Behold, the pope is … Catholic?

In a week in which the homepages of the heavy media hitters have been drenched in Michael Jackson coverage, there has, believe it or not, been other news. President Obama met with Russian leaders Medvedev and Putin and negotiated agreements of import to the United States. U.S. troops died in Afghanistan implementing new U.S. strategy. And oh, by the way, Pope Benedict XVI issued a new 144-page encyclical, “Charity in Truth,” or “Caritas in Veritate.”

Although Benedict appears to sound consistent concerns against birth control, abortion and gay marriage, it is his criticism of capitalism and call for a new “world political authority” that is disturbing some conservatives (can this be the real Benedict?) and cheering some liberals.

As Reuters points out in this “Factbox,” this encylical fits into a long traditional of papal papers that veer a little left on economic issues. This tradition has influenced not only succeeding popes but also the formation of various Western European political parties.

So how the media handled (those in the media who were paying attention) the publication of a long, complex, and timely document that challenges easy categorization? At the Times Online website, Ruth Gledhill sticks very close to the pope’s text, which gives readers a place to begin (although I’m not clear from the coverage whether the encyclical calls for “supplanting” or reforming the United Nations). Jacqueline Salmon’s restrained article (linked above) sticks to the facts, with a few quotes to make the point that this document is being received in some very different ways, depending on where one falls on the ideological spectrum.

I’m particularly intrigued by George Weigel’s speculation that the pope’s apparent reformist inclinations were a sop to the “left-leaning” members of the Vatican bureaucracy. The “bureaucracy” at the Vatican has taken a lot of media hits in the past year for infighting and bad public relations — it seems to be the group to critique when you aren’t quite sure who is responsible.

At, Cathy Lee Grossman highlights some of the economic points that could be most interesting to general readers. Her lede does a good job of summing up some of the pope’s more controversial ideas for economic reform:

Pope Benedict XVI today called for reforming the United Nations and establishing a “true world political authority” with “real teeth” to manage the global economy with God-centered ethics.

In his third encyclical, a major teaching, released as the G-8 summit begins in Italy, the pope says such an authority is urgently needed to end the current worldwide financial crisis. It should “revive” damaged economies, reach toward “disarmament, food security and peace,” protect the environment and “regulate migration.”

Benedict writes, “The market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak.”

As the parent of a teen-aged girl with a liking for vampire novels, I can’t blame Benedict or Grossman for where my mind goes when I read “real teeth.” But I do wish that if she’d have balanced the Father Tom Reese quotes with more extended ones from Kirk Hanson — again, both the pope’s “life ethics” and the left-leaning economic critique in this encyclical are an historical strand of Catholic social teaching.

A duet by Rachel Donadio and Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times has what I think is probably the best economic analysis of the articles I’ve seen. I’m particularly taken by the quote from Vincent Miller of the University of Dayton:

In many ways, the document is a puzzling cross between an anti-globalization tract and a government white paper, another signal that the Vatican does not comfortably fit into traditional political categories of right and left.

“There are paragraphs that sound like Ayn Rand, next to paragraphs that sound like ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ That’s quite intentional,” Vincent J. Miller, a theologian at the University of Dayton, a Catholic institution in Ohio, said by telephone.

Donadio and Goodstein don’t note the places in the encyclical where the pope does address issues of concern to conservative Catholics. But by quoting the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Novak, they give the article a weighty (albeit “uncomfortable”) conservative voice on the economic issues — and, lets face it, that’s the news in this encyclical. I’d love to see some more conservative Catholics quoted on the economic issues discussed in the encyclical.

Over at Reuter’s FaithWorld blog, Daniel Bases has an interesting interview with CEO and former Gov. Frank Keating on precisely that topic.

The pope is scheduled to receive the president at the Vatican on Friday. At the least, Pope Benedict has given him and the G-8 posse material for a very meaty discussion. Let’s hope we hear about substance, not solely ceremonials. And let’s hope we get some analysis of how this encyclical, addressed to the world, is being received, both by believers and by the secular powers to whom it is also addressed.

Print Friendly

  • Cade_One

    As a conservative Catholic, I admit that I felt a little uncomfortable, at times, while reading “Caritas in Veritate.” But at the same time there were things that really spoke to my heart.

    “When he is far away from God, man is unsettled and ill at ease.” ? Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate

  • Cade_One

    That “?” was supposed to appear as “—” : )

  • Q.S.

    Have you actually read the encyclical yourself E.E.?

  • E.E. Evans

    Q.S. — I have only read segments. I didn’t claim to have read the whole encyclical,and make only the most general observations based on what I’ve read. That being said, if you have read it, I’d love to get your perspective on the press coverage!

