Globalization needs to take the whole person into account

  • October 23, 2009
Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate is a remarkable attempt to grapple with, along with much else, the threats and opportunities that have come to us all as results of international capital integration. The long letter is also a highly imaginative application of Christian thought to a matter that is very timely.

We feel the touch of the globalization Benedict speaks of when we buy some product — anything with a computer chip in it, a children’s toy, even food — that was once made in Canada or the United States, but that now comes to us from some remote spot in Asia. We see it in newspaper headlines announcing some new domestic plant closing and the transfer of the means of production to cheap labour zones elsewhere in the world.

Globalization is present to us in the high standard of living and the culture of instant communications enjoyed by the First World’s earning classes. But it can also turn its catastrophic face on us, when someone we know, or we ourselves, are thrown out of work or out of house and home by the great economic dislocations that also come with the new free flow of capital across national boundaries.

 In the section of the encyclical devoted to development, Benedict acknowledges that “growth has taken place, and it continues to be a positive factor that has lifted billions of people out of misery — recently it has given many countries the possibility of becoming effective players in international politics.” But he quickly adds 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.”

Especially in this crisis — an episode in which globalization has turned vicious — Christians are called upon to exert “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.”

These fundamental values, the Pope explains at various points in the letter, include an idea of development that takes the whole person seriously — not just “homo economicus,” but also the moral self, and the part of us that yearns for truth and beauty and security. The “new humanistic synthesis” will take what science and technology have taught us about the body, the self and society and suffuse this knowledge with Christian virtues that are as old as the Gospel itself. This synthesis will incorporate the evangelical commands to feed the hungry, heal the sick and clothe the naked, which gain fresh urgency in the face of globalization’s tendency to make the rich richer and the poor ever more hopeless in their poverty.

“Development,” the Pope counsels, “needs above all to be true and integral. The mere fact of emerging from economic backwardness, though positive in itself, does not resolve the complex issues of human advancement, neither for the countries that are spearheading such progress, nor for those that are already economically developed, nor even for those that are still poor, which can suffer not just through old forms of exploitation, but also from the negative consequences of a growth that is marked by irregularities and imbalances.”

At the practical level, development should involve the re-evaluation by public authorities of their responsibilities and opportunities; those setting the policies of nations must learn new generosity and have new determination to order international affairs on the basis of peace, stability and justice. The systems of social security must be strengthened in all nations, especially in places where a cheap labour market is accompanied by minimal social protection. What Benedict calls “cultural eclecticism” — the devaluation of all values that is one by-product of mass communications — must be resisted, and Christians must be at the forefront of the struggle for integrity in finance, science, the arts and all other realms of human endeavour.

The agenda Pope Benedict sets before us is daunting and large in its ambitions. Whether Catholics are equal to the challenge remains to be seen. But with the grace of the Holy Spirit and instructions such as Caritas in Veritate, we can understand globalization and meet the tests it puts before us.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)

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