George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors

Charity in Truth

Now that was a week: a new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), from Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday; a meeting between the pope and Pres. Barack Obama on Friday; heavy-duty polemics on Wednesday and Thursday, largely reflective of the determination of certain Catholic parties in the United States to turn the encyclical into a pontifical endorsement of Obamanomics, Obamacare, etc., in anticipation of the Vatican summit.

The high, or low, point in the exchange of counter-battery fire in the blogosphere may have come Thursday, when former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend issued a broadside arguing that President Obama better understood and reflected Catholic life in the United States than did the 265th Bishop of Rome — which rather took Obamaphile spin to new heights (or depths). But, then, nothing was surprising after several days of high-voltage rhetoric in defense of Caritas in Veritate from people who would rather have had a barbed-wire colonoscopy than see Joseph Ratzinger elected pope back in 2005. There are many ironies in the fire, indeed.

Where do things stand, after the week that was?


The president took some reading material on the plane from Rome to Ghana — Caritas in Veritate, and a recent Vatican instruction on bioethical issues, Dignitas Personae (“The Dignity of the Person”), both of which were given him by Benedict XVI during their meeting. The president’s remarkable speech in Ghana, doubtless prepared well in advance, nonetheless touched one theme in Caritas in Veritate — that corrupt and unresponsive governments, not a lack of foreign aid, were the cause of many Third World economic problems. One may doubt, however, whether there will by any such symmetry forthcoming from the administration on the issues discussed in Dignitas Personae, which rejects such administration trademarks as embryo-destructive stem-cell research. Obama also pledged to Benedict that he would do everything he could to lower the incidence of abortion in America (and, presumably, elsewhere); one wonders how this struck his State Department (back in the business of promoting abortion-on-demand at the U.N.) and his political ground troops at NARAL and other pro-abortion organizations across the United States.

The Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, headlined the Benedict-Obama meeting as a “cordial” one. Well, of course it was. Benedict XVI is not a man naturally given to shouting, the president was clearly determined to make a good impression, and the circumstances were not quite like 1983, when John Paul II began a discussion with Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski — in a Poland still under martial law — by commenting that the entire country seemed to be “one great concentration camp.” Yet the very fact that the pope decided to give Obama Dignitas Personae suggests that Benedict knows precisely where the deepest fault line between the U.S. administration and the Holy See is to be found. One hopes that the president, should he read Dignitas Personae closely, learns that the Catholic approach to these matters is not a matter of “belief” or “opinion,” as Obama persistently says, but of moral conviction based on first principles of justice that everyone can know by reason.

A few days before the Vatican summit, E. J. Dionne Jr. reported in his Washington Post column that the papal nuncio in Washington had warned the bishops of the United States against too much criticism of the Obama administration, lest they appear too partisan. If that was in fact said in those precise terms, then the Vatican’s mission in Obama’s Washington seems not to have grasped the central fact about the administration and the Catholic Church in the United States — that the president, in his Notre Dame commencement speech and in his interview with seven religion reporters on July 2, has subtly but unmistakably decided to wrestle with the Catholic bishops of the U.S. over the definition of the Catholic “brand” in America.

At Notre Dame, Obama suggested that the real Catholics, the genuine Catholics, were those Catholics who welcomed his appearance as commencement speaker at the symbolic center of U.S. Catholic intellectual life. The necessary corollary to this assertion, of course, is that the not-so-real Catholics were those like Bishop John D’Arcy of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, who opposed the university’s giving an honorary doctorate of laws to a longtime supporter of Roe v. Wade — not to mention the more than 80 bishops who publicly supported D’Arcy in his brave stand. Then, in his pre-papal summit interview with reporters largely drawn from the Catholic press, Obama spoke (as he also had at Notre Dame) of how the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago had instilled in a young South Side social worker and future president a commitment to “common ground” approaches to public policy — yet another signal that the president proposed to be a player in the internal Catholic debate over the nature of Catholic identity and what that identity requires of Catholic institutions.

As pointed out in this space before, this is unprecedented — a president injecting himself into a Christian community’s debate over its boundaries. One very much doubts that a burning presidential interest in theology is at work here, but a White House determination to play wedge politics with the U.S. bishops and the Catholic population of the U.S. seems not unlikely.

So the bishops should take little solace from the assurances of L’Osservatore Romano that the Benedict-Obama summit was a cordial one. The bishops have to regain control of the Catholic “brand.” And that will require a concerted effort to teach U.S. Catholics that what was at stake at Notre Dame was not politics, but ecclesiology — the definition of who and what is “Catholic” in America. If, as his entire public record suggests, President Obama is committed to enshrining in law the revolution of lifestyle libertinism embodied in Roe v. Wade and in the gay insurgency (which Obama fulsomely endorsed in the White House days before meeting the pope), and if he and his political people recognize that the last major institutional opposition to securing that revolution in America is the Catholic Church, then an administration winning the battle over the Catholic “brand” is an administration making a very, very clever move — and, from the point of view of anyone who cares about religious freedom in America, a very dangerous one. In the face of that danger, fears of being labeled “partisan” by people who are themselves hyper-partisans may just have to be borne.


