Split in Consciousness: Split in Conscience

Split in Consciousness: Split in Conscience:

“liberal” and “conservative” reactions to Caritas in Veritate


by Michael D. O’Brien



As Cardinal Josef Ratzinger pointed out more than 25 years ago, the political terms “liberal” and “conservative” are grossly misleading when applied to the Kingdom of God. They are especially so when applied to the ongoing evangelical mission of the Church, which is to draw all men to Christ, to work while the light lasts, to be a “light to the Gentiles.”

The most destructive aberrations in social and political thought of the post-war era have arisen from the application of these artificial constructs to the human community: left versus right, liberal versus conservative, neo-liberal versus neo-conservative, love versus truth, justice versus mercy, etc, etc. These adversarial templates present to us as fact certain images that function in the mind much the same way as do symbols and myths. But myths, if they are not based in reality, can create artificial dichotomies that derive from damage done to man’s concept of himself and his societies. They alter consciousness, the psychology of perception, at its very roots. And thus they alter conscience. This in turn largely determines the choices we make and the actions that come from them.

While the templates may have a strictly limited value in their particular sphere of reference, they become destructive to the degree that they displace or negate “the whole truth about Man.” The slow mutation of the crucial templates since the end of the Cold War has not brought about the end of dehumanizing forces at work in the world. It is part of our current state of delusion to think that the fall of major Marxist regimes has ushered in a new era in which freedom largely reigns, and in which the spread of democracy has taken a leap forward in a determined historical process. The truth is that the errors inherent in all forms of Materialism, including Marxism, varieties of Socialism, and certain kinds of exploitive Capitalism, have now spread throughout the world as the great leveler and engine of societies. Theocratic tyrannies (radical Islamicism being the most obvious) are a different category, yet they and the Materialist societies have one thing in common, and it is a decisive thing, a most deadly thing: In their anthropology and practice, each in their way minimalize, when they do not negate altogether, the absolute value of man—any and every human being from conception to natural death.

Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) cut across all ideological lines, calling mankind to an examination of conscience regarding our fundamental approach to the meaning of the human person. He did not speak about mankind in the abstract, not as “the masses”, not as geopolitical statistics or economic utilities, but as the entire community of human beings in this world, each possessing inherent rights and duties. We are, he said, “the Family of Man.” Thus, the encyclical challenged human enterprises of every sort to see farther and deeper, to understand that the development of a truly human world can only be based in solidarity with all members of the community:

“The truth of development consists in its completeness: if it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development.” (C in V, n. 18) The Pope warned that globalization’s principle new feature, the “explosion of worldwide interdependence,” presents colossal risks, for “without the guidance of charity in truth, this global force could cause unprecedented damage and create new divisions within the human family.” (C in V, n. 33).

To summarize the rich material in this encyclical is a daunting task; indeed it can be properly understood only with careful study and reflection. Yet in essence the Pope critiqued every form of governance, economics, and culture that denies the humanity of some human beings, be they the pre-birth child or the aged and infirm, or the poor in underdeveloped countries—in fact, anyone. For East and West, North and South, an examination of conscience is urgently needed if we hope to avoid the proliferation of untold human misery and historical disasters.

Paramount in the affluent nations will be a radical self-examination of our economics, because, as the Pope noted emphatically: “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (C in V, n. 37), and in the global age every such decision has both a personal and a universal consequence. The encyclical is not only a warning; it is an exhortation to mankind to employ all our vast material resources and intelligence, and our motivation and imagination, towards new forms of interaction, commerce, culture, communication, and so forth, that would lead toward genuine progress and communion.

The splits in Western consciousness were evident in the extraordinary negative reaction to the encyclical that erupted in so-called liberal and conservative circles. The liberal approach tended to extract from the encyclical the Pope’s words regarding the rights of the poor, the worker, and the underdeveloped nations, while ignoring what he said about the rights of the unborn child. The recent scandal involving the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops’ social justice arm, Development and Peace, is a case in point.

