By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
It’s pope against pop star, according to noted Catholic writer George Weigel, when it comes to poverty and chronic underdevelopment in Africa.
In a recent Rome lecture in which he addressed Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus caritas est, Weigel contrasted the approach to Africa associated with the rock star Bono – which, Weigel said, draws a flawed distinction between charity and justice – with the pope’s insistence that no program of state-sponsored assistance or massive philanthropic endeavor can ever replace individual acts of compassion.
In so doing, Weigel challenged popular perceptions of an oddfellows alliance between Bono and the papacy on issues of international poverty in general, and Africa in particular.
Weigel noted that when Bono, of the Irish band U2, was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2005 around the same time Benedict’s encyclical was released, the pop star made the following comments:
“And finally, it’s not about charity after all, is it? It’s about justice. Let me repeat this: It’s not about charity, it’s about justice. And that’s too bad. Because you’re good at charity. Americans, like the Irish, are good at it. We like to give, and we give a lot, even those who can’t afford it. But justice is a higher standard. Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment.”
Weigel, who spoke at a Dec. 12 conference sponsored by the Acton Institute, an American Catholic group focused on the intersection between economics and virtue, took issue with that analysis, while acknowledging the nobility of Bono’s moral concern.
“Hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions, of aid dollars have been squandered by despotic African governments or stolen by kleptocratic African government officials over the past forty years,” Weigel said.
“Yes, Africa is in crisis and could easily fall off the edge of history into a continental oblivion that would forever scar the conscience of humanity,” he said. “But to suggest that the answer to Africa’s crisis of crises is to set justice against charity and to privilege governmental aid programs over other forms of aid is to be willfully blind to the history of the late twentieth century. It also suggests a sorry ignorance of the fact that, in Africa, only non-governmental organizations (and especially churches) have shown themselves capable of promoting the kind of changed behavior that drives down the incidence of AIDS.”
By way of contrast, Weigel argued that Deus caritas est, while not strictly speaking a social encyclical, nevertheless offers a more convincing defense of “retail charity at the personal level."
Weigel quoted Benedict: “Love – caritas – will always prove necessary, even in the most just society,” the pope wrote in Deus caritas est. “There is no ordering of the state so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such.”
Weigel thus contended, in line with this observation, that the solution to problems such as the development crisis in Africa is actually more charity, not less.
“Setting justice against charity has shown itself to be a prescription for injustice and a guaranteed method for muffling the sense of fellow-feeling and obligation that gives rise to charity in all its forms, large and small,” Weigel said.
Weigel's effort to draw a sharp distinction between Bono and Benedict contrasts with the affinity Bono obviously felt for the late John Paul II. Bono met Pope John Paul at the pope's summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in September 1999, as part of the Jubilee 2000 campaign for debt relief. John Paul praised Bono on that occassion for his advocacy, describing the growing gap between rich and poor as the greatest threat to humanity.
John Paul also playfully donned Bono's trademark sunglasses, producing one of the most iconic photographs of his pontificate.
Bono later described John Paul II as "a street fighter and a wily campaigner on behalf of the world's poor," saying, "We would never have gotten the debts of 23 countries completely canceled without him."
Bono also memorably defined John Paul as "history's first funky pontiff."
In his Rome lecture, Weigel put Benedict’s treatment of charity in the context of the development of Roman Catholic social teaching since the 19th century, especially the social doctrine of Pope John Paul II.
At the dawn of the 21st century, Weigel argued, there were three proposals for the future with enough clout to have a worldwide impact: the “pragmatic utilitarianism” of Europe and North America, a resurgent Islam, and the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.
“One does not risk a charge of special pleading by suggesting that the course of the twenty-first century and beyond will be determined in no small part by the answer to the question, how will each of these proposals shape the emerging global culture?” Weigel said.
Weigel, who is sometimes identified as a “neo-conservative,” laid out the core elements of Catholic social theory as it has evolved since the 19th century in terms of four principles:
•tPersonalism – Reflection on the just society begins with the human rights of persons, not with the collective.
•tCommon Good – Each person should exercise his or her freedom in ways that benefit the general welfare of society, not just self-aggrandizement.
•tSubsidiarity – Decision-making in society should be left at the lowest possible level.
•tSolidarity – Society must be more than contractual, but an expression of mutual participation in a common enterprise. Weigel argues that this principle was the contribution of Pope John Paul II.
Weigel suggested that in Deus caritas est, Benedict XVI entered a burgeoning debate in Western culture between “charity” and “philanthropy,” with the latter usually understood as a systematic and large-scale effort not merely to respond to crisis situations, but to resolve their underlying causes. Weigel cites in this regard a recent Business Week interview with Steve Gunderson, the new Chief Executive Officer of the Council on Foundations, the trade organization of American philanthropic bodies.
Weigel’s underlying suggestion is that Catholic social doctrine tends to favor private initiatives on a personal scale as the best way to tackle social ills.
French Professor Jean-Yves Naudet, President of the Association of Catholic Economists, also addressed the Acton Institute event. He argued that Catholic social doctrine, especially the encyclicals of John Paul II, remedies an important deficit in secular economic theory, which he described as insufficient attention to anthropology – the question of who is the human person around which economic theories pivot.
Had economists been attuned to the anthropological dimension of their discipline, Naudet argued, they would never have been seduced by Marxism, premised as it was on unsustainable assumptions about the priority of the collective over the individual.
“John Paul II and Benedict XVI have not been afraid to integrate the contributions of the economic sciences into their own reflections,” Naudet concluded. “It is time that economists in turn integrate the insights of the church, and in particular, of these two great popes, into their thought.”