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A Reflection On A Recent Note From Rome Print E-mail

November 16, 2011 | The Long Island Catholic Vol. 50, No. 28  | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY

Last week the G20 group of heads of governments met in Cannes to address some of the pressing economic and financial issues that have affected the lives of us all since 2008. The meeting did not provide any significant breakthroughs and was dominated by the understandable preoccupation of European leaders for the fate of Greece and its effect on the Euro. A week before the G20 meeting The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a 14 page Note “for a reform of the international financial and monetary system from the perspective of a public institution with universal competence.”

The Pontifical Council wished to make a contribution to the current international debate taking place at several levels. At present available only in Italian and Portuguese, the Note seeks to make a contribution to reflection on the many faceted issues in the economic and financial worlds that have left no part of the world untouched. The Council offers this out of a sense of responsibility for the good of present and future generations. It is not intended nor is it in any sense an exercise of the teaching office of the Church. Rather the Note seeks to analyze the current situation with its many challenges and increasing dangers and apply to these complex realities some elements of Catholic social teaching.

The analysis they offer seems to this reader accurate in its recounting of the elements that have led to the present global financial and economic crisis. While experts hold various positions, it is clear that in the 1990s money and credit increased much more rapidly than productivity and thus the return on investment became at the very least precarious. Excessive liquidity and new types of speculation created new crises of solvency and of trust.  Going back to the ‘70s and ‘80s with the increased price in oil reveals that the developing countries had already been hard hit and were already in worse position than before. The speculative bubble in housing and the recent financial crisis became the final catalysts that led to the current situation, which reached a head first in the United States, the largest single economy, and then necessarily and inevitably across the whole global financial and economic world.

The Note faults two major weaknesses: a liberal economy without rules and controls and a utilitarian ideology which maintains that personal and corporative profit motivation will ultimately lead to the benefit of all. If these are not addressed, then there is little hope for corrections that will guarantee the avoidance of this kind of crisis in the future.

The central point of the proposal of this Note is the creation of a Public Authority on an international or global level that would correspond to the ethic of solidarity which Pope Benedict proposed in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. The authors point to Blessed John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris as a precedent for their proposal. The purpose is rather vaguely expressed as “service to the common good, endowed with adequate and effective structures that would be reflective of the high importance of its mission and the great hopes that it would engender.” The Note admits that this would be a delicate and difficult task to accomplish, that it would demand many preliminary steps of consultation and collaboration and, as an expression of the will of “the community of Nations,” it might best not be a permanent structure but would respect the diversity of the nations of the world on the cultural level as well as with regard to their material resources and their respective conditions, historical, geographical and economic. Finally, in light of all these factors, they envisage this public authority as acting according to the principle of subsidiarity, offering a “support” (subsidium) to all the political, financial, economic, private and public actors who are the stakeholders in today’s globalized economy.

What is to be said of this?  First, the Holy See is exercising her proper role in offering a reflection on these very important world challenging events. It is the responsibility of the Church to bring the light of the Gospel and the principles derived from the Gospel known as Catholic Social Doctrine as part of the discussion. This is not a proposal or a blueprint for what must be done but rather an exercise of “moral theology,” consistent with what the Roman pontiffs have done consistently and fruitfully since Pope Leo XIII. Second, the two interconnected principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are relevant to this discussion. The authors are correct to call our attention to them and, in so doing, leading us back to the encyclicals that underlie them, from Quadragesimo Anno to Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate. We can gain much by re-reading them with our eyes on the very complex and multifaceted current economic and financial situation. Third, there is always need for a wider perspective in the worlds of politics, the economy and finance, one that speaks of the centrality of the dignity of the human person and measures politics and economics from more than a utilitarian point of view. The Note makes a persuasive case for more and more persons with expertise to introduce into the discussions the human and social implications of these issues.

As for the proposal of a public authority, I would suggest that it is well intentioned but highly unlikely as a concrete possibility. I also think it harkens back not so much to Pacem in Terris of Blessed John XXIII which was written with an eye on the emerging nations and the still relatively new United Nations Organization of the early 1960s. To my mind this Note reflects more the spirit of Pope Paul VI’s letter to Cardinal Roy on the 80th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. In that 1971 letter, Pope Paul speaks of “the rebirth of utopias” (n. 37) and adds that such ideas and “this kind of criticism of existing society often provokes the forward-looking imagination both to perceive in the present the disregarded possibility hidden within it and to direct itself towards a fresh future …”

There is much in this Note that merits consideration. But I suspect that its most important contribution will be to motivate those of us committed to the principles of Catholic social teaching to go back and re-read some of the more salient points of the recent social encyclicals, especially Caritas in Veritate  and thus be open to a dialogue that will listen to the practitioners and the theorists who are willing to see how the broader perspective of Church teaching can help them construct the structures and the guidelines that will lead to healthier and stronger economic and financial institutions and practices.


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