When I got to Puerto Rico on my recent trip, I could not find one of the books I had brought and needed to review. So, I spent some time with another book, published in 2008, by Tracey Rowland, an Australian theologian who is Dean of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne and a woman whose writings in the Tablet I have long admired. Her book, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, not only sheds light on the different influences that have shaped Pope Benedict’s thinking over the years, she also provides a great synopsis on the leading strands in twentieth century Catholic theology. I could not commend this book more highly.
Her discussion of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes takes up the whole of an early chapter in the book. This document, unique in the history of Church Council’s, was called a “Pastoral Constitution,” the adjective “pastoral” indicating it would have a different tone and approach from a more dogmatic document, but its designation as a “constitution” indicating the importance the Council Fathers wishes to attach to it. Most Catholics are familiar with the document’s stirring opening words: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” If ever there is a Magna Carta for a Catholic humanism in the late 20th century and beyond, here it is.
Of course, the documents of Vatican II are a little like a new, somewhat unknown, candidate for the presidency. I think it is fair to say that when then-Senator Obama ran for the presidency in 2008, many people projected onto him what they wanted to see. Liberals saw a determined champion. Moderates saw someone committed to bipartisanship and a less dogmatic, certainly more civil, approach to politics. These two very different set of hopes were easy to maintain during the campaign which, like most political campaigns, focus on otherwise contentless nouns like “hope” and “change.” But, different people who voted for Obama harbored different hopes for different kinds of change and his presidency has been largely a struggle to respond to these different constituencies as he gave concrete policy content to his own ideas about change. Sometimes, liberals were disappointed, as when the President failed to close Gitmo and let a public option in the health care plan slip away. Other times, moderates have been disappointed as during the recent controversy over the HHS mandates.
Many people read the documents of Vatican II and saw what they wanted to see. In fact, Rowland argues that there are five basic interpretations of Gaudium et Spes that emerged in the post-conciliar world, one of which seems very relevant to an article in this morning’s Washington Post about the IMF and the Greek debt crisis. Rowland cites the work of Nicholas Boyle, Professor of German Literary and Intellectual History at Cambridge, and also a frequent contributor to the Tablet. Rowland writes:
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I am wondering the Greeks would agree that the European Union is such a prophetic sign today!!!
More deeply, of course, I am resistant to any such close identification of the Church’s call with any political enterprise. Still, Boyle is on to something. Pope John Paul II famously and repeatedly argued against the “artificial” division between Eastern and Western Europe. For John Paul II, as for Benedict, culture ties are deeper than political ones, and political actors should be cognizant of, and respectful towards, these deeper cultural realities. But, that is a far cry from blessing the EU as a prophetic sign.
The problem with the EU in the post-Cold War era is a little like the problem I identified yesterday with Fukuyama’s “End of History.” The days after the collapse of communism were heady days, and they deserved to be heady. The collapse of communism was an amazing and wonderful thing and the fact that it was not accompanied by more bloodshed than it was is beyond amazing. But, in the rush to gather in the spoils, the EU expanded to include countries with vastly different economies and vastly different cultures. More importantly, the EU, like NATO, lost the bond of unity that the threat of communist had imposed on its founders in the late 40s and early 50s. There is nothing like an external threat to create internal unity. One that threat disappeared, which was a very happy fact, much of the unity of purpose behind the institutions of the West went with it. Differences appeared not only between the countries of the East and the West but between countries that had long been part of the EU and NATO, and those differences were real.
Why is Germany an economic powerhouse and Greece an economic basket case? Long standing cultural habits surely have something to do with it. We know that Greece, for so long under a military dictatorship, possesses a cynicism towards government that manifests itself, among other ways, in widespread avoidance of taxes. The same can be found in Italy with its byzantine bureaucracy. Their governments have long suffered from deficient tax collecting, a problem that is not recognizable in the orderly customs and culture of Germany. Wait to board a train in Bonn, and then wait to board one in Bologna, and you will see how different the two cultures are! Such cultural differences must bedevil EU policymakers looking for common policies.
The article in today’s Post about the Greek debt crisis and the role of the IMF in handling it is fascinating. It illustrates another truism of politics: Unplanned events shape our global reality as much as theories or plans. In this instance, the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on rape charges and his forced departure from the IMF was not foreseeable, but his departure and replacement by Christine Lagarde, who took a tougher line and brought in a new team of experts, and forcing Greece into adopting the tough austerity measures that, I believe, are terribly mistaken.
Gaudium et Spes, of course, did not endorse the EU, but it did ground a vision of Christian humanism that should be an inspiration to Catholic political leaders and thinkers. Rowland notes how powerfully it has shaped the teachings of Pope Benedict. For example, while liberation theology in Latin America was one of the post-conciliar approaches to the document with which Benedict took great exception, she also notes that in his 1987 work “Principles of Catholic Theology,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that the “liberalism and capitalism fostered by Anglo Saxon powers [in Latin America] had become an even more painful slavery [i.e., than Spanish colonial rule].” Pope Benedict, uniquely among world leaders, is conversant with most of the strands of modern theology and philosophy and while his Augustinian roots may have kept him from embracing the heady optimism that many discerned in Gaudium et Spes, his commitment to the project of forging a Catholic humanism remains in tact and he is certainly willing to work with other people of good will in finding ways for that Catholic humanism to inspire efforts, such as the EU, to give expression to the common issues facing Europe, even while he would recognize the resistance of cultures to easy manipulation by politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels or at the IMF.
I had earlier recommended as a Lenten practice that we all re-read the texts of Vatican II. Now, I will add an Easter duty – when you are finished with those documents, read Rowland’s book on Ratzinger’s Faith. Not only will it open key intellectual insights into the mind of our current pope, it will, I hope, encourage all to think more deeply about the issues raised by the Council and how, in such mundane events as a debt crisis in a non-Catholic country, the need for an informed, bracing, Catholic humanism is as needed as ever.