Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, was published on July 7. With the appearance of a new papal document, various factions in the Church, as well as some outside, eagerly attempt to score points on their own behalf. This is particularly true of Caritas in Veritate, since both its length and the variety of its content allow plausible misreadings supported by selective citations.
The ‘Progressive’ Reading
As everyone should know by now, "progressive" is the term of preference liberals apply to themselves and what they claim for their own. The progressive reading of the encyclical requires looking away from its divine law and natural law foundation and, as I have argued, the long-overdue clarification on the importance of duty rather than the familiar reliance on rights claims.
Nothing could go more against the grain of the progressive agenda than the encyclical’s assertion, "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 license."
At the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters reported on a conference call hosted by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to discuss the new encyclical. Rev. Thomas Reese, S. J., discussed its "very progressive vision," a description echoed throughout the leadership of the Catholic Left — including by E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post.
Winters, himself an avowed Democrat, rejects the description: "I am not so sure I would call the pope’s vision ‘progressive.’ I think it is more accurate to say that the pope’s vision results in support for many policies that progressives support." Winters recognizes that a cherry-picked issues list does not fairly represent the pope’s metaphysical account of how acts of charity must begin with the mind’s grasp of the truth through faith and reason. "The demands of love do not contradict those of reason," writes Benedict.
The Pro-Obama Reading
Once the encyclical is claimed for the progressives, the urge to boost the credibility of Catholic Democrats and President Barack Obama himself proves irresistible. Dionne asserts that the encyclical "may provide the best perspective for understanding why a pope seen as a conservative views Obama more favorably than do most Catholic conservatives in the United States." (And how does Dionne know that the Holy Father holds a more favorable view of our president?) But no one pushed the pro-Obama reading more blatantly than Anthony Stevens-Arroyo in the Washington Post’s "On Faith" Blog:
Catholic Democrats will rightly consider this papal document to legitimize their alternative approach to pro-life politics over the abortion-only policies that sounded very "Republican Party."
Weren’t these the same Catholic Democrats who were calling President George W. Bush a "theocrat" for talking about God too much? The Holy Father surely held no contempt for Bush and his religious conservative supporters: "The Christian religion and other religions can offer their contribution to development only if God has a place in the public realm, specifically in regard to its cultural, social, economic, and particularly its political dimensions." (In fact, the Obama presidential campaign made it okay for Democrats to talk about God; Obama did it more than any other candidate, according to Beliefnet’s "God-o-Meter.")
Again, Winters’s succinct response hits the nail on the head in commenting on the Catholics in Alliance conference call: "The pope’s vision, as he repeated several times in the encyclical, is an ‘integral’ one, and no one has ever accused the Democratic Party of having an integral vision." The Democrats can appropriate the integral humanism recommended by the pope only if they recognize, as the encyclical states, that"God has a place in the public realm."
The ‘Package’ Reading
The astute John L. Allen Jr. supplies the subtlest misreading; in an otherwise insightful overview of the encyclical, Allen treats the document as if it were a balanced blend of social justice and pro-life issues:
Benedict XVI insists that Catholic social teaching must be seen as a package deal, holding economic justice together with its opposition to abortion, birth control, gay marriage, and other hot-button issues of sexual morality. The pope expresses irritation with ‘certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine,’ an apparent reference to tensions between the Church’s pro-life contingent and its peace-and-justice activists.
This characterization fails to develop the crucial point of the "tensions" Allen mentions. Social-justice Catholics as represented, for example, by Network, a "national Catholic social justice lobby," routinely distance themselves from pro-life issues. As a result, some are publicly recognized as dissenters. Pro-lifers recognize the priority of the life issues but do not dissent from social-justice issues. Allen treats the "tensions" he describes as if both parties were on equal footing before the encyclical’s teaching.
Yes, the encyclical states, "The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics." But the link is vertical, not horizontal:
If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death; if human conception, gestation, and birth are made artificial; if human embryos are sacrificed to research; the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology.
Those who continue to read Caritas in Veritate as a list of policy recommendations — from the Left or the Right — will miss Benedict’s contribution to the Church’s tradition of social teaching. For that, I would suggest a closer reading of sections 53-55, where the Holy Father calls for a "deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation." Reading the encyclical from this angle reveals how truth informs genuine charity.