Click here if you don’t see subscription options

Pope Benedict’s encyclical on social justice is set to be released any day now. But, Michael Novak is already at the barricades interpreting the text. In an article at First Things, Novak has begun setting the parameters for discussion of the papal text. It is important to note that the title of his article "Economic Heresies of the Left" is accurate. Novak is concerned with heresy when it violates his economic principles, not his theological ones. I shall examine his treatise later in the week.

It is good to remember that this is not the first time Novak and his neo-con brethren have been rendering tendentious readings of papal social encyclicals. When Pope John Paul II issued his encyclical Centesimus Annus in 1991, Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel led the way in circulating an "abridged version" of the encyclical, ostensibly to make it more accessible. But, a group of theologians, from both conservative and progressive viewpoints, called the neo-cons out for distorting the Pope’s text. In a statement and letter published in the journal Caelum et Terra, these leading theologians and editors questioned the manner and the method of the abridgement.

Here is a representative sample from the text: "You will not know, reading the abridged version, that the Pope praises cooperatives (C.A. 16) or says that ‘the worker movement is part of a more general movement among workers and other people of good will for the liberation of the human person and for the affirmation of human rights’ (C.A. 26). You will not know that the Pope quotes St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘…the Church replies without hesitation that man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all’ (C.A. 30). Nor will you know that John Paul II says that ‘the human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people are far from disappearing’ (C.A. 33)."


I am sure that the phrase "the human inadequacies of capitalism" is something less than common in the hallways at First Things, still less at the American Enterprise Institute where Novak has his office. But, there it is. Not just an indictment of capitalism but a statement that theology is more important than economics in determining what is human, that heresy is properly understood only in terms of theology and that the danger with economics is less the danger of heresy than the danger of idolatry. Surely, a man must be deaf, dumb and blind to be alive in America in the year of our Lord 2009 and not to recognize that the idolatry of the market has wreaked greater harm on our civilization than any leftist economic heresies, at least since the collapse of communism. Stalin is dead and buried. Mao too. Bernie Madoff was sentenced yesterday and many of his co-conspirators remain at large.

The refreshing part of the Caelum et Terra piece is that it is brutally theological. I suspect that Benedict’s text will be similarly heavy on the theology and less specific about the economics. Refreshing, too, that the critique of the neo-cons came largely from conservatives. Alas, the problem with Novak et al. is not so different from the problem of many liberation theologians – their politics may differ but their theological anthropologies both smell fishy. What Pope Benedict never tires of preaching is that we must begin with the conversion of souls first, we must introduce our sisters and brothers to Christ, and then let the experience and the drama of the encounter with Christ transform them and transform the world. Novak and company are too busy pushing the Scottish Enlightenment to notice that Jesus was somewhat circumspect on the subject of material wealth, and when he did address it, he saw it as a hindrance to the spiritual.

The exaltation of the false god of democratic capitalism needs to stop. In the papal apartments there is a famous fresco of a toppled pagan statue, replaced by the Cross. I have not yet seen an advance copy of Benedict’s encyclical but I will venture that it has not replaced that Cross with a dollar sign. Caveat Emptor – If you see an "abridged version" of Benedict’s encyclical, pass on it. Go and get the real thing.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
13 years 11 months ago
"Surely, a man must be deaf, dumb and blind to be alive in America in the year of our Lord 2009 and not to recognize that the idolatry of the market has wreaked greater harm on our civilization than any leftist economic heresies..." It was not the markets that created easy credit that blew up and popped the housing bubble, but the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank. The Fed supressed interest rates for a decade, with the obvious results to anyone looking at ecomomics. Government housing subsidy programs added more air to the bubble. Speculators simply followed the government incentives to buy houses they couldn't afford, and banks eventually got swayed by the same government policies. Government caused the recession, and it caused the distortion in the markets that resulted in housing speculation. It's that simple. To suggest that "markets" created the current recesson is like saying that wet streets cause rain. That's why its so troubling to hear that Benedict XVI is saying government needs a bigger role in the economy. It will only cause more poverty and misery.
13 years 11 months ago
Economic prosperity on our planet has increased in direct proportion to the legalization of private property and the liberalization of markets, at every time and every location that it has occurred.
13 years 11 months ago
Michael, you missed Novak's attempt to blame the crisis on the federal government and poor people. See here: http://vox-nova.com/2009/07/01/michael-novaks-shoddy-economic-analysis-part-ii/
13 years 11 months ago
Why in the world would you write a comment on something that has not even been made public yet?  Presumably, you have not even read it yet.
13 years 11 months ago
Speaking of "false gods," when will the exaltation of "dialogue" and "common ground" cease to be worshipped in place of what it really means to live the Catholic Faith?  
13 years 11 months ago
Patrick, please tell me for whom economic prosperity has increased on this planet, because it sure is not the Third World or the poor in the US and other countries.  And please tell me what it ''really means to live the Catholic faith.''  Presumably, according to your post, it means to value an undefinable ''economic prosperity'' over the well-being of the most marginalized persons in the world.  Christ did not dine with nor did he choose for His followers the wealthy-he constantly chose the poorest and weakest.  Perhaps Mr. Weigel has given you an abridged version of the Gospel.  Tedddlem:  greed, predatory lending, and ''affluenza'' caused the economy's bust.  Those who worship the invisible hand of the Market are idolators, and writers like Novak and Weigel do a disservice to the Catholic faith by equating Capitalist economics with Catholic social teaching, just as Liberation Theologians do a disservice to Catholic teaching by equating purely Socialist economics with the Church's teaching.
Mr. Winters, I think you hit the nail on the head.

The latest from america

Three actors from the HBO show Succession sitting in a patio overlooking the ocean
Am I the only person in the world who got to the end of “Succession” and wanted a happy ending?
Jim McDermottJune 01, 2023
A Reflection for the Memorial of St. Justin, martyr, by Christopher Parker
Christopher ParkerJune 01, 2023
Houses are submerged in flood waters in Lokoja, Nigeria, Oct.13, 2022. More than half of the 36 states of the country are affected. More than 600 people have died, with more than 1.4 million people displaced. (CNS photo/Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters)
The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria launched a campaign that aims to plant 5.5 million trees over the next five years to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Ekpali SaintJune 01, 2023
a priest stands behind an altar, the camera looks from the area where the tabernacle is, out onto the congregation. only one person sits in the pews in front of the priest, signifying the low number of people attending church.
Ireland is becoming less religious, and the percentage of residents who identify as Catholic is down to 69% according to census data. More people identify with "no religion" than in previous years.