Getting Used to Thinking with the Church Takes Practice

Getting Used to Thinking with the Church Takes Practice September 27, 2012

So, for instance, if you hear the word “redistribution” and your very first instinct is to blurt “socialism!” or otherwise pour forth a stream of rhetoric denouncing anybody who mentions the idea in any context and then immediately dismiss it from your mind, my suggestion, like Caelum et Terra’s, is that you take several deep breaths, master your impulse to cavil, ignore, rebuke and resist and then read–slowly–what Benedict XVI has to say in Caritas in Veritate:

32. Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country’s international competitiveness, hinder the achievement of lasting development. Moreover, the human consequences of current tendencies towards a short-term economy — sometimes very short-term — need to be carefully evaluated. This requires further and deeper reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals,as well as a profound and far-sighted revision of the current model of development, so as to correct its dysfunctions and deviations.

36. Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.

37. Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift. The economy in the global era seems to privilege the former logic, that of contractual exchange, but directly or indirectly it also demonstrates its need for the other two: political logic, and the logic of the unconditional gift.

39. Paul VI in Populorum Progressio called for the creation of a model of market economy capable of including within its range all peoples and not just the better off. He called for efforts to build a more human world for all, a world in which “all will be able to give and receive, without one group making progress at the expense of the other.” In this way he was applying on a global scale the insights and aspirations contained in Rerum Novarum, written when, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the idea was first proposed — somewhat ahead of its time — that the civil order, for its self-regulation, also needed intervention from the State for purposes of redistribution.

42. The processes of globalization, suitably understood and directed, open up the unprecedented possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a world-wide scale; if badly directed, however, they can lead to an increase in poverty and inequality, and could even trigger a global crisis. It is necessary to correct the malfunctions, some of them serious, that cause new divisions between peoples and within peoples, and also to ensure that the redistribution of wealth does not come about through the redistribution or increase of poverty: a real danger if the present situation were to be badly managed. For a long time it was thought that poor peoples should remain at a fixed stage of development, and should be content to receive assistance from the philanthropy of developed peoples. Paul VI strongly opposed this mentality in Populorum Progressio. Today the material resources available for rescuing these peoples from poverty are potentially greater than before, but they have ended up largely in the hands of people from developed countries, who have benefited more from the liberalization that has occurred in the mobility of capital and labour. The world-wide diffusion of forms of prosperity should not therefore be held up by projects that are self-centred, protectionist or at the service of private interests. Indeed the involvement of emerging or developing countries allows us to manage the crisis better today. The transition inherent in the process of globalization presents great difficulties and dangers that can only be overcome if we are able to appropriate the underlying anthropological and ethical spirit that drives globalization towards the humanizing goal of solidarity. Unfortunately this spirit is often overwhelmed or suppressed by ethical and cultural considerations of an individualistic and utilitarian nature.

49. What is also needed, though, is a worldwide redistribution of energy resources, so that countries lacking those resources can have access to them. The fate of those countries cannot be left in the hands of whoever is first to claim the spoils, or whoever is able to prevail over the rest.

Caelum et Terra, by the way, provides the useful service of often pointing out those aspects of Catholic teaching which wind up on the cutting room floor after being snipped away as unuseful to the ginner-uppers of tribal enthusiasms on both sides of the aisle.  It is therefore, like Chesterton and others who are trying to just listen to the whole of what the Church says, often derided as both hopelessly neanderthal in its retrograde reactionary conservatism and as the work of a radical leftist commie.  So I like it.

In contrast, you can get the ridiculous take of George Weigel, who does a sort of source-criticism analysis in which he divides the encyclical up into various sources and then picks through it like the Jesus Seminar color-coding the gospels for “authentic” teaching we must accept (those which affirm George Weigel in his okayness) and interpolated passages we can all ignore.  (For a masterful takedown of this cafeteria approach, go here.)

I think we should try to take the Church’s teaching as a whole, not edit it to fit our Pavlovian responses to certain acoustic cues and tribal needs.

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