Caritas in Veritate – a manifesto for Compassionate Conservatism?
And it succeeds.
Caritas in Veritate – Love (or Charity) in Truth – is stronger on principles than it is on policy, but it raises all the important social, economic and moral questions of the contemporary world. In that regard, it is a magisterial work. By fusing the Vatican’s traditional ‘Justice and Peace’ agenda with the unique Benedictine theological insights and understanding of the more nuanced complexities of the modern age, this encyclical is indeed all things to all people. In that regard, it is a postmodern ‘Third Way’ document of disparate disjuncture. It is occasionally obscure and, at times, inaccessible. But His Holiness is, for the most part, speaking cogent Latin to the Romans, even if sometimes quite repetitively. Just occasionally he might as well be speaking Greek, for some of the writing is impenetrable. But the encyclical is coherent and it undoubtedly feels right: one gets the impression that its genius lies in the fact that it articulates traditional Roman Catholic social doctrine in the new context: it is therefore designed to evoke feelings more than it is to provide solutions to the world’s problems. And in a world in which politics is about feeling – about the sound of words more than their meaning – Pope Benedict has spoken the right words.
If this encyclical had been written prior to the global financial crisis, it would have been considered prophetic. It is searingly spiritual and acutely temporal, not least in its purposeful political timing to coincide with the G8 meeting of world leaders who are presently gathered in Italy to discuss global economic issues and climate change. And it will go down in history as one of the most significant religio-political documents ever penned. As an articulation of Roman Catholic social doctrine it is as important as the Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, in which the plight and misery of workers was first acknowledged; and the Quadragesimo Anno of Pope Pius XI, which developed the notion of Corporatism and laid the religio-political foundations for Roman Catholic social teaching. In a year or two, the financial crisis will be over, but the principles of the encyclical will endure because ‘Justice and Peace’ is semper eadem.
Caritas in Veritate is wholesome in its discussion of the ‘denial or suppression of life’ (abortion, euthanasia, embryo experimentation, stem-cell research) and the inherent worth of humanity. But the principal focus is clearly economic and it is purposely addressed to the ‘selfish desires’ of the wealthy nations of the developed world. Pope Benedict demands an ‘ethical approach’ to capitalism – as though Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism were somehow insufficient in its exposition, and capitalism were inherently devoid of morality. This is a ‘social justice’ programme to infuse economics with moral character: it is a manifesto for Compassionate Conservatism.
But it is more compassionate than it is Conservative.
Of course, there is more to life than eating and drinking; there is more to labour than production; there is more to progress than profit: Christians are called to incarnate their faith in the ways they live and act in the political, social and economic spheres. And of course they should work within their families and communities for the common good in all those areas. This means loving one’s neighbour, comforting the lonely, feeding the starving, housing the homeless, helping the weak, the destitute, the disenfranchised. Christians should pursue justice, and Caritas in Veritate is essentially a call to behold the relationship that exists between human and environmental ecologies, and to link charity and truth in the pursuit of justice, the common good and authentic human development.
And Conservatives will agree with the Pope corruption and illegality are evident in the conduct of the political class; that government has its limitations and that the market its imperfections. But the few solutions he proposes are those of the outdated post-war European Socialist; the lethargic statist policies of the unreformed Christian democracies which bind so much of the European Union in red tape and mire it in stagnation. Thus does he call for ‘solidarity’, increased welfare, stressing the importance of trade union power to protect workers and invoking the role of the state in the provision of jobs.
This is the political economics of the Anglo-Saxon Left or the Continental Right.
The Pope calls for a ‘profoundly new way’ of organising global finance and business. Although there is nothing new under the sun, the inference is that global regulation is needed because national governments have failed. But where regulation is prolific, the economy is manifestly hindered: unemployment rises and poverty increases. This has been the whole history of the experience of the application of Roman Catholic social doctrine: it makes countries economically less efficient and people poorer. Wealth is created when markets expand and they only expand when they are liberated. And yet the Pope is persuaded that in order to revive the global economy without creating greater imbalances, inequalities and insecurities, ‘there is urgent need of a true world political authority’ to oversee the economy and work for the common good.
What is proposed here is nothing less than the creation of a UN ‘socio-economic security council’ to stand alongside the current Security Council. While one is dedicated to peacekeeping, the other will be concerned to enforce the principles of social justice.
And enforced they shall be, for what otherwise is the purpose of calling for a world council ‘with real teeth’ if it cannot bite? And how otherwise than through legal imposition could the ‘common good’ be pursued in a world of competing and mutually exclusive common goods? How can the imperative that wealthy states ‘must lower their domestic energy consumption’ be realised if that absolute ‘must’ is not somehow binding?
Although these calls are accompanied by the need for reform of the structures of global governance (UN, IMF, World Bank), the precise nature of those reforms is unspecified, other than that they must ‘observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity’.
Yet we have seen how subsidiarity operates within the EU. It does not because it cannot: where there is the real practice of subsidiarity, the ‘real teeth’ of the supranational authority are muzzled. The Pope favours precisely the sort of ‘big-government’, pro-EU, anti-State, anti-individualist, socialist, federalist, corporatist, ‘Third Way’ interventionism which is antithetical to the philosophy of Conservatism which prefers many limited governments to one overriding authority.
The Pope’s theology far surpasses his grasp of economics: if he genuinely wished to address the forces which retard economic and social development, he would talk more of wealth creation and less about redistribution, for one cannot redistribute ex nihilo. Christians may be exhorted (or states may make it compulsory) to give one of their coats to the man who has none, but this is only possible if the coats have been manufactured to an acceptable quality and the owner sufficiently wealthy to purchase them both in the first place.
Certainly, those coats must be ethically produced, marketed, sold and bought – even made of recyclable material using renewable energy. But one does not need a ‘world political authority’ armed ‘with real teeth’ to tell us this. Not least because in a world of post-State Socialism enforced through universal legislation in accordance with the New World Order, everyone will end up wearing the same globally-financed, officially-approved, virtuously-manufactured coat made of inferior material of a bland, uniform style.
It may not look attractive, but at least it will be ethical.