  • jh

    I think the amount of “Conservative” criticism has been overblown. Weigal comments I have noted are viewed with some embarrassment among many Catholic conservatives

    It is unfortunate the “Worldwide Poltical Order” comment has been so overblown also. It is like people did not read the darn thing or note the Vatican Press Conference on this issue

    As for this being from the left as to economic thinking I am not sure of that at all. It does not strike me like that all

  • Dan Crawford

    I assure you we will not hear the end of “conservative” commentary and spin on the encyclical for quite some time. For some conservative Catholics, the fact that the capitalist, not necessarily the free, market is “the place where the strong subdue the weak” is its greatest virtue.

  • jh

    “I assure you we will not hear the end of “conservative” commentary and spin on the encyclical for quite some time. For some conservative Catholics, the fact that the capitalist, not necessarily the free, market is “the place where the strong subdue the weak” is its greatest virtue.”

    I surely hope that meaningful commentary from us Conservative Catholics will not just be seen as “spin”.

    FOr the record I don’t think the Pope uses the word Captialism once. That is on purpose according the Vatican News Conference. THis is no doubt because of Unregulated Captialist world I hear Father Reese and others say we Conservative Catholics want. You would think that we are all Ayn Rand groupies or something.

    For some conservative “spin” see the Action Inst that is looking at the documment and hits quite fairly what the Pope is most likely talking about when he is looking at a world wide authority

    FOr the most part I am seeing conservatives Catholics interacting with the document in a very postive way

    • E.E. Evans

      Thank you, JH, for the reasoned and civil tone of your comment. Let’s try to be respectful of each other ‘s opinions, whether liberal, conservative, or sometimes just somewhere in in the muddled middle.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Let’s not forget John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) in which he spoke of “the priority of labor over capital; 1987′s Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concerns), in which he criticized the “the unequal distribution of the means of subsistence originally meant for everybody” and “blind submission to pure consumerism,” and 1991′s Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum), in which he condemned the “morally inadmissible” practice of putting profits ahead of people.

    John Paul II always made it clear that capitalism was his preferred economic system for doing the most good for the most people. But in his criticism of capitalism’s excesses he was restating the Church’s declared preferential option for the poor.

    To label it liberal or conservative is to lift it from the realm of religion and set it in a contemporary political context.

    As a non-Catholic, I understand this to be the Church’s attempt to maintain a consistent pro-life ethic.

    The headline on this post says it all, “Behold, the pope is…Catholic?” Benedict XVI is pope and thoroughly Roman Catholic. No one should be surprised by his criticism of capitalism.

  • Julia

    the Church’s declared preferential option for the poor.

    That’s bedrock liberation theology and you won’t find it coming out of Rome. It’s also favored by Bernardin fans and the Jesuits like Thomas Reese.

    The Acton Institute is a great place to go for analysis. [An off topic tidbit: the head of the Acton Institute is the brother of the actor who played Pauly Walnuts on The Sopranos.]

    We should all remember that Benedict is a European and the language and terms he uses are colored by that. Another caveat: it is always dangerous to read just a sentence or phrase of anything written by Benedict.

    I’ve not seen much comment on his praise of the increasing number of organizations that are a mix of for-profit and non-profit. Example: the micro-lending initiatives. There are many such as one a cousin of mine is associated with producing chocolate sold in pricey food stores in the first world that allows indigenous people in the rain forests in the Amazon area to make a living without cutting down the forests. Generous capitalists provide the seed money, but then the projects operate until market priciples once they get going.

    After the the Madoff scandal, it’s not hard to find the true “greed” the Pope is talking about. Pure capitalism with no restraints would get us the robber barons and sweat shops again.

    We already have organizations such as the World Bank that deal with finances on a global basis. I really don’t think Benedict is pushing for one world government. In fact, I’m sure of it. BTW It is known that he has great admiration for the US and thinks Europe could learn from us.

  • dalea

    What always puzzles me in the press treatment of issues like this is that Economics has a settled language, a distinct vocabulary and a rather extensive inventory of various systems. And the press and church do not use it. Instead they use a theological language which simply does not describe just what is being advocated. What is the point of this disconnect?

  • Chris

    “‘the Church’s declared preferential option for the poor.’

    That’s bedrock liberation theology and you won’t find it coming out of Rome.”

    Absolutely not true! Look, for example, at paragraph 182 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which comes directly from Rome. That only took me 30 seconds to find. I am sure with more time I could find more official declarations of the preferential option for the poor.

  • Dave

    Only in the blogosphere have I seen coverage of the slam at neo-Pagans embedded in this encyclical. At least since John XXIII there’s been a tendency for non-Catholics to regard the Pope as a world spiritual leader despite disagreements. Benedict has brought that to an end as far as Pagans are concerned.

  • jh

    I was reading the Washington Post and seeing the same ole depressing spin. THe Pope is to the left of Obama on economics and such.

