The Church and Economics
Cultural Gap Is Responsible for Confusion Over Recent Document
BY Edward Pentin
January 15-28, 2012 Issue | Posted 1/9/12 at 11:32 AM
“The Church doesn’t want to develop its own economics,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson. “Our mission is to basically engage the world from the standpoint of our faith and the charity of Christ.”
The president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace was speaking to the Register late last year about the Church’s approach to economics, during which he discussed the fallout from a controversial document his department issued Oct. 22 on the global economic crisis.
He continued to defend the paper, appearing somewhat perplexed and saddened by the reaction it provoked.
“What we did with that document was to invite a reflection,” he said. “Whether it be economics, politics or anything to do with human or intellectual resources, the center is the human person.”
He added that when this is not the case, “the Church just wishes to draw attention to this, to say that something is wrong.”
Titled “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority,” the paper focused on reforming the international financial system by, among other things, proposing a supranational authority and a taxation on financial transactions to aid the economies of poorer countries.
The Vatican stressed that the document, which was published to coincide with the G20 meeting in Cannes in early November, was not a magisterial text, but merely a proposal for discussion.
Many commentators, particularly in the United States, criticized it for putting forward what they saw as unrealistic, ill-informed and utopian solutions and wondered whether it had been fully cleared by the Vatican Secretariat of State (Catholic News Service later reported that it had).
Others, particularly among socialist-leaning groups in Europe and commentators in the developing world, lauded its reflections for defending the dignity of the poorest and the voiceless in today’s global capitalist system. The financial transaction tax the document proposed was particularly popular among these groups and won the explicit support of the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury.
Asked about the genesis of the document, Cardinal Turkson said it was a product of wide consultations among curial officials and scholars. He explained it originated from two major conferences in the U.S. aimed at discussing the Pope’s 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate and its reception in the United States.
The cardinal also stressed it was the fruit of contributions given by members and consultants of the pontifical council, which included a “discreet group of experts” in the field of economics. (He cited St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn., in particular.) However, it’s not clear how many scholars sympathetic to or specializing in the free market were consulted.
The emphasis on a global authority that would refer to the United Nations, arguably the most controversial passage in the document, emanated from the council’s plenary meeting last year. The cardinal said it drew on Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, where the idea was first proposed, and later revisited by Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate. Members of the department agreed at the plenary that it was an idea that “needed to be teased out more,” the cardinal said, and that the G20 meeting offered them an opportunity to present their conclusions.
“We got it into our heads that we should try and accompany that meeting with some kind of invitation, reflection, from our side,” the Ghanaian cardinal recalled. “So we shared our ideas with our consulters, threw ideas around, had different input, digested it, and then put it into circulation again.” He said he didn’t think the global-authority idea was utopian because it was contingent on reform of the United Nations.
The cardinal said he found criticism of that proposition “strange and difficult,” as the Church was merely proposing, not imposing, possible resolutions to the crisis and the global-authority suggestion had already been mooted by two pontiffs.
More generally, he said calling the document “Eurocentric” was also “unfortunate” because it implied the Vatican “hated capitalism.”
“What we draw attention to is a liberal, utilitarian type of capitalism that places gain and profit and money at the head of everything to the detriment of that which really should be the center, which is the human person,” he said. “When that happens, whether it be within a capitalist or communist system, we draw attention to it.”
The cardinal denied the department was socialist-leaning in its approach to economics, but rather was driven by “nothing more than faith in Jesus and the charity of Christ.” For this reason, he finds it “strange if anyone accuses us of being socialist.”
“We don’t merit such characterization in any way,” he said. “We’re just carrying out the Church’s mission and what we’re called to do.”
Part of the reason for this perception, according to professor Father Martin Schlag, coordinator of the Markets, Culture and Ethics Project at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, is that a “cultural gap” exists between European and American traditions.
“In Europe we stem from [an approach] that has always seen the solution in states, whereas in the American tradition the solution is always in the individual and entrepreneurship,” he said.
Father Schlag also pointed out that the word “capitalism” can often have negative connotations in Europe, whereas that is not the case in the U.S.
“I personally would underscore the importance of entrepreneurship, because we have seen that economic aid doesn’t help in the long run; it creates aid dependency,” said Father Schlag, adding that what “really solves the problem” is the free market and entrepreneurship, but one “based solidly on a good foundation of ethics and culture.”
And yet entrepreneurship, innovation and wealth generation are rarely visible in Church documents or statements on the economy. Father Schlag said the Church values and encourages entrepreneurs but agreed that change is needed.
“I wish that this message, which is at the core of the social teaching of the Church, would become more apparent and transparent in the documents which are always well-intentioned but stem from this European tradition, which focuses on state policies,” he said.
One notable exception to adherents to that approach is Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, president of the Vatican Bank, who has underscored the importance of increased production and small business in generating prosperity — an urgent necessity that he says is being thwarted by a low birth rate, particularly in Europe.
But he, too, is sympathetic to central planners and state intervention. (Most recently, he called on the European Central Bank to issue eurobonds to help solve the euro crisis — a policy opposed by Germany, France and Italy.)
Indeed, many argue that the Church too often ignores the errors in state handling of the economy, attributing greed and excess only to individuals and corporations and largely omitting the burdens of a burgeoning welfare state.
Father Schlag, however, argued that the problems of fiscal irresponsibility and public debt are also a “big concern” to the Church.
“In the Bible we read in the Book of Proverbs: Beware of mounting debts because he who has a debt is about to become a slave,” he said. “This is valid also for states.”
Despite his expertise, Father Schlag, who is Austrian, was not called upon to help draft the council’s note, but he is sure that it underwent “serious reflection and consultation.”
He believes Blessed Pope John Paul II’s approach to his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus — a document that “really reconciled” the Church with capitalism — is an example to follow, as the late Pope “especially wanted” representatives of the American tradition to be present in its creation.
“This is something that should be done when the Church speaks about economic questions,” said Father Schlag. “She should always hear all sides, all cultures, in order to find the right language.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.
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