In the often unpredictable world of the Vatican, it was as certain as anything could be in mid-1990 that there would be a 1991 papal encyclical to commemorate the centenary of Rerum Novarum — the 1891 letter of Leo XIII that is rightly regarded as the Magna Carta of modern Catholic social doctrine. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which imagines itself the curial keeper of the flame of authentic Catholic social teaching, prepared a draft, which was duly sent to Pope John Paul II — who had already had a bad experience with the conventionally gauchiste and not-very-original thinking at Justice and Peace during the preparation of the 1987 social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. John Paul shared the proposed draft with colleagues in whose judgment he reposed trust; one prominent intellectual who had long been in conversation with the Pope told him that the draft was unacceptable, in that it simply did not reflect the way the global economy of the post–Cold War world worked.
So John Paul dumped the Justice and Peace draft and crafted an encyclical that was a fitting commemoration of Rerum Novarum. For Centesimus Annus not only summarized deftly the intellectual structure of Catholic social doctrine since Leo XIII; it proposed a bold trajectory for the further development of this unique body of thought, emphasizing the priority of culture in the threefold free society (free economy, democratic polity, vibrant public moral culture). By stressing human creativity as the source of the wealth of nations, Centesimus Annus also displayed a far more empirically acute reading of the economic signs of the times than was evident in the default positions at Justice and Peace. Moreover, Centesimus Annus jettisoned the idea of a “Catholic third way” that was somehow “between” or “beyond” or “above” capitalism and socialism — a favorite dream of Catholics ranging from G. K. Chesterton to John A. Ryan and Ivan Illich.
It was, in a word, a rout — the Waterloo for Justice and Peace. Ever since, Justice and Peace — which may forgive but certainly does not forget — has been pining for revenge.
It didn’t get it during the last years of the pontificate of John Paul II, despite efforts to persuade the Pope to mark the 30th anniversary of Paul VI’s 1967 social encyclical, Populorum Progressio, with a major statement — or, when that stratagem failed, to mark Populorum Progressio’s 35th anniversary. Evidently incapable of taking “No” for an answer, Justice and Peace kept beavering away, with an eye toward Populorum Progressio’s 40th anniversary in 2007. It is one of the worst-kept secrets in Rome that at least two drafts of such an encyclical, and perhaps three, were rejected by Pope Benedict XVI.
That Justice and Peace should imagine a Populorum Progressio anniversary encyclical as the vehicle for its counterattack against Centesimus Annus is itself instructive. For in the long line of papal social teaching running from Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus, Populorum Progressio is manifestly the odd duck, both in its intellectual structure (which is barely recognizable as in continuity with the framework for Catholic social thought established by Leo XIII and extended by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno) and in its misreading of the economic and political signs of the times (which was clouded by then-popular leftist and progressive conceptions about the problem of Third World poverty, its causes, and its remedies). Centesimus Annus implicitly recognized these defects, not least by arguing that poverty in the Third World and within developed countries today is a matter of exclusion from global networks of exchange in a dynamic economy (which put the moral emphasis on strategies of wealth creation, empowerment of the poor, and inclusion), rather than a matter of First World greed in a static economy (which would put the moral emphasis on redistribution of wealth). Interestingly enough, Paul VI himself had recognized that Populorum Progressio had misfired in certain respects, being misread in some quarters as a tacit papal endorsement of violent revolution in the name of social justice. Pope Paul tried a course correction in the 1971 apostolic letter, Octogesima Adveniens, another Rerum Novarum anniversary document.
Now comes Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), Benedict XVI’s long-awaited and much-delayed social encyclical. It seems to be a hybrid, blending the pope’s own insightful thinking on the social order with elements of the Justice and Peace approach to Catholic social doctrine, which imagines that doctrine beginning anew at Populorum Progressio. Indeed, those with advanced degrees in Vaticanology could easily go through the text of Caritas in Veritate, highlighting those passages that are obviously Benedictine with a gold marker and those that reflect current Justice and Peace default positions with a red marker. The net result is, with respect, an encyclical that resembles a duck-billed platypus.
The clearly Benedictine passages in Caritas in Veritate follow and develop the line of John Paul II, particularly in the new encyclical’s strong emphasis on the life issues (abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive stem-cell research) as social-justice issues — which Benedict cleverly extends to the discussion of environmental questions, suggesting as he does that people who don’t care much about unborn children are unlikely to make serious contributions to a human ecology that takes care of the natural world. The Benedictine sections in Caritas in Veritate are also — and predictably — strong and compelling on the inherent linkage between charity and truth, arguing that care for others untethered from the moral truth about the human person inevitably lapses into mere sentimentality.