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.
The encyclical rightly, if gingerly, suggests that thug-governments in the Third World have more to do with poverty and hunger than a lack of international development aid; recognizes that catastrophically low birth rates are creating serious global economic problems (although this point may not be as well developed as it was in previous essays from Joseph Ratzinger); sharply criticizes international aid programs tied to mandatory contraception and the provision of “reproductive health services” (the U.N. euphemism for abortion-on-demand); and neatly ties religious freedom to economic development. All of this is welcome, and all of it is manifestly Benedict XVI, in continuity with John Paul II and his extension of the line of papal argument inspired by Rerum Novarum in Centesimus Annus, Evangelium Vitae (the 1995 encyclical on the life issues), and Ecclesia in Europa (the 2003 apostolic exhortation on the future of Europe).
But then there are those passages to be marked in red — the passages that reflect Justice and Peace ideas and approaches that Benedict evidently believed he had to try and accommodate. Some of these are simply incomprehensible, as when the encyclical states that defeating Third World poverty and underdevelopment requires a “necessary openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion.” This may mean something interesting; it may mean something naïve or dumb. But, on its face, it is virtually impossible to know what it means.
The encyclical includes a lengthy discussion of “gift” (hence “gratuitousness”), which, again, might be an interesting attempt to apply to economic activity certain facets of John Paul II’s Christian personalism and the teaching of Vatican II, in Gaudium et Spes 24, on the moral imperative of making our lives the gift to others that life itself is to us. But the language in these sections of Caritas in Veritate is so clotted and muddled as to suggest the possibility that what may be intended as a new conceptual starting point for Catholic social doctrine is, in fact, a confused sentimentality of precisely the sort the encyclical deplores among those who detach charity from truth.
There is also rather more in the encyclical about the redistribution of wealth than about wealth-creation — a sure sign of Justice and Peace default positions at work. And another Justice and Peace favorite — the creation of a “world political authority” to ensure integral human development — is revisited, with no more insight into how such an authority would operate than is typically found in such curial fideism about the inherent superiority of transnational governance. (It is one of the enduring mysteries of the Catholic Church why the Roman Curia places such faith in this fantasy of a “world public authority,” given the Holy See’s experience in battling for life, religious freedom, and elementary decency at the United Nations. But that is how they think at Justice and Peace, where evidence, experience, and the canons of Christian realism sometimes seem of little account.)
If those burrowed into the intellectual and institutional woodwork at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace imagine Caritas in Veritate as reversing the rout they believe they suffered with Centesimus Annus, and if they further imagine Caritas in Veritate setting Catholic social doctrine on a completely new, Populorum Progressio–defined course (as one Justice and Peace consultor has already said), they are likely to be disappointed. The incoherence of the Justice and Peace sections of the new encyclical is so deep, and the language in some cases so impenetrable, that what the defenders of Populorum Progresio may think to be a new sounding of the trumpet is far more like the warbling of an untuned piccolo.
Benedict XVI, a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include in his encyclical these multiple off-notes, in order to maintain the peace within his curial household. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear will concentrate their attention, in reading Caritas in Veritate, on those parts of the encyclical that are clearly Benedictine, including the Pope’s trademark defense of the necessary conjunction of faith and reason and his extension of John Paul II’s signature theme — that all social issues, including political and economic questions, are ultimately questions of the nature of the human person.
– George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center and a longtime commentator on Catholic social doctrine.