Thursday, July 9, 2009

Holy Charity in Truth, Batman!

No, this is not a post about Caritas in Veritate, per se. The document is about 55 pages long (if you print it out). I learned speed-reading techniques in the seventh grade, so I have skimmed the encyclical in its entirety, and have made mental notes around some of the more interesting passages. But I have not read Caritas in Veritate to the degree of depth and contemplation for which it would be minimally necessary in order to make the slightest bit of intelligent commentary about any of it, and I won't do my readers the grave disservice of pretending that I have.

But I will talk about the reaction to the encyclical, because as so often happens the reaction on all sides to this papal gift is creating most of the news about it. In a soundbite-driven world, that is, perhaps, inevitable.

On the right, you have assorted chuckleheads who insist that we ought to ignore those parts of the encyclical that deal with the United Nations, the environment, and matters of social justice generally.

On the left, you have assorted soberheads (because they never chuckle, and how dare you insult them by thinking so!) who find the social justice parts praiseworthy but wish the Pope would't insist on tying life issues into questions about how we treat each other (because surely how we treat embryos or the aged doesn't matter, so long as we respect the planet, right?).

In the middle are those who say, wait a minute! The Pope is writing about Truth, and isn't it just barely possible that Truth is bigger than the left-right construct of American politics?

That might seem like the sort of notion which ought to be just about self-evident to Catholics. After all, didn't the people of Jesus' day make rather similar mistakes about Him? Didn't they want Him to be a political leader, an entertainer, a provider of free food, a prop to the Sanhedrin, an enemy of Caesar--or even Caesar's friend? Didn't they argue among themselves as to Who He really was, based largely on their preconceived notions of Who He ought to be?

A couple thousand years later, we still haven't learned the lesson. The Pope writes an elegantly thoughtful encyclical which reminds us to seek the truth and gives us examples of how we might do so, and we immediately begin to squabble about whether the Pope is on "our side" or not. Never mind that one uncomfortable truth we avoid, as Catholics in political life, is that neither of the two major American political parties is really on "our side." On the right we have the "strip-mine it all!" approach to the environment, the apologies for torture, the eagerness to get involved in foreign wars which this Pope and our last one have already condemned, the knee-jerk defense of consumerism which flirts with the heresy of seeing material prosperity as a sign of God's blessing, and similar matters; on the left, of course, we have the bloodsucking eagerness to kill human embryos for fun and profit, to promote an ugly sluttification of human relationships with government-provided condoms and other moral idiocies, and to re-cast the Statue of Liberty to show her hand extended toward Washington, symbolizing our national addiction to the government dole.

The truth we don't want to face (with charity or otherwise) is that politics is a very flawed human operation that frequently falls short of anything even approaching the eternal verities. If anything, the Pope's encyclical should serve as a reminder that it is these truths, not political gain, partisanship, or side-taking which should inform our political minds, such that we are always uncomfortably aware of the vast gulf between ourselves and the leaders of these parties, whose eyes are almost never elevated beyond the immediate worldly goals of the party to see the unchanging otherworldly demands of the Truth Whom we worship.

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