringing up the evils of abortion, euthanasia, and birth control. Prominent voices on both sides think the pope is hopelessly naïve and unrealistic. Reading Charity in Truth for partisan purposes can yield moments of agony and ecstasy for left and right alike.
Neither side, however, seems ready to take Benedict’s theology – his own field of expertise – seriously. Part of this is a result of our habitual, liberal democratic tendency to separate Church and State and not let theological arguments influence our politics. This tendency invariably blinds us to the pope’s combination of respect for life with the demands of social justice.
Such a synthesis is not easy nor is it likely to satisfy partisans. It’s hard enough to imagine an international authority that can command universal support – not even the pope has that within his own Church. In many ways our current systems of democratic governance are more modest because they do not assume any such unanimity, theological or otherwise. But the real question is whether a society built solely on competing interests will ultimately be worth the trouble. Will it reflect Benedict’s insistent demands for human dignity? Experience keeps telling us something more is clearly needed.
Our political categories of left and right originate from the French Revolution, which infamously saw the Catholic Church as its great enemy. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the modern social teachings of the papacy may provide the soundest moral defense of liberté, égalité et fraternité in today’s world. (more…)