Extensive documented evidence had proved that D & P had been funding organizations that promoted abortion rights as part of their agendas in several nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In East Timor, for example, that country’s Catholic bishops have struggled with great effort to resist the liberalization of the abortion law, and two of their leading opponents have been pro-abortion feminist organizations funded by the national conference of the bishops of Canada. The bishops’ conference of Peru went so far as to send a letter requesting the bishops of Canada to cease funding pro-abortion organizations in their country. Executives of the CCCB and D & P simply could not understand the problem; could not see that sending money to “help the poor” was enabling the destruction of some of the poor. Here is a symptomatic split in consciousness and consequent blurring of conscience, which is the result of reducing the Gospel to one dimension only.

The split enabled spokesmen for the CCCB and D & P to exonerate the organization by conducting a limited in-house “investigation,” resulting in a report which flew in the face of the overwhelming evidence. Yet, despite their “findings,” the objective facts remained: the money of good-willed Catholics in Canada was assisting the spread of the “culture of death.” The conference’s extraordinary over-kill reaction against news services that reported the scandal was classic damage control, spin doctoring, verbal smoke and mirrors. It bears repeating that the facts are incontrovertible and visible in the naked public square for all to see. Adding insult to injury, some Catholic periodicals in this country, after a selective reading of Caritas in Veritate, declared that the encyclical roundly vindicated the policies of Canada’s D & P. For such journalists, as well as for supportive bishops, if a passage in the Pope’s writings seemed to confirm their template, then it was extracted out of context and the rest of the Holy Father’s teachings were more or less ignored. Little or no heed was paid to his repeated exhortations regarding the right to life, which he underlined in passages such as this:


“If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation, and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology, and, along with it, that of environmental ecology… It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and our practice today; one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.” (C in V, n. 51)


In his 1984 interview with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report, the cardinal, who was then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, discussed the potential dangers in the rise of national bishops’ conferences. He warned that they were vulnerable to manipulation through their “democratic” processes, too easily commandeered by factions with limited sociopolitical and/or flawed ecclesiological agendas. That is what has unfolded in some affluent nations, Canada, Austria, and Germany being among the more notable examples. If this sort of ecclesiology posits a national bishops’ conference as a kind of functioning “alternative magisterium,” it will pay lip service to the office of the Pope, then go about its day to day business pretty much as it pleases, despite the fact that as a body it has no canonical authority over the faith of Catholics. Moreover, it tends to justify itself by an appeal to a model of “Church” (no article) that is profoundly disordered, or blurred at best:  The praxis of the supposed ecclesial autonomy of such national bishops’ conferences is not infrequently at variance with the supposed ecclesial autonomy of other nations’ national bishops’ conferences. Clearly, false models of the Church are inconsistent and self-defeating, and end with the moral and spiritual impoverishment of Christ’s flock, not to mention more widespread damage.

In genuine ecclesiology, individual bishops exercise their office authentically when they are in full union with “Peter”, with the whole mind of the Church, the Mind of Christ. In Canada, the national bishops’ conference has quietly functioned in another way for the past several decades, sometimes ignoring directives from Rome, sometimes openly pushing contradictory programs, relentlessly and “nicely”, which is our national norm. In contrast, several individual bishops in this country have lived the authentic ecclesiology, have heroically and apostolically shepherded the flocks in their dioceses, and have been highly visible in the pro-life movement. Though they are a minority, their numbers are increasing, despite the counter-witness of the national conference. Even so, there continues a tendency even with some very faithful bishops to defer to national conference policies—in the name of “unity,” in the interests of preserving a united front against the culture of death. While the rationale for this is understandable, there is often a strategic or amnesiac blindness to the nature of unity itself. Thus, in issue after issue, compromise is justified for the sake of a perceived higher good. Which brings to mind a powerful thought expressed by Pope John Paul II some years ago: “I would a thousand times rather have a persecuted Church than a compromised Church.” In his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (that all may be one), he emphasized that authentic unity can only be built upon Truth. Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly reemphasized this fundamental reality.

