The Vatican's global economy - ‘Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish,’ or timely, pertinent, reasonable?

  • November 6, 2011

Thinking in catholic terms about a global economy ought to be natural. Catholic means global, universal, transcending boundaries. But a Catholic proposal for regulating the global economy has stirred a battle between left and right within the Church.

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s “note” — issued in advance of the G20 meeting that opened Nov. 3 in Cannes, France — proposed a gradual evolution toward global governance of finance and trade.

On the right the proposal has been dismissed as “rubbish, rubbish, rubbish” by American conservative George Weigel of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Centre. Weigel dismisses the Pontifical Council as “a rather small office in the Roman Curia” without much standing in relation to the teaching office of the Church.

The ideas found in “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” are simply “an uncritical internationalism of a distinctly Euro-secular provenance,” as far as Weigel is concerned.

On the other side, Vincent Miller, a University of Dayton professor of Catholic theology and culture, greets the Vatican document as timely, pertinent and reasonable.

“It challenges the reduction of human existence to a narrow economic logic as our current global order has done,” he wrote in a commentary for the left-leaning American publication the National Catholic Reporter.

Where the Vatican challenged the materialism of Marxism during the Cold War it now questions the materialism of capitalism and market ideologies, said Miller.

But the real point of the document might not be an eternal battle between big government and free markets in the developed world, according to Michael Casey, director of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. The Pontifical Council is speaking for people in Asia, Africa and Latin America who are part of the global economy on terms dictated from the financial capitals of the world, he said.

“It’s the poor in the developing world who bear the heaviest burden in all this turmoil afflicting the world economy,” he said. “So there has always been a great deal of interest in having a more equitable system in place.” The Pontifical Council’s note will form part of Development and Peace’s ongoing re-examination of its mission in light of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

“It’s the next step beyond Caritas in Veritate,” he said.

Development and Peace’s partner organizations in the global south talk about economics in terms that fit nicely with the Pontifical Council’s note, said Casey.

“There is a legitimate voice of the Church, and Catholics, on economics that stems from the necessary role human beings and the common good should have as the ultimate goal of financial and economic systems,” wrote Aldo Caliari, founder of Rethinking Bretton Woods, a project of the Washington-based, Jesuit-founded Centre of Concern, in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

The Pontifical Council is trying to address a problem many pro-market, neo-liberal thinkers prefer to ignore, said Caliari.

“In a period of the greatest trade and capital mobility, the rate of poverty reduction has slowed down compared to a period of less liberalization,” he said.

McMaster University professor of economics John Smithin doesn’t believe a globalized economy requires global governance, or that the poor are well served by systems that take control out of the hands of their own governments.

“If you’re in the Vatican and you step out into the streets of Rome, surely you can see the consequences of international governance — the Eurozone,” he said.

In Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Brazil and India people have been lifted out of poverty Keynsianism that set the stage for mercantilist policies, said Smithin.

Smithin prescribes a four-stage solution for bringing countries out of poverty. First, a stable, legitimate government that can issue its own money and regulate its banks. Second, monetary policies that allow for a floating exchange rate and interest rates only slightly above the rate of inflation. Third, the right to private property, “not so that you can possess things but so that if you do work you keep the benefits of your work.” And finally, regulated, fair markets.

“If you don’t want capitalism, you’re going to have to come up with some other explanation for how human needs will be met,” he said.

Philosophy trips up the Church when it thinks about economics, according to Smithin.

“Aristotle did not think making money was a good thing, and that’s gone into the Church through Aquinas,” he said. “They still have that view. But that’s not going to help the poor. It’s not going to help there be full employment.”

The Pontifical Council’s booklet argues that some forms of economics have become rigid ideologies rather than scientific examinations of how things work.

“One devastating effect of these ideologies, especially in the last decades of the past century and the first years of the current one, has been the outbreak of the crisis in which the world is still immersed,” says the note.

Casey hopes people listen to what the Pontifical Council has to say before launching arguments over it.

“It could serve an important catalytic position in this ongoing struggle for a more equitable economic order,” he said.

No sudden shocks with council's economic note

Catholic Register Special

The blogs are ablaze with a tiny 40-page booklet soberly called "Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority." Neither the topic of institutional reform nor the author — a dicastery, equivalent to a governmental department or ministry in the Vatican's set-up — could normally be expected to raise such a flap.

Let’s ask calmly: are the proposals contained in the note really so radical and unprecedented as to generate unusual noise, or are they conservative and incremental?

Far from being unprecedented, the proposal applies decades of Catholic social teaching to a topic which wouldn’t occur to most people but, when mentioned, they’re apt to say, “Yeah, that makes sense.” And it will make all the more sense to them because the proposal is expressly incremental — no sudden shocks, no throwing the baby out with the bathwater, much less bringing in a brand-new baby.

Nevertheless, a very good reason for media and blog attention is that the G20 really should take up the topic Nov. 3-4 at Cannes, France. “Global economic governance” will be taken up later this month by the UN General Assembly.

Besides being incremental, another characteristic of the note which I hesitate to mention because the expression will certainly be misunderstood, is that it is radical, but only in the original sense of the word. It's not radical in the left-wing-take-to-the-streets-extremist sense, but in the boring even incremental get-down-to-the-roots sense.

The note tries to get to the roots, the fundamental characteristics, of a cluster of contemporary yet persistent problems that even the most die-hard ostriches will admit are very serious and very urgent. It does so not primarily by way of analysing or explaining but — and this does make the note unusual — by proposing a practical but gradual (incremental again!) way of proceeding that involves everyone and builds on experience.

Finally, is it conservative? I have already said that the note builds on precedent, advocates the widest possible consensus building and suggests an incremental approach. This may well be the old-fashioned sense of conservative, with notes of continuity and prudence.

Apart from that, rather than wondering about the colour of the note in terms of partisan labels and political trends, I prefer to entreat fellow Canadians — first the Canadian public and then the Church in Canada (I speak of the Catholic, but gladly include all religious denominations and people of good will) and finally the Government of Canada —  to make the note their own and contribute to making it happen.   

(Czerny is an assistant to Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.)

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