Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"The Pope is a liberal"

Michael has posted -- I just knew he would! -- a link to David Gibson's "The Pope is a Liberal" piece.  No doubt, the Pope's views on many questions regarding the organization and regulation of the economy put him well to the "left" of the American political center.  But, the suggestion that the overall vision of society and the person presented in the new encyclical, and the letter's premises about morality, truth, duties, anthropology, are (insert here all the reservations, expressed by other MOJ-ers, about labels) "liberal", in the way that category functions in contemporary American and European politics, seems misplaced.  Today's "liberalism" -- notwithstanding the community-and-solidary language that is trotted out for use in debates about economic regulation and taxation -- is very hard to separate, I would think, from the relativism, individualism, indifferentism, and atomism that the Pope criticizes with *at least* as much fervor as he calls for new spending programs.  

In his piece, Gibson does not discuss the emphasis that the Pope places, in setting up his critique of some understandings of development, on Humanae vitae:

The Encyclical Humanae Vitae emphasizes both the unitive and the procreative meaning of sexuality, thereby locating at the foundation of society the married couple, man and woman, who accept one another mutually, in distinction and in complementarity: a couple, therefore, that is open to life[27]. This is not a question of purely individual morality: Humanae Vitae indicates the strong links between life ethics and social ethics, ushering in a new area of magisterial teaching that has gradually been articulated in a series of documents, most recently John Paul II's Encyclical Evangelium Vitae[28]. The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that “a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized.”[29]

This should be interesting.  "Conservatives" are being criticized (quite snarkily, in some quarters, perhaps fairly in others) for squirming at the encyclical's social-democratic prescriptions, but one would hope that the "liberal" critics would at least consider the possibility -- as the Pope is challenging all of us to do -- that Humanae vitae has more to say about integral human development than they have hitherto appreciated.

And yes, the Pope emphasizes the importance of unions, but he also criticizes their excessive politicization and their resistance to change; yes, he talks about environmental stewardship, but he strongly criticizes the neo-pagan and anti-humanist strands in the environmental movement; yes, he talks about the need for international bodies and authorities to coordinate various efforts, but he insists that these bodies and authorities be constrained by religious liberty, subsidiarity, and rule-of-law principles.  Etc. etc.   

Mr. Gibson's suggestion that the Pope's approach to abortion is "Obama-esque" is, to me, not convincing.  Yes, the Pope recognizes that "respect for life" is inextricably linked to economic development and child welfare.  The "Obama-esque" approach to abortion, though, does not stop with this recognition, but rather proceeds to a wide range of policies that the encyclical specifically condemns, like using foreign-aid money to support or encourage abortion and contraception.  It is unfortunate -- it seems out-of-character with those aspects of President Obama's vision that many find appealing -- that the centerpiece of Obama's "approach to abortion" is, in fact, the constitutionalization of a (practically speaking) unlimited right to abortion on demand, supported, to the extent possible, by public funds.  One doubts that there is much in this approach that resonates with Caritas in veritate, in which the Pope says:

we need to affirm today that the social question has become a radically anthropological question, in the sense that it concerns not just how life is conceived but also how it is manipulated, as bio-technology places it increasingly under man's control. In vitro fertilization, embryo research, the possibility of manufacturing clones and human hybrids: all this is now emerging and being promoted in today's highly disillusioned culture, which believes it has mastered every mystery, because the origin of life is now within our grasp. Here we see the clearest expression of technology's supremacy. In this type of culture, the conscience is simply invited to take note of technological possibilities. Yet we must not underestimate the disturbing scenarios that threaten our future, or the powerful new instruments that the “culture of death” has at its disposal. To the tragic and widespread scourge of abortion we may well have to add in the future — indeed it is already surreptiously present — the systematic eugenic programming of births. At the other end of the spectrum, a pro-euthanasia mindset is making inroads as an equally damaging assertion of control over life that under certain circumstances is deemed no longer worth living. Underlying these scenarios are cultural viewpoints that deny human dignity. These practices in turn foster a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life. Who could measure the negative effects of this kind of mentality for development? How can we be surprised by the indifference shown towards situations of human degradation, when such indifference extends even to our attitude towards what is and is not human? What is astonishing is the arbitrary and selective determination of what to put forward today as worthy of respect. Insignificant matters are considered shocking, yet unprecedented injustices seem to be widely tolerated. While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human. God reveals man to himself; reason and faith work hand in hand to demonstrate to us what is good, provided we want to see it; the natural law, in which creative Reason shines forth, reveals our greatness, but also our wretchedness insofar as we fail to recognize the call to moral truth.

My own sense is that much of the commentary so far about the encyclical has -- unfortunately -- not really "got" it, and in some cases even been unworthy of it.  It seems, so far, that too many are cherry-picking quotes that provide rhetorical support for their preferred policy goals, or that seem to score points for "their side" in the political / culture wars.  (Yes, yes, "both sides" do this . . .)  What's really animating this letter, it seems to me, are the Pope's -- the Gospel's -- anthropological claims.  The document is not about the recent American elections or the stimulus package.  It's about authentic, integral human development and flourishing and, therefore, it is a call to take seriously what the truth is -- there is a truth -- about the human person, namely, that he is made in the image of God and loved by Him.  It is certainly not a document with which someone who thinks such questions are "above [his] pay grade" (or, indeed, any of us, including me) should feel too comfortable.


Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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