Thursday, October 27, 2011

Preference for the Poor

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace came out with a document. I though John Allen had a good take on it. He talked about how the majority of the Catholics in Africa, Asia and Latin America have some very different thinking about economic justice than Catholic in Europe and North America. This document was written by an African, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. It reflects African thinking. This is one of the great things about being Catholic. You benefit from the wisdom of Christians of other times and other cultures. We tend to get trapped in the modern western mindset. Not only the secular western culture that influences us but the Christian western culture that is better but still very narrow in it's perspective. Catholic tradition breaks us out of that to some extent. It works for issues that have been around for a long time. But what about the more recent issues like globalization. Tradition has less to say. But we still benefit from the fact that the church is Catholic and it is one. We share the church with men like Cardinal Turkson and about 750 million other Catholics who are not part of the western culture. We can benefit from them. We also benefit from the fact that the church is holy and apostolic. That is the magisterium has special gifts to be able to discern God's wisdom. That does not just apply to infallible documents. We need to learn to think with the church.

So how has the Catholic community been doing? I don't see a lot of attempts to learn from this document. It has fallen into the left/right political divide. The conservatives have been most disappointing because they normally take the church quite seriously. They know the church has wisdom but cannot bring themselves to consider the possibility that some conservative orthodoxy might need to be questioned. They point out that it is not infallible. they have pointed that out again and again and again. OK. Got that. But it is still a document written by one of the church's foremost African thinkers. Someone Pope Benedict trusts on matters of justice and peace. It represents a very common viewpoint inside the church at all levels. One the pope is endorsing. Not a powerful endorsement but a thumbs up nevertheless.

I believe the proper Catholic response to such a document is constructive engagement. We can debate. We can disagree. But we should not write off Cardinal Turkson as a liberal. Trying to fit him into the American political picture is just nonsense. We should expect him to transcend those categories. We need thinking like that because both Republican and Democrats have managed to run us into a mess. How much constructive engagement have their been? Mostly it has been a defensive, dismissal. 

One big point of difference is the view of the United Nations. Nobody knows better the the Catholic church how the United Nations has been used to make abortion and contraception more available. But Catholic thinkers have not been willing to call the entire institution a bad thing. Pope Benedict took his name from the WWI Pope Benedict XV. That Pope Benedict put forward some of the ideas that President Woodrow Wilson adopted and later grew into the League of Nations and then the United Nations. Pope Benedict XVI is actually a big fan of Pope Benedict XV. So it is no surprise he thinks the idea of international authority has some potential. WWI showed how one war could engulf the whole of Europe so conflict resolution really was everyone's business. The recent crisis shows how one nation's financial policy can cause major problems worldwide. Why should preventing such crises in the future not be done on an international level?

Yes, there is a national element here. As John Allen points out, many are "wary about the global influence of the United States." I can see that Americans might have a different view of this. Giving up sovereignty to international bodies is something they rarely do. Economically they are still powerful but not quite the superpower they once were. The times are changing. The church is not afraid of new ideas.
We should not be under the illusion that we can get to utopia through human effort but we can and should try to make things better.

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