Until recently, the CCCB has been disproportionately weak on the rights of the unborn child and the rights of the family. While it should be noted that over the past decade there has been gradual improvement in this regard, the efforts (in terms of funding, time, labour) made for the cause of life have been a fraction of those expended on international social projects. Moreover, there has not yet been real reform of D & P, no ongoing accountability implemented. Again, the internal contradictions, the compartmentalization, the disconnect: There is now a pro-life desk at the CCCB, yet in the conference’s primary social justice arm it has simply ignored the right to life and has funded projects that run counter to life. D & P’s stated policy is that it is focused on the “preferential option for the poor,” yet its concept of who constitutes this category is tragically stunted. The organization has at times demonstrated that it believes the best way to help the poor is to promote softer forms of socialism while turning a blind eye to the moral evils that are part of socialist packages. It has rightly donated enormous sums of money to relieve natural disasters in the underdeveloped nations, and also promoted legitimate development projects, but it has often lacked prudential discernment. It has especially lacked understanding of the integral relationship between love and truth.

Benedict points out that, “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell to be filled in an arbitrary way.” (n. 3) He further points out that human rights cannot be compartmentalized: “The right to food, like the right to water, has an important place within the pursuit of other rights, beginning with the fundamental right to life.” (n. 27) It should be noted that the compartmentalized compassion of D & P once prompted it to fund a violent Marxist revolutionary group in Brazil, a fact documented by the journalist Elaine Dewar in her 1994 study of environmentalist movements, Cloak of Green. The incident was doubtless an isolated error in judgment, and of course the bishops of Canada do not endorse Marxism. However, as a body they have permitted themselves to be used for other forms of social revolution that do not respect the lives of all the poor, including those poor who are living in the womb. It is precisely this kind of double standard that Caritas in Veritate addresses.

Not all such selectivity is from the “liberal” mind-set. American Catholic “neo-conservatives” have also been guilty of it, though their approach is usually more carefully articulated, and subtly argued. With the publication of Caritas in Veritate, articles appeared on neo-conservative websites “explaining” the encyclical, minimizing its significance, calling into question its authoritative voice in the formation of conscience. However, as was the case with liberal appropriation of the encyclical, conservative damage control was based in a selective reading of the text—explaining away what ought not be explained away, what should be reflected upon and acted upon with very close attention to the wisdom in the letter.

A case in point was George Weigel’s response, which appeared within days of the encyclical’s publication. Weigel enjoys immense influence over the thinking of educated, doctrinally orthodox Catholics in America and abroad. Moreover, his biography of John Paul II is considered by many to be the definitive one. In Witness to Hope, Weigel wrote that John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus did not attempt to outline a “free economy” but instead explored the question of how one should use a free economy, and how it contributes to the economic common good and serves the human good. He also fairly quotes John Paul II regarding the dangers of any form of capitalism that “is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious….”  (CA, 42.1 – 42.2). In this section of the biography Weigel reveals his well-developed knowledge of Catholic social teaching. One would have expected, therefore, a similar open approach to Pope Benedict’s encyclical, which builds upon the personalist foundation of Centesimus Annus and also upon Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (on the development of peoples), as well as on the previous major social encyclicals.

In a July 7th, 2009,  article titled, “Caritas in Veritate—The Revenge of Justice and Peace (or so they may think)”, Weigel described the new encyclical as:


“… a hybrid, blending the pope’s own insightful thinking on the social order with elements of the Justice and Peace approach to Catholic social doctrine… [Weigel is here referring to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, not to the Canadian bishops’ organization Development and Peace.] Indeed, those with advanced degrees in Vaticanology could easily go through the text of Caritas in Veritate, highlighting those passages that are obviously Benedictine with a gold marker and those that reflect current Justice and Peace default positions with a red marker. The net result is, with respect, an encyclical that resembles a duck-billed platypus.”

