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The Pope’s Duck-Billed Platypus

It seems that little a pope says or does can pass without a full-blown controversy. But — truly — that’s the way it ought to be. After all, Jesus came “not to send peace, but a sword” (Mt. 10:34). Not that this was the end or design of the coming of Christ, but His coming and His doctrine would have this effect, due to the obstinate resistance that many would make. As an arbiter of truth, the vicar of Christ is necessarily in this position. To be sure, Pope Benedict XVI is no stranger to controversy, no stranger to “obstinate resistance.” Yet sometimes such opposition comes from unexpected corners of the Church. Conversely, there are times when praise and support for the Pope come from those who are perennial papal antagonists.

Consider the release of the Pontiff’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”) this summer, just days before U.S. President Barack Obama and leaders of the other industrial nations gathered for the G8 economic summit in L’Aquila, Italy. The subject of the Pope’s third encyclical: the economy. The thesis: “Today’s international economic scene, marked by grave deviations and failures, requires a profound new way of understanding human enterprise.” The controversy lies in the Pope’s trenchant critique of these “grave deviations and failures” that have engendered the economic meltdown — for example, bad management and speculative financial dealing based on greed — and his proposal for a radically different world economy, one in which profit is not the ultimate goal of commerce but rather human dignity and the common good. In short, the Holy Father sets out a simple rule of thumb: Economic systems need to be guided by charity and truth.

In this encyclical the Pope echoes the time-honored social teachings of the Catholic Church as set forth particularly in the encyclicals of Leo XIII and John Paul II. (For a look at the latter, see the article by Jim Wishloff on p. 24 of this issue.) Benedict aptly applies these teachings to the current economic situation (a global crisis) and addresses contemporary economy-driven offenses against the human person — those presented by advancements in biotechnology, for example.

What’s most interesting about the heat generated by Caritas in Veritate is that many on the political Left are hailing the encyclical as a ringing endorsement of their political agendas, while many on the political Right are squirming over the Pope’s economic proposals that appear to them as an indictment of capitalism and the free market. Both sides, of course, are guilty of making hasty generalizations, and as usual the first commentaries on the encyclical — some appearing within hours of the document’s release — were facile and in some cases irrelevant and wrongheaded.

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