By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
If the criticism of Barack Obama's May appearance at the University of Notre Dame from U.S. bishops reinforced the image of the American Roman Catholic Church as politically obsessed with social issues like abortion, today's encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI is a reminder that the Vatican is also consumed by social justice issues: poverty, the environment, the plight of workers.
And if the bishops' criticism of Notre Dame and Obama last spring provided succor to conservative American Catholics frustrated by their hierarchy's sheepishness on hot-button issues, today's encyclical performs a similar function for liberal Catholics, distraught that a minority of outspokenly conservative U.S. bishops have received so much attention.
In today's encyclical—a major letter from the pope to Catholics worldwide—Benedict called for strengthening the United Nations into a "true world political authority" that could manage the global economy, facilitate disarmament, and protect the environment. He said the church's commitment to trade unions "must . . . be honored today even more than in the past." Benedict warned against free markets becoming the "place where the strong subdue the weak."
There is much in Benedict's third encyclical, in other words, for American conservatives to scorn. And though there's been a lot written about evangelicals and serious Catholics finding common cause on conservative political goals in recent years, a stronger U.N. and more support for unions is your average Christian right activist's idea of a bad dream.
That's not to say that Benedict's encyclical avoided controversial issues. "In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread," Benedict writes in a passage about abortion, "and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality . . . ."
But Benedict couches the concern for human life in an argument that extends far beyond abortion, bolstering an argument that progressive Catholics have been making for some time now. We may not have seen this big a boost for Catholic progressives from their church since the American bishops loudly supported comprehensive immigration reform in 2007.
Read the full encyclical here.