“The clearly Benedictine passages in Caritas in Veritate follow and develop the line of John Paul II, particularly in the new encyclical’s strong emphasis on the life issues (abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive stem-cell research) as social-justice issues — which Benedict cleverly extends to the discussion of environmental questions, suggesting as he does that people who don’t care much about unborn children are unlikely to make serious contributions to a human ecology that takes care of the natural world.”

“The encyclical rightly, if gingerly, suggests that thug-governments in the Third World have more to do with poverty and hunger than a lack of international development aid; recognizes that catastrophically low birth rates are creating serious global economic problems; sharply criticizes international aid programs tied to mandatory contraception and the provision of ‘reproductive health services’ (the U.N. euphemism for abortion-on-demand); and neatly ties religious freedom to economic development.”

“But then there are those passages to be marked in red — the passages that reflect Justice and Peace ideas and approaches that Benedict evidently believed he had to try and accommodate. Some of these are simply incomprehensible, as when the encyclical states that defeating Third World poverty and underdevelopment requires a ‘necessary openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion.’ This may mean something interesting; it may mean something naïve or dumb. But, on its face, it is virtually impossible to know what it means.”


Perhaps Mr. Weigel did not give it enough time. Perhaps when he reacted so precipitously he was functioning on an a priori conviction, his personal template. The phrase he quoted was not so hard to understand: In the context of the section, the Pope is saying that human commerce must not be monopolized by or reduced to rigid economic models based only on profit; that a truly human approach to economy would always leave much room for generosity that would lead to genuine solidarity between peoples, with resulting development and benefits for all. (see n. 21, n. 25-26, n. 28, and n. 34)

The presence of irritable unwarranted phrases in Weigel’s commentary was symptomatic of something; it may have meant something naïve or dumb, but on the face of it, it was impossible to know what exactly Mr. Weigel meant. At the very least one can guess that he was not happy about this encyclical. He did not find it helpful. But not helpful to what and to whom?

He concludes:

“Benedict XVI, a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include in his encyclical these multiple off-notes, in order to maintain the peace within his curial household. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear will concentrate their attention, in reading Caritas in Veritate, on those parts of the encyclical that are clearly Benedictine, including the Pope’s trademark defense of the necessary conjunction of faith and reason and his extension of John Paul II’s signature theme — that all social issues, including political and economic questions, are ultimately questions of the nature of the human person.”


A nod towards Benedict’s gifts did not ease the overall effect of Weigel’s critique. It was, in fact, condescending and patronizing. How did he know that the encyclical is a “duck-billed platypus” made to placate in-house tensions at the Vatican? Perhaps he had not considered the possibility that the Pope actually believes what he writes, and is opening up the paradigms, cracking the templates, expanding the range of vision and dialogue so that something more truly just and humane may develop, may have what he calls “breathing-space” in the current world situation. Failing to consider this possibility, Mr. Weigel said, in effect, “We love Papa; he is a sweet old soul. He is very good on religion but, alas, muddled on economics.”

Twenty years ago, the same objections arose after the publication of Centesimus Annus. From numerous neo-conservative commentators we heard, “Oh, yes, John Paul II is a great personalist, a great pope, but, well, he is no economist.” Correct. He was no economist. And Benedict is no economist. Neither was Paul VI nor John XXIII, nor Pius XI nor Leo XIII. But they were men of vast understanding, and they expressed the Mind of Christ on these matters in terms of first principles, the context in which truly human economies can develop. So let’s put our coloured editorial pens back into the inkwells for a bit, and let’s give it time and give it thought—especially let all men of good will engage their rational intellects with the spirit of humility, and see if there is something to be learned from the Vicar of Christ —something new and yet something old because it is something eternal.

Caritas in Veritate is lucid, anointed, prophetic. It is a sign of contradiction, a challenge to every system of government and economics. It is a call to truth and charity for all human beings. Minimizing the real import of this encyclical is symptomatic of perceptual as well as intellectual difficulties. The monsters of history are real enough and obvious enough, but it is not the purpose of the encyclical to tell us that they are bad. We know very well that they are bad news for mankind. However, if we do not do what Caritas in Veritate asks of us, that is, to examine our own consciences, we will continue to live as we have been for centuries, lurching from crisis to crisis, economic, political and military, often grasping at hasty solutions that have enormous human cost, stumbling again and again as we choose evil to defeat evil, and all the while growing ever more hollow.

