The Common Good

Pope Benedict on the Global Economy

Sojomail - July 9, 2009


This is a major initiative and will mark a turning point in the hunger challenge. For more than 20 years there was not only a neglect of agriculture, but a reliance on shipping emergency food aid.

- Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist, praising President Obama's efforts to enlist the G8 nations to contribute $15 billion to invest in agricultural development--rather than direct aid--for the world’s poorest farmers. (Source: The New York Times)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Pope Benedict on the Global Economy

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As the G8 Summit begins in Italy, Pope Benedict XVI has released a new encyclical on the global economy. Despite the sometimes dense philosophical and theological language, his message is clear: The economy must be guided by the criteria of justice and the common good. It is a comprehensive document, and while I haven’t yet read the entire encyclical, from news reports and a quick skim, a number of important things stand out.

Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), is rooted in a stream of papal teaching on economic justice that goes back to 1891 with the encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things). It is a far-reaching look at the relationships and issues that the global economy has created, and their impact on the world’s people.

From the beginning Benedict states his basic foundation, that “charity in truth is the principle around which the Church's social doctrine turns.” It is:

a principle that takes on practical form in the criteria that govern moral action. I would like to consider two of these in particular, of special relevance to the commitment to development in an increasingly globalized society: justice and the common good.

And, he says, those principles are both in service and involvement in the political arena.

The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, 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 which encounters the neighbour directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis.

He deals with profit, writing that while it is useful, once it “becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.” The current economic crisis, he writes,

obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment. ... The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future.

He discusses globalization, which has “led to a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market, with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers,” and cites how

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 labour unions.

The crisis of world hunger and lack of clean water lead to an affirmation that:

The right to food, like the right to water, has an important place within the pursuit of other rights, beginning with the fundamental right to life. It is therefore necessary to cultivate a public conscience that considers food and access to water as universal rights of all human beings, without distinction or discrimination.

He writes about the “pernicious effects of sin” in a market where there is a “speculative use of financial resources that yields to the temptation of seeking only short-term profit” that does not make “a real contribution to local society by helping to bring about a robust productive and social system, an essential factor for stable development.” Financiers, he says,

must rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity, so as not to abuse the sophisticated instruments which can serve to betray the interests of savers.

The encyclical also addresses the rise of global inequality, the threats to the environment – “we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it” – and the need for new solutions to the world’s energy needs. “The fact that some States, power groups, and companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries,” Benedict writes.

The international community has an urgent duty to find institutional means of regulating the exploitation of non-renewable resources, involving poor countries in the process, in order to plan together for the future.

Perhaps the most provocative and controversial suggestion is his call for a reform of the United Nations that would produce a “true world political authority” and would give “poorer nations an effective voice in shared decision-making.” Such a world body would “need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power” to “ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties.” That power, he suggests, could include the ability

[t]o 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...

Near the end of the encyclical, he underlines his basic premise:

While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human.

Caritas in Veritate is well worth our careful and thoughtful study. Its richness and depth will add new insights to Catholic social teaching. The entire text is available here.

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