The Good Pope and the Bad Advisers — A Fable by George Weigel

Once upon a time there was a good pope called John Paul II. He was very good and everybody loved him. Well, almost everybody. There was a sneaky group of bad people called the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and they were very powerful under previous popes. In fact, they were so powerful that they persuaded Pope Paul VI to issue a really bad document called Populorum Progressio, and this document is an “odd duck..clouded by then-popular leftist and progressive conceptions about the problem of Third World poverty, its causes, and its remedies.” In other words, it was very bad.

Then along came good Pope John Paul II. But the bad people at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace were very cunning. They whispered in the pope’s ear, and he allowed them to guide his encyclical called Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, and the result was not good. And so when it came time for his next encyclical, John Paul was ready. Justice and Peace sent him a text. But John Paul stood up to them. He ripped up their text, and started from scratch. The result was Centesimus Annus , the greatest document ever produced by the Church. It said that there was no more “third way” between capitalism and socialism, but that capitalism was the only way.  But it also a very long document, so its best to read it in the abridged version, and the best abridged form is the one written by Richard John Neuhaus, and myself, George Weigel. This abridged version strips all the influence of Justice and Peace from the document. Yes, for even though John Paul cast these treacherous advisers away, they used magic to get into his dreams, and some of their bad ideas made it into the document, even though the pope never even knew it. This is why you need the abridged version. 

Justice and Peace was angry. Very angry. Skulking in the darkest corners of the Vatican, they plotted their revenge. With an evil cackle, they hatched their malicious plots. And when John Paul died and Benedict was elected pope, they saw their opening. “Your Holinessss,” they whispered, “don’t you think you should issue a document to mark the anniversary of that great encyclical, Populorum Progressio? We could help you, you know, it would be your greatest achievement ever, Holinessss,”. Pope Benedict saw the evil gleam in their eyes and he was most disturbed. They gave him a document, but he said no. He did not trust them. They hissed in frustration, but held back their anger. They handed him a second document, and he rejected it again. They tried a third time, and again the answer was no.

Ever the kind old man, the pope did not want to hurt their feelings. So he told a little white lie. “My friends,” he said, “the world is going through the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. We need to reflect more on that before we write the document”. Of course, there was no such “economic crisis” (these things cannot happen in capitalism after all, unless the evil government messes it up). But the advisers were not very bright, and they believed him. And so they kept plotting.

And so Pope Benedict, like John Paul before him, set out to write the document be wanted to write. But Benedict was a kindly old man, a “truly gentle soul”, and he took pity on Justice and Peace. “Why,” he said to his cat, “these poor men have put so much effort into this, I must give them something.” And so he did, but he was very clever. In his own hand, he wrote in a gold pen, a gold as bright as the shining sun. What they gave him, he wrote with a red pen, a red the color of blood. And so he created a long encyclical called Caritas in Veritate. People were confused by the two voices, and thought it was a “duck-billed platypus”. But Benedict knew that if people read the document clearly enough, they would understand the difference between the gold and the red. They would know that his own contributions were “strong and compelling” and that the other stuff was “incomprehensible”, “clotted and muddled”, full of silliness about the redistribution of wealth, and calling for dangerous transnational governance. He knew they would figure it out, helped of course by guides like yours truly.

And so, the evil advisers at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace read the encyclical with glee, and saw their words in bright red. “We have won,” the exclaimed, saliva dripping from their yellow teeth, “red means it’s really important…we have had our revenge. Hahahahahaha…” But Pope Benedict only smiled. He knew that their sections were so incoherent, so impenetrable that they sounded less like a trumpet than the “warbling of an untuned piccolo”. Let them have their untuned piccolo, thought Benedict. Let them think they have won. In reality I have vanquished them, and they don’t even know it. Now, if only they hadn’t persuaded me to oppose the Iraq war….

The End.

