George Weigel's Laissez Fairy Tales
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jul 14, 2009 at 03:21:54 PM EST
Pope Benedict XVI's recent encyclical Caritas in veritate ("Charity in truth") marks a healthy return to the Church's principles of Distributive Justice.  This did not sit well with theocon George Weigel who immediately began spinning laissez-fairy tales.
Weigel, writing at the National Review Online -- begins by taking us back to Pope John Paul II and 1990-1 when another economic-related encyclical, Centesimus Annus , was being prepared:

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which imagines itself the curial keeper of the flame of authentic Catholic social teaching, prepared a draft, which was duly sent to Pope John Paul II - who had already had a bad experience with the conventionally gauchiste and not-very-original thinking at Justice and Peace during the preparation of the 1987 social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

Of course, the The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, a Vatican office set up in 1976 dedicated to enabling the furtherance long-held central tenets of Christianity - justice and peace -- was very much in line with the principles of Vatican II -- which Weigel also didn't like.  Perhaps more offensive to Weigel and his fellow neocons is that the Council is currently led by Cardinal Renato Martino,, a vocal opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But back to Weigel's rant:

John Paul shared the proposed draft with colleagues in whose judgment he reposed trust; one prominent intellectual who had long been in conversation with the Pope told him that the draft was unacceptable, in that it simply did not reflect the way the global economy of the post-Cold War world worked.

That "one prominent intellectual" was none other than fellow American neocon Michael Novak, apologist extraordinaire for buccaneer-style capitalism.

Continuing, Weigel gleefully recounts a time when laissez-faire seemed to be close to a papal blessing:

So John Paul dumped the Justice and Peace draft and crafted an encyclical that was a fitting commemoration of Rerum Novarum. For Centesimus Annus not only summarized deftly the intellectual structure of Catholic social doctrine since Leo XIII; it proposed a bold trajectory for the further development of this unique body of thought, emphasizing the priority of culture in the threefold free society (free economy, democratic polity, vibrant public moral culture).

And lo and behold, Catholic economic liberals had been marginalized!

It was, in a word, a rout - the Waterloo for Justice and Peace. Ever since, Justice and Peace - which may forgive but certainly does not forget - has been pining for revenge.

And we can see how that emphasis on "vibrant public moral culture" played out on Wall Street over the last ten years, eh George?

Now comes Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), Benedict XVI's long-awaited and much-delayed social encyclical. It seems to be a hybrid, blending the pope's own insightful thinking on the social order with elements of the Justice and Peace approach to Catholic social doctrine, which imagines that doctrine beginning anew at Populorum Progressio. Indeed, those with advanced degrees in Vaticanology could easily go through the text of Caritas in Veritate, highlighting those passages that are obviously Benedictine with a gold marker and those that reflect current Justice and Peace default positions with a red marker. The net result is, with respect, an encyclical that resembles a duck-billed platypus.

So John Paul dumped the Justice and Peace draft and crafted an encyclical that was a fitting commemoration of Rerum Novarum...

Moreover, Centesimus Annus jettisoned the idea of a "Catholic third way" that was somehow "between" or "beyond" or "above" capitalism and socialism - a favorite dream of Catholics ranging from G. K. Chesterton to John A. Ryan and Ivan Illich.

Of course Weigel conveniently overlooks history. The Catholic notion of Distributive Justice was part and parcel of the New Deal, which in turn was instrumental in creating the modern middle class.  The history of Church teaching and practice in the economic arena challenges and belies neoconservative embrace of "natural" inequities (more on that point below).

While this might be enough to provoke Weigel, there is more:  Writing on both the encyclical and the pope's recent meeting with President Obama for the Washington Post article, Anthony Stevens Arroyo noted "...the issue of abortion is made one of many and removed from the center stage of political issues. The pope sidesteps the argument that the primary political concern of Catholicism is to abolish abortion."

Commenting on the Arroyo piece at her website Enlightened Catholicism Colleen Kochivar-Baker perhaps summed it up best when she concluded, "It's probably more accurate to say that this encyclical will disappoint those pro life Catholics who see the criminalization of abortion as the primary political concern of Catholicism." Quite keenly she further observed, "So far Caritas en Veritate has certainly focused the light on the truth that Conservative American Catholics are as cafeteria in their approach to the fullness of Catholic teaching as they have so lovingly accused their coreligionists on the left."

