Ross Douthat, who took Bill Kristol’s slot at The New York Times earlier this year, has an excellent piece on how political parties (from both sides) will distort the Pontiff’s message to bolster their positions among those who consider themselves faithful. Some like Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will say that President Obama better reflects the positions of American Catholics (forget 2000 years of philosophy and tradition), some interpret Benedict XVI’s latest Caritas In Veritate encyclical in the spectrum of laissez-faire economics, and others carelessly apply the euphemism of social justice to denote the support and growth of labor unions. Douthat argues to not listen to any of them:
These arguments never seem to go anywhere. When a pope criticizes legalized abortion, liberal Catholics nod and say that yes, they agree, it’s a terrible tragedy … but of course they can’t impose their religious values on a secular society. When a pope endorses the redistribution of wealth, conservative Catholics stroke their chins and say that yes, they agree, society needs a safety net … but of course they’re duty-bound to oppose the tyranny of big government. And when the debate isn’t going their way, left and right both fall back on flaccid rhetoric about how the papal message “transcends politics,” and shouldn’t be turned to any partisan purpose.
“Caritas in Veritate” has been no exception. It’s a “social” encyclical, in the church’s parlance, covering issues ranging from globalization and the environment to unions and the welfare state. 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.”
Boehner is half right. The pope is not a Democrat or a Republican, and his vision doesn’t fit the normal categories of American politics.
But 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.