Recently George Weigel penned an interesting and instructive column on the limits of papal teaching authority, "What Popes Can and Can't Do."
Weigel is addressing the silly statements made by many in the media, including some Catholics, that Pope Francis is about to change "Catholic teaching on the morality of homosexual acts, or on the effects of divorce and remarriage on one's communion with the Church" or on the ordination of women. Weigel rightly says that such an expectation "is a delusion." He notes that,
popes are not like presidents or state governors, and doctrine is not like public policy...[and] a change of papal "administration" does not—indeed cannot—mean a change of Catholic "views." Doctrine, as the Church understands it, is not a matter of anyone's "views," but of settled understandings of the truth of things.
So is this all for the good, then, and we can go on from here? Except that there is one little problem about which Weigel fails to inform us. This problem is that he himself has been in the thick of previous attempts to do just what he now is denouncing. For he, along with other politically conservative Catholics, such as Michael Novak and Fr. Robert Sirico, were leaders in attempting to persuade people that one part of Catholic doctrine, namely Catholic social teaching, was precisely a matter of "public policy," and that John Paul II's "administration" had indeed ushered in a "change of Catholic 'views.'"
In 1992 the very same George Weigel edited a book, A New Worldly Order, published by the think tank that employs him, the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. This volume is a compilation of articles on the then-recently-issued social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, and even includes, for the convenience of the reader, an edited version of Centesimus in which some of its anti-capitalist and anti-free market passages are appropriately omitted or toned down.
How did Weigel treat Centesimus? What did he say about it? In his Prologue to the volume he wrote: "Centesimus Annus thus marks a decisive break with the curious materialism that has characterized aspects of modern Catholic social teaching since Leo XIII" (p. 14). And on the next page Weigel referred to the encyclical as a "new departure in Catholic social thought." No "settled understandings of the truth of things" here.
Weigel's ideological allies who wrote for this volume said similar things. Michael Novak, for example:
The encyclical Centesimus Annus does what many of us had long hoped some church authority would do: it captures the spirit and essence of the American experiment in political economy...Thus Pope John Paul II has brought economic liberty...into Catholic social teaching...(p. 139)
Centesimus Annus represents the beginnings of a shift away from the static zero-sum economic world view that led the Church to be suspicious of capitalism and to argue for wealth redistribution as the only moral response to poverty...(p. 156)
But no, I' afraid not. At a conference in Rome celebrating the 15th anniversary of Centesimus Weigel still claimed that "John Paul's social doctrine took the Catholic Church into new territory," and five years later in a piece for First Things for the encyclical's 20th anniversary in 2011 he wrote that "John Paul also taught the Church new ways of thinking about the poor and about economic justice."
For someone as adroit as George Weigel it's easy to find a way out of this difficulty. Now Weigel has discovered a new take on Catholic social teaching. No longer do we have detailed and explicit teaching, a rejection of "third ways" or a turn to markets. No, social doctrine is now reduced to only vague goals. "Catholic social doctrine," he tells us in his recent article,
has long taught...that the least of the Lord's brethren have a moral claim on our solidarity and our charity; the social doctrine leaves open to debate the specific, practical means by which people of good will, and governments, exercise...that solidarity and charity.
Weigel knows well that most of his readers are not going to actually look at the documents that constitute Catholic social teaching. While they might read on a blog that Pope Francis said in Evangelii Gaudium, "We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market," they are not likely to read Pius XI, who said, "Just as the unity of human society cannot be built upon 'class' conflict, so the proper ordering of economic affairs cannot be left to the free play of rugged competition," and "This has been abundantly proved by the consequences that have followed from the free rein given to these dangerous individualistic ideas" (Quadragesimo Anno, #88).
Nor is George Weigel concerned that his readers might come across Pius XII's September 1954 address in which he said, "The demands of competition, which is a normal consequence of human liberty and ingenuity, cannot be the final norm for economics," or even of the passages in John Paul II's Centesimus Annus, "that the market [must] be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied" (#35), or that "there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces" (#42), or that "The Western countries...run the risk of seeing [the collapse of Communism] as a one-sided victory of their own economic system, and thereby failing to make necessary corrections in that system" (#56). No, Weigel can take advantage of the immense ignorance on the part of most Catholics as to what the popes have actually said about the social order, and presume that the majority of them will never bother to look at the documents themselves.
Weigel's claim that "the social doctrine leaves open to debate the specific, practical means by which people...and governments [should] exercise...that solidarity and charity" is of course partly true. The popes have never offered a detailed model of the social order applicable to all times and places. But when Pope Francis condemns, as he did recently in Evangelii Gaudium, "trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world" or "ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation" he is repeating a doctrine taught explicitly by his predecessors, and sometimes in much harsher terms.
One would have to look far and wide in today's ecclesiastical landscape to find language as biting as that with which Pius XI described successful capitalists—they are "often...those who fight most relentlessly, who pay least heed to the dictates of conscience," (Quadragesimo Anno #107). While there can be room for debate about the specifics of the approach to be taken to promote economic justice, certain approaches are simply ruled out by that "settled understandings of the truth of things" enunciated by Pope Francis and his predecessors. The free market cannot be the foundation for economic policy: The notion that market forces, except in rare instances of "market failure," will automatically work for the common good is simply inadmissible for a Catholic who cares to think with the Church. The condemnation of free-market economics is part of the "settled understandings of the truth of things" that Weigel claims he supports.
Meanwhile, he cannot have it both ways. He cannot call our attention to the fact that "popes are not like presidents or state governors, and doctrine is not like public policy," and then depend upon his readers' ignorance of papal documents to treat social doctrine in exactly that way. Under John Paul II politically conservative Catholics liked to trumpet Centesimus—or at least selected passages from it—as a turning point in Catholic social thought. After ten years of Benedict and Francis they are taking refuge in the notion that Catholic social teaching sets forth mere goals and pretty much leaves it up to us to implement them.
No one acquainted with the actual papal texts could think that. Whether Weigel is himself acquainted with these texts or not, I do not know, but they stand and will stand as exactly those "settled understandings of the truth of things" that constitute and will always constitute a part of the genuine teachings of Christ's one Church.