Taking the Pope’s Thought Seriously
Posted By Russell Shaw On September 30, 2009
In Russell Shaw, The Edge
A thoughtful and not unsympathetic discussion of a papal encyclical in a secular, liberal political journal? After all, why not? David Nirenberg’s treatment of Pope Benedict XVI’s economic encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) in the September 23 New Republic is one of the best short commentaries on this papal document that I’ve read to date.
Nirenberg is a professor of history at the University of Chicago. His analysis is a temperate and thought-provoking look at the encyclical that merits consideration in its own right.
He begins by noting that although people on both the left and the right have been free in their criticism of the Pope’s document, “nobody is much interested in debating the crucial argument…the fundamental claim that economic exchange requires love.” Perhaps, he speculates, that’s because religious believers see “the economic relevance of God’s love” as “self-evident” while non-believers consider it “absurd.” In both cases, there is a tendency to dismiss the idea as a platitude.
Yet from Plato to Marx, Nirenberg points out, the competing claims of self-interest and forgetfulness of self to be the guiding principle of economic activity have been debated. Only in modern times, and preeminently in the West, has self-interest triumphed. “It is this victory that Benedict XVI is questioning,” he says.
Nor is Benedict the first pope to do that; the questioning extends back at least to Leo XIII and his classic social encyclical of 1890, Rerum Novarum, and can be found also in major teaching documents of pontiffs like Pius XI, Paul VI, and, most recently before Benedict, John Paul II, whom Nirenberg quotes at length.
The professor speaks respectfully of what he calls “the scope of Benedict’s ambition,” which, as set out in Caritas in Veritate, he describes this way: “His idea is that every act of exchange should approximate the gratuitous gift of divine love. Every coin should approximate a Eucharist.”
Nirenberg does not embrace this idea, but neither does he reject it out of hand. He holds that it should be taken seriously—far more so than it has to date—in order truly to grasp what Benedict’s encyclical fundamentally is saying.
But he does have a bone to pick with the Pope. It is that in Benedict’s estimation only Catholicism possesses intellectual and spiritual resources capable of sustaining an approach to economic life grounded in selflessness. According to Nirenberg, this is unacceptable religious exclusivism that creates an insuperable obstacle to persons of other faiths who otherwise might wish to draw upon the Pope’s thinking.
Whether this is or isn’t an accurate critique of Benedict can be left to another day. Nirenberg’s unexceptionable point is that religious teachings in these pluralistic times must be presented in “a way that seeks to transcend the boundaries of the traditions that produced them.” If “transcend” here means “reach out beyond,” his point is well taken. But if it instead means “put aside” or “abandon,” he is making an ecclesiological assertion that no self-respecting religious tradition could possibly accept.
At the very least, it seems to me, if persons of other faiths do not accept papal claims for the Catholic Church (and pretty clearly they do not, for otherwise they would become Catholics), it doesn’t follow that they are thereby prevented from drawing whatever they do find true and helpful from the thought of Benedict or any pope. In the present instance, Professor Nirenberg (whose religious affiliation I do not know) appears to have done that with success, and for that we owe him thanks.