On a second, third, and even fourth reading, Caritas in Veritate remains a complex and sometimes obscure document, in which many intellectual influences are clearly at work. As such, it seems likely to generate continued debate, which will have to address at least these questions:

1. Throughout his pontificate, and in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI has been at pains to stress the continuity of Catholic life and thought before and after the Second Vatican Council: what he terms a “hermeneutics of continuity,” as distinguished from a “hermeneutics of rupture.” Or, in lay language, the claim that the Catholic Church reinvented itself at Vatican II is simply wrong. Yet the proponents of Populorum Progressio (the 1967 social encyclical of Paul VI that Caritas in Veritate commemorates) would seem to be promoting a “hermeneutics of rupture” when they claim that the tradition of Catholic social doctrine began anew with Populorum Progressio — a claim that at least some passages in Caritras in Veritate can be interpreted to support. This raises a very important question: Are there two Catholic social-doctrine traditions (one stemming from Leo XIII’s 1891 masterwork, Rerum No
, and a post-conciliar one beginning from Populorum Progressio), or is there one? This is not a merely theoretical argument, for the implications of the “two traditions” claim are considerable, especially in light of the fact that the Populorum Progressio “tradition” is the less disciplined of the two in closely identifying specific public policy recommendations with points of theological principle. Thus Benedict XVI’s entire effort to get the Catholic Church thinking of itself as a communion of believers in essential continuity over time is now back on the table of debate, because of the suggestion that something different in kind began, at least in terms of social doctrine, with Populorum Progresio.

2. In the debate over Caritas in Veritate, as in all such debates, it will thus be important to distinguish between principles of Catholic social doctrine and specific prudential judgments about public policy. This is not, pace some partisans on both the Catholic left and the Catholic right, a matter of “picking and choosing” your Magisterium, but of recognizing the difference (which the social doctrine itself has always acknowledged) between those principles of justice that can be known with certainty and the available public-policy options, which involve the questions of prudence — will it work, or will it make matters worse? Caritas in Veritate repeats the teaching of John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, that the Church has no “technical solutions” to offer in public policy: a self-denying ordinance that emerges from the thick philosophical and theological structure of the Rerum Novarum tradition. Whether the Populorum Progressio “tradition” is so self-disciplined is not at all clear.

3. The encyclical’s teaching on the moral ecology necessary to a properly functioning free economy is entirely welcome, as it strongly reinforces points that the advocates of Centesimus Annus have been stressing for 18 years: The market is not a machine that can run by itself; it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make free economies work such that the result is genuine human flourishing. And it is precisely in this respect that Caritas in Veritate poses the sharpest challenge for Catholic Obamaphiles.

For Benedict XVI insists in his encyclical that the life issues are social-justice issues, such that the “human ecology” or moral ecology necessary for make free economies work is eroded when wrongs are defined as rights (as in current U.S. abortion law). Thus the encyclical has put Catholic legislators on notice that they can’t hide behind their “social justice” commitments while taking a pass (or worse) on the life issues; but then, they were put on notice on that very point by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) in 1995. As for “common ground” approaches to reducing the incidence of abortion, these potentially useful initiatives only get you so far here. At some point, and it’s not very far down the road, two hard questions arise for the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden: Do Roe v. Wade and its various judicial progeny violate fundamental Catholic norms of social justice, as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have taught? And if they do, what do you propose to do about that?

In this respect, Benedict’s insistence in Caritas in Veritate that the life issues are social-justice issues is the encyclical’s tacit response to Obama’s promotion of the late Cardinal Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” or “seamless garment,” which despite the cardinal’s strong personal opposition to abortion, was used by two generations of Catholic politicians as a way to avoid pro-life votes. Caritas in Veritate ought to make that sort of bobbing-and-weaving more difficult, though no doubt some Catholic legislators and their intellectual and activist supporters will continue to try.

4. One of the encyclical’s more obscure passages has to do with “quotas of gratuitousness and communion” being the answer to Third World underdevelopment. As it happens, there is a school of economic thought that styles itself the “Economy of Communion” and promotes free-market approaches in which profit, while a factor in business life, is not the only factor, and in which a portion of profits are shared with projects aimed at the economic empowerment of the poor. It is unclear from the text of Caritas in Veritate whether this is being recommended as a general model for 21st-century economic life, or an interesting experiment within the framework of the free economy. But given the influence of “Economy of Communion” academics on the formation of Caritas in Veritate, the idea is not going to go away and ought to be engaged and debated, both by economists committed to market principles and practices and by Catholic scholars committed to the Centesimus Annus portrait of the free economy.

5. Finally, and of possible concern only to those fascinated by the most inside of Catholic inside baseball, it will be interesting to see the effect of the encyclical’s strictures against too-stringent laws protecting intellectual property rights on what some would regard as the excessive claim of the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, the Holy See’s publishing house, to a property right in virtually every word spoken by this pope.


It is certainly true that Catholic social doctrine challenges all parties in the ongoing debate over political economy in the United States. Yet if the most important development in that doctrine in Caritas in Veritate is a strong linkage of the life issues to Catholic social-justice concerns, then it is also true that the challenge of this particular encyclical falls more sharply on those who believe that Roe v. Wade was rightly decided, and remedied an injustice in prior American law. The positive commentary on the encyclical from those usually stereotyped as the defenders of “unbridled capitalism” suggest both the silliness of that label and the openness of many conservatives to the legal and cultural regulation of markets. The sounds of silence from the left, however, on the encyclical’s insistence that the defense of life from conception until natural death is a social-justice issue, and perhaps the social-justice issue of the moment because of its fundamental character, suggests that a parallel openness to challenge is not immediately self-evident among some of those now trumpeting their appreciation for Caritas in Veritate. Perhaps that will change.


This article was originally published on National Review Online

Latest Articles


George Weigel Interview with Gość Niedzielny

This translated interview  with EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow George Weigel was the cover story in the June 9 issue of the Polish magazine Gość Niedzielny [Sunday Visitor].  View Print Article Interview


Stay in the know by receiving George Weigel’s weekly newsletter