Because the Roman Catholic Church has a longer and more distinguished tradition of serious reflection on social, political, and economic issues than does any other Christian denomination, and because its statements are influential even among non-Catholics, the recent “Note on Reform of the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is worth a careful examination.
Early reactions to the document fall along more or less predictable lines. According to the New York Times, one liberal Catholic theologian was quick to identify the Church’s teaching with the Occupy Wall Street movement:
“It’s clear the Vatican stands with the Occupy Wall Street protesters and others struggling to return ethics and good governance to a financial sector grown out of control after 30 years of deregulation.”
Others are more critical of the document, observing, first, that its principles don’t stray from traditional Catholic social teaching and, second, that its analysis hews closely to conventional economic thinking.
From my point of view (closer to the latter than to the former reaction), the Note’s most compelling passages invoke the first principles of Roman Catholic social teaching and its least compelling passages attempt to show how those principles can be put into practice. The document contains a critique of liberal individualism for which I have a great deal of sympathy:
What has driven the world in such a problematic direction for its economy and also for peace?
First and foremost, an economic liberalism that spurns rules and controls. Economic liberalism is a theoretical system of thought, a form of “economic apriorism” that purports to derive laws for how markets function from theory, these being laws of capitalistic development, while exaggerating certain aspects of markets. An economic system of thought that sets down a priori the laws of market functioning and economic development, without measuring them against reality, runs the risk of becoming an instrument subordinated to the interests of the countries that effectively enjoy a position of economic and financial advantage.…
In his social encyclical, Benedict XVI precisely identified the roots of a crisis that is not only economic and financial but above all moral in nature. In fact, as the Pontiff notes, to function correctly the economy needs ethics; and not just of any kind but one that is people-centred. He goes on to denounce the role played by utilitarianism and individualism and the responsibilities of those who have adopted and promoted them as the parameters for the optimal behaviour of all economic and political agents who operate and interact in the social context….
Recognizing the primacy of being over having and of ethics over the economy, the world’s peoples ought to adopt an ethic of solidarity as the animating core of their action. This implies abandoning all forms of petty selfishness and embracing the logic of the global common good which transcends merely contingent, particular interests. In a word, they ought to have a keen sense of belonging to the human family which means sharing the common dignity of all human beings: “Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity.”
In 1991, after the failure of Marxist communism, Blessed John Paul II had already warned of the risk of an “idolatry of the market, an idolatry which ignores the existence of goods which by their nature are not and cannot be mere commodities.” Today his warning needs to be heeded without delay and a road must be taken that is in greater harmony with the dignity and transcendent vocation of the person and the human family.
At the level of prophetic witness, I’m happy to embrace this not-quite-ringing reminder of our common humanity, of the primacy of the human good, and of the nature of the market as one among many mere instruments for the promotion of human flourishing. There is a created moral order to which we all belong.
Where I hesitate is endorsing the call for global political institutions to regulate that universal moral order. Perhaps it’s my Protestant emphasis on our sinfulness and fallibility that leads me to worry about giving power to institutions that are so distant from the ordinary levers of human control. Or perhaps it’s my experience of the United Nations, hardly an encouraging example of political and fiscal self-restraint and modulated moral judgment.
To be sure, the Vatican document is replete with calls for gradualism in the establishment of this new international institution and invocations of the traditional Roman Catholic principle of subsidiarity, of leaving responsibility to the level of authority that is closest to the people who are to be served. Perhaps in practice there’s no difference between the Vatican’s recommendations and my hesitations.
But, considering this passage, I doubt it:
Paul VI emphasized the revolutionary power of “forward-looking imagination” that can perceive the possibilities inscribed in the present and guide people towards a new future. By freeing his imagination, man frees his existence. Through an effort of community imagination, it is possible to transform not only institutions but also lifestyles and encourage a better future for all peoples.Modern States became structured wholes over time and reinforced sovereignty within their own territory. But social, cultural and political conditions have gradually changed. Their interdependence has grown – so it has become natural to think of an international community that is integrated and increasingly ruled by a shared system – but a worse form of nationalism has lingered on, according to which the State feels it can achieve the good of its own citizens in a self-sufficient way.
Today all of this seems anachronistic and surreal, and all the nations, great or small, together with their governments, are called to go beyond the “state of nature” which would keep States in a never-ending struggle with one another. Globalization, despite some of its negative aspects, is unifying peoples more and prompting them to move towards a new “rule of law” on the supranational level, supported by a more intense and fruitful collaboration. With dynamics similar to those that put an end in the past to the “anarchical” struggle between rival clans and kingdoms with regard to the creation of national states, today humanity needs to be committed to the transition from a situation of archaic struggles between national entities, to a new model of a more cohesive, polyarchic international society that respects every people’s identity within the multifaceted riches of a single humanity. Such a passage, which is already timidly under way, would ensure the citizens of all countries – regardless of their size or power – peace and security, development, and free, stable and transparent markets. As John Paul II warns us, “Just as the time has finally come when in individual States a system of private vendetta and reprisal has given way to the rule of law, so too a similar step forward is now urgently needed in the international community.”Time has come to conceive of institutions with universal competence, now that vital goods shared by the entire human family are at stake, goods which the individual States cannot promote and protect by themselves.
My worry about these supranational institutions is that they are irresponsible in both the political and the moral sense. The “masters of the universe” (Tom Wolfe’s phrase) who populate them are little different from the Wall Street financiers it is so easy now to deprecate. And, I fear, the more cosmopolitan they are, the less rooted they will be in any genuine community that can call them to account. If we genuinely care about character, virtue, and responsibility, we have to ask which institutions are most likely to serve as their seedbeds.
The answer, I’d bet, is that there’s generally an inverse relationship between size and scope, on the one side, and success in cultivating character, on the other. Edmund Burke’s little platoons would be likeliest to be the most morally salubrious. We should look to families, churches, and local communities to promote human decency and, with it, human flourishing. Perhaps if we got that right, we could begin to have some confidence in the supranational institutions. Or perhaps if we got that right, we’d have less need of them.