Via Media

Via Media

Well, yeah, the Gospel is “compassionate”

Got to take issue with John Allen’s characterization of the message of the new encylical. He uses it in this week’s Word, and I heard him use it on NPR last week:

Underlying all this is Benedict’s belief that the Christian message, even those aspects of its sexual morality sometimes seen as "hard-line," are ultimately based not on fear or power, but on love. His argument is that the church is committed to the full flowering of the human person, which sometimes means condemning patterns of behavior or thought which are at odds with that flowering. In the pope’s mind, this is never condemnation for its own sake; as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in 1993, "Christianity is at its heart a radical ‘yes,’ and when it presents itself as a ‘no,’ it does so only in defense of that ‘yes.’" Ultimately, according to the pope, the church’s "yes" is to love.

The encyclical, in other words, is Pope Benedict’s version of "compassionate conservatism."

This is a puzzling phrase, to say the least, especially from Allen, who in his reporting on Benedict over the past 8 months as well as in his recent books, from Conclave to All the Pope’s Men to Opus Dei, has been assiduously refusing to get wrapped up in politically-framed ideological verbiage and has consistently encouraged his readers to do so as well.

For to label what is simply the teachings of the Church as "conservatism" is to take more than two steps backwards. What it does is immediately sets up a prism through which Allen is implictly, even if unintentionally, hinting at a prism through which to read this encyclical: as an expression of "conservativism," not as an expression and exploration of the teachings of the Church, as a reflection on the Gospel.

Too bad.

Update: I knew I’d seen Allen’s use of this another place, and this blog post at Cosmos-Liturgy-Sex reminded me of where: in a UKTelegraph article:

John Allen, a columnist with the National Catholic Reporter and one of the most respected Vatican watchers, said: “The Pope wants to make sure that everything he does is grounded in fundamentals in terms of objective truth. The encyclical is his attempt at being a compassionate conservative. In his mind, you can’t really be free and happy unless you accept God’s plan for human life.”

Update: Here’s the problem with this phrase: there are two senses in which it is received by readers. First, as an expression of what Bush was, we can only presume, authentically trying to accomplish: communicating that his programs were not, as his opponents characterized them, cruel, but were actually rooted in concern for the well-being of individuals and society. (Political profit assumed as part of the package. It’s politics, after all)

Secondly, how that phrase was received and the implications it evokes when used today. Hardly anyone uses it in a non-ironic way these days. So naturally, when Allen uses it, although I am certain he did not intend it ironically, to the reader and especially the NPR listener, it comes across…ironically, and as a political expression.

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Grant Gallicho

posted January 22, 2006 at 11:21 am

I don’t see it that way. Allen isn’t doing theology or philosophy. This is a *brief* news story that employs a clever phrase. That’s it. Yes, he has considerable reach, but given that he puts scare quotes around the phrase, I can’t imagine his readers interpreting it as weighty.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 11:39 am

And it communicates nothing ideological? He had no other choices? Does it reflect how the writer of the document(yet unread by any of us) himself would describe his message? I doubt it. Allen took such pains, particularly in All the Pope’s Men, to let Vatican culture speak for itself and to put things in a broader context in which he instructed readers, on page after page, to stop thinking in American sociological and political terms when they interpreted the Curia. Would that he have done that here.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 11:44 am

Hello Grant,
I disagree.
Allen has come a long way with this pope. But I think on this particular point, he took the easy way out. It’s a hard temptation for a journalist – especially one in a hurry – to resist.

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Grant Gallicho

posted January 22, 2006 at 12:23 pm

John Allen has worked hard to shed the skin of “liberal journalist” draped over anyone who publishes in NCR, as perceived by some who spend a lot of time ’round these parts, and he’s made real gains in the eyes of those disposed against NCR, but one scare-quoted phrase, and he’s revealed his true ideology? I don’t think so. Allen uses this sort of phrasing every so often, as in his Opus Dei book, in which he compares the Work to Guiness Extra Stout. Does he reveal his secret ideology of brewed booze? It’s shorthand. *It’s in scare quotes–in his Web column.* Amy, where you see “Allen taking such pains” is in a book-length treatment that likely underwent the scrutiny of an editorial eye and with the self-consciousness that such a project involves (as you know). “Would that he have done that here” is a bit much. You have to read this in the context of his other work, knowing well, as you do, that he’s done precisely the contextualizing you cite. Of course he doesn’t view the encyclical as comporting with the George W. Bush’s campaign slogan. You have his e-mail address. Ask him about it. I suspect that, knowing Allen’s scrupulosity in such matters (see his response to Komonchak’s review of his first Ratzinger biography), he’ll issue a correction of some sort, although such a correction is unnecessary in this case.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 12:28 pm

You’re right. It’s a beautiful phrase that no doubt accurately expresses Benedict’s intentions in this encyclical.

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Grant Gallicho

posted January 22, 2006 at 12:31 pm

Good grief. I didn’t say it was beautiful or all-emcompassing as a description of the encyclical. That you’re looking for one his Word from Rome strikes me as a category mistake.

