It was, I suppose, inevitable. The moment Benedict XVI’s social encyclical appeared, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the usual suspects predictably portrayed Caritas in Veritate as a “left-wing” text. It reflects their habit of presenting the Catholic Church as “conservative” on moral questions and “liberal” on economics. That’s their script, and until the day that the Internet juggernaut deals its final death-blow to the mainstream media, they will stick to it.
Unfortunately, there has also been much misleading commentary on Caritas in Veritate from many Catholic commentators anxious to portray the encyclical in secular political terms.
This is hardly a new problem. In his diary of the Second Vatican Council, the great French Catholic theologian Henry de Lubac S.J., repeatedly expressed his frustration with the apparent inability of Catholic writers covering the Council to speak about any of Vatican II’s workings in anything but secular political language.
That said, it is difficult to describe comments about Caritas in Vertitate as revealing Benedict as being “to the left of the Democrat Party on economic issues” or “sounding like a union organizer” as anything but unsophisticated, and, frankly, rather provincial. Contrary to the expectations of many living in America’s Boston-Washington-New York self-referential hothouse, popes don’t compose encyclicals with an eye to the particulars of American domestic politics or the next election cycle.
Anyone who has actually read Joseph Ratzinger’s many works would understand the pope has never thought that the Catholic faith neatly translates into left or right politics. To be sure, plenty of Catholics (particularly American Catholics) wish that it did. But it doesn’t and it never will, because the Catholic faith purports to contain the entire Truth about God and man. Hence it can never be compressed into earthly political categories.
This basic truth, however, has never weighed heavily with the post-Vatican II Catholic left (most of which is hovering on or over the edge of 60). For them, like the secular Left, everything is political. Hence we can expect plenty of “proof-texting” of Caritas in Veritate. Proof-texting is the art of taking statements from a text to establish the validity of particular claims, even though the text itself, when read as a whole, does not support such contentions.
Catholic leftists have, for example, emphasized the pope’s references to what he considers to be the need to bolster social security systems in the wake of globalization (CV 25). They neglect to mention, however, that Benedict has a somewhat different vision of social welfare – one that is more decentralized, less bureaucratic, and more civil society-orientated (CV 60) than the creaking state incubators of soft despotism slowly turning Western Europe into a global economic irrelevancy.
Sometimes, however, proof-texting is not enough. Hence we find Catholic leftists more-or-less ignoring Benedict’s insistence (echoing John Paul II) that life issues – specifically abortion, euthanasia, and the eugenic planning of births – are at the core of justice questions and that to ignore these specific issues is to acquiesce in enormous damage to human culture.
They are also deeply unhappy with Caritas et Veritate’s repeated referencing of Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humane Vitae, which reaffirmed orthodox Christianity’s vision of sexual morality, because many of them have invested enormous energy over the past 41 years trying to nuance away or outright deny Catholicism’s defined teachings in these areas.
Of course Caritas in Veritate expresses plenty of prudential judgments with which Catholics on the right and left may legitimately take issue. It cannot be said enough: Catholics are free to disagree among themselves and even with the pope about those matters the Church considers prudential – which includes the overwhelming majority of economic policy-issues, but not subjects such as abortion and euthanasia — as Benedict himself affirmed in a 2004 letter to the then-archbishop of Washington D.C.
The question we should ask, however, is what the Catholic left thinks it is trying to achieve by attempting to shove a theologically-dense text into a politicized left-wing straight jacket.
It would be easy to dismiss them as the secular left’s “useful idiots”, but the root of the problem is theological. Since the 1960s, much of the Catholic left has bought into the centuries-old heresy that perfect justice can and must be realized in this world. They have also largely reduced Christianity’s content to the politically-correct justice-questions. One need only glance at many Catholic religious orders’ mission statements to gauge the accuracy of this claim.
Justice is a perennial Christian concern. But Caritas in Veritate’s very title reminds us that love and truth are even more central to the Catholic faith. “[T]he God of the Bible”, Benedict writes, “is both Agápe and Lógos: Charity and Truth, Love and Word” (CV 3). Without love and truth, the pursuit of justice degenerates into dangerous utopian agendas that trample love and truth. Ultimate justice, Benedict states elsewhere, only comes when we meet our Maker – hence, Caritas et Veritate’s repeated condemnation of utopian schemes (CV 14, 53).
Utopia, as St Thomas More knew when he gave his book this famous title, mean “no-place.” And that is where justice disassociated from truth and charity leads us: the no-place of relativism, despair, and tyranny.