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Friday, March 1, 2013

Benedict’s Progressive Legacy (UPDATE)

In addition to the analysis of John Gehring featured below, I have updated this post with the insights of Michael Sean Winters, who says the following about Benedict's social vision:

On the economy, Benedict staked out positions that were far more radical than what passes for progressive politics in the U.S. For example, in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, the pope defended the rights of workers in the most explicit terms: "Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level." This warm embrace of organized labor is not on the agenda of today's Republican Party to be sure.

Benedict also challenged modern capitalism for the gross inequalities it produces both within and among nations. In his recent World Day of Peace message, he listed five threats to world peace, and he started with "unregulated financial capitalism." The others: terrorism, international crime, fanaticism and fundamentalism. You do not need to conduct a poll to imagine how many Republicans would respond if President Barack Obama lumped together "unregulated financial capitalism" with terrorism and international crime.

The effects of capitalism were not the only problems he discerned. In Caritas in Veritate he noted the ways capitalism fails at its core and in its ethical demands. The market requires competition, not solidarity. It lionizes self-assertion, not self-surrender, and it values thrift and frugality, not gratuitousness and generosity. The market's heroes are self-made men. But, as Benedict taught, Christians are called to follow Jesus, whose entire life was an act of solidarity, who never asserted himself but always self-surrendered to the will of the Father, whose grace is never thrifty or frugal but gratuitous, always a bit surprising, never stingy. Most obviously, Jesus was not a "self-made man." Benedict, like previous popes, did not propose a specific economic system, but his critique of modern capitalism, root and branch, was stinging. Why did this never garner much in the way of headlines?

John Gehring, Program Director at Faith in Public Life, has an interesting article up at Catholics in Alliance for the Commong Good. He examines elements of Pope Benedict’s work that leaned in a more progressive direction, particularly economic policy and environmental stewardship:

John Gehring
In his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict denounced the “scandal of glaring inequalities” and called for a more just distribution of global wealth. A defining theme of Benedict’s papacy – especially after the 2008 global financial crisis – was an uncompromising critique of economic systems that subjugate the human person to the demands of profit. In his World Day of Peace message just last month, he lamented “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.” Along with “terrorism” and “international crime,” the pope named unfettered markets as a threat to stability and peace. It’s an understatement to say you won’t hear that kind of talk from most U.S. politicians who rely on Wall Street largesse to finance campaigns. While free-market fundamentalists lobby for greater deregulation of markets and corporations, the Vatican’s justice and peace council during the Benedict era called for a “minimum, shared body of rules to manage the global financial market” and a “world reserve fund” to support countries hard hit by the economic crisis.

Benedict has also been called the “Green Pope” for defining environmental stewardship in stark moral terms and his frequent warnings about climate change. More than any of his predecessors, this pope has articulated a clear theology behind what he calls the “covenant between human beings and the environment.”  In 2011, the day before world leaders from 194 countries met in Durban, South Africa to chart the next steps to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gases, the pope used his weekly noon blessing to urge the international community to “agree on a responsible, credible and supportive response to this worrisome and complex phenomenon, keeping in mind the needs of the poorest populations and of future generations.” He told a Franciscan environmental group attending the Durban conference that “there is no good future for humanity or for the earth unless we educate everyone toward a style of life that is more responsible toward the created world,” according to Catholic News Service. Under Benedict’s tenure, several Vatican buildings were outfitted with solar panels and the Vatican has pledged to install enough renewable energy sources to provide 20 percent of its needs by 2020, a measure in line with a European Union proposal.

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