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A Civilization of Love: The Pope's Call to the West
by Dan Nichols

A Civilization of Love

Note: the following statement, signed by representatives of a number of Catholic publications, appeared with the editorial which follows it.

The collapse of international communism has destroyed one of the most obvious enemies of human freedom, but it has left the starving of the Third World in their misery, even while the moral anarchy of a mass popular culture prevails in the affluent West—destroying those “common things” (G.K. Chesterton) that lie at the root of social order and organic community. In the long run, communism itself may have had less power to destroy traditional morality and historic cultures than the disintegrative consumerism of the West.

And so, when Pope John Paul II criticizes the complacency of the developed nations, and looks to them to make “important changes in established life-styles, in order to limit the waste of environmental and human resources” (Centesimus Annus, n. 52), this is no mere “vestigial rhetorical fragment that somehow wandered into the text…notable chiefly for its incongruity with the argument that the Pope is otherwise making” (as one leading neo-conservative theologian has asserted). The Pope is setting out one of the most fundamental requirements of the new evangelization.

The universal call to holiness, made concrete in the promotion of justice and leading towards a civilization of love, demands nothing less than a change of life-styles. The pope goes so far as to question the “models of production and consumption” that dominate present-day economic theory, and even “the established structures of power which today govern societies” (ibid., n. 58). The need to respond to this call could not be more urgent. “Everyone should put his hand to the work which falls to his share, and that at once and straightaway, lest the evil which is already so great become through delay absolutely beyond remedy” (ibid., n. 56, citing Rerum Novarum).


Jennifer Belisle (Catholic Worker)
Fr. Ian Boyd, CSB (The Chesterton Review)
Stratford Caldecott (The Chesterton Review
Fr. Daniel D. Callam, CSB (The Canadian Catholic Review)
Frank Donovan (Catholic Worker)
James Hanink (New Oxford Review)
Maclin Horton (Caelum et Terra)
Fr. William McNamara, OCD (Desert Call/Forefront)
Robert Moynihan (Inside the Vatican)
Daniel Nichols (Caelum et Terra)
Michael O’Brien (Nazareth
David L. Schindler (Communio)
David D. Spesia (Communio)
Dale Vree (New Oxford Review)

(affiliations given for identification only)

From the Editor

This statement, A Civilization of Love, drafted by a group of Catholic editors and journalists and published concurrently in each of the signers’ journals, addresses a grave and certain danger not only to the integrity of the Faith and the good of souls but to the cultures, economies, and ecologies of our poorer brothers and sisters around the world. Will communism disappear only to be replaced by another form of materialism, this one more insidious and seductive than communism itself?

It is in this historical context that we must challenge the claims of Catholic “neo-conservatives” on behalf of “the spirit of democratic capitalism.”  Since the release of the encyclical Centesimus Annus in May of 1991 there has been a well-orchestrated (and well-funded) campaign to convince the world that the encyclical constitutes both a profound break with previous Catholic social teaching and a ringing endorsement of the American economic system and contemporary capitalism in general. “The pope showed an extraordinary grasp of American ideas, achievements, and points of view” wrote neo-conservative thinker Michael Novak. “His vision of a free economy, within a culture moral and religious to its core, guided and energized by a democratic polity, is American in spirit and definition.”

Such self-congratulatory reading of the encyclical betrays a profoundly un-Catholic spirit. Rather, it is an ideological approach to papal teaching which takes, not only a few passages of the encyclical out of their context within it, but the encyclical itself out of the context of the long tradition of Catholic social teaching which preceded it. That the Catholic “left” has often done this in the past to promote Marxist ideology does not justify attempts by the Catholic “right” to promote capitalist ideology now. In fact, a critical attitude toward capitalism and the consumerism it spawns is nothing new in Catholic social teaching, John Paul II’s two previous social encyclicals, Laborem Exercens and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, being among the most pointed of those critiques. Lest one be tempted to think that the Pope has subsequently changed his mind, it should be noted that since this publication of Centesimus Annus he has many times reiterated his criticism, saying, for example, in an interview on September 9, 1993, that “…the Church, since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum has always distanced herself from capitalist ideology, holding it responsible for grave social injustices.”

