Papal encyclicals are supposed to be written with one eye on two millenniums of Catholic teaching, and the other on eternity. But Americans, as a rule, have rather narrower horizons. As soon as the media have finished scanning a Vatican document for references to sex, the debate begins in earnest: Is it good for the left, or for the right? For Democrats, or for Republicans?That is the beginning, it gets better:
The pope is not a Democrat or a Republican, and his vision doesn’t fit the normal categories of American politics.
But Benedict’s encyclical is nothing if not political. “Caritas in Veritate” promotes a vision of economic solidarity rooted in moral conservatism. It links the dignity of labor to the sanctity of marriage. It praises the redistribution of wealth while emphasizing the importance of decentralized governance. It connects the despoiling of the environment to the mass destruction of human embryos.
This is not a message you’re likely to hear in Barack Obama’s next State of the Union, or in the Republican Party’s response. It represents a kind of left-right fusionism with little traction in American politics.
But that’s precisely what makes it so relevant and challenging — for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
We’re passing through the worst economic dislocation of the past 80 years. Our politics are polarized; our institutions gridlocked. The governing party is mistrusted, the minority party despised.
Yet there’s remarkably little radical thinking taking place. The Republican Party is retrenching, falling back on Reagan-era verities. His promises of post-partisan change notwithstanding, Barack Obama’s agenda looks like the same old Democratic laundry list, rewritten in a sleeker, Internet-era font.
This doesn’t mean that America needs a third party with “Caritas in Veritate” as its platform. The church is not a think tank, and there’s room for wide disagreement about how to put its social teaching into practice.
But Catholics are obliged to take seriously the underlying provocation of the papal message — namely, that our present political alignments are not the only ones imaginable, and that truth may not be served by perfect ideological conformity.
So should all people of good will. For liberals and conservatives alike, “Caritas in Veritate” is an invitation to think anew about their alliances and litmus tests.
Why should being pro-environment preclude being pro-life? Why can’t Republicans worry about economic inequality, and Democrats consider devolving more power to localities and states? Does opposing the Iraq war mean that you have to endorse an anything-goes approach to bioethics? Does supporting free trade require supporting the death penalty?
These questions, and many others like them, are the kind that a healthy political system would allow voters and politicians to explore.
But for now, at least, you’re more likely to find them being raised in Benedict XVI’s Vatican than in Barack Obama’s Washington.