[Please see update below.]
Two major wire services- AP and Reuters- cherry picked excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical (a teaching document of the Catholic Church) on Tuesday to support left-wing economic and political positions, and all but ignored the pontiff’s traditional stances on the family, bioethics, and the environment. The AP also went so far to bring up “the state of the Vatican’s own [financial] books.”
Both Philip Pullella, who regularly writes about the Pope and the Vatican for Reuters, and the AP’s Nicole Winfield zeroed in on paragraph 67 of the encyclical, which is titled “Caritas in Veritate,” or “Charity in Truth,” which was released was signed by the Bishop of Rome on June 29, and released on Tuesday. In this paragraph, to use Pullella’s lede, “Pope Benedict…called for a ‘world political authority’ to manage the global economy.” Winfield put it this way near the beginning of her article: “In the third encyclical of his pontificate, Benedict pressed for reform of the United Nations and international economic and financial institutions to give poorer countries more of a say in international policy.”
While Pope Benedict did call for a “world political authority” and a “reform of the United Nations,” both authors (not to mention spectators on the left and the right) missed the context of this call. Later in his article, Pullella speculated that “the pope appeared to back government intervention ‘in correcting errors and malfunctions’ in the economy, saying ‘one could foresee an increase in the new forms of political participation, nationally and internationally.’” But this “government intervention” would not go so far to the level of a micromanaging/centrally-planning regime, if one goes by the pontiff’s own words in the encyclical.
Earlier in the document, in paragraph 57, Benedict forwarded the principle of “subsidiarity,” which has a clear meaning in Catholic social teaching. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies…. In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, neither the state nor any larger society should substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals.” The pope applied this in the context of the theme of the encyclical:
Subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all encompassing welfare state….In order not to produce a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature, the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together. Globalization certainly requires authority, insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued. This authority, however, must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified way, if it is not to infringe upon freedom and if it is to yield effective results in practice.
Both authors would go on to focus almost entirely on the pope’s critiques of the global economic system. Pullella did not mention the other significant topics in the encyclical until his second to last paragraph: “In other sections of the encyclical, his first on social issues since his 2005 election, he addressed topics such as development, migration, union rights, terrorism, sexual tourism, population issues, the environment, bioethics, and energy.”
Whitfield did not mention these other topics at all. Instead, she opted to get quotes from two people, an editor from the left-leaning Catholic magazine America, and a professor at Santa Clara University “who chaired hearings leading up to a similar U.S. Catholic bishops’ statement on capitalism and social justice in the 1980s.” She concluded her article by focusing on the financial history of the Vatican over the past three decades, and included a negative anecdote:
The pope’s focus on world finance raised questions about the state of the Vatican’s own books.
The Vatican was implicated in the 1980s collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, in which the Vatican’s bank was the major shareholder, and it agreed to pay $250 million to Ambrosiano’s creditors, while denying any wrongdoing.
At the start of the meltdown in October, a top Vatican bank official assured that its deposits were safe and had no liquidity problems, saying the bank had stayed away from derivatives, the financial instruments blamed in part for the crisis….
The Vatican in its annual financial statement issued Saturday said it ran a deficit in 2008 for the second straight year, posting a euro900,000 ($1.28 million) loss, compared with a loss of euro9.06 million a year earlier.
As you might expect, the two authors’ emphasis on the papal material sympathetic to the left glossed over the rest of the document, which blasted more than a few tenets of the left-wing platform. Moreover, they missed the obvious religious context of Benedict’s writings. Here’s a sampling from “Caritas in Veritate:”
Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite….
In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti birth mentality; frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other States as if it were a form of cultural progress….
When the State promotes, teaches, or actually imposes forms of practical atheism, it deprives its citizens of the moral and spiritual strength that is indispensable for attaining integral human development and it impedes them from moving forward with renewed dynamism as they strive to offer a more generous human response to divine love….
…[I]ndividual rights, when detached from a framework of duties which grants them their full meaning, can run wild, leading to an escalation of demands which is effectively unlimited and indiscriminate. An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties. Duties set a limit on rights because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part, in this way ensuring that they do not become licence. Duties thereby reinforce rights and call for their defence and promotion as a task to be undertaken in the service of the common good. Otherwise, if the only basis of human rights is to be found in the deliberations of an assembly of citizens, those rights can be changed at any time, and so the duty to respect and pursue them fades from the common consciousness. Governments and international bodies can then lose sight of the objectivity and “inviolability” of rights. When this happens, the authentic development of peoples is endangered….
…It is…becoming a social and even economic necessity once more to hold up to future generations the beauty of marriage and the family, and the fact that these institutions correspond to the deepest needs and dignity of the person. In view of this, States are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society, and to assume responsibility for its economic and fiscal needs, while respecting its essentially relational character….
…Nature is at our disposal not as “a heap of scattered refuse”, but as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order, enabling man to draw from it the principles needed in order “to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). But it should also be stressed that it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person. This position leads to attitudes of neo paganism or a new pantheism — human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely naturalistic sense. This having been said, it is also necessary to reject the opposite position, which aims at total technical dominion over nature…
That is not to say that the papal encyclical is a purely “conservative” (in the standard American sense) document either. But it is, without a doubt, a Catholic document.
[Update, 11:25 am Eastern Tuesday: Benedict XVI went even further in his critique of the welfare state. From paragraph 60: “...[M]ore economically developed nations should do all they can to allocate larger portions of their gross domestic product to development aid...One way of doing so is by reviewing their internal social assistance and welfare policies, applying the principle of subsidiarity and creating better integrated welfare systems...In this way, it is actually possible to improve social services and welfare programmes, and at the same time to save resources — by eliminating waste and rejecting fraudulent claims — which could then be allocated to international solidarity. A more devolved and organic system of social solidarity, less bureaucratic but no less coordinated, would make it possible to harness much dormant energy, for the benefit of solidarity between peoples. One possible approach to development aid would be to apply effectively what is known as fiscal subsidiarity, allowing citizens to decide how to allocate a portion of the taxes they pay to the State. Provided it does not degenerate into the promotion of special interests, this can help to stimulate forms of welfare solidarity from below, with obvious benefits in the area of solidarity for development as well.”]