Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Pope's Progressive Agenda

Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), was released yesterday. In it, the pope critiques the international economic system and calls for a new global economic structure based on social responsibility, redistribution of the world’s wealth, concern for the dignity of the worker, and a respect for “people centered” ethics.

Hmm . . . that’s quite a progressive agenda – one which, of course, I’m very happy to see the pope articulating. I just wish he would extend this same progressive outlook into the area of human sexuality. (The groundwork, or foundation, to do so is certainly within the pope’s grasp, as I discuss here. This “foundation” is, of course, the gospel message of liberation from all that oppresses and prevents human flourishing. As his latest encyclical clearly demonstrates, the pope can readily apply this message to the arena of global economics. However, he and the institutional church have a much more difficult time applying it to the realm of sexuality. Why is this?, you may well ask. One answer is discussed here.)

It should be said that I’m certainly not the only one to recognize and appreciate what in certain spheres would be labeled “progressivism” on the part of the pontiff’s perspective on and approach to global economics.

In his July 7 column, “Why Pope Benedict’s Encyclical Is a Boost for Catholic Progressives,” Dan Gilgoff makes some insightful observations:

If the [US]bishops’ criticism of Notre Dame and Obama last spring provided succor to conservative American Catholics frustrated by their hierarchy’s sheepishness on hot-button issues, today’s encyclical performs a similar function for liberal Catholics, distraught that a minority of outspokenly conservative U.S. bishops have received so much attention.

In today’s encyclical — a major letter from the pope to Catholics worldwide — Benedict called for strengthening the United Nations into a “true world political authority” that could manage the global economy, facilitate disarmament, and protect the environment. He said the church’s commitment to trade unions “must . . . be honored today even more than in the past.” Benedict warned against free markets becoming the “place where the strong subdue the weak.”

There is much in Benedict’s third encyclical, in other words, for American conservatives to scorn. And though there’s been a lot written about evangelicals and serious Catholics finding common cause on conservative political goals in recent years, a stronger U.N. and more support for unions is your average Christian right activist’s idea of a bad dream.

That’s not to say that Benedict’s encyclical avoided controversial issues. “In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread,” Benedict writes in a passage about abortion, “and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality . . .”

But Benedict couches the concern for human life in an argument that extends far beyond abortion, bolstering an argument that progressive Catholics have been making for some time now. We may not have seen this big a boost for Catholic progressives from their church since the American bishops loudly supported comprehensive immigration reform in 2007.

Interestingly, some commentators are saying that the contents of Caritas in Veritate may well serve as common ground for this Friday’s meeting between the pope and President Obama.

Stephen Schneck, director of the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., calls the encyclical “a breathtaking glimpse of the possibility of civilization with a human face,” and says he expects it will set the agenda for the Benedict-Obama meeting.

Michael Sean Winters, commenting for America magazine’s blog, goes one step further, opining that, “at one point, Benedict sounds like he hired one of Obama’s speechwriters for a day.”

Winters gives the following as an example of Obama-esque language in the encyclical:

The current crisis obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negative ones. The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future. In this spirit, with confidence rather than resignation, it is appropriate to address the difficulties of the present time.

Of course, not all Catholics are enthusiastic about the pope’s latest encyclical. In her July 7 USA Today article, Pope, Obama May Find Common Ground in “Charity in Truth”, Cathy Lynn Grossman observes that:

[There is not] unanimity among Catholic bishops, professors and commentators on Obama, Benedict or the encyclical.

“I'm always amused that some of the same Catholics who trumpet the pope’s . . . clearly ‘countercultural’ stances — particularly when it comes to abortion, stem-cell research and other life issues — are so willing to look the other way when the culture that he’s countering is that of free-market capitalism and rampant consumerism,” says James Martin, a Catholic priest and business school graduate.

Andrew Abela, chairman of Catholic University’s Department of Business and Economics, predicts that the encyclical’s message that God and ‘openness to life’ are the center of true development “will be resisted by many.”

