Sunday, March 2, 2014

Once a German Professor, Always a German Professor


I am a great admirer of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as I have been since I was first introduced to his writings in the late 1990's when I began to learn about the Catholic Faith.  He is obviously a man of great learning and wisdom.  However, like all of us, Benedict has been shaped by his experiences, and reading his writings it is often obvious that he was once a German professor.  

Often this shows in his selection and presentation of material.  One problem faced by a scrupulous  academic is that what he wishes to be both accurate and very precise.  All too often, this approach backfires.  Care for precision can sound like doubt, and the delay in coming to the point can be extremely frustrating.  Of course, this sounds familiar to those who know some German, in which language the meaning of a sentence is often impossible to guess until the last word.  More seriously, though, the bulky verbiage can be confusing to those not used to it, and especially to those (in the secular media, for example) who do not believe the fine distinctions represent important differences.

Another noteworthy characteristic of the German language is that it uses long words where English would use phrases.  The main practical difference is that we would tend to vary the phrase more than a German would find synonyms for the long word.  Also, these words tend to be logical to the point of being very funny.  For instance, in English we have a "wrist", but in German the same joint is called a Handgelenk (= "Hand Joint").  In English, we have a "glove", but in German gloves are called a Handshuh (= "Hand Shoe").

All these things stand out clearly to me as slowly work my way through the last encyclical that Benedict wrote alone -- Caritas in Veritate, or Charity in Truth.  The subtitle of this encyclical is On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth, and the phrase "integral human development" occurs 21 times within the body of the text.  I'm not sure, but I suspect that the phrase works much better in his native German than it does in English.  Regardless, this and certain other stylistic elements have made this encyclical unduly difficult to work through.  Isn't there a better English expression for the same concept?

I think there is; I suggest the word "flourishing".  Flourishing has the connotation of robust, energetic, holistic growth -- growth for both the individual and the society, growth that encompasses the spiritual, physical, moral, cultural, and economic spheres.  This is the main gist of what Benedict was trying to say:  laws and policies must be designed to promote the flourishing of all affected parties, while in the process never doing evil that good may result.

This explains why so many Catholics saw this as an attack on Capitalism.  Even at its best, Capitalism has as its goal the prosperity of each participant, each looking out for himself, ideally while never doing evil that good may result.  If society as a whole also prospers, or if other affected parties prosper, it is a happy coincidence.  The same can be said of the other aspects of flourishing -- the moral and spiritual dimensions, for example.  Capitalism has, of course, provided greater material prosperity, though very unequally.  A quick glance at the headlines clearly indicates that it does not lead to great advances in the cultural, spiritual, or moral spheres.

It's a sad thing that I have to point out that this is by no means an endorsement of Socialism.  Nearly a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, many people are still stuck in the idea that there are only two possibilities:  unrestricted Capitalism or Socialism/Communism.  No; but trusting to dumb luck is not wise, and we can set the bar higher than the egocentric pusuit of material prosperity.

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