    A common theme here and one I agree with is how small the rolodex is for religious Journalist when they have these stories. You know it si Father Reese and a few others

    Here was a pretty good roundtable of some big Catholic heavy hitters. Many of which I fail see to be quoted

  • Brian Walden

    What always puzzles me in the press treatment of issues like this is that Economics has a settled language, a distinct vocabulary and a rather extensive inventory of various systems. And the press and church do not use it. Instead they use a theological language which simply does not describe just what is being advocated. What is the point of this disconnect?

    Dalea, the Pope’s purpose in writing the encyclical isn’t to prescribe specific political or economic action. Rather it’s the message that Christ must be at the heart of all social action. That’s why the encyclical is written in theological terms rather than economic.

    Unfortunately the media doesn’t want to touch the religious content of the encyclical with a 10-foot pole and pulling out the economics/politics from the faith and morals really undermines the whole thing.

  • Julia

    Re: preferential option for the poor

    This term is a lightening rod for many people because of its association with liberation theology.

    To understand the contentious nature of this phrase read

    in the March 26, 2007 edition of JOURNAL OF CATHOLIC LEGAL STUDIES [Vol. 45:321

    The pharse became a liberation theology mantra at the Puebla Convocation of Bishops in Mexico 1979 and its meaning and use has been fought about ever since.

    p. 333

    Regarding the specific appropriation of the term “preferential option for the poor,” John Paul II deliberately avoided its use during the early years of his pontificate. He perceived it as a source of potential divisiveness within the Church and society, and as identified too closely with partisan interests and ideologies such as Marxism.61 As Paul Sigmund
    indicated, fear of the development of a “parallel church”
    emanating from within base communities fueled concern within certain Vatican circles that the term had been interpreted as a quasi-class alignment, vis-à-vis, pitting the poor against the rich.

    In his Opening Address at Puebla, John Paul completely abstained from using “preferential option for the poor,”63 although he found alternative ways to express the same concept, such as by stating that the Church “is prompted by an authentically evangelical commitment which, like that of Christ, is primarily a commitment to those most in need,” and “opt[s] solely for the human being.”



    In the aftermath of Puebla— because the phrase “preferential option for the poor” apparently
    sounded a partisan note according to John Paul and his curial advisors—it was predominantly shunned from the lexicon of official Catholic social teaching. The term never appeared in the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education’s comprehensive 1988 Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church’s Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests,70 nor in the original or revised versions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.71

    Under pressure in later years, John Paul would use variations of the phrase always qualifying it as not being exclusive and not meant to imply class struggle and preference for one class over another.

    The Compendium of the Social Doctrine itself qualifies the phrase such as the following definition of “poverty” to avoid class antagonisms:

    When sought or accepted with a religious attitude, poverty opens one to recognizing and accepting the order of creation. In this perspective, the “rich man” is the one who places his trust in his possessions rather than in God, he is the man who makes himself strong by the works of his own hands and trusts only in his own strength. Poverty takes on the status of a moral value when it becomes an attitude of humble availability and openness to God, of trust in him. This attitude makes it possible for people to recognize the relativity of economic goods and to treat them as divine gifts to be administered and shared, because God is the first owner of all goods.

    Sorry for the long post, but this is a very important issue.

  • Dan

    As far as I can tell, the LA Times did not report on the encyclical letter at all – not even wire service article. I guess in the view of the LA Times the Michael Jackson story was just too important to allow any space to be devoted to the letter.

    The New York Times article is superficial and shabby compared to the roundtable to which jh links. The roundtable consists entirely of what the world would call “conservative Catholics” and strongly suggests that the “discomfort” of Novak and Weigel is not widely shared amoung “conservative Catholics.”

  • Jerry

    I’m particularly intrigued by George Weigel’s speculation that the pope’s apparent reformist inclinations were a sop to the “left-leaning” members of the Vatican bureaucracy.

    I have no idea what the case is, but after several days in Washington DC learning more about the towering integrity of Abraham Lincoln and the abuse heaped upon him during his life, I have to wonder whether the assumption of cynicism is in the eye of the beholder or not. Could the Pope not only be Catholic but also sincerely believe that what he wrote was correct and needed to be written?

    As an aside, I noticed in today’s headlines that Nixon (Obama) went to China (the Pope) and discussed abortion. Hmmm.

  • Jeff Grace

    I don’t know if you are familiar with our site, the Catholic World Report, but we have a “Round-Table” wherein J. Brian Benestad, Francis J. Beckwith, Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., Richard Garnett, Thomas S. Hibbs, Paul Kengor, George Neumayr, Joseph Pearce, Tracey Rowland, Father James V. Schall, and Rev. Robert A. Sirico share their thoughts on Caritas in Veritate.

    It’s located at: