Ever wondered what God makes of the current global economic crisis? We'll never know, of course, but the man the Roman Catholic Church deems the Almighty's "pastor in chief" has finally weighed in with his own take: Pope Benedict XVI offers neither stock tips nor bailout plans in Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), but the long-awaited third encyclical of his papacy is a wide-ranging commentary on the sources of our economic woes and a holy blueprint for recovery based on something greater than the once mighty dollar.
"The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society," the 82-year-old Pontiff writes in the encyclical released Tuesday. "It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner." But aside from weighing in on the issue of regulating financial markets, his proposals appear to be based largely on fostering in economic actors a sense of obligation to serve the greater good rather than just shareholders and the bottom line.
The Pope states up front that he isn't offering "technical" responses but wants to avoid a simply "sentimental" interpretation of economic rights and wrongs. A theologian by training but an avid student of history and ideas, Benedict attempts to offer some serious philosophical depth driven by his vision of revealed Christian truth to the catchphrase ethical capitalism.
Indeed, according to Stefano Zamagni, an economics professor who was a consultant on the encyclical, Benedict believes that capitalism as such is now effectively "obsolete" and must be replaced by a new form of market economy whose driving force is not the maximization of profits.
"Capitalism is an old idea, where the market was supposedly morally neutral ... where efficiency becomes an ethos," said Zamagni during the presentation of the document in the Vatican press office on Tuesday. "This encyclical aims to overcome a dichotomy that characterized the 20th century between the economic and social spheres. If we can instead incorporate the idea of the social element into the economy, the market itself becomes a force for civility."
Benedict denounces the modern corporate business model, taking on the global Wall Street and its super bonuses, which lead to financial speculation and labor outsourcing. "In recent years, a new cosmopolitan class of managers has emerged, who are often answerable only to the shareholders generally consisting of anonymous funds which de facto determine their remuneration," he writes. "Profit is useful if it serves as a means toward an end. Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty."
Benedict acknowledges the acceleration of globalization since the last major encyclical dedicated to what is called the church's "social doctrine," Pope Paul VI's Populorum Progressio in 1967. But this too, the Pope says, is inherently neither good nor bad. "We should not be victims of [globalization], but rather its protagonists, acting in the light of reason, guided by charity and truth."
The encyclical, which follows two others in this papacy on the concepts of Christian love and hope, was initially scheduled for release last year, but the Pope thought it wise to publish what is in effect a "postLehman Brothers" version. There are frequent references to the global financial crisis, though Cardinal Renato Martino, who shepherded the encyclical, declared Tuesday that if it had come out in early 2008, "it would have been prophetic." Its release comes on the eve of the Group of Eight summit in nearby L'Aquila, Italy, where church officials hope its message will reach the world leaders gathered to discuss ways out of the economic crisis.
In one of the more provocative passages, the Pope says the global recession requires not only a reform of the U.N. and international economic institutions but also the "urgent need of a true world political authority ... universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights." While critics, particularly in the U.S., are likely to shun such an idea as a utopian sort of "world government," some world leaders, like French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have been advocating since late last year for comprehensive and binding global regulation of financial markets.
The 144-page document an encyclical is considered Catholicism's highest teaching authority expands well beyond strict economic theory, touching on abortion, euthanasia, immigration and the environment. In each case, the Pope provides an economic reading of why church teaching on these issues is not only holy but also helpful for improving human material conditions.
In the final section, titled "The Development of Peoples and Technology," the Pope challenges the modern gospel of progress for progress's sake. And as elsewhere in the document, he calls on individuals to take responsibility to do the right thing as both a moral and a socioeconomic imperative. "True development does not consist primarily in 'doing.' The key to development is a mind capable of thinking in technological terms and grasping the fully human meaning of human activities," he writes. "Even when we work through satellites or through remote electronic impulses, our actions always remain human, an expression of our responsible freedom. Technology is highly attractive because it draws us out of our physical limitations and broadens our horizon. But human freedom is authentic only when it responds to the fascination of technology with decisions that are the fruit of moral responsibility." Even more than loose credit, Benedict clearly blames loose morals for our economic ills.