The Pope’s Very Political Encyclical

Pope Benedict promulgated his third encyclical last week entitled “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth). It’s a lengthy encyclical but if you choose, you can read the full text here. Or you can just peruse this or this very useful summary.

The encyclical fits into the genre of “Catholic Social Teaching,” and in it, Benedict reemphasizes some prominent themes from that tradition: the protection of life, the protection of workers, the importance of the economy serving human beings and not the other way around, and the principle of subsidiarity for the organization of society.

There are lots of blog posts examining the encyclical, which I am not going to do here. My interest concerns rather a point made by Ross Douthat in the NYTimes op-ed column entitled “The Audacity of the Pope.” He writes:

Inevitably, liberal Catholics spent the past week touting its relevance to the Democratic Party’s policy positions. (A representative blast e-mail: “Pope’s Encyclical on Global Economy Supports the Principles of the Employee Free Choice Act.”) Just as inevitably, conservative Catholics hastened to explain that the encyclical “is not a political document” — to quote a statement co-authored by the House minority leader, John Boehner — and shouldn’t be read as “an endorsement of any political or economic agenda.”

Then, after acknowledging that the pope is neither a Republican or a Democrat, Douthat writes that “Benedict’s encyclical is nothing if not political. Caritas in Veritate promotes a vision of economic solidarity rooted in moral conservatism. It links the dignity of labor to the sanctity of marriage. It praises the redistribution of wealth while emphasizing the importance of decentralized governance. It connects the despoiling of the environment to the mass destruction of human embryos.”

What bothers me about the rest of the column is that Douthat tries to make the encyclical somehow “fit into” American conceptions of politics, recognizing that putting the pope’s recommendations into practice is challenging for Democrats and Republicans alike. “For liberals and conservatives alike, ‘Caritas in Veritate’ is an invitation to think anew about their alliances and litmus tests.”

Douthat is right that people want to take the encyclical as political when they agree with it, but when they don’t, the pope is just weighing in with his opinion. For the vast majority of people looking at the political implications of the encyclical, politics is a matter of debate, division, and voting. Politics is like a debate competition with winners and losers. Basically, politics is about what you do; morality is about what you believe. The pope can believe whatever he wants, but this has nothing to do with politics. Morality is a private issue; politics is public.

I think this understanding of politics stems from the idea that somehow morality is something separate from politics. I’m reminded of Al Gore’s speech at the Academy Awards where he said that climate change was “not a political issue, it’s a moral issue.” Gore’s comment makes it seem like politics is about power, or about making people do something. Morality on the other hand is about right and wrong.

Aristotle and Aquinas give us a very different understanding of politics. Politics is not about coercion and power, or even primarily about making laws and enforcing them. Politics for Aristotle and Aquinas is simply a branch of ethics. For Aristotle, “politics” is simply part two of his ethics. And Aquinas never even wrote a treatise on politics, though he did write about politics in his ethics found in the Secunda Pars of the Summa Theologica. In honor of Benedict’s very political encyclical, now is a good time to review what Aristotle and Aquinas take “political” to mean.

For Aristotle and Aquinas, human beings are political creatures, naturally inclined to live in society. Political society (civitas) emerges from the needs human nature and is in itself a purely natural and desirable. This is a stark contrast with a thinker like Thomas Hobbes who thought that political society was an artificial imposition established to curb the violence of human nature. For Hobbes, if human beings were virtuous, they would not need a political society; for Aquinas, political society is necessary for the full perfection of human existence. The political society is the social setting in which human beings find their fulfillment and flourishing.

The primary task of the political society, therefore, is to create good and virtuous citizens. Drawing on Aristotle, Aquinas says that a political society comes into being as a necessary component of human life, but it exists for the sake of living well (Commentary on the Politics, Book 1, Lesson 1).

So we see that ethics and politics has a similar end or purpose–the formation of good people. And in both ethics and politics, this process is a gradual process of development and progress over time. While political society might be completely natural, a good political society is not. In the same way that human beings must acquire moral virtue through education and habituation, even though they are naturally inclined to moral virtue in Aquinas’ system, so too must a political society be developed and fostered.

One of the ways this happens is through the natural law. The natural law, most basically, is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law. The eternal law is the Divine Governance that is behind creation. For most of creation, the eternal law is pretty determinative. It is by God’s eternal law that the seasons change, the planets move, fire rises upward, and stones fall downward. It is by the eternal law that plants grow, and lions chase gazelles, and whales swim instead of fly. But rational creatures (i.e. humans), as Aquinas writes, are “subject to Divine Providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself, and for others” (ST I-II, Q. 91, art. 2).

Human beings are not determined to specific actions like other parts of creation. Humans do have natural inclinations that come from the eternal law, but human beings have freedom and choice regarding how those inclinations will be directed. Thus, the natural law is about directing natural human inclinations towards the ultimate human good, which is flourishing. These natural inclinations include those inclinations that we share with all created things, namely, to keep ourselves in existence. They also include the inclinations that we share with other animals, namely to reproduce and educate offspring. And those natural inclinations include those distinctively human inclinations to form societies and seek out knowledge of God.

