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.
There remain additional critiques that could be leveled, among which can be counted the veritable weight of this document along the continuum of defined doctrine in the Catholic Church. While many observers simply see a “Vatican Document” as equal to all others, that this was promulgated by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and not, say, a Papal Encyclical Letter, actually lowers the theological and ecclesiastical impact of the document. That, in itself, is not a problem. However, I hope this text, imperfect as it is, might serve as an inspiration for bishops’ conferences around the world (especially the USCCB!!!!!) to draft their own, more particular, texts on this issue and live up to their collective vocation as ordained ministers to be prophets and teachers!
(Additionally: The unofficial full text can be read here:  NoteOnFinancialReform_PCJP2011)
Photo: File

6 Comments

  1. As you have said, there will be many more critiques forthcoming. My immediate challenge to the premise of the document is the following:

    First, given the 2000 years of history the Holy Mother Church, I find it difficult to agree with the assumption that only the Holy Fathers from the last 40 years have been used as sole references. While I fully accept the term “social justice” has been only used in more recent decades since V2, the plight of the poor and under-priveledge have been with us since B.C. (And, yes I used the term B.C. and not B.C.E!) I am quite certain the SSPX or others have writings that would be applicable to today. IMHO, the Vatican is doing itself a disservice to its message of authentic charity.

    Second, building upon the first, I also find it disturbing that the general concept, and moreover the acceptance of a “world order”; is somehow being “endorsed” by the Vatican. This by definition is not (IMHO) in keeping with the Divine plan and freedom of choice. Is not more gained by the man who gives up all his pocessions, than the man forced by “obligation”. Is this not akin to Jesus’ argument against the Pharisees and Saducees? Did not He use the example of the widow woman who gave up everything she had, on her own volition actually give more that the man observing the obligatory tithe? We should be moved by the Holy Spirit to help others in need.

    Lastly, while the plight of the poor and underpriviledge is tragic indeed, are we not called to carry all of our crosses, the bad and the good, with and for Christ?

    Now, I optimistically hope that the Vatican is not supposing the communistic plan that my be perceived, but at least on face-value, it is eerily close! And, for anyone to assume to know the true knowledge of pontifs who lived in an era of communism/socialism, and suggest a “world order”, is the most incredulous. The Vatican should be providing more guidence to the Faithful and the conversion of sinners (but of course that given the current all emcompassing “social justice” issues that may be difficult!)

    But, again there is time to critique and define. These are just initial thoughts that need further development.

      1. Thank you for the suggestion. Not to get into a Bible slinging debate, but I would submit 2 Thessolonians! In particular Chapter 3.

        And having just read through Galatians, I would also submit James as well.

    1. Matthew, 2 Thess and James do not address my point —actually Paul’s point — on the motive for freedom. Look at the last 2 chapters for that, and see if it does not differ somewhat from your position.

  2. Coincidentally, this was on New Scientist a few days ago:

    Revealed – the capitalist network that runs the world – physics-math – 19 October 2011 – New Scientist
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228354.500-revealed–the-capitalist-network-that-runs-the-world.html
    An analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.

    This is not the outcome of some evil master plan: just collective, unregulated greed and stupidity at work. Noticeably, regulations at national level appear to be ineffective in a global economy of transnational companies.

    While I am a strong advocate of Subsidiarity in government, I also suspect that pretending to make your own local rules in a globalized world has become a delusion of sovereignty.

  3. The Pontifical Council’s multiple potshots at free-market economics without any concrete alternative earns a failing grade. The deficiency of its Utopian vagueness is compounded by its devotion to a fully international system “with the United Nations as its reference.” The European Union’s current difficulty in administering universal policies for grossly different polities cautions against such a grand vision.

    Some of my fellow Catholics have diminished the significance of the document. Even the respected theologian George Weigel wrote:
    The truth of the matter is that “the Vatican” — whether that phrase is intended to mean the Pope, the Holy See, the Church’s teaching authority, or the Church’s central structures of governance — called for precisely nothing in this document. The document is a “Note” from a rather small office in the Roman Curia.

    It was predictable that left-of-center commentators, not realizing that “Pontifical Council” means “rather small office,” would quote the document as Church teaching. We did not have to wait very long.

    Three days after the document’s release, Time Magazine’s religion editor, Amy Sullivan, led her column with:
    Those politicians who think the Dodd-Frank law went too far in attempting to reform Wall Street will likely need smelling salts after taking a look at a proposal for reforming the global financial system that was released by the Vatican on Monday. The proposal’s centerpiece is a call for the formation of a global political authority that would, among other things, possess broad powers to regulate financial markets.

    Five days after that, John Nichols, writing in The Nation, chastised Rep. Paul Ryan for taking “policy positions that are dramatically at odds with those expressed in a major new statement by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.” Nichols quoted the document’s endorsement of a financial speculation tax which Ryan opposes:
    It seems advisable to reflect, for example, on …taxation measures on financial transactions through fair but modulated rates with charges proportionate to the complexity of the operations, especially those made on the “secondary” market.

    Nichol’s further pursued his attack on Ryan’s heretical disregard for “church doctrine:”
    America is not a theocracy. Ryan certainly has a right to deviate from church doctrine as he chooses. But, hopefully, he will recognize that he is, like those members of Congress who support reproductive rights or same-sex marriage, distancing themselves from the position of the church.

    In an ideal world, the American bishops would take the opportunity of this month’s ad limina visits to prevail upon the Vatican not to publish Utopian meanderings like the Council’s document, or at least to provide a disclaimer that the document is a think-tank product, not a proclamation of doctrine. A warning label might help people like Nichols see that abortion and a speculation tax are not equivalent concerns.

    But in the real world, there will not be any such pushback. The USCCB, that has an opinion on almost everything, does not mention the document on its website.

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