Of course, neo-conservative thinkers would be quick to point out that they are not promoting mere acceptance of the status quo. Rev. Richard Neuhaus, for example, in his post-encyclical book Doing well and Doing Good says, “It would be a most serious mistake to think that the affirmation of capitalism means an uncritical endorsement of, for instance, the political and economic system of the United States.” However much this may seem to contrast with Mr. Novak’s previously quoted American triumphalism, a glance at the dust jacket of Rev. Neuhaus’ book, which contains ringing endorsements by a former Secretary of Treasury, two CEO’s of huge corporations, and a wealthy conservative pundit, ought to make it clear that what is proposed is not radical reform but, if anything, mere tinkering. The economic establishment is apparently not too threatened by Rev. Neuhaus and company.

The neo-conservatives, however, do seem threatened by the Holy Father’s call for reform, which is in truth a call for conversion:

This is the culture which is hoped for, one which fosters trust in the human potential of the poor, and consequently in their ability to improve their condition through work or to make a positive contribution to economic prosperity. But to accomplish this, the poor—be they individuals or nations—need to be provided with realistic opportunities. Creating such conditions calls for a concerted worldwide effort to promote development, an effort which involves sacrificing the positions of income and of power enjoyed by the more developed economies.
This may mean making important changes in established life-styles, in order to limit the waste of environmental and human resources, thus enabling every individual and all peoples of the earth to have a sufficient share of those resources.

(Centesimus Annus 52, emphasis in original)

Rev. Neuhaus responds to this call as follows: “Talk about changing established life-styles in order to achieve justice or sustain the planet is a commonplace in political rhetorics…. The single use of that language in Centesimus Annus does tend to stick out…. It has, in short, all the appearances of being a throwaway line. Should we all consume less, and, if so, of what? And how will that help include the poor within the circle of production and exchange?.... The sentence about ‘changing established life-styles’ is most likely a vestigial rhetorical fragment that somehow wandered into the text.”

Rev. Neuhaus’ condescension aside, the Pope’s call to the West to correct economic injustice by conversion and generosity, far from being a “vestigial rhetorical fragment,” is, rather a central theme of his papacy, most recently and most eloquently reiterated in response to the Cairo conference on population.

But if this flippant dismissal of the Pope’s words when they happen to contradict the neo-conservative thesis seems startling, even more startling things await anyone who examines what I call “Centesimus Lite,” the abridged version of the encyclical that appeared in both Rev. Neuhaus’ Doing Well and Doing Good and A New Worldly Order, a post-CA collection of essays edited by George Weigel.

Why these two books, with their rather telling titles, required condensation of the encyclical is puzzling. Would the publishers of such noted thinkers really have objected to a few more pages of text? That seems doubtful. What is not doubtful is that the reader who reads only “Centesimus Lite” and does not read the encyclical in its entirety has not read the encyclical at all but rather a highly (and dishonestly) edited version which conveys a message shaped to the contours of neo-conservative ideology.

For example, in the passage cited above the Pope says that creating conditions for justice “involves sacrificing the positions of income and power enjoyed by the more developed economies.” The neo-conservative abridgement reads that this “involves [surrendering the advantages] of income and power,” etc.—a most creative use of the editorial device of brackets, and, as we shall see, not the only one. (It is also worth noting that no space is saved by this edit.)

Most of the condensation’s sins, though, are sins of omission. If you read only the Pope as edited by Rev. Neuhaus and Mr. Weigel, for example, you won’t know that the Pope, after discussing Rerum Novarum’s condemnation of economic injustice, says “Would that these words, written at a time when what has been called ‘unbridled capitalism’ was pressing forward, should not have to be repeated today with the same severity.” The neo-conservatives, you see, hold that capitalism has mostly reformed itself. The Pope apparently does not.

You will not know, reading the abridged version, that the Pope praises cooperatives (C.A. 16) or says that “the worker movement is part of a more general movement among workers and other people of good will for the liberation of the human person and for the affirmation of human rights” (C.A. 26). You will not know that the Pope quotes St. Thomas Aquinas: “…the Church replies without hesitation that man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all” (C.A. 30). Nor will you know that John Paul II says that “the human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people are far from disappearing” (C.A. 33).

