Beyond Left and Right: Awaiting the Pope’s Next Encyclical

By Stratford Caldecott

Will Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming social encyclical be understood by a culture that divides everything into Left and Right?

Posted 5/10/08 at 4:26 AM


G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The whole modern world has divided itself into conservatives and progressives. The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

The tired categories of Left and Right, which we associate with Liberal (or Progressive) and Conservative, originated in the French Revolution, and have long outlived their usefulness. They are way too clunky to capture the complex political opinions that most of us make up as we go along, these days. 

We are all “conservatives” in some sense, because we want to “conserve” some things while changing others. We are all “liberals” because we all want to be “free” in some respects. We are all “progressives” because we want to progress towards something: the question is, towards what? A conservative may have to be a revolutionary, for – as Chesterton also wrote – “If we wish to preserve the family, we must revolutionize the nation”. So instead of asking someone, are you conservative or liberal, right-wing or left-wing, why don’t I ask what you want to conserve, and what to change, and why?  Then we might have an intelligent debate about politics – the kind of debate that Chesterton wanted to start.

Catholic social teaching certainly does not fit the old labels. It is not an ideology. It is founded on a person, not an idea – the Person of Jesus. It starts by respecting the human person in its full dimensionality, as an image of God. That is why, in a high-level discussion of economic development recently in Ghana, the Holy See insisted:

“It must be clear that development is not only about the growth of the economy in general; it is about the development of the human being with his/her capabilities and relationships with intermediary social groups - family, social, political, cultural groups etc. - within which he/she lives. This requires a change in perspective that recognizes peoples as united by a common factor, their humanity being created with the imprint of the common God creator. Only by starting from this premise can we aim, within pluralist institutions, toward the achievement of the common good, which needs to be the primary objective of any society. The common good is neither an abstract goal nor a simple list of targets. It is simply the realization of the primary needs of the person: the need of truth, love, and justice.”

And because economic development is both for the person and by the person, education must be “the essence of development. Only an educated person can be fully aware of the worth and dignity of the human being. Then educated people can more easily establish among themselves social relations not based on force and abuse, but on respect and friendship. In such an environment, it is easier to reduce corruption and to develop virtuous institutions that help to achieve the common good.”

Economic freedom (“where the rule of law is enforced and property rights are respected”) is essential to provide the context for development, but at the same time the Church never advocates the kind of capitalism that forgets how the rule of law can so easily come to favor the rich and powerful. The 1997 document of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Towards a Better Distribution of Land, reads almost like a manifesto for Chestertonian Distributism, calling in its preamble for radical agrarian reform in the face of “scandalous situations of property and land use, present on almost all continents.” Its opening words are unambiguous: “The development model of industrialized societies is capable of producing huge quantities of wealth, but also has serious shortcomings when it comes to the equitable redistribution of its fruits and the promotion of growth in less developed areas.”

This year’s eagerly awaited social encyclical of Benedict XVI is the first on this subject since John Paul II’s 1991 Centesimus Annus, according to which “the more that individuals are defenseless within a given society, the more they require the care and concern of others, and in particular the intervention of governmental authority” (section 10). Yet it also affirmed that the State cannot solve every social problem, being merely an instrument of the person, the family and society, which it exists to protect and serve (18). Centesimus Annus described the Cold War arms race as “insane” and denounced the “logic of power blocs” (18) along with the economic ideologies that justified it. It called on peoples to “fight for justice without violence, renouncing class struggle in their internal disputes, and war in international ones” (23) – a line that John Paul II stuck to consistently during the war with Iraq.

The same balance was maintained in the recent address of Pope Benedict to the UN, which asserted the right of the international community to intervene in the defense of human rights around the globe, but called for “a deeper search for ways of pre-empting and managing conflicts by exploring every possible diplomatic avenue, and giving attention and encouragement to even the faintest sign of dialogue or desire for reconciliation.” Similarly, the “greening” of the papacy that began in earnest with John Paul II, as he brought to his social teaching a keen awareness of the human impact on our earthly environment, is likely to continue under Benedict, despite the popular association of environmentalism with left-wing causes.

It will be interesting to see how Benedict weaves everything together. The outlines are already apparent in the section on Justice and Charity in Deus Caritas Est, and in the remarks he made recently to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, to the effect that solidarity and subsidiarity must “always be placed within the horizon of the mysterious life of the Triune God, in whom we perceive an ineffable love shared by equal, though nonetheless distinct, Persons.” Both have a vertical as well as a horizontal dimension, he emphasized. That may not play too well in a culture that, precisely because it has forgotten the vertical, has to divide everything into Left and Right.