Eight days before publication of Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical on economic justice Caritas in Veritate ("Charity in Truth"), rogue investment guru Bernard Madoff stood before a federal judge in New York and was sentenced to 150 years in prison for bilking clients out of $50 billion or more. "I leave a legacy of shame," Madoff confessed. So does the era of excess that he symbolizes and that provides a background for the pope's encyclical.
The document appeared July 7 on the eve of a gathering of the Group of Eight -- a forum for leaders of wealthy industrialized countries -- and three days before a post-G8 meeting between the pope and U.S. President Barack Obama. In a message to the world leaders gathered in L'Aquila, Italy, Pope Benedict urged that in responding to the global economic crisis they "listen to the voice of Africa and the countries least developed economically."
The release of Caritas in Veritate was repeatedly promised and repeatedly delayed during the past year. The standard explanation -- offered by the pope himself -- was the need to get the facts and the analysis of the world economic situation right. This desire for relevance and inclusiveness may account for the encyclical's length -- 150 pages -- and complexity, as well as an exceptionally broad range of topics stretching from tourism to technology, bioethics to the duties of consumers, the desirability of religious freedom to the dangers of religious "indifferentism."
As with any papal document, so also with this one it was necessary to build on previous papal statements. In modern times, the body of teaching called social doctrine began in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum, on capital and labor, and, prior to Benedict's contribution, extended to Pope John Paul II's Centesimus Annus, issued in 1991 to mark the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo's document and the fall of communism. Pope Benedict also pays special tribute to Pope Paul VI's 1969 encyclical Populorum Progressio ("The Progress of Peoples").
No less important was that the new encyclical be in continuity with themes and insights of this pope's two previous encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est ("God Is Love"), published in 2005, and Spe Salvi ("Saved By Hope"), which appeared in 2007.
But perhaps the biggest challenge facing Pope Benedict, as it does anyone speaking about economics from a religious perspective, was to make a moral analysis without moralizing. It is undoubtedly true, for instance, that greed helped cause the current collapse. But that point having been made -- as it has been many times in the last year -- how helpful is it to go on making it? Yet how can a pope talk about economics otherwise?
"The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly," the pope insists. But, he adds, this can't be "any ethics whatsoever," but must be "people-centered." In the same vein he argues that ethical criteria today should be central to the development of sound policy on energy and the environment.
Greater social responsibility
Another question for the pontiff in writing this encyclical was how and whether to deal with what's become known in some circles as the Bockenforde thesis. This is a reference to Ernst-Wolfgang Bockenforde, a German Catholic philosopher and political scientist whose work Pope Benedict XVI is known to have read. Bockenforde lately has launched a scathing attack on capitalism, contending that the present crisis is the end of the road for it and that much of the Marxist critique of capitalism has turned out to be correct.
Caritas in Veritate stops far short of saying that. But it does declare the market economy to be suffering from a "loss of trust" required for its proper functioning. In a statement sure to raise the hackles of free-market ideologues, Pope Benedict rejects the idea that social problems can be solved "through the simple application of commercial logic" and says "grave imbalances" exist when economic activity ("conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation") is separated from political action ("conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution").
Pope Benedict also points to a need for "greater social responsibility on the part of business." This means, he says, that "business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume the responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business." Among these he lists workers, clients, suppliers and the broader community.
A fundamental principle of social doctrine -- perhaps the most basic of all -- is that economic activity is for the person, not vice versa. In this sense the Church's teaching is a direct repudiation of the economic liberalism of the early 19th century and also of the centralized state-run economies of the Soviet Union and other communist countries in the century that followed.
The key concept of this personalistic view, recurring throughout Caritas in Veritate and other documents of the magisterium, is integral development -- the development of the person in respect to the full panoply of human goods.
"Precisely because God gives a resounding 'yes' to man," Pope Benedict writes, "man cannot fail to open himself to the divine vocation to pursue his own development. The truth of development consists in its completeness: if it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development."
One of the encyclical's most striking features is its linking of "life ethics" and "social ethics," an idea whose origin the pope traces to Pope Paul's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life") condemning contraception and to Pope John Paul's 1995 Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life") opposing abortion and other direct attacks on life. The point could be relevant to healing increasingly visible rifts between pro-life Catholics and so-called social justice Catholics.
Quoting Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict says "a society lacks solid foundations when...it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then...radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated."
Precisely that is happening today, he adds, citing the spread of legalized abortion, in vitro fertilization, destructive embryo research, moves toward eugenics and euthanasia, and the exporting of birth control and the accompanying "anti-life mentality" from rich countries to poor ones. Noting a simultaneous rise in concern for environmental issues, he says: "Our duties toward the environment are linked to our duties toward the human person.... It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other."
