The Pope Confounds the Neoconservatives

April 1989By Dale Vree

Dale Vree is Editor of the NOR.

Aspiring to Freedom: Commen­taries on John Paul II’s Encycli­cal “The Social Concerns of the Church".  Edited by Kenneth A. Myers. Eerdmans. 169 pages. $10.95.



The four top guns of Chris­tian neoconservatism — Michael Novak. Peter L. Berger, George Weigel, and Richard John Neuhaus — have sized up the Pope’s latest social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“The Social Concerns of the Church”), and find it puzzling, confusing, and contra­dictory. Actually, the encyclical is quite clear, and if anyone is confused, they are. Though shar­ing the same ideology, they even argue with each other as to what the encyclical means and how damaging it is to the neoconservative effort.

Why all the fuss and befuddlement? The New York Times’s A.M. Rosenthal, himself a critic of the encyclical, put it aptly: “All good journalists would put the same headline on the story [about the encyclical] : ‘Pope Condemns Marxism and Capital­ism Equally; Says Both are Im­perialistic and Sin Against Poor.’” Now, if you were a neoconservative, wouldn’t you too be con­founded?

Of the four old Indian fight­ers, Berger is the least disoriented. He knows a lost battle when he sees one. He frankly acknowl­edges the encyclical’s “repudia­tion of ‘liberal capitalism,’” and concedes that it takes a “neutral position between Eastern totali­tarianism and the democratic capitalism of the West.” Accord­ingly, he finds it “depressing,” and even implores the Holy See to stop issuing so many social en­cyclicals.

The other three members of the posse — especially Weigel and Novak — are also depressed, but can’t resist attempting some damage control. Eyes upward and grasping at straws in the wind, they ride their stallions in­to “deep doo-doo” as they try to snatch at the encyclical’s support for “the right of economic initia­tive” as some sort of wispy en­dorsement of capitalism and the West. A lot of slipping and slid­ing ensues.

They don’t seem to realize that, from Pope Pius Xl’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931) through Pope John Paul’s Laborem Exercens, the Vatican has increasingly recommended various forms of workers’ ownership and self-management as the optimal type of economic organization. When en­terprises are owned by workers, rather than private investors, and run by managers elected by the workers rather than managers tied to investors, those enterpris­es are no longer conventional pri­vate property; they are social or co-operative property. Here we have the right of economic initia­tive in its fullest sense.

The right of economic ini­tiative is limited to the few under capitalism, but it can be extend­ed to the many when workers be­come owners and managers of their places of work. Is this but utopian papal piety? No. A quiet revolution is beginning to take place throughout the developed world — whether Western, Com­munist, or neutral — as workers are gradually displacing investors, managers, and state bureaucrats as the de jure and/or de facto controllers of enterprises.

No, this isn’t the liberal cap­italism of our neoconservatives, but why do they shrink from this wonderfully Catholic and catho­lic vision in their book? This is truly puzzling. For to grasp this vision is to begin to understand the coherence and beauty of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

Of the four performances in this book, Novak’s is the most colorful. Novak is not only a public dissenter from Pope Paul Vl’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, but publicly dissents from princi­ples of Catholic social teaching (see the April 1983 and Novem­ber 1988 NORs); indeed, he has turned the latter dissent into an open crusade, not unlike Hans Küng, Charles Curran, or Mat­thew Fox. However, in his re­sponse to Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, he has apparently taken pains to eschew direct dissent from prin­ciples of Catholic social thought. This is commendable. He em­braces papal principles — but in a contorted way so as to suit him­self. The results are bizarre. If anything, he shoots himself in the foot, transforming himself from a top gun into the Shakiest Gun in the West.

John Paul issues a moral cri­tique of the “superdevelopment” or “consumerism” found in the West. Novak indicates that he welcomes this critique, all the while conveniently ignoring the question of how his beloved capitalism nurtures and feeds off the sins of self-indulgence.

Novak says he agrees with the Pope’s indictment of the West’s “all-consuming desire for profit,” but remains oblivious to capitalism’s glorification of pri­vate profit, which elsewhere he himself has lionized.

Novak agrees with the Pope that “the goods of this world are originally meant for all,” but then he informs us that certain of the founding fathers of capi­talism said the same thing, there­by absolving capitalism of the vast inequalities of income and wealth indispensable to it.

The Pope says “liberation” is “the fundamental category and first principle of action,” and Novak doffs his ten-gallon hat at this statement, all the while glib­ly asserting that “liberation” is but a synonym for the “freedom” which falls regularly from the lips of Western conservatives.

The Pope says the commun­ications media in the West “fre­quently impose a distorted vision of life and of man.” Admittedly, this is an empirical observation, not a principle, but Novak’s han­dling of this matter provides a humorous example of his talent for selective perception and re­definition. He tells us this distor­tion is the result of the “clearly left-wing and antibusiness point of view” of the Western media, thus turning the Pope’s words inside out. But Novak really outdoes himself when he defines the “dis­tinguishing characteristic” of a capitalist system as “neither pri­vate property nor markets nor profit,” but rather the promo­tion of “the creativity of the hu­man mind.” This Don Knotts definition is so amusingly all-in­clusive that not even the most rigid Communist would exclude himself from it.

The Pope says that behind Western and Eastern imperialism are “real forms of idolatry: of money, ideology, class, technol­ogy.” But for Novak, the West need not worry about this theo­logical critique. After all, says Novak, Adam Smith made the same point, and the “checks and balances” in Western systems take care of the problem. And so it goes.

The most potent antidote to Novak’s slapstick and slapdash routine is probably Berger’s so­ber and mournful essay in the same book. Novak and Berger are ideological allies, but Novak is a Catholic while Berger is a Lutheran and hence free from any com­pulsion to engage in doubletalk. Berger frankly admits that the papal worldview is seriously at odds with neoconservatism at nu­merous points.

While the NOR obviously sides with the Pope over Berger, one nonetheless comes away from this book feeling refreshed by Berger’s candor. While one would quarrel with Berger’s choice of targets, one can’t say that he’s lost his aim or that his steed’s awash in the muck.



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