Most encyclicals are so long, so dense and so reflective of the committee of theologians that prepares them that they wind up as the least-read of any papal pronouncements -- despite being the most authoritative document a pope can issue. That is especially true of encyclicals on social justice, like the one Pope Benedict XVI released today.
One reason is that Catholic social-justice teaching covers so many complex issues -- trade, immigration, labor unions, business ethics and wage gaps, to name but a few -- that the eyes of the most ardent faithful can glaze over. Moreover, today's economy is more complex than ever, and changing so quickly that Benedict postponed publication of this encyclical, his third since being elected pope in 2005, for a year so he could take into account the global financial meltdown.
The encyclical (the term simply refers to a letter circulated among the churches, much as early Christians did with the letters of Saint Paul), is titled Caritas in Veritate,
or "Charity [Love] in Truth." It is long-winded, uses many unfamiliar terms and is so closely argued that it can be tough going even for experts. That also makes it easier for conservatives uneasy with many of the pontiff's economic diagnoses and prescriptions to spin them as, at heart, pro-business and pro-capitalist.
But what is clear, whether one reads every word or just excerpts, is that the pope is a liberal, at least in American political terms. He says this is not a document proposing "technical solutions," and stresses the greed and sin at the heart of the current economic crisis. Yet he rigorously and consistently applies the Golden Rule to economics and finance, calling for greater regulation of the markets and -- get this -- "a true world political authority" that can put "real teeth" into international governance.
Not even the purportedly "socialist" Barack Obama, who will meet with Benedict on Friday for the first time at the Vatican, would imagine going that far.
Here are some highlights:
"In the face of the unrelenting growth of global interdependence, there is a strongly felt need, even in the midst of a global recession, for a reform of the United Nations organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth."
And further on: "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."
Benedict argues forcefully for "distributive justice" that would ensure that all share in the goods of the economy. He scores the idea that "the market economy has an inbuilt need for a quota of poverty and underdevelopment in order to function at its best," and says -- counter to conservative orthodoxy -- that the "commercial logic" of the marketplace cannot solve all social problems. "Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution."
Furthermore, over and against a laissez-faire view of capitalism, the Catholic Church holds that "the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak." Food and water are the "universal rights of all human beings," and he blasts "claims to a 'right to excess,' and even to transgression and vice, within affluent societies, and the lack of food, drinkable water, basic instruction and elementary health care in areas of the underdeveloped world."
He calls on wealthy nations to increase, rather than reduce, their aid to poorer countries. "In the search for solutions to the current economic crisis, development aid for poor countries must be considered a valid means of creating wealth for all."
Benedict also reemphasizes the link between pro-life teachings and social justice, an alliance that is often sundered in the American political context between conservatives and liberals who stress one aspect and not the other. "Clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church's social doctrine," Benedict writes. He also promotes an almost Obama-esque approach to abortion reduction, arguing that "respect for life" is inextricably linked to economic development and child welfare.
He reprises his concerns for the "ecological health" of the planet, and promotes the kind of consumer awareness about one's purchasing power that is embraced by co-op-loving liberals as well as conservatives like Rod Dreher
. "Consumers should be continually educated regarding their daily role, which can be exercised with respect for moral principles without diminishing the intrinsic economic rationality of the act of purchasing," the pope writes, arguing for consumer cooperatives and the like.
No U.S. candidate could get elected on an economic platform like that, but it works for popes, especially since the 19th century, when Leo XIII published his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, critiquing social inequality and injustice in the emerging market economy.
Still, it's not surprising that many conservatives were hoping for something different from Benedict.
One reason is that this pope is a theologian and academic who has little interest or experience in economics, and what he does know has been shaped, at least in the public mind, by his famous, long-running battle with the Marxist-tinged liberation theology that swept Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger successfully quelled that insurgency after a long slog, helped along by the West's triumph in the Cold War and the unleashing of capitalism on a global scale.
Yet Ratzinger, while portrayed as the quintessential conservative in many respects, was never comfortable with such unbridled greed, and events seem to have proven him correct. Moreover, he is now increasingly aware of his role as pontiff and his place in the tradition that he holds in such high regard.
A man who becomes pope faces a peculiar identity crisis, taking on a new name and virtually a new persona, living in new quarters and wearing new and unique vestments, none of which he will surrender until the day he dies. This transformation can allow a pope to be more fully himself, in some respects liberating him from the lifelong awareness that there is always a higher rung on the hierarchy to defer to. But there is another hierarchy, one that stretches back in time and that every pope is keenly aware of: the consistent and developing teachings of the previous pontiffs.
Once, when Paul VI was struggling with a difficult decision, a longtime friend asked him what Montini would do (Pope Paul was born Giovanni Battista Montini). The Holy Father answered, "Montini non esiste piú" -- Montini does not exist anymore. That is a poignant confession, but it also shows how a pope can immerse himself in the teachings and traditions when he feels his own expertise lacking, as Benedict did with Caritas in Veritate.
Indeed, this new encyclical relies heavily on more than a century of social teachings from previous popes, particularly John Paul II and Paul VI, whose landmark social justice document of 40 years ago, Populorum Progressio ("On the Development of Peoples"), Benedict repeatedly invokes.
With this encyclical from Pope Benedict, Pope Paul -- Montini -- does exist, now as much as ever. And the Benedict -- Ratzinger -- of many conservative fantasies is less visible than they may have hoped. Or, more likely, this is what he has always believed.