So the formation and regulation of society is a subject of study both for ethics and for politics. Laws are the natural outgrowth of the rational creature discerning how to live in order to flourish. Laws are not primarily about coercion (although they can and do have coercive effects). Laws are the product and outgrowth of the natural law. They are the embodiment of a community’s morality.

Politics, therefore, like ethics, is about discerning right from wrong in order to best live a good and flourishing life. So the pope’s encyclical, in so far as it is about morals, is political. But that does not mean that is primarily concerned with legislation. Determining how such moral values offered in the encyclical are to be enacted in legislation will vary from community to community. Aquinas explains how the process of creating laws is like craftsman who uses the “general form of a house” to build a particular house. Laws, in the same ways, are built on moral values (derived from natural law) but their specific form will vary depending on the needs of a given community.

Thus, different societies will have different ways of enforcing the precepts of natural law like prohibitions against murder or theft or laws regulating the best way to raise a family, protect the environment, or educate citizens. And different societies are going to have different ways of enacting the moral values espoused in Caritas et Veritate. The pope’s encyclical talks about the foundations for this process–the sort of moral values that all people of good will should espouse and all societies should take seriously in working to promote the common good. This is very much a political endeavor, or as the pope writes in his encyclical, it is the fruit of the “political path of charity.” (7)

No matter what you might think of the pope’s ideas, you cannot write off the encyclical as moral, but not political. But it isn’t political because the pope is taking sides or affirming the platform of any given party, or playing a political game. It is not political because the pope is coercing individuals or nations to act in any given way. It is political because the pope is talking about ethics, about the moral values that we act on that either contribute to or detract from the good life. It is political because the pope is inquiring after what human beings need in our changing world to flourish. As we debate the merits of the encyclical, let us not debate about whether it is political or not, and let us definitely not assume that simply because the pope wrote something political, he is out of line. Rather, let us allow the political process the pope started to continue as we examine the encyclical and reflect on what our society needs for its people to live good lives.

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2 comments so far

  1. mpearson on

    July 20 2009

    Copyright MPP may be quoted in entirety

    FOund your article helpful. I have only had time to skim the encyclical as I have very little time on the computer. I was very glad to find Humanae Vaitae and pro life values called foundational or similar. And glad for several of the items you mentionsed.

    However, I think that subsidiarity comes not without danger and I was sorry to see that while “ethical” organiszations were not the only organizations to be considered “”ethical” there was no warning that many organizations (eg, investment or fair trade organizations ) that are called ethical are often run by exceedingly “anti-life” people or policies.

    My own answer to many of the similar problesm is that while RC education is being restored that we

    1 vote on issues
    2 vote for independents
    3 ask fo all legistlation to be voted on issue by issue.

    Our faith demands not a vote for Right or LEft but for Right or Wrong on every issues.

    With All best wishes MPP

    • everydaythomist on

      MPP,
      Thanks very much for your comments. I am quite sympathetic as I find my own political sympathies out of line with both major parties in this country. One clear example is the issue of abortion. The Republican party claims to be the pro-life party, but what that boils down to is basically using political rhetoric to oppose abortion in principle. It does not translate into the formation of a better society in which women (and men) choose not to have an abortion, nor do other republican values (like exporting democracy through warfare) match what I consider a “consistent ethic of life.” In the last election, I could not in good faith vote for either McCain or Obama. I gladly campaigned for and supported Ron Paul, not because I agreed with everything but because he was a Republican who challenged Republican political stances with their own ideology. Paul seemed like a dose of the medicine the political process needed.

      I don’t know if voting issue by issue is the answer, largely because I don’t think it is just our politicians who don’t know how to vote, but our citizens as well. Take the recent health care initiatives–how could we reasonably expect citizens to vote on that? What the health care initiative is going to boil down to is Republicans and Democrats “taking sides” since nobody understands what is going on anyways. Same thing with the economic stimulus.

      Here’s a further problem, one which may actually generate another blog post. We think of governance as primarily dealing with legislating right and wrong. But in the Aristotelian and Thomistic sense, governance was about creating good citizens, and by good I mean virtuous. The formation of virtuous citizens is not something that the government just does on its own, but is something that we as citizens must actively participate in.

      Take health care. It is fine to argue for universal health care, but to think that the primary job of the government is to secure health care for all and this will be the solution to the lack of quality health care seems grossly misguided. Our health care system is taxed largely because people eat unhealthily, they do not exercise, they take up bad habits like smoking, and they develop all sorts of preventable diseases like hypertension, emphysema, cancer, and diabetes, all of which drain our health care system of cash and drain our doctors of time and energy. Bringing more people into the system (especially poor people who are the ones most at risk for the preventable illnesses listed above) is not going to solve anything.

      When people leave it up to the government to solve our problems, we err in thinking that anything will actually get solved. It is not just about voting on issues, but about taking control of the behaviors that are behind those issues. It is fine if you vote in good faith to support the pro-life candidate, but perhaps more important is participating in something like Project Rachel for post-abortion trauma, protesting in front of a clinic or providing on site counseling for those considering an abortion, or simply providing for those women in your family and neighborhood and school and church who may get pregnant or currently be pregnant and need help.

      These thoughts are a little garbled and I probably need a whole post to work them out. I hope you keep reading and commenting.


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