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I have just returned from two weeks in England, were I was more or less out of touch with the internet. The occasion was a conference at the University of Nottingham on “Christian Social Teaching and the Money Power,” which Chris and I extended into a tour of York, Edinburgh, and Manchester. The conference was great, and made even more relevant by the release of Caritas in Veritate, more of which in a moment. York was fantastic, and the Yorkminster Cathedral (the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps) was tremendous.

Edinburgh calls to mind Mark Twain’s remark that “The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer in San Francisco.” 51 degrees really isn’t winter, but with the rain and wind it was a pretty good imitation for July. Nevertheless, the town is beautiful, and well worth the trip. We also visited Rosslyn Chapel, which was made famous by the “Da Vinci” code films. The guide was rather contemptuous of the movie, as he should be, but the publicity has generated funds for the restoration of the chapel, which is good. The chapel is a jewel, a Gothic cathedral in miniature. All the things which are grand but distant at Yorkminster are close and personal at Rosslyn. The chapel was barely saved from destruction during the Reformation, although later Cromwell did stable his horses there.

Speaking of the destruction of the Reformation, we also visited the ruins of St. Mary’s abbey in York, which was a magnificent structure, and its ruins give one some idea of the senseless and pointless destruction and violence of the English Reformation. One gets the same feeling of fury and sadness looking at the ruins of St. Augustine’s abbey in Canterbury. Stripped to its foundations and some of the undercroft, one does get a real sense of the scale of these building projects, the faith which raised them, and the sheer hatred and greed that destroyed them.

Still, the destruction of a building is one thing; the destruction of a teaching is quite another. On any given teaching, there are always interpretive disputes, and good men can come to opposite conclusions. One need not always question the good will of those who hold opposing interpretations, but we can question whether an interpretation is being subjected to some other agenda. One recalls the “Pope Endorses Capitalism” headline in the Wall Street Journal after the publication of Centesimus Annus. This was a rather strange interpretation of an encyclical that denounced the “the human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people (33)” and stated that “it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called “Real Socialism” leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization (35).” Nevertheless, this interpretation of the encyclical dominated the public discussion, if not the academic and theological one. The Wall Street Journal’s headline was backed by neoconservative pundits such as Michael Novak and George Weigel. For the neocon, the question was not “Capitalism, yes or no?,” but “Capitalism, how much or how little.” And the only real debate they permitted was whether any concessions ought to be made to social justice and the common good. In practice, they conceded very little to either, and read the encyclical as an endorsement of capitalism, which it manifestly was not. This view, alas, dominated the public interpretation, and the effect of the encyclical was thereby muted in America.

Now we have a new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, and a new interpretive battle. This battle will be quite different from the last one. Now there can be no doubt that an encyclical that mentions “justice” 50 times and “redistribution” of wealth eight times posses tremendous difficulties for the neoconservative view. Indeed. George Weigel, who did so much to undermine John Paul’s social teaching, has as much as admitted that he will not be able to do the same job of destruction on this Pope. Weigel’s initial take in National Review Online poses an elaborate historical fantasy about both this encyclical and its predecessor, Centesimus Annus. Basically, Weigel is claiming that Benedict wrote only small sections of the encyclical and doesn’t really believe in the rest, but was forced to sign it by a shadowy (but unnamed) “peace and justice” faction in the Vatican. Weigel names no names and cites no facts, but undoubtedly his next post will claim that proof of this conspiracy is buried in Rossalyn Chapel, right next to the Holy Grail and the Jesus’s marriage license to Mary Magdalene.

More of Weigel’s fantasies in a moment, but first, the reasons Weigel must resort to such outlandish conspiracy theories. Benedict in this new encyclical has consciously revived the thought of Paul VI, that most reviled of modern popes. Paul wrote, among other things, two highly controversial encyclicals. Populorum Progessio enraged the neocons and Humanae Vitae outraged the liberals. Benedict has combined the thought of both encyclicals into Caritas in Veritate, and the neocons are already expressing their outrage. Benedict proclaims that PP is the Rerum Novarum of our time, and this new encyclical is on its fortieth anniversary, making it the Quadragesimo Ano of our time. Those who are familiar with the history of Catholic social thought will immediately recognize the significance of this, but for those who don’t, let me point out that QA introduced the term “social justice” into the Catholic lexicon, a theme which Benedict expands upon at great length. Benedict makes two over-riding points. The first is that any sane economy must be subordinated to justice (your humble blogger is particularly pleased with this point, since it is the basic theme of all my work). Charity is, in truth, intrinsic to economic order. This theme is offensive to neocons, who insist that economics is a science on the order of physics, and no systematic moral considerations can be relevant; morality is completely confined to the realm of individual actions, and not a consideration of economics per se.

