The Good Pope and the Bad Advisers — A Fable by George Weigel
Once upon a time there was a good pope called John Paul II. He was very good and everybody loved him. Well, almost everybody. There was a sneaky group of bad people called the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and they were very powerful under previous popes. In fact, they were so powerful that they persuaded Pope Paul VI to issue a really bad document called Populorum Progressio, and this document is an “odd duck..clouded by then-popular leftist and progressive conceptions about the problem of Third World poverty, its causes, and its remedies.” In other words, it was very bad.
Then along came good Pope John Paul II. But the bad people at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace were very cunning. They whispered in the pope’s ear, and he allowed them to guide his encyclical called Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, and the result was not good. And so when it came time for his next encyclical, John Paul was ready. Justice and Peace sent him a text. But John Paul stood up to them. He ripped up their text, and started from scratch. The result was Centesimus Annus , the greatest document ever produced by the Church. It said that there was no more “third way” between capitalism and socialism, but that capitalism was the only way. But it also a very long document, so its best to read it in the abridged version, and the best abridged form is the one written by Richard John Neuhaus, and myself, George Weigel. This abridged version strips all the influence of Justice and Peace from the document. Yes, for even though John Paul cast these treacherous advisers away, they used magic to get into his dreams, and some of their bad ideas made it into the document, even though the pope never even knew it. This is why you need the abridged version.
Justice and Peace was angry. Very angry. Skulking in the darkest corners of the Vatican, they plotted their revenge. With an evil cackle, they hatched their malicious plots. And when John Paul died and Benedict was elected pope, they saw their opening. “Your Holinessss,” they whispered, “don’t you think you should issue a document to mark the anniversary of that great encyclical, Populorum Progressio? We could help you, you know, it would be your greatest achievement ever, Holinessss,”. Pope Benedict saw the evil gleam in their eyes and he was most disturbed. They gave him a document, but he said no. He did not trust them. They hissed in frustration, but held back their anger. They handed him a second document, and he rejected it again. They tried a third time, and again the answer was no.
Ever the kind old man, the pope did not want to hurt their feelings. So he told a little white lie. “My friends,” he said, “the world is going through the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. We need to reflect more on that before we write the document”. Of course, there was no such “economic crisis” (these things cannot happen in capitalism after all, unless the evil government messes it up). But the advisers were not very bright, and they believed him. And so they kept plotting.
And so Pope Benedict, like John Paul before him, set out to write the document be wanted to write. But Benedict was a kindly old man, a “truly gentle soul”, and he took pity on Justice and Peace. “Why,” he said to his cat, “these poor men have put so much effort into this, I must give them something.” And so he did, but he was very clever. In his own hand, he wrote in a gold pen, a gold as bright as the shining sun. What they gave him, he wrote with a red pen, a red the color of blood. And so he created a long encyclical called Caritas in Veritate. People were confused by the two voices, and thought it was a “duck-billed platypus”. But Benedict knew that if people read the document clearly enough, they would understand the difference between the gold and the red. They would know that his own contributions were “strong and compelling” and that the other stuff was “incomprehensible”, “clotted and muddled”, full of silliness about the redistribution of wealth, and calling for dangerous transnational governance. He knew they would figure it out, helped of course by guides like yours truly.
And so, the evil advisers at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace read the encyclical with glee, and saw their words in bright red. “We have won,” the exclaimed, saliva dripping from their yellow teeth, “red means it’s really important…we have had our revenge. Hahahahahaha…” But Pope Benedict only smiled. He knew that their sections were so incoherent, so impenetrable that they sounded less like a trumpet than the “warbling of an untuned piccolo”. Let them have their untuned piccolo, thought Benedict. Let them think they have won. In reality I have vanquished them, and they don’t even know it. Now, if only they hadn’t persuaded me to oppose the Iraq war….