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  • M.J. Andrew

    I am glad that you mentioned Weigel’s piece. To suggest that the Pope conceded to his own Curia in order to maintain peace in the papal court is ridiculous and disingenuous. To even pretend that one has the competence to parse out the “Benedictine” elements from the “Justice and Peace” elements is to accord to oneself a competency that ravishes credulity. But let us, for a moment, say that Weigel is correct–that the Curia (and specifically Cardinal Martino) sort of forced in its own teachings. The promulgation of a papal encyclical is done solely by the Pope, so the full content of each encyclical rests entirely on the Pope’s authority, no matter who write which sections. Recall that it is well known that Pope Leo XIII and Pius XII often had others draft their encyclicals, and the constitutions and decrees of at least the last three Ecumenical Councils (Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II) were written mostly by theological experts and not the bishops and the pope. What matter is the authentic magisterium that promulgates the teachings. Once that’s done, the teachings–no matter their origin–are Catholic doctrine.

    But seriously, who in their right mind would think that Weigel is doing anything than attempting to justify the dismissal of those sections of the new encyclical that do not accord well with his antecedently adopted political schema?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova Morning’s Minion

    My favorite part is when Weigel said that Benedict delayed the encyclical because he was displeased with his curial enemies, not because of the economic crisis!

  • David Nickol

    I think this may be the first time the historical-critical method has been used to tease out the “real” meaning of a religious document on the very day it was published.

  • http://www.samrocha.com Sam Rocha

    I am about to read this but must say, in advance, that the title is just too funny!

  • http://www.samrocha.com Sam Rocha

    Done. Brilliant.

  • http://forthegreaterglory.blogspot.com/ Michael Denton

    When I usually frown upon these kinds of pieces, Weigel got just what he asked for in this case. Very funny.

  • Boz

    or as a commenter on another blog said, ultimately Weigel is accusing Benedict XVI of being “a silly old man who tried to please everybody”

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  • http://voxnova2.wordpress.com Katerina Ivanovna

    And so he did, but he was very clever. In his own hand, he wrote in a gold pen, a gold as bright as the shining sun. What they gave him, he wrote with a red pen, a red the color of blood.

    HILARIOUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This post is so getting bookmarked.

    Weigel set himself up on this one!

  • alex martin

    I often disagree with you, MM, but you got it right on the nose this time. Well done.

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    Morning great piece!! I am going to dinner down(date night) but im looking forward to your piece on How Fater Reesee piece was so misleading(are there going to be posts on that appeared in Newsweek!!)

    I am actually hoping how Catholic conservatives and liberals can have a disussion here.

    It is amazing how much we have in common but we both want to make each other the enemy. But 90 perecent of Catholic “liberals” have never heard of Father Reese and 90 perecent of Catholic Conservatives in the real world(like their liberal Catholic Counterparts)have never heard of Weigel)we can go on playing this inside internet baseball and feel so intelligent over overyone else. A trait common to the both camps

    Time to talk and keep worrying about the worst fables about each other. You can’t call us “Culture warriors” and we can’t call you “Socialist” so easy anymore.

    Hopefully you will meet the challenge

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova Morning’s Minion

    JH, there should be no division. Benedict seems almost testy when he notes the false divisions in social teaching between the two camps. I think we can agree that should be no such division.

  • http://www.samrocha.com Sam Rocha

    JH: Amen.

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  • Zak

    :-)

    Well David, you need to look at the historical social teaching, not the social teaching of faith.

  • Gabriel Austin

    M.J. Andrew writes
    an excellent commentary on the silly Weigel piece. His vocabulary is a wonder.

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  • http://the-american-catholic.com/ John Henry

    Absolutely brilliant. Weigel brought this on himself.

  • brettsalkeld

    You know, I think a good case could be made that Weigel didn’t actually write that piece. I suspect he was kidnapped by leftists who have now published this in his name. Maybe he wrote bits and pieces of it, but overall it just looks too much like a caricature. I mean, really, would he actually publish something to which the best rebuttal is simply, “Look what Weigel wrote this time”?

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  • Chris Sullivan

    Brilliant post, Mornings Minnion !

    Like brettsalkeld, I’m struggling to believe that Weigel would actually be so brash as to write that article.

    Did he really write it ?

    God Bless

  • ron chandonia

    MM vs. Weigel? MM wins, hands down. Thanks for bringing joy to this morning.