The second point follows from the first. Benedict insists that the concern for life, from conception to death, is intrinsic to human development, and therefore to economic development. Those who have little concern for the baby, at whatever stage, will have, for example, little real concern for the environment, whatever they may claim. Taking the two together, Benedict has produced a brilliant examination of the failures of modern capitalism in the light of the teachings of Paul VI. It is carefully worked out in a well-developed thesis and in detail not often seen in encyclicals that deal with topical subjects.

Weigel posits his historical fantasy because he has no other response. He can only encourage Catholics to disregard the Church’s teaching by spreading rumors of a Da Vinci Code-type conspiracy which relieves Catholics of the duty they have of taking the encyclical seriously. In other words, Weigel can defend his position only by attacking the pope and the Church. Better he knock down a few abbeys, or stable his horses in the sanctuary, then posit such fantasies (which, Da Vinci-like, he never actually documents) and encourage open dissent.

Cleanup in pew 16. Weigel has read the encyclical and his head has exploded, leaving behind an awful mess. I would not for a moment attack the sincerity of his Catholicism, but I will note that throughout his sad career, he has been more concerned to preserve a rather “liberal” conservatism then to defend the actual Church that claims his nominal adherence. For the rest of us, Catholic and otherwise, we can note with amusement the neocon quandary, but we can read the encyclical for ourselves; we may agree or disagree, without resorting to the subterfuge of a Dan Brown conspiracy theory, no matter how well this might sell. Weigel and Brown have sold their conspiracies in the past, but this time I think they will have greater problems.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Well are we to conclude that government gives people allowances, that property rights and political and economic liberty are sins? That theft is a virtue?

    The line is crossed when we move from private charity and private moral reflection to coercive, redistribution government. Historically the Churches forays into government and political power have never ended well. This one will end just as badly.

    If Catholics are going to advocate Socialism, soon they will find that the secular state will turn on them and devour them, for a Socialist state is purely materialistic and positivist. It can be no other.

    There is no way to generate wealth but through hard work. There is not enough money in the world to steal from the productive and subsidizes the non-productive. The only way out of poverty is hard work.

    Long gone are the Plutocrats of yore. Most wealth is created by middle class small and medium sized business owners. What Plutocrats we have left are the political classes who loot the productive to buy the votes of the non-productive.

    Is the Church to support Communists and collectivists? It is a bargain with the devil. History clearly shows this.

    I think the the conservative view point is correct. EU based socialists have thier hands in this. What if that is correct? Why can you not consider that posibility? Why do you reject it out of hand? If you call yourself a responsible Christian, and one informed by history, you must consider the possibility of this. They most certainly have done this with political scams like the EU. Why not the Church? Our age has seen the “Long March through the Institutions” of the Marxists and it has corrupted those institutions to the very bone. This is the truth, not a “conspiracy theory”. All one need do to see this is to look today at Academia and the media. Why not the Church? She has been corrupted before by unscrupulous and greedy political classes.

    You sit there and bemoan the greed and hatred that bedeviled the Reformation, but you are unleasing a similar forces by cleabving toward Communism. It will destroy the West. Do you think a world dominated by a Communist/Fascist China will be Christian?

    Once governments are allowed to steal from productive people and give that booty to unproductive people all but the political class will be immiserated. Any rational analysis of the 20th Century clearly points that out.

    Why is it immoral to have property rights? Why should people not own the fruits of their labor? How does a parasitic political class determine who actally desirves the fruits of their labor? How can the immorality of legal theft do anything other than corrupt all who touch it?

    You are opening the door to destruction. It took centuries to get to this point of understanding, yet you want to chuck it all based on sentimentality and a rejection of the nature of man and the world. Western socialist elites think that the predominance of the West and the maintenance of our wealth are givens. They not. Those who think other wise are engaging n the deepest irresponsibility.

    The West is destroying itself with these delusions. When the wealth is gone, there will be nothing left but tyranny and poverty for all but the masters. Thousands of years of advance will be wiped out.

    You should contemplate the implications of what you are supporting.
    If you are a socialist, I for one doubt the sincerity of your Catholic faith. Jesus was no collectivist.

  2. Jesus was no collectivist.

    Oh, I don’t know about that, Mongoose. I suppose it depends on what you mean the word to include. There was that little thing in the Acts of the Apostles about all the believers gathering together and holding their property in common, after all.

  3. Mongoose, brilliant, dude, brilliant!
    Arben: Jesus was a collectivist? I thought that it was all about voluntaryism?

