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Is the Pope Capitalist?

Hilaire Belloc said, “Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe.” As far as Catholics such as George Weigel and his neocon pals are concerned, however, that is so Old Europe. To them it makes much more sense to say, “America is the Faith and the Faith is America.”

From the Faith of America comes the Weigelian Church, which preaches liberal capitalism, pre-emptive war, the Little Way of Sarah Palin, global democratic revolution, and faith and works. Walker Percy saw this Church coming in Love in the Ruins. He called it the American Catholic Church. One of its major feast days was Property Rights Sunday, during which the ACC would display a blue banner showing Christ holding the American home (with white picket fence) in His hands.

The ACC would probably not have liked the pope’s new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate—Love in Truth—any more than Weigel does. Caritas runs to 30,000 words and is a summary of Catholic teaching on such matters as economics, trade, and employment. It is, in other words—at least as far as the media is concerned—a politically charged document. And since Weigel is one of America’s most politically charged Catholic thinkers—known, especially, for his strong support of George W. Bush—his views on the encyclical had been eagerly awaited.

In some quarters, George Weigel is seen as a guardian of orthodoxy, a hammer of the dissenting liberals who question papal teaching on such matters as contraception, abortion, and marriage—the “cafeteria Catholics” who pick what they like from the Catholic menu and turn their noses up at the rest.

Now suddenly, in his reaction to Caritas at National Review Online, Weigel has himself become a dissenting Catholic. He was not pleased that, for example, the encyclical says more about wealth redistribution than wealth creation and spoke of its “clotted and muddled” language and “confused sentimentality.” Caritas was disjointed, he declared, the work of so many hands that “the net result is, with respect, an encyclical that resembles a duck-billed platypus.”

With respect? Quack, quack. What irked Weigel especially, I suspect, is that Caritas in Veritate lavishes great praise on the Pope Paul VI’s 1967 social encyclical Populorum Progressio, which was denounced as “souped-up Marxism” by the Wall Street Journal. For some right-wing Catholics that verdict became de fide, along with National Review’s gag—“Mater, Si, Magistra, No”—on the publication of John XXIII’s equally progressive social encyclical Mater et Magistra in 1961.

But conservatives in the 1960s should really not have troubled their shaggy little heads with the Church’s apparent “lurch to the left.” The fact is that capitalist ideology—as it has emerged in modern times—has never been embraced by the Church, and it should come as no surprise that it is not now being embraced by Benedict. The historian Eamon Duffy summed up Catholic social teaching nicely when he wrote of Pope Pius XI (no lefty he), “he loathed the greed of capitalist society, ‘the unquenchable thirst for temporal possessions,’ and thought that liberal capitalism shared with communism ‘satanic optimism’ about human progress.”

It is possible that the great foe of communism Whitaker Chambers would have agreed with Pius. On Christmas Eve 1958, in a letter to his friend William F. Buckley Jr., he wrote, “capitalism is not, and by its essential nature cannot conceivably be, conservative. This is particularly true of capitalism in the United States, which knew no Middle Ages; which was born, in so far as it was ideological, in the Enlightenment.”

“Conservatism,” he added, “is alien to the very nature of capitalism whose love of life and growth is perpetual change … conservatism and capitalism are mutually exclusive manifestations, and antipathetic at root.”

One of the things to remember about the Catholic Church, perhaps, is that it is Christian and therefore not inclined to look with great favor on Mammon. It seeks a way of pursuing the good life, even the prosperous life, that does not involve denial of God or—a key point in Benedict’s encyclical—the abandonment of life at any stage of its development. Not easy, of course, but, though Weigel contemptuously dismisses the idea, there is a Catholic third way between capitalism and socialism, not the one seen by Benedict’s co-religionist Tony Blair—that took us into Iraq and fed us to marketing men, with their spread sheets, Polish nannies, and suits without ties—but by such people as G.K. Chesterton, the Southern Agrarians, and Konrad Adenaeur, whose political principles were based on Catholic social teaching and who led West Germany into her Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle).

Maybe this third way will never play in Peoria or in Stratford-upon-Avon. Still, it pleases me that Caritas in Veritate will have answered at least one important question: Is the pope capitalist? He is not. Neither is he socialist, of course, far less a liberal. What is he, then? The pope is Catholic.  


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