Via Media

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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