  4. Mongoose, I would be more than happy to consider Weigel’s thesis if only he would tell me what it is. As it is, Dan Brown has offered more “evidence” of his thesis than has Weigel. As it is, it remains the musings of a man who claims to be “in the know.” My experience of people who claim to be in the know is that they are always the last to know; people know them and tell them nothing.

    Weigel may be correct, for all I know, but who are these mysterious “Peace and Justice” conspirators to whom Benedict was forced to bow? Cardinal Martino who heads the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace which produced the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church? Oh, please. Both Martino and that document are “radical” only from the standpoint of Enlightenment Liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism (but I repeat myself.)

    As for the idea that all this amounts to “socialism,” I don’t see how, unless you believe that all that is not laissez-faire is socialism. Very well, but that leaves you with a greater problem, since it means you have lived your whole life in a socialist state. If you are like most, I suspect you haven’t missed too many meals as a result. If that’s all that socialism is, then there is no need to fear it, only to be irritated with it. But socialism is a lot more, and a lot more to be feared.

    Weigel may one day offer evidence and then I will consider it. But as it is, his article is an admission that he cannot wrap his ideology around the text, and so must choose between changing his ideology or destroying the text and, in the process, encouraging Catholics to ignore the Church. Weigel has made his choice; I have made mine.

  5. “Long Gone are the Plutocrats of Yore”…
    Hmmm.

    I see no complete socialist surrender in the current Encyclical nor in Mr. Medaille’s commentary. As for myself, I have long been a proponent of laissez-faire, the benefits of property ownership and the vital need to encourage small business. These fundamental sympathies are unchanged.

    What I have seen in the Encyclical are three key words: “Discernment”…the act of informed and principled choice, “Subsidiarity”, an appropriate scaling of approaches and solutions and “Gratuitousness”, the act of unsolicited charity. Socialism is counter to the latter two and based upon the historical record, devoid of the first.

    We are working our way through the aftermath of a dysfunctional system which wholly eliminated Gratuitousness in favor of a kind of zero-sum game of efficiency….it scoffed at Subsidiarity by encouraging an almost pornographic love of large institutions and a disdain of smaller units and it allowed itself to virtually scoff at discernment in favor of complex mathematical formula that threw cares to the wind and encouraged an abandonment of normal fiduciary prudence as well. Even with all the hardship and public debt…in essence a socialization of risk and debt with a privatization of profit…we are still seeing bailed-out institutions who appear to be possibly making money on the public dole through churning the market. Trust has yet to be restored and so we fester onward. Institutions “too large to fail” are getting even larger and freer from the ameliorative effects of competition. What is most unsettling is that we are within a period where the supposedly long-gone plutocrats in their new technocratic clothes can actually use the forces of catastrophe and market dysfunction as a money-making program. One must survive within the environment one is confronted with but this does not mean one is best served by institutionalizing a regime of survival and chaos-centered profit.

    The Pope calls for Wisdom and Gratuitousness in our societal and environmental relations. He speaks for the dignity of the individual in a life of truth and love. These are hardly the leitmotif of historical socialism. Funny, but the ongoing lesson in What Not to Do In Capitalism continues to bust it’s own categories by substituting a corporate-government hegemony over principles of laissez-faire and an elaborate charade of large institutions masquerading as a “Free Market”. Debt…..”quantitative easing”….continues to be considered legal tender. The small business, individual worker continues to suffer and accumulate a massive liability simultaneous with eroding government services. Inflation, one of the larger taxes produced by the State will perhaps come at a level never before seen in history. Infrastructure crumbles apace despite “shovel-ready” rhetoric.

    With the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, we in the West erected our own Berlin Wall of the Imagination and reinforced it with triumphalism and hubris in service to consumption. Blind Fear was vulcanized to the War Helmet on Sept. 11, 2001. We should all possess the chastened presence of mind at this juncture to question our presumptions, meet one another with open mind and craft a more equitable economic system whose investment is in tangible output and wide-spread benefit rather than debt and increasingly concentrated wealth. I don’t give a damn about a plutocrat that makes their wealth in the process of creating things of real worth but I have several doubts about plutocrats, wed to the State and its Corporate Retainers who make their wealth through trauma, market dysfunction, the manipulation of debt and currency or outright exploitation….all of it on the backs of military adventurism and resource profligacy.

  6. D.W. I don’t have a problem, at least not yet, with distributism (and subsidarity) as described by Dr. Carlson. My problem is how (the methodology) it will be implemented socially, governmentally! See my questions to Dr. Carlson on the other post.
    I also would like to know if distributism is a function of republicanism. If it isn’t or can’t function within the republic, then we’re going to have a problem.
    Now, I don’t know if you have similar questions but so far, and going back to my contretemps with Mr. Medialle earlier, I haven’t gotten an answer. Perhaps Carlson will reply…Medaille has but I don’t know if he’s speaking for Carlson or not.
    That’s it, palsy, that’s my problem.