Nor is this the first time that Weigel and his cohorts have been called out on their own little culture of dissent. At the outset of the Iraq War Weigel, Novak and Neuhaus were clearly on the outside looking in with regard to the hierarchy's view of the preemptive invasion. When called out then on his hypocrisy, Weigel once again bristled at his critics, especially those at the National Catholic Reporter who dared point out his hypocrisy.

But when Weigel and other Catholic neoconss dissent from what the Pope proclaims as Church policy they employ a stock tactic: never attack the pontiff himself but his subordinates. That is why other Catholics point out Weigel's dissent on the Iraq War he attacks writers at NCR or, in the present case, unnamed clergy in Peace and Justice. It is a calculated device designed to offer the canard of unflinching loyalty to a Pope whose alliance on issues such as "moral relativism," a key neocon talking point, is still vitally necessary.

Here is an example from 2003 how Weigel splits hairs when cornered on his own dissent. It is from a post at the Ethics and Public Policy Center's  web site just prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

Let's begin with the role of Pope John Paul II, and indeed the role of popes in general, as authoritative teachers. The Holy Father speaks, as all popes speak, in different registers: magisterial, doctrinal-theological, pastoral, prophetic. To suggest, as the critics do, that these are all the self-same papal voice - equivalent acts of the papal magisterium with equally binding force on the consciences of Catholics - is to make a fundamental theological error. The Pope himself doesn't make that mistake. Neither should critics who attempt to parse the Pope's statements on Iraq as binding magisterial support for their own prudential judgments about the best way to handle the Saddam Hussein regime.

Then there is the question of the appropriate Catholic response to statements by officials of the Holy See. These statements, in the main, have had to do with the possible effect of armed intervention in Iraq on the structure of international law and on the volatile politics of the Middle East. Such statements do not constitute, and cannot constitute, an exercise of the papal magisterium. They are to be carefully and respectfully considered as the prudential judgments of experienced churchmen. They are not more than that, and to claim that they are more than that is to misunderstand the nature of the Church's teaching authority.

But by Weigel's own insistence on papal "binding force on the consciences of Catholics," any failure on his part to submit to the absolute authority of the pope, places him at fundamental odds with Church teaching.  By his own standard, there is no wiggle room here.

Neocon ideology has it that the ideal society is built on a three-legged stool: nationalism (as opposed to patriotism); a central unyielding religious orthodoxy as the basis for secular morality (as opposed to pluralistic notions of religious freedom); and of course, a laissez-faire economic system. What Caritas in veritate has accomplished via its revival of principles of distributive justice - is saw off one of the three legs of the neocon stool. Thus, Catholic neconservatism has had its grand economic plan for society "defrocked" -- so to speak - by the very institution it sought to harness for furthering their agenda, the Catholic Church.

If Weigel's rage is any indication, he will not doubt not be alone in disparaging Vatican offices with whom they agree with on other issues.  Peace and Justice, for example, opposes abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

Its gotta be rough when none other than the Pope is working to crumble the whole Catholic neocon raison d'être. George Weigel andother Catholic neoconservatives have for a quarter century argued that their brand of laissez-faire capitalism is the brand sanctioned by the Vatican.  While this was mostly a well-marketed (and largely unanswered) urban legend, that story has now been definitely debunked.

The neoccon dogma that governmental action and policies can be easily replaced by instituting a more religiously orthodox society has been exposed for what it truly is: a fairy tale. Having a moral society is fine. But using government to balance the economic power of oligarchy is still a necessity. So while laissez-faire has again come up short in recent history, it makes sense to return to return to a form of capitalism based upon distributive justice.

But we can probably expect Weigel and many others in the American Catholic Right to forget all their talk about stifling dissenters out of respect for the authority of the Church (it was Weigel after all who coined the derisive term "culture of dissent" to describe Catholics such as Charles Curran, Sister Joan Chittister and Hans Küng). It is their neoconservative agenda and not an unflinching loyalty to the hierarchy that drives them to action. Unfortunately for them, the hierarchy is no longer going their way on economics.

Weigel's reaction Caritas in veritate reveals much about how all the talk about unbowed authority to the Vatican, was just talk.

In fact, this caused me to write the above post.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Jul 14, 2009 at 03:25:20 PM EST

They want to use Communion as a political football and as a weapon to keep the proles in line, but for all their protestations of morality, their morality is only on the surface, and it is the morality of the bottom line, which is amoral at best.

by khughes1963 on Tue Jul 14, 2009 at 03:39:13 PM EST

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