When Rerum novarum was released in 1891, no one expected immediate commentary on Pope Leo XIII's rich (and dense) instruction on the "Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor." The same was true in 1931, when Pope Pius XI released Quadragesimo anno. Even as late as 1967, when Pope Paul VI issued Populorum progressio, in-depth commentary had to wait two weeks or more, depending on Catholic weekly newspapers and magazines production cycles.
Today, in the age of the internet, however, people expect immediate reaction to Pope Benedict's latest encyclical, Caritas in veritate, a 28,000-word document with 159 footnotes that took as much as three years to write. And so, of course, Catholic commentators and news organizations have been scrambling to provide it on the day of the encyclical's release. Indeed, some publications even tried to summarize the encyclical before the text was released (or rather, to spin the expected contents).
Such reaction may be immediate, but by its nature it can be neither in-depth nor considered. So I will not claim to do what others say they have done. Instead, after my first quick skimming of the encyclical this morning, and my more leisurely consideration of a few passages this afternoon, I would like to offer some initial thoughts for your consideration.
Caritas in veritate, it seems to me, is more than just another social encyclical. Chapter One, "The Message of Populorum Progressio," is an extended exercise in the "hermeneutic of reform." In an address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, Pope Benedict declared that Vatican II had to be interpreted through a "hermeneutic of reform," rather than through a "hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture."
In other words, the true "spirit of Vatican II" needed to be understood not as "something new under the sun," but as a continuation of the Church's tradition. The acts and the documents of the council itself, therefore, could only properly be interpreted in the light of tradition.
That same principle guides Pope Benedict's discussion of Populorum progressio in Caritas in veritate. The Holy Father notes that
The publication of Populorum Progressio occurred immediately after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, and in its opening paragraphs it clearly indicates its close connection with the Council. . . . The Council probed more deeply what had always belonged to the truth of the faith, namely that the Church, being at God's service, is at the service of the world in terms of love and truth.
In the very next paragraph, stressing the hermeneutic of reform, Pope Benedict warns that we should not draw an incorrect conclusion from the connection between the encyclical and the council:
The link between Populorum Progressio and the Second Vatican Council does not mean that Paul VI's social magisterium marked a break with that of previous Popes, because the Council constitutes a deeper exploration of this magisterium within the continuity of the Church's life. In this sense, clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church's social doctrine, which apply categories to Papal social teaching that are extraneous to it. It is not a case of two typologies of social doctrine, one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new.
That Pope Benedict places this discussion in the first dozen paragraphs of Caritas in veritate is significant. It sets the stage for what is to follow: This encyclical needs to be read as an exercise in the hermeneutic of reform, as an attempt to restore unity to that which has been disrupted by both those who claim to support a "spirit of Vatican II" that departs from the tradition of the Church and those who criticize Vatican II itself as a departure from tradition.
Anyone who does not read the encyclical in this way will not be able fully to understand what Pope Benedict intends to accomplish. Instead, he will end up either dismissing the document or engaging in deconstruction, attempting to determine what is truly "Benedictine" in Caritas in veritate (and therefore necessary to follow) and what may be traceable to others (and therefore, presumably, can be ignored or discarded).
Catholic commentator George Weigel has taken the latter route, in his commentary on the encyclical for National Review Online. But to understand Caritas in veritate, we need to start from this undeniable truth: Pope Benedict XVI put his name on this document. Only then can we make sense of the fact that the material discussing Populorum progressio, far from being the least "Benedictine" portion of the document (as Weigel claims), is in fact classic Benedict.
And that means that Caritas in veritate will not be an easy document to grapple with. Over the coming days, as I have more time to examine it in depth, I will offer further, more considered commentary. And, as always, I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments.