Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Charity in Truth": Some Preliminary Reflections on Benedict's Encyclical

In case readers are wondering, I’m not ignoring the pope’s recent encyclical Caritas in veritate. I was out of the country when it came out, and without a reliable internet connection as I traveled.

So I didn’t begin reading it in earnest until my return to the U.S. last week, when I was able to download a copy of it. Since I happened to be in Germany at the time, I did read interesting summaries and analysis of it in the German press when it appeared, summaries far more intellectually challenging than anything I have yet to read in the American press.

I should be perfectly honest and state from the outset—as a preface to anything I might later write about the encyclical—that encyclicals just don’t do it for me. I read them; I study them and have taught them. I value what they have to say, within certain limits that have everything to do with the historical conditioning of any church document.

Like many American theologians, I have wondered about the obliviousness of most American Catholics to the venerable social teaching of the Catholic church, as this has been articulated in encyclicals and pastoral letters. I have been amazed, in particular, by the refusal of those American Catholics who have set themselves up as the chief guardians of orthodoxy in recent decades to listen to this social teaching, at the same time that they loudly profess themselves to be more Catholic and more Roman than the rest of us.

But encyclicals just don’t do it for me. If I’m seeking spiritual enrichment—and I often am, when I turn to a theological text, more than I’m seeking intellectual stimulation—I’d far rather read Meister Eckhart or Teresa of Avila, Johann Baptist Metz or John Dominic Crossan, or for that matter, Audre Lorde or Mary Oliver. And the gospels.

Encyclicals don’t convey transformative truth to me, and that’s the kind of truth I hunger for when I read theological or spiritual texts (or politically transformative ones or soul-changing literary works). And that presents something of a problem for anyone reading a text that calls itself “Charity in Truth,” with its many self-conscious echoes of John Paul II’s encyclical “Splendor of Truth.”

I’m finding Caritas in veritate particularly hard slogging, because the text is, frankly, such a mess. It’s a compendium of just about every theological aper├žu Benedict has had, in a long, distinguished career as a theologian and Vatican official. As a compendium, it never moves in a straight, clean line, but moves in circles, back and forth, engaging over and over some of the movements and tendencies in church and society that have preoccupied Benedict for decades now.

It’s a rough beast slouching somewhere to be born, then—and I do not intend to belittle the document in making that observation, but to note the hermeneutical problems that anyone who tries to take the document seriously will encounter from the outset, if she or he reads it with due attention, particularly to the manifold context(s) it’s seeking to engage.

It’s a valuable document, because it sets the record straight about an issue that many American Catholics (and the mainstream American media) simply refused to face during the pontificate of John Paul II: this is the critique of unbridled capitalism that runs very strongly through the thinking of John Paul II and his successor. It is simplistic and dishonest to reduce the work of these complex thinkers to a single anti-modern, anti-communist reflex. The American media sought consistently to do that with John Paul, and got away with it, because the text of the pope’s defeat of communism which dominated American media discourse about John Paul II, a text that consciously and deliberately obliterates his critique of capitalism, outshone any other aspect of his papal reign.

With Benedict, it’s going to be harder to ignore the critique of unbridled capitalism, for a variety of reasons. One is historical: the neo-conservative moment has been eclipsed by something else now struggling to be born in Western history, something rightly critical of the excesses of a “conservatism” that was not ever conservative at all, but which basked in warm, fuzzy, hypnotic and totally false nostalgia while it enabled one of the most a-traditional, anti-conservative periods of ruthless economic rapacity in world history.

Another reason I think Benedict’s critique of unbridled capitalism will receive more of a hearing than John Paul II’s similar critique did is that Benedict has, unfortunately, failed to dazzle people either inside or outside the church, as the charismatic John Paul II dazzled. And that lack of dazzle may well work to Benedict’s advantage, when it comes to this encyclical.

Let’s face it: there hasn’t been much of a narrative line to Benedict’s papacy, thus far, other than one of constant resistance to this and that. Fairly or unfairly, the media have been adroit about depicting Benedict as a constant naysayer, and, for whatever reason, he and the coterie of Vatican advisors with whom he’s chosen to surround himself have not been conspicuously successful at countering that media narrative. Indeed, they’ve acted again and again in ways that lend credence to this simplistic narrative.

So when Benedict does say something that’s not merely no and again no, and when he says it substantively and brilliantly, I believe people are inclined to listen. They want to find some hook on which to hang this papacy, which otherwise has the feel of an interim papacy everyone's merely enduring until a dazzling successor to John Paul II comes along. I suspect that Caritas in veritate may well turn out to be that hook, the defining moment of Benedict’s papacy.

One other very surface, top-of-the-head impression—and I reserve the right to change my mind about this as I read further in the text: it strikes me that Benedict’s choice to focus on the theme of love in truth is an indirect but quite deliberate attempt to correct an impulse in the church that he himself played a huge role in setting into motion. This is the impulse represented by John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor —or, more precisely, by how “Splendor of Truth” came to be used and read in many Catholic circles, notably in the United States.

I remember when Veritatis splendor came out. I remember the effect it had on the life of the church, in theological circles, on my own life. I have blogged about that. As I noted in a previous posting about this topic, in the latter part of the 1980s, I was asked by a graduate program in lay ministry at a Catholic university to write a textbook in ethics for this program.

The program was the Institute for Ministry at my alma mater, Loyola of New Orleans. I wrote an introduction to Catholic ethical theory for this program in the late 1980s, and when it was finished, was told by LIM’s director that he had sent it to bishops across the nation, and had gotten glowing reports about it back from almost all dioceses.

