New Heights of Hubris from George Weigel
The hubris of George Weigel knows no bounds. In a breathtaking essay at National Review Online, Weigel concludes that Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate "resembles a duck-billed platypus" because it is, in his view, a bad combination of the Pope’s true thought with those "passages that reflect [the Pontifical Council for] Justice and Peace ideas and approaches that Benedict evidently believed he had to try and accommodate." Weigel suggests that the reader mark out the Pope’s passages in gold and the others in red, so as to discover the real significance of the text. Of course, in his reading, the gold passages are those that agree with Weigel’s worldview while the bothersome red sections are those which the reader should dismiss.
Weigel’s essay resembles nothing so much as the Soviet Union’s remakes of movies during its de-Stalinization period. During Stalin’s long reign, cinematic treatments of the Revolution always showed Stalin at Lenin’s side, even when the historical record had him hundreds of miles away. So, during de-Stalinization, rather than re-make the entire movie, the censors would have a soldier enter stage right and in front to obscure the image of Stalin behind. I go too far: Weigel’s effort is actually clumsier than the Soviet re-makes.
Unsurprisingly, Weigel celebrates Centesimus Annus which he claims "jettisoned the idea of a ‘Catholic third way’ that was somehow ‘between’ or ‘beyond’ or ‘above’ capitalism and socialism – a favorite dream of Catholics ranging from G.K.Chesterton to John A. Ryan to Ivan Illich." Actually, both Centesimus and even more so Caritas in Veritate stress that the "Catholic way" must be prior to the claims of any economic theory, that the disposition for grace and communion must be part of the system, not a mere add-on, that unjust systems produce unjust results, and that a system that produces – at the same time - material wealth and spiritual poverty must be seen as morally and humanly suspect.
Weigel repeats the now common neo-con canard that capitalism is morally wholesome because it is driven not by greed but by human creativity. So, creative like Bernie Madoff or creative like Steve Jobs? Either way, Weigel fails to note that this celebration of wholesome capitalism is not found in the many pages of Caritas in Veritate.
In his denunciations of the passages he dislikes, Weigel is not simply ideologically skewed but downright insulting to Pope Benedict. After citing a series of propositions found in the text the Pope signed that Weigel finds objectionable, he opines, "Benedict XVI, a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include these multiple off-notes, in order to maintain the peace within his curial household." Funny. Benedict does not seem like the kind of person who would jettison his insistence on truth merely to keep peace in the curial household. Could it be that he was not conflicted about signing the entire encyclical? Could it be that he sees what Weigel does not, that Catholic social teaching, to say nothing of the priests who work at Justice and Peace, is not to be reduced to a prop for democratic capitalism. Weigel applauds Benedict for devoting a large section of the encyclical to a discourse on the relationship between love and truth: Does he think the Pope merely abandoned that insistence on truth to get a document out the door?
Pope Paul VI is as prone to error as Benedict in Weigel’s worldview. The new encyclical was written to commemorate Paul’s Populorum Progressio but Weigel casts slurs upon that work for "misreading of the economic and political signs of the times." Of course, anything on human development written forty years ago, when colonialism was still gasping its dying breathe and communism was still a vital threat, can appear dated. For example, what Weigel considers as the fulsome endorsement of capitalism in Centesimus Annus reads a bit oddly today when the prestige of the market is rather lacking. Ah, but back in 1991, history had ended.
The gravest intellectual problem for Weigel is not his inability to see the validity of the influence of the good monsignori at Justice and Peace, nor that the Catholic social tradition permits several ways of approaching complicated economic and political issues. He claims some passages are "simply incomprehensible" and perhaps they are to him. But, the example he gives is telling. He writes that "the encyclical states that defeating Third World poverty and underdevelopment requires a ‘necessary openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion.’ This may mean something interesting; it may mean something naïve or dumb. But, on its face, it is virtually impossible to know what it means." Gee. I don’t think it is that difficult to understand. It means that the stance of the Christian must be one of openness to the other, especially to the poor, and that we must create shares in the economic sphere for the poor, a share that sees them as a gift from God. We must see our relationship to the poor as one of communion not exploitation. And, does Weigel truly think Pope Benedict would write something "dumb"? Even if you disagree with Pope Benedict, he is never dumb.
Weigel not only misunderstands the relationship a Christian should have to the poor, he misunderstands the relationship a Catholic should have to a papal encyclical. I had thought that it was the Pope and the bishops who had the task of authoritatively interpreting the doctrine of the Church. Silly me. Mr. Weigel, with his gold and red pens, is the official arbiter of what passes as orthodoxy. He labels parts of the new encyclical "incomprehensible," he charges the curia with "fideism" for advocating the necessity of transnational institutions, and he casts slurs upon Pope Paul VI for Populorum Progressio. Benedict is a "gentle soul" incapable of controlling a text that bears his name and he has been duped into signing on to foolishness.
Weigel is wrong on the merits, but he is also wrong in his stance. This encyclical – all of it – bears the Pope’s signature and the respect due to all statements of the magisterium. Weigel’s arguments have long been tedious and are here tendentious. But, it is not only the intellectual dishonesty of this essay that rankles. Behind his knowing Vaticanology, Weigel betrays a disloyalty to Pope Benedict and to the memory of Pope Paul that surprised even me. I have long recognized a certain myopia and a pronounced hubris in Weigel’s writings but he has outdone himself. He should put his red and gold pens away and read the text in its entirety as an invitation to grow in discipleship. As I commented yesterday, Caritas in Veritate has something to challenge everyone.