The cafeteria is only closed for liberal Catholics
This week’s statement from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has provided a fascinating glimpse into the way Americans deal with Vatican pronouncements that trouble their settled convictions. Within American Catholicism, conservatives are used to chastising liberals for picking and choosing what they want to believe — this, because many liberals prefer to ignore the Magisterium’s teaching on sex and sex-related issues. Cafeteria Catholics, they’re called derisively. When the doctrinal conservative Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, conservatives (among whose number I counted myself when I was a Catholic, and still would be if I were a Catholic) chortled, “The cafeteria is closed!”
Well now. The conservative Catholic blogosphere is filling up with strong dissent from this document. Which makes sense — it is a radically utopian piece of work, one that rightly unnerves people of conservative conviction and instinct. Still, the ease with which conservative Catholics dismiss the statement calls into question how intellectually honest they are when it comes to criticizing Catholic liberals who do the same. To be sure, I appreciate that the J&P statement, in which the Pontifical Council called for some sort of global central bank and world government to manage economic affairs for the greater good of all, does not have the same weight as a papal encylical. But I see no way around the fact that it is merely an elaboration on Pope Benedict’s teaching in his social encyclical of 2009, Caritas in veritate. See my post on this from yesterday.
John Paul II biographer George Weigel wrote harshly about Caritas at the time, crediting the parts he liked to the wisdom of Joseph Ratzinger, and the parts he didn’t like blaming on the Justice and Peace council having foisted them onto the Holy Father. Weigel was absolutely right about this:
And another Justice and Peace favorite — the creation of a “world political authority” to ensure integral human development — is revisited, with no more insight into how such an authority would operate than is typically found in such curial fideism about the inherent superiority of transnational governance. (It is one of the enduring mysteries of the Catholic Church why the Roman Curia places such faith in this fantasy of a “world public authority,” given the Holy See’s experience in battling for life, religious freedom, and elementary decency at the United Nations. But that is how they think at Justice and Peace, where evidence, experience, and the canons of Christian realism sometimes seem of little account.
I agree with Weigel on this; if a “world political authority” (Benedict’s phrase) were ever to come into existence, its first victim would be the Catholic Church and its values. I suspect Weigel is right too about the internal politics of the Vatican, and how the sausage of this papal encyclical got made. And I would say that the new J&P note, as well as the “world political authority” part of Caritas, shows once again how awful the Catholic Church’s political judgment can be. (This is nothing new.)
Nevertheless, it is a papal encyclical, and as such, can’t be cherry-picked or selectively accepted. That’s what Cafeteria Catholics do, right? Why is it bad for liberal Catholics to do it on sex, but okay for conservative Catholics to do it on politics and economics?
Let me be clear: there is a big difference between the Magisterium saying that sex outside of marriage is a sin, and a pontifical council, or even the pope in an encyclical, saying that it would be a good idea if we had some sort of one-world government. Still, it looks fishy for conservative American Catholics to be doing this.
UPDATE: In the comments thread, Mark Shea wasn’t clear about where I stand, thinking that I approve of Weigel’s picking-and-choosing on Caritas in veritate. Not so. I’m saying that I agree with Weigel’s negative judgment about the naivete of the Pope and the cardinals on the politics of a “world political authority.” But what I don’t agree with, or rather don’t understand, is how an orthodox Catholic like Weigel (and there are many like him) can so easily do what they often, and rightly, accuse liberal Catholics of doing: ignoring the parts of papal teaching they don’t like.
My, my. It is always entertaining for those of us who are liberal Catholics to watch our conservative Catholic friends try to wriggle around the fact that, on the matters of social justice and the economy, Catholic social teaching is, by any measure, “progressive.” Conservatives regularly condemn liberal “Cafeteria Catholics” who pick and choose among the church’s teachings. But the conservatives often skip the parts of the moral buffet involving peace, social justice and what Pope John Paul II called the “idolatry of the market.”
As it happens, the Pontifical Council is no mere “small office.” It has been a pioneer over the years in Catholic thinking about solidarity and justice. And this document is firmly rooted in papal teaching going back to Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II. Pope Benedict’s 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, spoke explicitly of the need for a global political authority to keep watch on an increasingly integrated world economy.
The current mania of some “conservative” Catholics for reflexively denouncing the Church’s teaching when it threatens the sacred bonds of commerce has produced some readily lampoonable lunacy, as for instance George Weigel’s utterly ridiculous attempt to sanitize Caritatis in Veritate for your protection. It should at least give us pause when exactly the same voices attempt exactly the same tricks with the recent document, only with the added bonus of being able to say, “This isn’t the Pope, so feel free to heap contempt on it and never question your own assumptions.” A more fruitful approach might be to say, “This is saying some things you might find challenging or even scary. Why not try the thought experiment of looking at it from the perspective of historical Catholic teaching and not just batting it away as frightening to your American, protestantized, conservative gut?” Nobody’s saying you have to uncritically accept it. Sean Dailey, as I already note, makes some salient critiques. I’m just saying “Try thinking about it before sneering, reacting, rejecting, or responding.” As Chesterton points out, we don’t want a Church that’s right where we are right. We want a Church that’s right where we are wrong. One great virtue of being Catholic is that it puts us in contact with people who really think differently from us. Doesn’t automatically make them right. But it also doesn’t automatically make us right either.