Charity in Truth
The Vatican, the United States, and the issues, after the week that was.


George Weigel

As pointed out in this space before, this is unprecedented — a president injecting himself into a Christian community’s debate over its boundaries. One very much doubts that a burning presidential interest in theology is at work here, but a White House determination to play wedge politics with the U.S. bishops and the Catholic population of the U.S. seems not unlikely.

So the bishops should take little solace from the assurances of L’Osservatore Romano that the Benedict-Obama summit was a cordial one. The bishops have to regain control of the Catholic “brand.” And that will require a concerted effort to teach U.S. Catholics that what was at stake at Notre Dame was not politics, but ecclesiology — the definition of who and what is “Catholic” in America. If, as his entire public record suggests, President Obama is committed to enshrining in law the revolution of lifestyle libertinism embodied in Roe v. Wade and in the gay insurgency (which Obama fulsomely endorsed in the White House days before meeting the pope), and if he and his political people recognize that the last major institutional opposition to securing that revolution in America is the Catholic Church, then an administration winning the battle over the Catholic “brand” is an administration making a very, very clever move — and, from the point of view of anyone who cares about religious freedom in America, a very dangerous one. In the face of that danger, fears of being labeled “partisan” by people who are themselves hyper-partisans may just have to be borne.


On a second, third, and even fourth reading, Caritas in Veritate remains a complex and sometimes obscure document, in which many intellectual influences are clearly at work. As such, it seems likely to generate continued debate, which will have to address at least these questions:

1. Throughout his pontificate, and in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI has been at pains to stress the continuity of Catholic life and thought before and after the Second Vatican Council: what he terms a “hermeneutics of continuity,” as distinguished from a “hermeneutics of rupture.” Or, in lay language, the claim that the Catholic Church reinvented itself at Vatican II is simply wrong. Yet the proponents of Populorum Progressio (the 1967 social encyclical of Paul VI that Caritas in Veritate commemorates) would seem to be promoting a “hermeneutics of rupture” when they claim that the tradition of Catholic social doctrine began anew with Populorum Progressio — a claim that at least some passages in Caritras in Veritate can be interpreted to support. This raises a very important question: Are there two Catholic social-doctrine traditions (one stemming from Leo XIII’s 1891 masterwork, Rerum Novarum, and a post-conciliar one beginning from Populorum Progressio), or is there one? This is not a merely theoretical argument, for the implications of the “two traditions” claim are considerable, especially in light of the fact that the Populorum Progressio “tradition” is the less disciplined of the two in closely identifying specific public policy recommendations with points of theological principle. Thus Benedict XVI’s entire effort to get the Catholic Church thinking of itself as a communion of believers in essential continuity over time is now back on the table of debate, because of the suggestion that something different in kind began, at least in terms of social doctrine, with Populorum Progresio.

2. In the debate over Caritas in Veritate, as in all such debates, it will thus be important to distinguish between principles of Catholic social doctrine and specific prudential judgments about public policy. This is not, pace some partisans on both the Catholic left and the Catholic right, a matter of “picking and choosing” your Magisterium, but of recognizing the difference (which the social doctrine itself has always acknowledged) between those principles of justice that can be known with certainty and the available public-policy options, which involve the questions of prudence — will it work, or will it make matters worse? Caritas in Veritate repeats the teaching of John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, that the Church has no “technical solutions” to offer in public policy: a self-denying ordinance that emerges from the thick philosophical and theological structure of the Rerum Novarum tradition. Whether the Populorum Progressio “tradition” is so self-disciplined is not at all clear. 

3. The encyclical’s teaching on the moral ecology necessary to a properly functioning free economy is entirely welcome, as it strongly reinforces points that the advocates of Centesimus Annus have been stressing for 18 years: The market is not a machine that can run by itself; it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make free economies work such that the result is genuine human flourishing. And it is precisely in this respect that Caritas in Veritate poses the sharpest challenge for Catholic Obamaphiles.

For Benedict XVI insists in his encyclical that the life issues are social-justice issues, such that the “human ecology” or moral ecology necessary for make free economies work is eroded when wrongs are defined as rights (as in current U.S. abortion law). Thus the encyclical has put Catholic legislators on notice that they can’t hide behind their “social justice” commitments while taking a pass (or worse) on the life issues; but then, they were put on notice on that very point by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) in 1995. As for “common ground” approaches to reducing the incidence of abortion, these potentially useful initiatives only get you so far here. At some point, and it’s not very far down the road, two hard questions arise for the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden: Do Roe v. Wade and its various judicial progeny violate fundamental Catholic norms of social justice, as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have taught? And if they do, what do you propose to do about that?