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.