The Pope Confounds the Neoconservatives
Aspiring to Freedom: Commentaries on John Paul II's Encyclical "The Social Concerns of the Church"
By Kenneth A. Myers
Pages: 169 pages
Review Author: Dale Vree
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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