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And on we go to Chapter 5, paragraphs 53 through 67. Poverty is caused by isolation, Benedict insists: isolation from other humans, and isolation from the foundation that is God. Is that right? Maybe. Okay, I guess so. In a certain sense. But the text here in the opening of Chapter 5 is very muddy. Though I can’t quite put my finger on it, there’s something question-begging in the claim that isolation causes poverty: The rich can suffer serious isolation, too—and that’s one of the “the other kinds of poverty,” because well, poverty is isolation, and isolation is poverty.

Benedict quotes the great line from Paul V: “the world is in trouble because of the lack of thinking.” But the conclusion that he draws from it is that we need “a new trajectory of thinking, . . . a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation . This is a task that cannot be undertaken by the social sciences alone, insofar as the contribution of disciplines such as metaphysics and theology is needed if man’s transcendent dignity is to be properly understood.”

The note here about metaphysics and theology—the transcendental reaches of thought—suggests that this is the place where we need the pope’s deep thought about what the lack of a metaphysical and theological horizon does for the modern world. And that is, to some degree, what we get, though the metaphor of the Trinity, applied to humans with the awkward nonce phrase “inclusion-in-relation” is not as clear as it could be. This section of the encyclical, paragraphs 54 through 57, is the most serious—and, at the same time, the most compressed. While trying to unpack it, my frustration was this wasn’t the subject of the entire text—if only so that we could understand Benedict’s thinking more clearly.

With paragraph 58, we get the reintroduction of the topic of subsidiarity. A hodgepodge of topics appear over the next paragraphs: international aid, agriculture, allocation of taxes, sex tourism, migration, the dignity of work, trade unions, micro-finance, consumerism. The problem here is literary, in a certain sense: These examples occur at such differing levels of importance, abstraction, and praxis that it’s hard to fold them together into anything coherent.

One point, though, is the even in the midst of the pope’s call for subsidarity, the assumption is always that the highest levels will be the creators and enforcers of that subsidiarity. Elsewhere in the encyclical, the family was perceived as pre-existing the high structures of power and pushing up against them to maintain subsidiarity. In these paragraphs in Chapter 5, the plaint is that subsidiarity has declined, and thus the job of the high and mighty is to restore it, forcing subsidiarity down the chain of power.

In that context, the call for a “true world political authority” appears in paragraph 67: “a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth.”

To understand this, I think, we have to read it in the light of a call for universal empire, which has been in the Catholic lexicon for a long, long time. The counter-theme of individual sovereign states has been in the Catholic lexicon for a while, too, and the encyclical might have entered here into an interesting discussion of that disagreement in modern Catholic thought. But, as things stand, I can’t imagine a worse time simply to demand universal empire without explanation, or a worse body than the United Nations to entrust with it.

The first naiveté, in Benedict’s version, is the notion that the UN could somehow be “regulated by law” when it itself would be the law, once it had eliminated the individual states (against which the encyclical sets itself when it complains of the UN weakened by “the balance of power among the strongest nations”).

The second naiveté is about the Church, which, in medieval and Renaissance calls for empire, stood as the extra-governmental institution that balanced the state. Now and for the foreseeable future, the Church is detested by the bureaucrats of the UN empire. It’s crazy of Benedict to think that international organization won’t move, with its power, to abolish as much of the Church as it can.

Let’s see, how about a universal right to abortion? How about hate laws that count against Catholics but somehow few others? Here’s a simple and, in fact, quite likely one: How about the great cathedrals all declared “Artistic Property of Mankind,” with ownership and “use oversight” given to UNESCO?

Does Benedict really think that world government would give us “the construction of a social order that at last conforms to the moral order”? Perhaps so.

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