Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jul/09

13

Relevant and Challenging?

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Over at the New York Times today, Ross Douthat describes the pope’s new encyclical as “relevant and challenging.” Well, those are adjectives that can mean anything, but so far as the politics (I have no comment on the theology) of what the pope had to say are concerned, there was very little really that was new, let alone (as Ross suggests elsewhere in the same piece) “radical”.  If I may quote something I wrote (I know, I know) on NRO’s  Corner the other day:

So far as I can discern, Benedict is basically doing little more than reiterate the “social market” view of political economy that has long been at the core of continental european Christian Democracy or, to put it another way, the “Rhineland-model” capitalism under which he spent most of his adult life. This is not a view I, or many, supporters of the “Anglo-Saxon” (to use the adjective often used to describe it) approach to the market economy, would share, but it’s hardly new. As to the pope’s (dreadful) idea that there should be some sort of “world political authority” to, in some respects, “manage” the global economy, that again should be no surprise. Of all the forms of Christianity, Roman Catholicism is traditionally probably the most “universalist” (in the sense of the lack of attention it pays to the nation-state) and the Vatican is, of course, no stranger to notions of either top-down government or, dare I say, it, the authoritarian. Under the circumstances the pope’s support for this world authority may be thoroughly misguided, but it’s hardly a shock.

As it happens, I have thought for quite a while that the GOP may be evolving in the direction of european Christian Democratic parties such as Germany’s CDU (albeit with some distinctly American characteristics). If the pope’s encyclical is interesting in any political sense, it is interesting primarily as a reminder of where the priorities of such parties lie.

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4 comments

  • Author comment by David Hume · July 13, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    most americans are not aware that most of europe has stricter laws in regards to abortion than the united states.

  • Mark in Spokane · July 13, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Yes, Hume makes a very good point there. Try to get an abortion in Germany after the first trimester — or even if you or your partner wait until very long into the first trimester (the German authorities will often run the clock on women who are trying to get abortions towards the end of the first trimester). There are interviews and certificates that must be had prior to the abortion, etc. Lots of red tape. As for ignorance on the part of Americans about abortion in Europe, that ignorance, at least in my experience, isn’t just one way. When I’ve told German friends (even SDP lefties) about how abortion works here in America, they are uniformly horrified. One German medical student I talked to drew some historical parallels that I will refrain from repeating so as not to violate Godwin’s law.

    Now, for the pope. Benedict XVI’s encyclical is full of some very solid work in the pope’s area of expertise. Theologically, it has some of the best summaries of the principles undergirding Catholic social teaching that one can find. Unfortunately, when the pope wanders away from his area of expertise into the wilderness of political economy, the work is less helpful. This should not be an unexpected problem — it certainly isn’t a unique one. When highly trained experts (and whether he is writing in his own voice or as pope, Ratzinger is a highly trained expert when it comes to Catholic theology)leave their own areas of expertise and start pontificating (pardon the pun) about areas that they don’t know all that much about, one shouldn’t be surprised that all sorts of problems present themselves.

    Now, before we lambast the pope too much for exceeding the scope of his expertise, lots of highly educated secular folks with no training in theology or philosophy like to pontificate about religion all the live long day — some of them even write very profitable books on theological topics like the existence or lack thereof of the Deity, most of which demonstrate a signficant lack of theological understanding. Again, is that surprising? No — one can’t know everything about everything, and mastering one complex discipline like biology or theology (and yes, John Derbyshire to the contrary, theology at a serious professional level is a complex discipline involving mastery of ancient and modern languages, methods of literary and criticial analysis, archeology, statistics and antiquities) usually doesn’t leave much time for professional mastery of another discipline. I know there are a couple of people who have done it (Schweitzer, etc.) but they are rare birds.

    Michael Novak has written several pieces on the proponsity of Catholic theologians and bishops discussing economics without really having much of a grasp of economic theory or practice. His stuff on this topic is worth reading, I think.

  • Mr. F. Le Mur · July 14, 2009 at 8:25 am

    “As to the pope’s (dreadful) idea…”

    Hell, the pope’s rant starts out with a ref to resurrection – did you really think it was going get better as you went along? I often wonder if the Pope and such actually believe the stuff they write. If so, they’re clever morons; if not, they’re liars.

    Mark: “…lots of highly educated secular folks with no training in theology or philosophy like to pontificate about religion all the live long day…”

    It’s EVEN WORSE regarding alchemy!

  • Mark in Spokane · July 14, 2009 at 10:04 am

    The pope began his discussion with the resurrection? Why, one would almost think he was Catholic!

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