  7. I a pro-life, distributist, Catholic. I am deeply loyal to the Pope. I am critical of Weigelian neoCatholism. I must say, however, that I am troubled by the following line from paragraph 67 of Caritas in Veritate:

    “To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago.”

    There is urgent need of a true world political authority?!

    Please, please help me with this.

  8. Mr. Medaille, thank you for your response. The next line of the Encyclical, which you reference, is:

    “Such an authority would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth.”

    It seems to me that the principle of subsidiarity is antithetical to a world political authority. The Church’s traditional teaching on subsidiarity, as I understand it, does not propose one-world government. The Church herself serving the role of world political authority would be one thing, but the Enclycical does not contemplate that scenario. Rather, the Encylcical contemplates a global, secular political system that “would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights” and would follow the model of “the Charter of the United Nations.” (See the sentence immediately following the one you cite and the last sentence of the paragraph.)

    I am open to the possibility that I’m misunderstanding something. Indeed, I hope so.

  9. Adam, I understand your hesitancy on this point. However, some observations are in order. The principle of subsidiarity presumes, does it not, higher levels of organization. I have never heard that the modern nation-state is the highest permissible level of secular organization. In this day and age, where global communication, trade, and (alas) conflict are inevitable, the idea of global organizations pose no per se conflicts with subsidiarity. On the other hand, the history of the question shows that in practice, they WILL conflict.

    The truth is, we already have these organizations. And I don’t just mean the UN, which is more of a debating club. The WTO has real teeth and has more influence on our lives than we realize. It especially has influence on smaller and weaker nations (and we are rapidly becoming one of them). The question is, will such organizations be oriented towards the privileges of a few rich nations, or will they seek the common good.

    With all that in mind, I think it is quite proper for the Pope to campaign for the reform of these organizations, and their redirection to subsidiarity, solidarity, and the common good. In a globalized economy, such organizations will exist whether we like it or no. The question is, “How will we control and direct them? What will be their operative principles?”

    You do bring up one issue that really deserves more comment, that of the Church as the controlling international organization. That would be a good role for the Church, and one for which there is European precedent. However, that is just not practical at this time. What can be done is to insinuate as many of the universal principles of the Church into such an organization as is possible. After all, the Church is both Catholic and catholic, and in its catholicity, it has principles which apply to every genuine and authentic moral impulse. AS an aside, I think Adam Webb’s work on an values economy is important, and a good starting place.

  10. I think when I read this article and the comments I can see where the fault line is running. It’s the natural divide that runs through us all. It is our human nature to be individualistic, creative, competitive and selfish. On the other hand we can also be mutualistic, creative, co-operative and altruistic. On one side you have “the Rugged Individualist” on the other “the Social-ist”. How do we human beings resolve this division. Well we have the ability to think or reflect. From this process we can come up with a “norm” or “conventional wisdom” that resolves the contradiction and one we can abide by. The advantage of these devices is that we can “ mentally police” ourselves with them without having to create an authoritarian state with its apparatus of law enforcement police officers. For example, isn’t the religious police force in Iran a direct result of the inability of the society to work out a workable norm, in particular an acknowledgement of the natural divide in human nature I mention above? How far do they think they have to go to beat “moral perfectibility” into people?

    Other examples would be that the advancement of one human civilization over another depends on capital, technology, knowledge and luck. The early development of European “civilization” depended upon the Fertile Crescent area in the Middle East having more choice of plants and animals to domesticate than anywhere else in the world. In North America the native tribes didn’t have as much luck in the number of plants and animals available. Can European colonizers, therefore, justify their abuse of North American native tribes on the basis that they didn’t work hard enough to develop their civilizations! What if Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers had decided to write those famous lines in the Declaration of Independence differently to say: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of ‘Social’ Happiness?” Would Native American history have turned out differently?

    Likewise, why do we have to accept a trade globalization norm like Barge Economics that says because we as an elite ( not a country) have the capital, technology, knowledge and luck (from an advanced economy) we should try to pursue the ideal of putting all our production plant on barges and endlessly float them around the world to take advantage of those countries that offer the lowest wage rates, the lowest corporate and personal taxes, the least effective anti-pollution and anti union-suppression laws and the best subsidies.

    What is so very wrong with the idea of distributism that attempts to come up with a norm that unites the two sides of human nature and the roll-of-the-dice circumstances we find ourselves in on this planet? What is wrong with developing a norm of “Consensual Capitalism”?

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