A Conservative in Veritate

A belated appreciation of Benedict XVI:

For centuries the Church has taught that our property rights are not absolute but carry with them social obligations to all of mankind. In the modern age the Church has repeatedly instructed the faithful of the need to regulate market transactions in the service of the common good, and of the importance of intermediate associations like labor organizations in securing justice for working people.

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When Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, he was widely understood to be a conservative theologian. Yet a number of "conservative" American Catholics seemed to nurse hopes that the new pope would inaugurate radical change in long-held Catholic social teaching. These self-styled conservatives enjoyed an absolute faith in the benevolence of an unregulated market. They anticipated that Benedict would distance the Church from trade unions, the welfare state, and social regulation of the economy.

I use the term “conservative” advisedly. As Edward Skidelsky recently noted in First Things, this is a peculiarly American notion of conservatism. Due more to accidents of political history than any coherent ideology, religious conservatives in the United States tend to share a political party with free-market crusaders, and these American free-market champions in turn fancy themselves conservatives.

In Continental Europe, of course, “conservative” still usually means someone who wants to conserve things, and few things are so radically disruptive as an unregulated global market. Supporters of a laissez-faire economy are generally still known by their proper name: “liberals.” The conservative party in Benedict’s Germany, the Christian Democrats, proudly defends a heavily regulated “social market” and extensive welfare state. The liberal Free Democrats advocate deregulation of the markets - and register barely 5% in the polls these days.

My countrymen who projected  American free-market fundamentalism on Benedict were to be deeply disappointed. Benedict's encyclical Caritas in Veritate affirmed the continuity of Catholic social teaching - quite explicitly in the case of its support for organized labor. "The repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must... be honoured today even more than in the past," the Pope instructed.

The aforementioned American conservatives, of course, weren't the only or even the loudest voices clamoring for change in the Church. But whether the calls for change came from right, left, up, or down, Benedict XVI proved to be a conservative in veritate. Benedict’s conservatism left him open to the charge that he was not responding with sufficient speed and concern to pressing current crises. But it was his gift that he could look beyond transient debates and act to conserve the traditions and teachings of the Catholic faith.

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