Pope Benedict speaks with alarm of the falling birthrates of Western Europe, calling them both a sign of "moral weariness" and "a crucial problem for highly affluent countries" where the decline of births below the population replacement level is placing severe strains on social welfare programs and economic development. Governments need to respond by adopting policies to promote traditional marriage, he says.
Response to crisis
Simply from the perspective of the United States, the current economic collapse, while painful and challenging, is relatively simple to analyze and prescribe for. A masters-of-the-universe mentality dominant in the financial world, wishful thinking and ideologically motivated rashness by agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the mortgage lending institutions they dealt with, and excessive risk-taking by the financial and business sectors, came together to produce a disaster. Few were guilty in the way Madoff was, yet, in their own ways, many share blame for what happened.
The response to the challenge by the Bush and Obama administrations also has been predictable, though involving unprecedentedly large sums of money. For the government the solution involves propping up failing banks, financial firms and industries -- notably, auto manufacturing -- stimulating the economy in hopes of restoring confidence, and putting new regulatory mechanisms in place. And still the recovery goes slowly.
The story is far more complicated viewed from a global perspective. "The risk for our time," says Caritas in Veritate, "is that the de facto interdependence of people is not matched by ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development." Basically, the encyclical maintains, charity is the answer.
Here, however, national self-interest narrowly conceived and the realities of global economics both come into play, foiling easy analysis and effective action. As usual, too, poor people are the hardest hit and the last helped. While shortages of essentials like water and food persist in some places, Pope Benedict notes, elsewhere countries seeking to attract foreign investment with cheap labor resort to means like "deregulation of the labor market" and "downsizing...social security systems."
This is the perspective -- the perspective of the preferential option for the poor -- naturally adopted by the Church and by the pope. "Listen to the voice of Africa and the countries least developed economically," Pope Benedict cries out.
Different readers will have different reactions to his long, intricate encyclical with its attempt to cover so much ground. Even now, though, it's clear that this is a serious, searching look not just at the current crisis, but at the socioeconomic, psychological and spiritual factors that produced it -- together with a powerful message of personal and systemic reform directed to preventing a recurrence.
But who's listening? In the end, who will read and heed Caritas in Veritate? Not Bernard Madoff certainly. Probably not Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner or Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Years ago, a collection of Pope Leo XIII's documents on social issues was published with the title "The Pope Speaks To the Modern World." Popes have gone on speaking to the world since then. It's not so clear the world has been listening -- really listening, that is.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
Protecting workers' rights
"Systems of social security can lose the capacity to carry out their task, both in emerging countries and in those that were among the earliest to develop, as well as in poor countries. Here budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending often made under pressure from international financial institutions, can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of workers' associations. Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and farsighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level" (No. 25).
Fundamental right to life
"Openness to life is at the center of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man's true good. If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fiber and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual" (No. 28).
On outsourcing labor
"There is no reason to deny that a certain amount of capital can do good, if invested abroad rather than at home. Yet the requirements of justice must be safeguarded, with due consideration for the way in which the capital was generated and the harm to individuals that will result if it is not used where it was produced. What should be avoided is a speculative use of financial resources that yields to the temptation of seeking only short-term profit, without regard for the long-term sustainability of the enterprise, its benefit to the real economy and attention to the advancement, in suitable and appropriate ways, of further economic initiatives in countries in need of development. It is true that the export of investments and skills can benefit the populations of the receiving country. Labor and technical knowledge are a universal good. Yet it is not right to export these things merely for the sake of obtaining advantageous conditions, or worse, for purposes of exploitation, without making a real contribution to local society by helping to bring about a robust productive and social system, an essential factor for stable development" (No. 40).
Reform of global institutions
"In the face of the unrelenting growth of global interdependence, there is a strongly felt need, even in the midst of a global recession, for a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth. One also senses the urgent need to find innovative ways of implementing the principle of the responsibility to protect and of giving poorer nations an effective voice in shared decision-making. This seems necessary in order to arrive at a political, juridical and economic order which can increase and give direction to international cooperation for the development of all peoples in solidarity. To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority" (No. 67).
Our link to environment
"The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its lifestyle, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new lifestyles 'in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.' Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society. Nature is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable. Desertification and the decline in productivity in some agricultural areas are also the result of impoverishment and underdevelopment among their inhabitants. When incentives are offered for their economic and cultural development, nature itself is protected. Moreover, how many natural resources are squandered by wars! Peace in and among peoples would also provide greater protection for nature. The hoarding of resources can generate serious conflicts among the peoples involved. Peaceful agreement about the use of resources can protect nature and, at the same time, the well-being of the societies concerned" (No. 51).