When Veritatis splendor came out, however, this introduction to Catholic ethics, which had just been reviewed by bishops across the nation and found to be solid and orthodox, suddenly became problematic. I was asked to re-write the text, incorporating huge chunks of Veritatis splendor as much as possible.

I did so. I labored hard on the revision. This request came just after a Catholic college in North Carolina has just given me a one-year terminal contract, while refusing to disclose why I was being given a terminal contract after I had just had an extremely positive annual evaluation. When that college's leaders lied to me after I appealed for the reason for my terminal contract and when the abbot of the monastery that owned the college colluded in the stone-walling, I resigned.

So I needed the money I would make by revising this ethics text, frankly. And I needed even more desperately some assurance that I still had a place somewhere in the church, that my vocation as a theologian still counted for somebody somewhere in the Catholic church.

The experience of receiving the terminal contract just as Veritatis splendor was coming down the pike, and of being asked to revise an introduction to ethics that I had written only a few years ago, because it was suddenly problematic in light of Veritatis splendor, was a watershed experience for me as a theologian. In fact, after these experiences, I never again found any place at all in the Catholic church to follow my vocation as a theologian. Nor did Steve.

One door after another began to shut—to slam—in our faces, and we found ourselves on the outside looking in, first as theologians and then as Catholics. Loyola's Institute for Ministry chose not to hire me to teach in its program any longer, though I had previously been an academic advisor to the program, had written one of its textbooks, and, exceedingly hurtful, was an alumnus of Loyola.

The message that Steve and I began receiving persistently from every Catholic institution with which we came into contact at this moment of our vocational lives, the message that we were not welcome anywhere, had everything in the world to do with Veritatis splendor, and with its rubric of truth.

Truth as weapon. Truth as a sword to cleave the faithful from the unfaithful, to drive the unwashed and impure out of the community of the washed and pure. Whatever John Paul II (and Ratzinger) intended with this encyclical, the practical effect for many Catholics—for many Catholic theologians, particularly those writing about ethical issues—was devastating. This encyclical was used as a blunt instrument to bludgeon people into submission, and if we failed to submit, to drive us out of communion.

I did revise my ethics text, but it appeared that even my alma mater now found my work as a theologian—my Catholicity itself—lacking. To the best of my knowledge, the revised text was ditched and not used in the program after I labored hard to produce it. As I labored for months at the revisions, I found that one chapter alone, the chapter on sexual ethics, was suddenly problematic above all—an ironic finding, when I had been assured only four or five years ago that the text had passed the muster of almost all bishops in the country, as a sound and faithful introduction to Catholic ethics.

And the sticking point now, with the promulgation of Veritatis splendor was, above all, the question of homosexuality. I revised. I labored. I dumped huge sections of Veritatis splendor into the revised text. But nothing sufficed. Though I had written the previous text as theologians normally write texts nowadays, depending on the community of my peers to help me evaluate and critique the text, this time around, I was appointed a censor, a Jesuit whose field was not even moral theology.

Every chapter in my revised text pleased him, except the chapter on sexual morality—and the section of that chapter that could not receive his imprimatur was the chapter on homosexuality. Every time I tried to produce a revision to this chapter that sought to hold in tension the venerable Catholic teaching about the primacy of conscience and the magisterium’s condemnation of homosexual acts, I received page after page of single-spaced notes that essentially commanded me to do what in conscience I could not do: write a chapter which told students the Catholic church condemns homosexuality, and leave it at that. No nonsense about conscience, and no hermeneutical questions about the scriptures that forbid homosexuality.

The point I want to make with this story is simple: John Paul II’s teaching about truth, behind which Ratzinger stood always in the background, has translated, in American Catholicism, into something that is not adequately Catholic. It has translated into witch hunts and the reduction of a fine, complex, ancient tradition, particularly in the area of ethics, into an anti-intellectual set of formulas that are used not to provoke thought or to invite discourse designed to help us fathom and internalize the tradition. These simplistic, anti-intellectual formulas are not intended to help us immerse ourselves in the transformative Truth Who is God. They are intended to separate the saved from the unsaved.

The truth we’ve ended up with is not transformative at all. It’s nothing like the biblical notion of truth—of God as the ultimate truth, Whom we must encounter in transformative love, and with Whom we must grapple in the darkness of faith. It has no adequately Catholic sense that religious truth operates on a complex variety of levels, and that not every formula is equally central to the life of faith. It completely overlooks the hierarchy of truths, placing all "truths" in the church at the same level, trying to impose all of them on everyone, as if all are revealed, infallible truth necessary for salvation.

The notion of truth that has come to prevail in American Catholicism following Spendor veritatis is formulaic, simplistic, catechetical in the worst, most mindless, sense of that term. It convinces no one. It cannot convince, because it is not designed, as religious truth must be, to reach the heart. It betrays the tradition. It is a weapon used to make the church less, rather than more, catholic.

And I believe Benedict now sees this, and wants to address what happened when he and John Paul II put that particular weapon into the hands of uneducated bishops and layfolks who welcomed the weapon to mount a vicious purge in the church, a purge all about trying to force everyone possible to dance to their political and ideological tunes. I think the pope is now trying to reconnect what ought never to have been separated, if we want to call ourselves Catholic and orthodox: love and truth.

And I suspect that this move comes too late, for many of us . . . .