Thursday, June 18, 2015

Whose "heavy price"?

Here is a serious argument that is worth a serious response.
The Mater et Magistra dispute led to many ironic consequences. In defending National Review’s capitalist Catholicism, Buckley and Wills had provided a rationale for social liberals to ignore church teachings on sexual matters, which was especially pertinent after the Vatican released the encyclicalHumanae Vitae (1968), reiterating opposition to birth control and abortion. Wills himself moved to the left in the late 1960s, breaking with Buckley over the Vietnam War and civil rights. About the core issue of the Mater et Magistra debate, Wills argued in his 1979 bookConfessions of a Conservative that “[t]here is something about laissez-faire individualism that is historically at odds with Catholic tradition—but this is a matter not reachable by papal fiat or by those who challenge the sincerity of their fellow believer’s religion.” 
By the late 1960s, as Wills also noted, the two sides had flipped, with “‘liberals’ now denouncing encyclicals rather than using encyclicals to denounce others, ‘conservatives’ sticking with the Pope even when he had issued his disastrous encyclical on contraceptives.” One lesson from theMater et Magistra contretemps is that almost all Catholics are cafeteria Catholics. 
For National Review, the sophisticated arguments they used to wiggle out from having to grapple with church teaching in Mater et Magistra came at a heavy price. The magazine became disengaged from Catholicism as a living intellectual tradition and lost much of its Catholic ambience.
That's from a piece by Jeet Heer called "The Last Time Conservatives Dismissed a Major Encyclical, It Ended Terribly for Them". Headlines in political advocacy publications have a tendency to undermine the article below and that one is no exception. Mater et Magistra was promulgated in 1961; to call the subsequent decades a disaster for conservative Catholics is a little odd. The next two decades saw conservatism go from being a fringe movement that was historically at odds with American tradition to the Reagan White House. It was also a period when Catholic conservative intellectuals rose to a level of influence that would have been unimaginable before. A more accurate headline would be "The Last Time Conservatives Dismissed a Major Encyclical, It Exposed Inconsistencies in their Views", which, while accurate, is not terribly compelling.

Those caveats aside, there is a lot that is right about the argument:
  • A Catholic conservative cannot dismiss Catholic social teaching and then take umbrage at those who disregard Catholic teaching on sex and sexuality.
  • Laissez-faire individualism really is at odds with Catholic tradition.
  • If you denounce Encyclicals, you cannot reasonably reverse direction and start using Encyclicals to to denounce others.
All of these are reversible:
  • Catholic liberals who describe Humanae Vitae as disastrous can't tell Catholic conservatives who question Catholic social teaching to shut up.
  • For a long, long time, monarchy fit right in with Catholic tradition.
  • If you use encyclicals to denounce others, you cannot reasonably reverse direction and begin denouncing encyclicals.
The simple conclusion to draw from this is that Jeet Heer is far too wrapped up in the liberal-conservative ping pong game to see that it is just ping pong and, therefore, ridiculous. A deeper point is that too many popes have written too many encyclicals that fit right into these ping pong games. The moment encyclicals become useful paddles for anyone on any side of a political argument, not only that encyclical but encyclicals generally lose a lot of their luster. The big losers in Laudato Si, no matter how you spin it, will be the Catholic church and the office of the papacy. 


  1. After reading the encyclical (--finally, I actually read an encyclical right when it came out--in this case because I didn't want to get only the pundits' views) my conclusion is that it doesn't actually lend itself easily to the left-right ping pong game. True, it deals with the environment--though I don't think that's necessarily left-wing--but the framing is much broader. Disconcertingly broad for someone looking for a partisan document, I'd think.

    1. On at least one level you are certainly right. On the other hand, however, these things are never read by many people. The impact is the way it is covered. It behooves the pope and his advisors to be very careful about how they frame things.

      I remember some conservative Catholics saying of the "Who am I to judge" comment that Francis made that while it was true that the broader context made it clear that Francis was speaking of gay priests who were celibate that Francis should have known that he was going to be misinterpreted. I don't think I commented on it at the time because I have a hard time getting worked up about Catholic teaching on homosexuality one way or the other. But I think it is reasonable to ask the pope to consider how his remarks on climate change might be misinterpreted before making them and then to put clear language right in the opening paragraphs of his encyclical dissociating himself from those views.

      I've often quoted the late Father Neuhaus' remark that "If it isn't absolutely necessary for the bishops comment on something then it is absolutely necessary that they not comment on it." Even though I find myself in substantial agreement with what I've read in Laudato Si, I still think that Pope Francis should have taken that advice when it came to climate change.

      All that said, I've been rather staggered at how quickly this Encyclical went down the memory hole. For starters, the media treated it as a much less significant event that Caitlyn Jenner and then they allowed it to be swept away by the next celebrity-driven triviality. Far from being part of the left-right ping pong game as I feared, the pope seems to have become just another celebrity.