Friday, July 10, 2009
I was involved in a conversation with some folks regarding the right way to read Caritas in veritate, in which one interlocutor suggested that George Weigel’s “gold and red” reading were tantamount to, or tat least tending toward the sort of doctrinal, “cherry picking” of which “conservative Catholics” often more or less rightly accuse “liberal Catholics”.
What follows is a response, or the synthesis of the conversation.
Weigel offered some very good insights. He is wrong about the relative importance of the idea of gift, but he is right about the literary inconsistency of the document. It must be said that he offered his reflections less than 24 hours after the release of a 28k+word document that is theologically weighty, to say the least. Indeed, it is so densely written that it will take weeks, if not months to unpack.
Interlocutors raised the question of the relative weight of an Encyclical, and whether it might be dangerous to suggest, as I had, that an Encyclical might be read with a critical eye toward what are what lawyers call the operative parts, and what are dicta. The question whether such readings might be hypocritical is discussed…
While an Encyclical Letter is a very high form of Papal writing, and while the whole of the Encyclical is issued in the Pope's name, the present Encyclical does indeed present the reader with some peculiarities, most of which are rooted in and stem from the topic of the Encyclical, itself, i.e. "integral human development in charity and truth".
Said simply, this is a social encyclical, and the Church does not have power to bind consciences in opinable matters regarding the pursuit of the common good, which call for an exercise of prudential judgment on the part of competent actors.
The Church does have a divinely inspired tradition of thinking about social problems, one that has stood the test of time and continues to be valuable in our day.
Pope Benedict is a better, and a more "ecclesial" thinker that the PCJ&P, which is to say he is better at thinking with the mind of the Church than is the Pontifical Council.
So, one need not attribute GW's attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, to hypocritical cherry-picking. It might simply be, indeed I think it is, that George would not see the Pope's Letter co-opted by those who would like to put the Papal seal of approval on their policy stances, on the one hand, and on the other, that he genuinely wants to help people think with the mind of the Church, by parsing the authentically Benedictine parts and offering those for our more leisurely rumination.
If it is not absolutely necessary to paint someone with the brush of hypocrisy, then to do so is inappropriate.
First, as regards the Church's understanding of its competence to speak to and on social matters: the Church can teach on basic questions - matters of fundamental importance to social order, e.g. the structure of marriage and the rights to life and liberty, esp. in religious expression.
The controlling canon is 747.2: "It belongs to the Church always and everywhere to announce moral principles, even about the social order, and to render judgment concerning any human affairs insofar as the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls requires it."
Questions regarding the right way of achieving the essential ends of society are prudential, and fall to citizens and their competent representatives. As Benedict is at pains to remind us in the new Encyclical, "The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.”
She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation."
There are two end-notes in this pair of sentences, which come from paragraph 9.:
Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 36; Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (14 May 1971), 4: AAS 63 (1971), 403-404; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 43: AAS 83 (1991), 847.
 Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, 13: loc. cit., 263-264.
I think it is generally good practice to interpret Encyclical Letters in light of the changeless Magisterium, e.g., in light of ecumenical councils. Pope Benedict certainly rests himself on the II Vatican Council in this regard, even citing GS, a document about which he is known to have concerns.
This is a highfalutin way of saying that the Divine command to feed the hungry does not make us farmers, hunters, fishermen, grocers or cooks.
At this point, it was suggested that the desire to separate the binding parts of this or any teaching document might be less than generous...
I agree that it can seem less than generous, and probably is, sometimes.
Not necessarily, though: esp. in the area of social doctrine, lots of folks just want to figure out whether they have to modify their existing prudential judgments, policy positions, etc., or whether they are free to persist in their opinions.
Sometimes, as when there is a Papal statement that might be construed, or is publicly interpreted by some commentator or another, and sometimes by someone with some pretense to authority, to condemn a given opinion, the holder(s) of that opinion will seek to explain why their opinion is consistent with sound doctrine.... Read More
That is their right, and even, in a certain sense, their duty to their own consciences and to the body of the Church, to whose members no legitimate liberty of opinion is to be denied.