Perverting the Pope’s legacy
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Perverting the Pope’s legacy

Yesterday, The Connection with Dick Gordon, an NPR program, had two Catholic intellectuals on the show to discuss “John Paul II’s Life and Legacy.” What was troubling was the way these professors described the pope’s economic thought. The guests were Lisa Sowle Cahill, professor of theology at Boston College, and Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. You can listen to the broadcast here at the show’s website. Below is a rough transcript of the relevant portions of the exchange, beginning at about the 17 minute mark, followed by my response.

The Connection from WBUR Boston and NPR®…04/20050404_a_main.asp
Hosted by: Dick Gordon
Show Originally Aired: 4/4/2005

“John Paul II’s Life and Legacy”

CALLER (Paul in Providence, RI):
I’m interested in some of the reporting but also the legacy of the pope. I have heard time and time again on NPR, I haven’t necessarily heard it this morning on your show, but that is the characterization of the pope as conservative. And when you look at his stance on economic issues, his stance with respect to the poor, capital punishment, he is anything but conservative. And I get uncomfortable with the kind of across-the-board characterization of him as conservative.

LISA SOWLE CAHILL: I say, “Right on,” Paul, you know. And I think the coverage actually, especially as the weekend went on Sunday and Monday, that that has been emphasized more and more: that the majority of his writings are on issues that are very challenging to the politics of the United States. For some reason we in our media don’t attend to those teachings in as emphatic a way as we should.

He thinks that capitalism often goes way too far and results in oppression of people in the developing world. So economic redistribution would be a very radical position.

LAWRENCE CUNNINGHAM: I just never use that term [conservative]. I use the term traditional with respect to the dogmatic teaching of the Church. I mean after all it is the office of the pope to carry on and to support the tradition, but I agree a hundred percent with Lisa.
His socio-economic view of the world and his ideas about relations to the poor of the world, especially from his vantage point (not being in North America) would be way to the left of anything that is upheld, for example, in the Democratic Party in the United States of America. I think there’s just no doubt about that.
He’s profoundly suspicious of untrammeled capitalism. And I heard some actual people who represent conservative political views, among them Pat Buchanan, on the air the other evening saying that, he, Pat Buchanan, saying, that he’s sorry that the Republican Party has been captured by the libertarians who don’t have that sense of the necessity for social justice. And I think the pope’s views on these have been radically understated.

The caller, Paul, is right to object to the characterization of the pope as “conservative,” simply. Prof. Cunningham is also right to prefer the term “traditional.” But the conversation still goes off the tracks when the commentators try to place John Paul on a political spectrum. It is not exactly erroneous to claim that the pope is “to the left” of the Democratic Party—it is simply wrongheaded and meaningless. The Church’s social teaching, to which the pope contributed significantly, cannot be boiled down to one or another political program—it is neither to the right nor to the left of anyone.

John Paul II upheld the dignity of the person; he insisted on just wages and just treatment of workers; he affirmed a “right to economic initiative”; he condemned socialism because it fails to respect the free activity of the individual; he condemned capitalism that is not circumscribed within a juridical and moral framework that orders it to the common good; he approved a “free economy” that recognizes the role of business and profit; he criticized consumerism and he criticized the “welfare state”; he insisted that the life of human persons be protected in law from conception to natural death; he taught that the death penalty could only be used when necessary for the protection of society.

None of these teachings helps to place John Paul on the left or the right. He was concerned to teach the truth about God, the human person, and human beings’ relationships with each other and with God. How these truths are applied in contemporary politics is a question of prudence.

From Centesimus Annus, n. 43

The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation, a teaching which, as already mentioned, recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented towards the common good.

Kevin Schmiesing

Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of