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Pope Appeals for Morality in Free Economy

Tuesday, 07 Jul 2009 04:13 PM

By Edward Pentin

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Pope Benedict XVI’s first social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth), is a strong plea for a closer connection between morality and the free economy. It also presents a timely vision for the world’s economic future.

In the document, released today at the Vatican, the Pope says that ethical values based on truth are needed to overcome the current global economic crisis, combat poverty, and foster authentic development. He also calls for a “new humanistic synthesis” centered on truth.

An encyclical is one of the highest forms of papal teaching, aimed primarily at Catholics, but also given to all people. This is especially true of social encyclicals which are a chance for the Pope to offer moral judgments about economic and social matters when he believes the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls requires it.

This particular document echoes previous social encyclicals in the way it holds up Catholic social teaching, but with Love in Truth, Benedict XVI refrains from entering too much into specifics. Instead he mostly underlines established truths in which governments, institutions, and individuals should find inspiration if they are to help build a just and sustainable economic system.

The document does not propose a kind of utopian ‘third way’ between capitalism and socialism to be achieved through adhering to Church doctrine. The Vatican is also keen to stress that the encyclical is not principally about the economic crisis, but was written — after a series of delays — to commemorate Paul VI’s 1967 social encyclical, Populorum Progressio.

In passages relating to the current economic situation, the Pope doesn’t name or blame any one person or institution specifically. Rather he notes “the damaging effects on the real economy of badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing.”

He stresses that profit as the exclusive goal "without the common good as its ultimate end, risks destroying wealth and creating poverty," and also criticizes “the unregulated exploitation of the earth’s resources."

He draws attention to “internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust” without which the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function. The market "cannot rely only on itself," the Pope writes, but "must draw its moral energies from other subjects." Furthermore, it must not consider the poor as a "burden, but a resource." The market must not become "the place where the strong subdue the weak," he says.

Finance, he continues, "after its misuse which has wreaked such havoc on the real economy, needs to go back to being an instrument directed towards development. Financiers must rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity."

In addition, the Pope calls for a "regulation of the financial sector" to safeguard weaker parties but, like most of the encyclical, he refrains from giving precise details on how this might be achieved.

The Pope makes no mention of a debt culture, or fiscal irresponsibility (though he does hold up subsidiarity as a way to avoid the tyranny of the state). Above all, while not ignoring the seriousness of the crisis, he tries to sound a hopeful and encouraging note, saying it can act as “an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future.”

Contrary to some press reports, this is not an anti-capitalist document; there is no specific mention of capitalism or socialism, thereby recognizing that there is a non-ideological understanding of market economics. Nor does he denounce the legitimacy of private property, contracts or competition. And in the chapter on the environment, the Pope underlines the importance of being responsible stewards of the environment but without ever mentioning “climate change.”

He sees globalization as a good, depending on how man responds to it, and stressing that a just and moral society requires just and moral people. As many press reports have pointed out, he does argue for an authority to govern globalization, but only “insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued.” Moreover, he stresses that its authority “must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified way, if it is not to infringe upon freedom and if it is to yield effective results in practice.” He adds his voice to a “strongly felt need” for a reform of the United Nations and international economic institutions “so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth.”

The Pope criticizes some non-governmental organizations which, he says, “work actively to spread abortion, at times promoting the practice of sterilization in poor countries, in some cases not even informing the women concerned.”

He stresses that “openness to life is at the centre of true development” and that when a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, “it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man's true good.”

He also discusses the importance of religious freedom in development (the first time it has ever been so explicitly mentioned in a papal social encyclical), the dangers of “superdevelopment” and dependence on overseas aid which, he says, has often been diverted from its proper end, through “irresponsible actions" both of donors and of beneficiaries. At the same time, says the Pope, "there is excessive zeal for protecting knowledge on the part of rich countries, through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property, especially in the field of healthcare."

Turning to another form of poverty — that of a spiritual nature — the Pope stresses that spiritual growth is vital, since the human person is a “unity of body and soul.” He adds: “When he is far away from God, man is unsettled and ill at ease. Social and psychological alienation and the many neuroses that afflict affluent societies are attributable in part to spiritual factors. A prosperous society, highly developed in material terms but weighing heavily on the soul, is not of itself conducive to authentic development.”

As Benedict XVI often has done in the past, he underlines there is only one truth, and decries relativism which presupposes truth is subjective. And he stresses the need never to forget God or live as if he doesn’t exist. “A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism,” he writes. “Only a humanism open to the Absolute can guide us in the promotion and building of forms of social and civic life — structures, institutions, culture and ethos — without exposing us to the risk of becoming ensnared by the fashions of the moment.”

The Pope concludes: “Even in the most difficult and complex times, besides recognizing what is happening, we must above all else turn to God's love. Development requires attention to the spiritual life, a serious consideration of the experiences of trust in God, spiritual fellowship in Christ, reliance upon God's providence and mercy, love and forgiveness, self-denial, acceptance of others, justice and peace.”

Although plenty of this was expected, and much of what the Pope proposes purposely lacks detail (he leaves that for politicians, economists and decision-makers to decide), it offers all people a timely vision on how to construct a more just and lasting economic system. The ball is now in the court of each individual, and particularly economic and political leaders, to right recent wrongs and make such a vision a reality.

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