You will miss entirely the Holy Father’s fierce denunciation of economic oppression: “Ownership of the means of production, whether in industry or agriculture, is just and legitimate if it serves useful work. It becomes illegitimate, however, when it is not utilized or when it serves to impede the work of others, in an effort to gain a profit which is not the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society, but rather is the result of curbing them or of illicit exploitation, speculation, or the breaking of solidarity among working people. Ownership of this kind has no justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man” (C.A. 43).

The encyclical also, of course, praises the role of “free human creativity in the economic sector,” albeit “circumscribed by a strong juridical framework” (C.A. 42). But this appreciation of economic freedom is balanced by the current of criticism that runs through Centesimus Annus, a current mostly edited out of the neo-condensation of the encyclical.

But when the Pope’s ideas couldn’t be tamed by omission, whoever edited “Centesimus Lite” did not hesitate to edit in their own ideas. The encyclical reads, for example, in one key passage, “We have seen that it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization” (C.A. 35). This is rather straightforward. Here is how the passage reads after neo-conservative editing: “It is unacceptable to say that the defeat of ‘real socialism’ leaves [the present operation of capitalism] as the only model of economic organization.”  (Here again, the edited version occupies more space than the original.)  While the Pope indicates that a modified form of capitalism, one in which market forces are balanced by the demands of the common good, can meet the standards of justice, he also clearly indicates that other forms of economic organization can also meet these standards. The neo-conservatives, though, believe that capitalism is the only game in town and here do not hesitate to add their own words to “correct” the Holy Father. As Rev. Neuhaus states elsewhere “despite his disclaimer, capitalism is ‘the only model of economic organization’.”

It is apparent that the neo-conservatives are not truly interested in being formed by Catholic social doctrine, but rather in selectively appropriating aspects of it for their own ends. To a large degree they have accomplished this, at least in terms of public perception. Most otherwise orthodox Catholics in this country seem to have joined in this perception. It isn’t difficult to see why: as Catholics have moved into the American mainstream Catholic teaching, doctrinal, moral and social, has for the most part been jettisoned. Then, too, most of the criticism of the neo-conservative interpretation of Centesimus Annus has come from the Catholic Left, which has no credibility with orthodox believers because of their general dissent on other moral issues, or it has come from obscure journals such as this one. On the other hand, the neo-conservatives do seem to assent to Catholic teaching about things like abortion and sexual morality, however recent a development in this assent is for some of them. And the whole movement has been framed by Rev. Neuhaus’ tempting thesis that America is ripe for “the Catholic Movement,” a curious phrase when one examines his writings: he freely acknowledges the Enlightenment and the Reformation as his primary inspirations on economic matters while rejecting more traditional Catholic approaches to social and economic organization (distributism, solidarism, etc.) as “holistic.” Indeed, it seems that what is proposed is not so much a “Catholic movement” for America as a Protestant Movement for the Church, complete with the Reformation’s dualistic view of Church and society, faith and culture.

These are crucial times, when America and its allies dominate the world economically, politically, and militarily. International corporations extract consumer goods from poor countries who have no unions, minimum wage standards or environmental laws to hinder profits. In return America offers decadent pop culture and the consumerist ethic: the unholy trinity of Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald and the Playboy Bunny is coming soon, to a village near you.

It would be a tragic blow to the Church’s credibility and to its mission of a new evangelization if the impression is given that the Pope has blessed this exploitative dominance and the attendant destruction of the world’s economies, ecologies and cultures. We stand with the Pope, who said only recently “At the root of many serious problems troubling Europe and the world are the degenerative aspects of capitalism.”

Americans may be eager to believe that we possess “a culture moral and religious to the core” in spite of the glaring evidence to the contrary, but we must instead hear the prophetic word the Holy Father speaks to us, a word that calls us to conversion, conversion that remains incomplete until it includes a social dimension. A failure to recognize that existing social structures are in need of radical reform would be but another expression of the separation of faith from culture decried by successive popes as “the great tragedy of our times.” Let us embrace the call to build the civilization of love, and let us return to an honest and faithful reading of the whole of Catholic doctrine, which continues to be a “sign of contradiction” and a call to reform, both personal and social.

--Daniel Nichols, Editor Caelum et Terra (Fall 1994, 3-5)

Transcribed by Justin Nickelsen


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