Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Playing it safe

The Pope's long-awaited (by some) new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Love in truth) is out. According to some accounts, it was delayed because of difficulties in translating some neologisms into Latin. That may be true: the Latin text isn't available yet on the Vatican website. I was hoping to be able to tell you what the Papal scribes determined was the correct Latin rendering of "credit crunch" and the like. Traditionally, they have tended to go for the most long-winded translations possible.

Some encyclicals are epoch-making (1968's Humanae Vitae, for example, which reaffirmed the church's opposition to birth control) but a quick read through of this latest document reveals little of interest. It's long, rather boring and intensely unoriginal, covering a lot of ground without really saying very much. Take this on the financial sector, as platitudinous a statement as human ingenuity can devise:

Financiers must rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity, so as not to abuse the sophisticated instruments which can serve to betray the interests of savers. Right intention, transparency, and the search for positive results are mutually compatible and must never be detached from one another....Both the regulation of the financial sector, so as to safeguard weaker parties and discourage scandalous speculation, and experimentation with new forms of finance, designed to support development projects, are positive experiences that should be further explored and encouraged, highlighting the responsibility of the investor.

The tone throughout is dull and worthy. With repeated invocations of responsibility and accountability it could be a report by some inter-governmental quango. There's also a Prince Charlesish luddism: "the supremacy of technology tends to prevent people from recognizing anything that cannot be explained in terms of matter alone"; "the question of development is closely bound up with our understanding of the human soul, insofar as we often reduce the self to the psyche and confuse the soul's health with emotional well-being".

There are predictable denunciations of biological science:

In vitro fertilization, embryo research, the possibility of manufacturing clones and human hybrids: all this is now emerging and being promoted in today's highly disillusioned culture, which believes it has mastered every mystery, because the origin of life is now within our grasp. Here we see the clearest expression of technology's supremacy. In this type of culture, the conscience is simply invited to take note of technological possibilities. Yet we must not underestimate the disturbing scenarios that threaten our future, or the powerful new instruments that the “culture of death” has at its disposal.

And "right to die" campaigns:

At the other end of the spectrum, a pro-euthanasia mindset is making inroads as an equally damaging assertion of control over life that under certain circumstances is deemed no longer worth living. Underlying these scenarios are cultural viewpoints that deny human dignity. These practices in turn foster a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life.

I'm sorry, but some people do regard their lives as no longer worth living - people with terminal illnesses who are in constant pain. To force them to live in agony for the benefit of some abstract principle hardly advances human dignity.

Ratzo also sings the praises of overpopulation, as one might expect:

Morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource. Populous nations have been able to emerge from poverty thanks not least to the size of their population and the talents of their people. On the other hand, formerly prosperous nations are presently passing through a phase of uncertainty and in some cases decline, precisely because of their falling birth rates; this has become a crucial problem for highly affluent societies. The decline in births, falling at times beneath the so-called “replacement level”, also puts a strain on social welfare systems, increases their cost, eats into savings and hence the financial resources needed for investment, reduces the availability of qualified labourers, and narrows the “brain pool” upon which nations can draw for their needs. Furthermore, smaller and at times miniscule families run the risk of impoverishing social relations, and failing to ensure effective forms of solidarity. These situations are symptomatic of scant confidence in the future and moral weariness.

Get out and breed, then. Yet, in a passage concerned with the environment, we get this:

On this earth there is room for everyone: here the entire human family must find the resources to live with dignity, through the help of nature itself — God's gift to his children — and through hard work and creativity. At the same time we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it. This means being committed to making joint decisions “after pondering responsibly the road to be taken, decisions aimed at strengthening that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying”

Something of a contradiction here, although I wouldn't expect the Pope to see it. He even has the gall to say:

Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.

The encyclical also has the inevitable passage equating atheists with religious extremists.

Yet it should be added that, as well as religious fanaticism that in some contexts impedes the exercise of the right to religious freedom, so too the deliberate promotion of religious indifference or practical atheism on the part of many countries obstructs the requirements for the development of peoples, depriving them of spiritual and human resources.

When the State promotes, teaches, or actually imposes forms of practical atheism, it deprives its citizens of the moral and spiritual strength that is indispensable for attaining integral human development and it impedes them from moving forward with renewed dynamism as they strive to offer a more generous human response to divine love. In the context of cultural, commercial or political relations, it also sometimes happens that economically developed or emerging countries export this reductive vision of the person and his destiny to poor countries. This is the damage that “superdevelopment” causes to authentic development when it is accompanied by “moral underdevelopment”.

It's not clear what "practical atheism" means here, but it presumably isn't the same as philosophical atheism - disbelief in God. It seems to refer to secular or religiously neutral policies. Still, nothing we haven't heard many times before.

It also turns out that His Holiness doesn't approve of sex-tourism.

...in other cases international tourism has a negative educational impact both for the tourist and the local populace. The latter are often exposed to immoral or even perverted forms of conduct, as in the case of so-called sex tourism, to which many human beings are sacrificed even at a tender age. It is sad to note that this activity often takes place with the support of local governments, with silence from those in the tourists' countries of origin, and with the complicity of many of the tour operators.

Try replacing "tourist" with "priest" in that passage, "local governments" with "bishops" and "tour operators" with "the Vatican", and see what happens.

Young Brits abroad also come in for pontifical censure:

Even in less extreme cases, international tourism often follows a consumerist and hedonistic pattern, as a form of escapism planned in a manner typical of the countries of origin, and therefore not conducive to authentic encounter between persons and cultures. We need, therefore, to develop a different type of tourism that has the ability to promote genuine mutual understanding, without taking away from the element of rest and healthy recreation.

All in all, it's a rather pointless restatement of well-known Catholic teachings about this and that. I think Ratzinger must have given up trying to be interesting: it creates too many headlines.