Indeed, Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, which supports abortion rights, came out promptly with a press release Tuesday offering some praise for the pope’s economic message while condemning the encyclical’s opposition to birth control and condoms for AIDS prevention.

“. . . Because of the hierarchy’s opposition to modern methods of family planning, the means to exercise responsible procreation and sexuality are not mentioned except in a condemnatory way. Given this distorted perspective, some of Pope Benedict’s words on development aid miss the mark, “ said O’Brien.

“It is time for Pope Benedict to hear from fellow world leaders that the church hierarchy’s stance on sexual and reproductive health and development aid is causing those living in poverty more pain. Certainly, President Obama could be the one to deliver that message.”

I’ve yet to read Caritas in Veritate in its entirety, but I’m certainly looking forward to doing so.

If you’re looking for an informed commentary on the pope’s latest encyclical, than I strongly recommend Colleen Kochivar-Baker’s excellent series of posts, beginning with Pope Benedict’s Encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” – Truly Global In His Thinking, and continuing with Pope Benedict on the Questions and Choices Raised by Technology, Conservative Catholic Responses to Caritas in Veritate, and The President, the Pope, and Women’s Reproductive Rights.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Pope Proposes New Financial Order Guided by Ethics
- Nicole Winfield (Associated Press, July 7, 2009).
Pope Blasts Capitalism Ahead of G8 Meeting
- CNN (July 8, 2009).
Democrats, Progressives Find Unlikely Ally in Pope -Tiffany Stanley (National Catholic Reporter, July 9, 2009).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Agreeing with the Vatican
In Search of a “Global Ethic”
Let’s Also Honor the “Expendables”
R.I.P. Neoclassical Economics
Capitalism on Trial
John Pilger on Resisting Empire

Image: Pope Benedict XVI signs his new encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate on July 7 in Vatican City. (L’Osservatore Romano)


kevin57 said...

I agree that it will be interesting to watch for how "traditionalist" Catholic blogs react to this. My prediction? They'll ignore it or cherry-pick its contents. I recall Benedict's first encyclical on love. Benedict actually addressed the concept of "eros" and its positive, very Christian role in love. That encyclical was largely ignored, right?

Clayton said...

Papal teaching is not intended as a boost to one political interest group in the church or another.

That some in the Church use it as such only indicates an inability to benefit from such teaching as anything other than hearing their own voices.

Michael J. Bayly said...

The only voice I try to hear and respond to is the liberating one of the gospel. By the standards of this world, its what many would call a progressive message: it calls us to move (progress) beyond structures and mindsets that prevent flourishing. The whole idea of pilgrimage also speaks of progression, movement, growth, and change.

Sometimes papal statements clearly resound this message, other times they're too mired in their own dysfunction (the big one clearly being sexuality) to do so.

That's why it's critical that those in the church - straight, gay, bisexual, whatever - who lead sexual lives that manifest God's transforming presence and action share their experiences. In many ways, they are being called to be the teachers in this matter. For its part, the institutional church needs to be a "listening church" for a while before it can be a truthful and effective "teaching church." It is my belief that it is only in this way that church teaching on sexuality will progress and be said to be truly gospel-inspired.



Phillip Clark said...

I myself have been reading "Deus Caritas Est" and was extremely impressed by Pope Benedict's usual profundity and eloquence as he explored the various realities, expressions, manifestations, and the responsibilities that are given to us as Christians when it comes to love. Of course, along with his brilliance comes his inability to adapt and re-evaluate traditional stances when it comes to matters concerning sexuality, so this of course greatly dissapointing. And I wholeheartedly agree Michael that only when the Church becomes a listening Church that listens not only to the People of God but to the Voice of the Holy Spirit will she truly manifest equality and dignity for all.

Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to checking out "Caritas in Veritate" and finishing up "Spe Salve" when I get the chance!