We in the West must identify within ourselves the root cause of our dissociation from reality. This will be difficult for two reasons: first, our myth about ourselves: we consider ourselves the world’s idealists who are also realists, masters of Realpolitik in terms of finance and geopolitics; and second, the United States of America has been struggling with a prodigious internal menace during the Obama presidency. Both of these are grave factors that can prevent us from breaking through the walls erected by the psychology of self-perception. The election of Barak Obama did not result merely from a tactical failure of conservativism, nor from a supposedly inexorable ascendancy of liberal socialism. It came directly from the bifurcation of consciousness, the inhuman, artificial segregation of private morality from public life. Cutting across all party lines, it trips us up at every turn, liberal and conservative alike, because at the root is an unwillingness to sacrifice one’s career and one’s security, if need be, to defend first principles. This should lead us to the deeper question: where did the bifurcation come from?

It will be tempting for Americans to revert to their own “default position” this coming November. According to the mental template of their traditional either/or choice, Obama’s anti-life socialist revolution can be overturned only by a big swing toward neo-conservatism, after which, presumably, the nation will get back to business as usual. It goes without saying that this would be a step in the right direction. However, it will not touch the core problem. To perceive such a turn of political events as a restoration to health would be to mistake the disease for the cause of the disease. If our domestic “freedoms” must be preserved by the murder of innocent human beings within our borders (abortion and euthanasia), and if our prosperity must be preserved by the dehumanization and/or deaths of other human beings outside our borders (abstracted, mere statistics, collateral damage), then we must ask ourselves if our current way of life has dehumanized us, as well as dehumanizing those who pay with their lives for our public policies.

Have we truly looked deeply into the Utilitarianism that rules us? Have we succumbed to the falsehood that economics is an entirely independent category of human enterprise with its own laws, principles, and exigencies that take precedence over the transcendent value of man, as long as it is done in the name of a vaguely defined “common good” (by which is usually meant the prosperity and security of a nation)?

Pope Benedict XVI teaches us that anything other than the whole good, the “common good of mankind,” is a grossly deformed myth of the good.


“God’s love calls us to move beyond the limited and the ephemeral, it gives us the courage to continue seeking and working for the benefit of all, even if this cannot be achieved immediately and if what we are able to achieve, alongside political authorities and those working in the field of economics, is always less than we might wish. God gives us the strength to fight and to suffer for love of the common good, because he is our All, our greatest hope.

“Development needs Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer, Christians moved by the knowledge that truth-filled love, caritas in veritate, from which authentic development proceeds, is not produced by us, but given to us. For this reason, even in the most difficult and complex times, besides recognizing what is happening, we must above all else turn to God’s love. Development requires attention to the spiritual life, a serious consideration of the experiences of trust in God, spiritual fellowship in Christ, reliance upon God’s providence and mercy, love and forgiveness, self-denial, acceptance of others, justice and peace. All this is essential if ‘hearts of stone’ are to be transformed into ‘hearts of flesh’ (Ezek 36:26), rendering life on earth ‘divine’ and thus more worthy of humanity. All this is of man, because man is the subject of his own existence; and at the same time it is of God, because God is at the beginning and end of all that is good, all that leads to salvation: ‘the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s’ (1 Cor 3:22-23). Christians long for the entire human family to call upon God as ‘Our Father!’ In union with the only-begotten Son, may all people learn to pray to the Father and to ask him, in the words that Jesus himself taught us, for the grace to glorify him by living according to his will, to receive the daily bread that we need, to be understanding and generous towards our debtors, not to be tempted beyond our limits, and to be delivered from evil (cf. Mt 6:9-13).” —Caritas in Veritate, n. 78-79.


Michael D. O’Brien