  • ron chandonia

    One more thought: The fact that George Weigel is a fool does not make geniuses of his critics on the left. For a really thoughtful take on the commentary about Caritas in Veritate, check out Rick Garnett’s remarks on Mirror of Justice.

  • http://voxnova2.wordpress.com Katerina Ivanovna

    My husband read this to me aloud last night and once again we almost died laughing… thank you for the post!

  • http://apolonio.blogspot.com Apolonio

    Wow…Weigel’s response was simply too American…and dumb.

  • grega

    Clearly things are shifting – I imagine just a short couple of years ago plenty folks would have taken Weigels utterances quite serious and cheered him on.
    Now he goes down the drain of history with the rest of his neocon torture fools.
    However as Ron pointed out this is not the occasion for ‘Schadenfreude’ – indeed the Pope provides plenty of honest morsal and intelectual challenges for us on the left to chew on. We have plenty of our own “Weigels” on the left – no time for Schadenfreude indeed.

  • Tom Piatak

    An outstanding piece.

  • http://crankycon.politicalbear.com Paul Zummo

    Weigel deserves every bit of mockery thrown at him for his piece. But still he deserves kudos, because I think for once he’s united all sides of the Catholic spectrum – just not in the way he intended.

  • Mike McG…

    Quick note to three (small?) VN audiences I inhabit: 1. the time pressed, who scan posts and thus miss the occasional choice nugget; 2. the tone sensitive, who are weary of the usual suspects and their predictable food fights; and 3. those who often find themselves living between the 40 yard lines, who puzzle at the dogmatism, left and right, that blots out all amgiguity and paradox:

    Check out jh’s post at 5:08 pm on 7.7.

    Yes!

  • Liam

    In a discussion forum I have inhabited for many years, before the advent of blogs, someone responded to a discussion of the encyclical in the specific context of the USA as follows:

    “It is something that an unborn baby is not legally a person but an amalgamation of capital is.”

    The predicate for this is that Americans assume the current treatment and duties of corporations under our legal and social systems’ is coeval with our constitutional framework, whereas in reality it is largely the work of the Gilded Age.

    We take things as fixed when they are not. The encyclical is an opportunity to nourish hope (not mere optimism).

  • http://www.evangelicalcatholicism.wordpress.com M.J. Andrew

    I wrote a response to Weigel’s piece here. The implications the piece has for Pope Benedict XVI’s character seem to have escaped Weigel.

  • CEK

    Fantastic article, MM.

    I found Weigel’s ‘naive and dumb’ statement to be the highlight of his review: Here is a fellow who, naively and stupidly I guess he himself would say, spent gallons of ink twisting JWT to fit the Bush admin’s foreign policy.

  • http://www.josephsoleary.typepad.com Spirit of Vatican II

    M J Andrew has a very telling analysis of Weigel. yet I wonder if there is not something in Weigel’s claims. The concrete parts of the Encyclical, about finance, immigration, technology etc. read a bit like Populorum Progression and are in the Justice and Peace style promoted after Vatican II. But the conservative ideological parts are echt Benedict, failing to place the concrete parts in any integrated context. So I think he relied on the J and P commission for those concrete parts while giving free rein to his own vision in the rest. And I do think it likely that the J and P people in the Vatican have long been frustrated with the hijacking of social doctrine by John Paul II (mixing it up with his anti abortion crusade, paring the option for the poor with a pastoral option for youth, and pouncing on perceived leftists such as the Sandinistas, the Jesuits and the liberation theologians is a cruel and blind way).

  • http://www.josephsoleary.typepad.com Spirit of Vatican II

    paring SHD BE pairing

  • http://www.houseoftheinklings.blogspot.com X-Cathedra

    Wow. This may be a first: a witty and scathing post against a key right-leaning figure that EVERYONE in the comboxes agrees is accurate and just! Congratulations, MM.

    That itself may be the greatest testament to just how messed up Weigel’s priorities are!

    Pax Christi,

  • http://www.austinstorm.com Austin Storm

    I laughed.

  • http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com Kevin J Jones

    I deduce that Weigel’s essay was written by an Australian summer intern with platypuses on the brain.

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  • http://www.samrocha.com Sam Rocha