Will we soon see a distinguished-looking older man in long white robes walking among the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in New York’s Zuccotti Park? Is Pope Benedict XVI joining the protest movement?
Well, yes, and no. Yes, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a strong and thoughtful critique of the global financial system this week that paralleled many of the criticisms of unchecked capitalism that are echoing through lower Manhattan and cities around the world.
The report spoke of “the primacy of being over having,” of “ethics over the economy,” and of “embracing the logic of the global common good.”
In a knock against those who oppose government economic regulation, the council emphasized “the primacy of politics — which is responsible for the common good — over the economy and finance.” It commented favorably on a financial transactions tax and supported an international authority to oversee the global economy.
But Vatican officials were careful to say that their report was not a direct response to the worldwide demonstrations. “It is a coincidence that we share some views,” said Bishop Mario Toso, secretary of the council. “But after all, these are proposals that are based on reasonableness.”
Indeed, and that may be a larger compliment to the “99 percent” activists. This document got more attention than it might have because the demonstrators have heightened concern about the problems it addresses.
Moreover, the Vatican office’s intervention shows that those protesting against a broken and unjust financial system are not expressing some marginal point of view. They are highlighting worries shared by many, including the Roman Catholic Church. To challenge what the global markets have wrought is not extreme. It reflects, as Bishop Toso said, “reasonableness.”
Needless to say, Catholic conservatives were not happy with the document, and did all they could to minimize its importance. George Weigel, the conservative Catholic writer, took to National Review’s blog to denigrate the Pontifical Council as “a rather small office in the Roman Curia” and to insist that its document “doesn’t speak for the pope, it doesn’t speak for ‘the Vatican,’ and it doesn’t speak for the Catholic Church.”
Oh really? Then for whom does it speak? Weigel wasn’t done. “This brief document from the lower echelons of the Roman Curia no more aligns ‘the Vatican,’ the pope, or the Catholic Church with Occupy Wall Street than does the Nicene Creed,” he wrote. “Those who suggest it does are either grossly ill-informed or tendentious to a point of irresponsibility.”
My, my. It is always entertaining for those of us who are liberal Catholics to watch our conservative Catholic friends try to wriggle around the fact that on the matters of social justice and the economy, Catholic social teaching is, by any measure, “progressive.” Conservatives regularly condemn liberal “Cafeteria Catholics” who pick and choose among the church’s teachings. But the conservatives so often skip the parts of the moral buffet involving peace, social justice and what Pope John Paul II called the “idolatry of the market.”
As it happens, the Pontifical Council is no mere “small office.” It has been a pioneer over the years in Catholic thinking about solidarity and justice. And this document is firmly rooted in papal teaching going back to Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II. Pope Benedict’s 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, spoke explicitly of the need for a global political authority to keep watch on an increasingly integrated world economy.
Inside-the-church politics aside, the Pontifical Council’s document is important because it reflects an ethical approach to economics shared well beyond Catholic circles. In particular, the council grapples intelligently with the problem of how the economy can be subject to reasonable rules when the nation-states that once enforced such regulations have less and less power, given how swiftly and easily capital moves.
The document describes the benefits of globalization as well as its costs, and it does not pretend that establishing transnational structures will be easy. It addresses the importance of “democratic legitimacy” and speaks of “shared government” rather than some top-down world authority.
“We should not be afraid to propose new ideas, even if they might destabilize pre-existing balances of power that prevail over the weakest,” the document declares. “They are a seed thrown to the ground that will sprout and hurry towards bearing fruit.” Let’s hope so. If our religious leaders won’t challenge us to love mercy and do justice, who will?
Email E.J. Dionne at firstname.lastname@example.org.