Update: A further piece of evidence that this Pope is not the radical some want to paint him as was sent to me by a friend. It is a blog post of the Acton Institute and is one example of many on the neo-liberal right celebrating this document’s lack of any condemnation of global capitalism.
Update 2: It appears that some neoconservative Catholics, unsurprisingly, have taken issue with the encyclical (ht/Eric Lee’s twitter). Halden (being a pro-Roman Mennonite?) has written a screed against Novak’s response. I think he’s right to do so, Novak is, if nothing else, a real asshole. I remember being taken back by an article he wrote int he build up to the invasion of Iraq saying that US soldiers should not listen to Pope John Paul II’s condemnations of the action, because the sovereign of the State decides if the war is just. At the same time I can’t help but wonder if Novak doesn’t have a point, though the truth of that point lies there by accident, when he complains about the lack of “methods for defeating human sin”. Reading through some of the main document now I’m struck by how abstract the whole treatise is. Abstraction in itself isn’t bad, of course, but in a document that is supposed to respond to a real concrete (if we must shy away from calling it material) problem it seems that more than simple appeals to “justice” (justice for who?), “love” (but not gay love), and “charity” (individualist charity? structural charity?) is needed. Not because these words are bad, they are on the contrary quite good and can be productive of action, but these words have been allowed to mean such different things amongst different Roman Catholic groups. Without clarifying them explicitly they drift off into the legacy of ambiguity that characterizes Catholic Social Teaching. This is what always seemed to be the real problem with Liberation Theology, not that it was too Marxist, but that it was a call to action. The approach of the hierarchy, from the development of the creeds onward, has always been to arrest the process of practice and thought for fear of saying too much, of peeling back the mystery of God, of being hubristic. The true hubris is thinking you can arrest the potentia of the poor by constantly bringing it back into the misty realms of the beautiful soul’s paradoxical third way. The true hubris is thinking that this arresting of action is somehow the moral high ground. Perhaps the Pope should read Badiou’s Ethics.
The Pope’s new encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate“, was released today. The actual document has an introduction and six chapters and the Vatican, or under its other more creepy name, the Holy See appears not to have released a pdf version of the document so you have to read it on their lame “parchment” paper website. Or, if you’re lazy and can’t be asked to read a long document online by some creepy German guy who somehow has been allowed to lead the largest Christian denomination in the world, you can read the Vatican’s summary.
I admittedly fall into the second category, though I may get around to reading the whole thing eventually, and what immediately struck me in the summary was how much Benedict sounds like Bill Gates and George Soros and other “liberal communists“. If you follow Žižek’s analysis of the liberal communists you’ll see the same parallels I think. I am only going to touch on a few here. For one there is a sense in Benedict’s encyclical and its focus on the importance of “development” and “civilizing the market” that capitalism isn’t the problem, but rather the problem is with people’s lack of will and lack of “brotherhood”. Benedict quotes Pope Paul VI on all this:
“Paul VI ‘pointed out that the causes of underdevelopment are not primarily of the material order’. They lie above all in the will, in the mind and, even more so, in ‘the lack of brotherhood among individuals and peoples’.”
Of course many of us who don’t agree with much this Pope has said can find some good intentions here, just as we can with Bill Gates and the other liberal communists, but notice how the problem isn’t systematic and how it doesn’t lie in material conditions, but rather in a certain individual and societal thinking. The Pope seems to think if people would just care more then the problems in capitalism would dissolve. Or, to quote the title of Žižek’s article on the liberal communists, nobody has to be vile. A wonderful sentiment, but I see little reason (even when properly ordered to faith as Benedict calls for) for thinking that the problem isn’t the structure and the real material conditions of labour.
This comes clearer to me when Benedict moves into the predictable statements on family values. Apparently any use of technology in relation to life, from birth control to abortion to in vitro to cloning, is a sign that human society is hubristic and thinks not only that it is able to master the mysteries of the universe but that there are no such mysteries. I find this a strange position and have trouble even entering into the thinking enough to respond to it. It simply makes no sense to me. Of course there is a real danger of a kind of totalitarian bio-politics arising out of these sorts of technology, but such a threat exists because of the technologies nestedness in the culture of capitalism with strong corporations and weak States and international actors. Of course tools are not value-neutral, there is a shift in the use of a tool, but tools and technology must be understood ecologically. If the structure allows for a fascist niche to form then, yes, the technology will fill it, but the task then comes to change the structure.
The desire that no one need be vile is laudable, but there is vileness lying behind the Pope’s statement that “States, he says, ‘are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family’.” Lying behind this is the familiar right-wing, quasi-anti-capitalist notion that homosexuality and consumerism are found on a continuum and that homosexuals and the acceptance of homosexuality is a capitulation to an uncivilized market. What can be more vile than this? And it seems to have nothing to do with Benedict’s will, though perhaps he struggles against that on this issue, and everything to do with the structures of power that he finds himself in.
In short, Pope Benedict’s encyclical seems to me to present, not a “new humanist synthesis”, but a Papal blessing on the project of the liberal communists and their so-called humane capitalism. By ignoring the structural violence inherent to capitalism Benedict has joined the liberal communists in obscuring the true and charitable path to bringing about progressive projects. It may do to quote Žižek here:
“We should have no illusions: liberal communists are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today. All other enemies – religious fundamentalists, terrorists, corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracies – depend on contingent local circumstances. Precisely because they want to resolve all these secondary malfunctions of the global system, liberal communists are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the system. It may be necessary to enter into tactical alliances with liberal communists in order to fight racism, sexism and religious obscurantism, but it’s important to remember exactly what they are up to.
Etienne Balibar, in La Crainte des masses (1997), distinguishes the two opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence in today’s capitalism: the objective (structural) violence that is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism (the automatic creation of excluded and dispensable individuals, from the homeless to the unemployed), and the subjective violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious (in short: racist) fundamentalisms. They may fight subjective violence, but liberal communists are the agents of the structural violence that creates the conditions for explosions of subjective violence. The same Soros who gives millions to fund education has ruined the lives of thousands thanks to his financial speculations and in doing so created the conditions for the rise of the intolerance he denounces.”
Further, by focusing in yet again on the fetish object of the family Benedict obscures the fact that, with fear and trembling, we can change humanity and the wider non-human world. It isn’t about rationalism and techno-capitalism gone wild, but rather attempting to create the future. Bergson, a man whose books were banned by the Vatican for most of his life, wrote some rather inspiring words on this task and I end by quoting them:
“Humanity lies groaning, half crushed under the weight of its own progress. They do not sufficiently realize that their future is in their own hands. Theirs is the task of determining first of all whether they want to go on living or not. Theirs the responsibility, then, for deciding if they want merely to live, or intend to make just the extra effort required for fulfilling, even on our refractory planet, the essential function of the universe, which is a machine for the making of gods.”