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Pope Benedict Calls for New Political Models

April 1, 2012

While en route to Mexico last week, Pope Benedict gave an interview in which he was asked about the relevance of liberation theology. In an American political context, the expected reply would be either blanket approval or blanket denunciation. The Pope is far more nuanced:

One sees in Latin America, and also elsewhere, among many Catholics a certain schizophrenia between individual and public morality. Personally, in the individual sphere, they’re Catholics, believers, but in public life they follow other paths that don’t correspond to the great values of the Gospel which are necessary for the foundation of a just society. Thus it’s essential to educate people in order to overcome this schizophrenia, educating not only about individual morality but also public morality. We try to do this with the social doctrine of the church, because, naturally, this public morality must be a rational morality, shared and capable of being shared also by non-believers. It must be a morality of reason. Certainly, in the light of faith we can see many things more clearly that reason can also see, but it’s precisely the faith that also serves to liberate reason from false interests and the obscurity imposed by those interests, thereby creating in the social doctrine the substantive models for political collaboration, above all for overcoming this social division – which is truly anti-social – that unfortunately exists. We want to work in this sense.

I don’t know if the term “liberation theology,” which can be interpreted in a very positive sense, will help us much. What’s important is the common rationality to which the church offers a fundamental contribution, and which must always help in the education of conscience, both for public and for private life.

As Commonweal writer David Gibson points out, the Pope begins with what looks like a conservative talking point about how Catholic politicians are obliged to oppose abortion. And yet he scrambles partisan categories by linking the need for public morality, not to abortion, but to concern for the gap between rich and poor. Also noteworthy is the Pope’s apparent indifference to liberation theology: on the one hand, it can be interpreted positively; on the other, it won’t help much. (Not exactly what we would expect to hear from a Rick Santorum or Raymond Arroyo.)

The Church is generally thought of as conservative. And yet there is a sense in which Benedict is the progressive and we are the conservatives: in American political discourse, we still frame issues in terms of the outdated Cold War categories of Capitalism/Communism and the outdated Enlightenment categories of faith and reason. The Pope, by contrast, imagines a public morality in which social and intellectual divisions are overcome — including the division between people of faith and non-believers.

In a response to a later question, Benedict develops his discussion of public morality a step further:

Today it’s evident that the Marxist ideology as it was conceived does not correspond to reality, and thus a society cannot any longer be built upon it. New models must be found, with patience and in a constructive way. In this process, which demands patience but also determination, we want to help in a spirit of dialogue, in order to avoid new trauma, and to serve progress towards a fraternal and just society which we desire for the whole world. We want to cooperate in this sense.

Within the context of American politics, it is virtually impossible to speak of “new models.” We are allowed only to choose between old ideas: Marx, Keynes, and Rawls, on the one hand, and Hayek, Rand, and Reagan on the other. The Catholic Church is not outdated; we are.

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