My apologies for the delay in posting any sort of response to the Vatican document, “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority,” produced by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Although I have been slow to respond, occupied as I have been with midterm exams and a number of other obligations, I would like to first point you toward two excellent reactions so far, by colleagues over at the Daily Theology and Women in Theology (if you’re not following these two groups of theological commentators, you should!).
Like Katie over at WIT, I don’t feel nearly qualified to comment on the economic and financial aspects of this global crisis, I do feel as though there is much to be said from a theological, ethical and pragmatic standpoint. Both Kevin (at DT) and Katie (at WIT) have offered some helpful areas of critique, welcome additions to the discussion of this document given the universal “sound bite”-ing that is happening to the text on network news channels. Yet, there are things to celebrate in this document (including the way in which it has been received so far). I want to offer a few comments about where I see strengths and then highlight some of the weaknesses my blogging colleagues in the young-theological-voices world offer for consideration.
Concerning Some Positive Aspects
First, among the positive aspects of this text stands the direct challenge to those who claim that markets should be unregulated and that there exists anything resembling a fair and “free” market. The acknowledgement that the process of globalization in recent decades has brought benefits as well as wrought inequality and injustice is also quite important.
Second, while the text repeats variations on the word “liberalism,” when I believe other things are meant at times, there is a sound critique leveled against world views that prioritize capitalism and utilitarian outlooks. This is a refreshing admittance given the previous Pontiff’s perpetual fear of communism or socialism’s manifold appearance (we all, popes included, shaped by our experiences!). Capitalism is not an intrinsic good and that must be kept in mind. This doesn’t mean that capitalistic societies and systems are therefore necessarily evil or wrong — this is not a zero-sum game — but it does mean that capitalism (in its myriad iterations) is not de facto “Christian,” as some politicians and business leaders would claim. In fact, it can be quite the contrary.
Third, Pope Benedict XVI has been a leader in recognizing both the gifts and the challenges that technology offers our world. His critique of so-called “Technocracy” is welcome and the document explains what is meant by this term:
[T]hat is, of making technology absolute, which “tends to prevent people from recognizing anything that cannot be explained in terms of matter alone” and minimizing the value of the choices made by the concrete human individual who works in the economic-financial system by reducing them to mere technical variables. Being closed to a “beyond” in the sense of something more than technology, not only makes it impossible to find adequate solutions to the problems, but it impoverishes the principal victims of the crisis more and more from the material standpoint.
What is at the heart of this concern is the legitimately anthropological issue of the commodification of human beings through the subordination of persons to the whim and force of “the market.” This is done with greater ease and reach through technological innovation, something which can be used for good or ill, but has certainly been used to harm people.
Fourth, I am very grateful for the text’s willingness, if in a rather vague way, address the value of regulation and government — including international — oversight. At times it can read as if the authors of the text wish to return to an age of Christendom when the Church could regulate all things, but in our contemporary setting that seems impossible. Instead, agencies such as the United Nations and others should be tasked, it would seem, to regulate international trade and market activity to help ensure justice and peace in this increasingly globalized world.
Fifth, the simultaneous emphasis on the Catholic Social principle of subsidiarity is very important alongside this call for a so-called “supra-national regulatory authority.” Likewise, we are reminded that the whole purpose of any such organization or government is to serve the people, not the other way around.
Finally, while the language of a “world authority” can be rather off-putting, what should drive this entity — namely the universal defense of the common good — is an important focus upon which all nations should be fixed. It is true that such has not been the case in recent history as governments, which are run by people, have neglected their primary mission: to care for their citizens.
Concerning Some Negative Aspects
First, I wish to repeat what Kevin has already pointed out over at Daily Theology. Here are four areas that he highlights as particularly lacking in the document (all very good observations indeed):
- First, while the note is critical of specific policies, it diplomatically avoids mentioning any countries or situations by name. Given the key role played by the United States, the European Union and China in the global economy it is strange that there is not more explicit reflection on these economies. There is no mention of the petty bickering in Congress and between European leaders, which is only making the situation worse or of the role of the United States and Europe in preventing real reform at the UN, IMF and WTO. This, in my mind, is too soft and makes the document somewhat abstract. The fact that it is Europe and the United States (and to a lesser degree some Asian nations) that have designed the present international financial system, benefited from the power imbalances, and have prevented effective regulation from developing should be publicly acknowledged.
- Second, while it stresses the need for regulation, the document does not directly speak to the role and responsibility of transnational corporations in this period of globalization as Pope Benedict and Blessed John Paul II have done previously. We cannot speak about the global economic system without considering the power of these corporations (i.e., Wall Street) and the temptation to idolatry and greed. Christian CEOs, shareholders, and (as Benedict reminded us in his encyclical) consumers need to be challenged as to how we have contributed to this present crisis (for example, there were a lot of Catholics working in Lehman Brothers and many of us have benefited from the economic bubble that burst).
- Third, the document could have been strengthened with a stronger message of support for NGOs, international church organizations, and other “intermediary bodies” that help to build a sense of solidarity across borders or who are attempting to question the present context. As Jacques Maritain recognized, these bodies are essential for effective global governance. Effective global governance, placed at the service of the person and the common good, needs the popular support and participation of people on the ground. With its many international structures, the Catholic Church is in a prime position to engender solidarity.
- Finally, the document is addressed mainly to people in the positions of power. While this may be effective in terms of global policy reform, it seems distant from the reality of women, men, and children who are poor. This, perhaps, is the limitation of all Catholic social teaching. Indeed, there is almost no mention of the poor and the need for their empowerment. While penned by an African (Cardinal Turkson of Ghana), there is no mention of how this crisis is impacting Africa, Asia, and Latin America.