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Allen's Comment on Caritas in Veritate PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Fones   
Friday, 17 July 2009 20:41
John Allen has a good commentary, I think, on the Pope's recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. I'll quote it extensively, and just observe that he points out what has been painfully obvious to any Catholic caught in the crossfire of the so-called "culture war" raging in the American Church.
During the July 7 Vatican press conference to present Caritas in Veritate, it fell to Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi of Trieste, Italy, former secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to say whether the document contained anything new. In truth, there wasn't much. Most of its economic and political analysis recapitulated points already made many times in social encyclicals, beginning with Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum in 1891.

(The astonishment unleashed by Benedict's rejection of laissez faire capitalism, or his call for a "true world political authority," thus goes to show that Catholic social teaching may indeed be the church's "best-kept secret." Nobody familiar with it should have been surprised.)

Crepaldi did point to one original aspect of Caritas in Veritate: Benedict's insistence on holding anthropology and sociology together -- or, to put it differently, his insistence on treating the pro-life message of the Catholic church and its peace-and-justice concerns as a package deal. This is the first papal social encyclical to so thoroughly blend economic justice with the defense of human life from conception to natural death.

"These indications of Caritas in Veritate don't have value merely as exhortations," Crepaldi said. "They invite a new way of thinking, and a new praxis, that takes account of the systematic interconnections between the anthropological themes linked to life and human dignity, and the economic, social and cultural themes linked to development."
Of course, the idea that defending unborn life and defending the poor go together is not terribly revolutionary at the level of principle. It's been repeated so often in official Catholic literature that there are probably T-shirts someplace emblazoned with that mantra.

Statements of principle, however, often fail to account for the gap between what we say and what we do. In that sense, Caritas in Veritate amounts to a direct challenge to the sociology of American Catholicism. (my emphasis: MSF)

Both at the grass roots and among the chattering classes, the American church is often described as split between its pro-lifers and its peace-and-justice contingent. More accurately, it's divided between those who see Catholic teaching as a useful tool to support their partisan preferences, whatever they may be, and those for whom the faith comes first and secular politics second.

Put differently, the real "losers" from Caritas in Veritate are Catholics who operate as chaplains to political parties, cheerleaders for political candidates, and spin doctors for either the Bush or Obama administrations, cherry-picking among church teachings to support those positions. Needless to say, the American Catholic landscape is dotted with prominent examples of all the above.

... Under the lure of partisan politics, pro-life and peace-and-justice Catholics in America too often move in separate circles. They read their own journals and Web sites, go to their own meetings, and have their own heroes. Pro-lifers tend to be drawn into the Republican orbit, while peace-and-justice types are usually more comfortable with the Democrats. As a result, they travel down separate paths, having separate conversations and investing their time and treasure in distinct, and sometimes even opposing, efforts.

In turn, those patterns reflect deep currents in American sociology, which work against any effort to transcend divisions. Journalist Bill Bishop calls the accelerating tendency of Americans during the past 30 years to retreat into like-minded tribes, both physically and virtually, "the Big Sort," and says the results are obvious: "Balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices over ways of life."

(As a footnote, if I had the authority to decree a reading assignment for every Catholic in America, it would be Bishop's 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. His observations about broad trends in American society can be applied almost point-for-point to the internal life of the church.)

Thus the question implicitly posed by Benedict's encyclical: Can the church in this country develop a new way of "breathing with both lungs," bringing its pro-life and peace-and-justice energies into greater alignment? Or are we fated to continue the present pattern of "Big Sort Catholicism"? Can American Catholics evangelize the country's politics, or are we content to be evangelized by it? That, in any event, seems to be the gut-check posed by Caritas in Veritate.
Like many concerned Catholics, I have watched the rift grow in the Church before my eyes, and have experienced the "cherry-picking" Allen refers to in reactions to my preaching.

I'll never forget giving a very careful homily in Tempe, AZ at some point during the first three years of my priesthood. The scriptures lent themselves to a reflection on some themes in Catholic social teaching that I knew would challenge a basically economically privileged community. Much of the homily included extended quotes from various papal encyclicals and bishops' documents. I asked a student to read those passages at each Mass to help make it clear that those were not my words, but the words from our shepherds. I attempted to connect the quotes with brief explanations, applications, and with the recurring theme that this particular aspect of the Church's teaching touches our lives in an incredibly pervasive way. I also tried to make that point that any economic system could be corrupted by greed, fear, or any of the other wiles of Satan- including capitalism.

After Mass, a young woman came up to me, and said to me angrily, "Father, I thought Satan was the enemy, not capitalism." It actually took me a moment to realize she was serious, and by that time, she'd slipped through the crowd, and I couldn't find her. Of course, Satan is The Enemy, and he uses many, many means to sow discord in the Christian community and to make us retreat into self-interest. Both the Church's teaching on life issues and it's social justice teaching challenge us precisely on that front. Caritas in Veritate makes the connection very clear. Every economic decision is a moral decision. Conversely, moral decisions are often influenced by economic factors.

How many Christians do not confront immoral economic policies at their workplace for fear of losing their job? How many terminally ill or elderly people feel pressure to "end it all," so that they are able to leave some of their estate to their children? How many women take the lives of their unborn children because of fear of the economic ramifications of their pregnancy? To pray that abortion may be made illegal in this country is fine. But let's take a cue from the fiasco of Prohibition. It didn't work because people wanted to drink. Until we address the economic factors that are connected with the horrors of abortion (or even admit that there are such factors), we should not expect much success on the legal front.

One final anecdote to end this already too long post. Last summer, in preparation for the election, the parish of Blessed Sacrament in Seattle asked me to give a talk on prudential judgment and voting. I quoted extensively from various documents again, including the following passage from "Faithful citizenship" which also quotes John XXIII's "Pacem in Terris"
The right to life implies and is linked to other human rights—to the basic goods that every human person needs to live and thrive. All the life issues are connected, for erosion of respect for the life of any individual or group in society necessarily diminishes respect for all life. The moral imperative to respond to the needs of our neighbors—basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education, and meaningful work—is universally binding on our consciences and may be faithful citizenship legitimately fulfilled by a variety of means. Catholics must seek the best ways to respond to these needs. (an example of the requirement for prudential judgment right there - MSF) As Blessed Pope John XXIII taught, “[Each of us] has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and, finally, the necessary social services” (Pacem in Terris, no. 11).
Afterwards, during a Q & A, a young woman (not the same one who'd spoken to me in Tempe) raised her hand and said, basically, "Father, I absolutely agree that the right to life is the fundamental right. But I don't agree that people have a right to housing, education, clothing and food. Those are desires, and thus not at all on the same level as the right to life."

I was taken aback, to say the least. I asked her to repeat her comment, because I wasn't sure I heard her correctly. I experienced at that moment the "great sorting" to which Bishop refers. I can't remember my response, other than realizing that I'd never, ever thought of food as something to which I might not have a right. Now, I don't have a right to an excess of food, but, as Pope John XXIII taught, I have a moral obligation to work for the development of other people in addition to protecting their right to live.

According to Catholic teaching, I not only have a right to life, I have a right to have my dignity recognized and upheld through adequate food, shelter, medical care, education, work, and basic social services. Caritas in Veritate is a beautiful document, and I agree with Allen; it is a direct challenge to us as Catholics who happen to be citizens of the U.S.

I suppose it's even more of a challenge to Americans who happen to be Catholic.

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