‘Individualism’ as the root cause of global economic crisis

I hesitated before writing what follows, about an interesting speech Pope Benedict XVI recently gave to civil leaders of Rome and its environs. Particularly because this is an election year, and as the contents of my mailbag these days attests, some will be parsing these words for evidence of a political bias. 

Without a doubt, there is a political application to the pope’s words. After all, he was offering an analysis of the current global economic crisis along with some of the social ills it has caused, and identifying principles of healthy civic life to politicians. I report what he said here in the same spirit — pre-politically, with a focus on the principles. It is certain that what he says should be challenging not just to Roman politicians and voters of all stripes, but also to American politicians and voters of all stripes. With full trust that will be understood by OSV Newsweekly readers, I continue: 

As he has done on several occasions in the past, the pope identified “individualism” as a cause of the economic crisis that has swept various parts of the globe, including Italy (and, of course, the United States). 

He said: “The current crisis, in fact, also has in its roots individualism, which obscures the relational dimension of the person and leads him to close himself off in his own little world, to be attentive mostly to his own needs and desires, worrying little about others.” 

The pope said some of the consequences of individualism in Rome included real estate speculation, the difficulty of young people finding work, the solitude of many elderly, and the anonymity characterizing life in some city neighborhoods. 

In the face of problems like these (and they seem similar to what we’re experiencing here, too), he said Catholics have a vital civil role to play. 

“Faith tells us that man is a being called to live in relation,” he said. “Rediscovering relationships as the constitutive element of our existence is the first step to give life to a more human society.” 

The pope underscored this message at the end of his speech. While acknowledging that the “challenges are many and complex,” he said “it is possible to solve them only in the measure in which the awareness is reinforced that the destiny of each person is tied to that of every person.” 

I guess at some level of simplification, what the pope is saying is not all that different from the entirely unremarkable: “Selfishness is the root of social evil.” Well, that’s obvious, and almost circular as a statement. 

Living as if you believe it, however, is an entirely different thing — even (or especially?) in the relative closeness of our own families. Original sin gets in the way, but so too does a constant barrage of cultural messages (if we’re not careful to consume them critically) emphasizing that self is No. 1. 

What do you make of the pope’s analysis? Does it fit? Write feedback@osv.com.