Opportunity in crisis
"It is true that growth has taken place, and it continues to be a positive factor that has lifted billions of people out of misery. ... Yet it must be acknowledged that this same economic growth has been and continues to be weighed down by malfunctions and dramatic problems, highlighted even further by the current crisis. This presents us with choices that cannot be postponed concerning nothing less than the destiny of man, who, moreover, cannot prescind from his nature. The technical forces in play, the global interrelations, the damaging effects on the real economy of badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing, large-scale migration of peoples, often provoked by some particular circumstance and then given insufficient attention, the unregulated exploitation of the earth's resources: all this leads us today to reflect on the measures that would be necessary to provide a solution to problems that are not only new in comparison to those addressed by Pope Paul VI, but also, and above all, of decisive impact upon the present and future good of humanity. The different aspects of the crisis, its solutions and any new development that the future may bring, are increasingly interconnected, they imply one another, they require new efforts of holistic understanding and a new humanistic synthesis. The complexity and gravity of the present economic situation rightly cause us concern, but we must adopt a realistic attitude as we take up with confidence and hope the new responsibilities to which we are called by the prospect of a world in need of profound cultural renewal, a world that needs to rediscover fundamental values on which to build a better future. The current crisis obliges us to replan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negative ones. The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future" (No. 21).
Striving toward common good
"To love someone is to desire that person's good and to take effective steps to secure it. Besides the good of the individual, there is a good that is linked to living in society: the common good. It is the good of 'all of us,' made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society. It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it. To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity. To take a stand for the common good is on the one hand to be solicitous for, and on the other hand to avail oneself of, that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it the pólis, or 'city.' The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practice this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path -- we might also call it the political path -- of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity that encounters the neighbor directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis. When animated by charity, commitment to the common good has greater worth than a merely secular and political stand would have. Like all commitment to justice, it has a place within the testimony of divine charity that paves the way for eternity through temporal action. Man's earthly activity, when inspired and sustained by charity, contributes to the building of the universal city of God, which is the goal of the history of the human family" (No. 7).
Pontiff's past encyclicals
Caritas in Veritate ("Love in Truth") is Pope Benedict XVI's third encyclical. Here is a brief synopsis of his first two letters:
Deus Caritas Est ("God is Love"), released Jan. 25, 2005, explored the virtue of love, in particular emphasizing agape, or self-sacrificial love, over eros, or erotic love.
Spe Salve (On Christian Hope), released Nov. 30, 2007, presents Jesus Christ as a source of love and hope for modern-day men and women, warning them not to make the mistake of replacing religious faith with faith in progress and technology.
Popes' social teachings
Pope Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate is the latest in a long line of encyclicals on social, rather than theological, themes. Here is a list of previous papal encyclicals on social issues.
Rerum Novarum (on capital and labor): Pope Leo XIII's groundbreaking 1891 is credited with ushering in the era of Catholic social teaching. Written during the industrial revolution, Pope Leo defended the right of workers to organize to seek higher wages and better conditions and detailed the rights and obligations of management and labor.
Quadragesimo Anno (on reconstructing the social order): Released in 1931 for the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope Pius XI's encyclical warned against both true socialism, which he deemed "utterly foreign to Christian truth" since its concept of life is material rather than spiritual, and unbridled capitalism, which he saw as producing "economic imperialism" by concentrating wealth and economic power in the hands of a few.
Mater et Magistra ("Mother and Teacher"): Pope John XXIII's 1961 social encyclical, timed for the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum's release, stated that the bringing of social justice into the world was not just the responsibility of individuals, but of the state, as well.
Pacem in Terris ("Peace on Earth"): The first encyclical addressed to all men of good will in addition to all Catholics, Pope John XXIII's 1963 letter laid out the natural law principles on peace.
Populorum Progressio ("The Progress of Peoples"): Pope Paul VI's 1967 letter, written during the Vietnam War and amid the tense atmosphere of the Cold War, appealed to rich countries to "take concrete action" to promote human development and to remedy imbalances between wealthy and poor nations.
Laborem Exercens ("On Human Work"): In his first of three social encyclicals, Pope John Paul II explored the dignity and role of human work, rooting the letter in his own experiences as a worker. The encyclical was released on the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis ("On Social Concerns"): Commemorating the 20th anniversary of Populorum Progressio, Pope John Paul's 1987 encyclical responded to developments in the Third World, in particular citing the foreign debt of such nations in contributing to the sharpening divide between rich and poor nations.
Centesimus Annus ("The Hundredth Year"): Coming amid the collapse of the Soviet Union and toward the end of the Cold War, Pope John Paul's 1991 encyclical marked the centenary of Rerum Novarum. In it, he analyzes the political events of the time from the perspective of the Gospels and recalls the need for Catholic social teaching to have a "correct view of the human person and of his unique value."
Sources: Catholic News Service and 2009 Catholic Almanac