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Andy K.

posted January 22, 2006 at 12:36 pm

Dear Amy, et al.,
When I first saw the phrase “compassionate conservatism” used in relation with Pope Benedict XVI, I first jumped to a comparison of he and President G. W. Bush. Unfair, but I recall in 2000 G. W. Bush using that phrase in his candidacy.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 12:39 pm

Mr. Gallicho:
Read Allen’s own sentence:
The encyclical, in other words, is Pope Benedict’s version of “compassionate conservatism.”
That’s not a summary of content and intention? Sounds like one to me. Why can’t you just admit that one ill-chosen phrase overshadows and skews an otherwise balanced account? As Andy K. remarks.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 12:51 pm

Reading that phrase, I immediately thought of George Bush, hypocrisy and cyncisim. Why would Allen want me to associate that with Benedict? I’m confused.

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Tom Haessler

posted January 22, 2006 at 1:18 pm

“Compassionate conservatism” is an unfortunate slight lapse that occurs frequently, even among the best journalists, in small pieces intended for immediate consumption, as opposed to those which appear in books.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 1:21 pm

I think that Allen could justify the analogy were George Bush running now for his first election.
Not so now.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 1:43 pm

As a new Catholic and one who has been struck by how thoroughly the Catholic hierarchy seems to display an almost overtly anti-Republcan and hyper anti-Bush reflex, I believe Amy’s observation is one that falls easily within reasoned bounds. To use the phrase “compassionate conservatism” in the American Catholic universe, at least, is to immediately place the so-labeled ideas within the realm of politicized dispute, and that seems a bit less than desirable when outlining papal teaching. Especially papl teaching about “love.” If that’s controversial, then what hope is there for any sort of teaching platform?

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posted January 22, 2006 at 1:57 pm

As a journalist in mainstream media, Allen needs to keep his job and prestige. He has to throw out bones to the left every so often. This is one. It is uncool to praise Benedict too much. Never underestimate the power of ‘human respect.’

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posted January 22, 2006 at 5:25 pm

So sad. Here’s Pope Benedict cutting like a machete through the jungle of doctrine, exposing the very roots of Christian belief, demanding that people undergo a radical transformation of heart in all their relationships…
…and Allen falls back upon jargon.
Look, I’m a conservative myself, so the phrase sounds even more like lead upon my ear. Pope Benedict does not fit into our little political boxes. He doesn’t even approach them. He’s not anywhere near American politics. Calling an encyclical on God, love, and compassion a piece of “compassionate conservatism” is like calling a hamburger a kosher hot dog, because they both involve beef. Bad writing. Big red X.
Of course, the only reason it seems as obtuse as it does is that Mr. Allen is usually such a sharp and apt writer. But that’s the wages of excellence.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 6:14 pm

He used jargon. He chose a loaded phrase. I think we can all agree it was a poor choice of words, and certainly not the best words he could have used to describe the encyclical.
What I don’t understand is where people get off judging Allen’s intentions and ideology based on two words, loaded though they may be. I think you’re being a tad grouchy, Amy.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 6:48 pm

Tope, you’re the grouchy one. I nowhere ascribed any “intentions” to Allen. I decribed how the use of the phrase functioned, and its affect.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 8:20 pm

I wonder if Allen used the phrase or if an editor, knowing he had used it before, added it to the article? One can never be 100% sure what an author has written and what an editor has edited unless a) the author verifies it or b) you can compare the original written piece to the published piece.

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Plato's Stepchild

posted January 22, 2006 at 10:42 pm

“Tope, you’re the grouchy one. I nowhere ascribed any “intentions” to Allen. I decribed how the use of the phrase functioned, and its affect.”
The phrase (compassionate conservatism) lands like $10.00 sneakers with an expensive tuxedo. Personally, if the leaks are true, I think Benedict XVI will stun everyone with his appeal to beauty and eros and the correct meaning of agape.
His writings on Plato, Beauty and the Sufferings of Christ have a lyric, mystical quality to them. I’m very much looking forward to Wednesday.

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posted January 23, 2006 at 2:06 am

Amy –
To clarify, my last two sentences weren’t meant to be connected. When I said I thought you were being grouchy, I had this comment in mind:
You’re right. It’s a beautiful phrase that no doubt accurately expresses Benedict’s intentions in this encyclical.

It did seem a tad on the grouchy side to me. My comment about people judging Allen’s intentions was not about you, but about other commenters. I wasn’t clear. No grouchiness was intended.

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Michael Hugo

posted January 23, 2006 at 3:46 am

I wouldn’t think he needed a phrase to “wrap up” his commentary, but if he wanted one, what else could have worked?
Tough love?
Cruel to be kind?
War to end wars?
Nothing really fits that nicely.
I mean, Bush’s slogan was handy. It just has a lot of…uh, baggage.

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Michael Hugo

posted January 23, 2006 at 3:53 am

But, let’s not discount the possiblity, shocking as it may seem, that dispite previous attempts to “stay on the wagon” and restrain any latent liberal impulses, he just couldn’t stop himself.
I’m only kidding.
But, goodness, look at how much attention and passion it riled up. That is probably what he couldn’t pass up.

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