Looking south: another view on the Vatican note on the economy

The astute John Allen has a take on the new Vatican document on economics that helps put it in perspective:

Critics, dismayed by the note’s content, rather predictably have challenged its Vatican standing. George Weigel dismissed it as the product of a “rather small office in the Roman Curia” while Bill Donohue said it contains “neologisms” not found in the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. To be fair, there’s merit to these points. The note is hardly a dogmatic definition, and on matters outside the Catechism, the Vatican rarely speaks with one voice.

Focusing on how much papal muscle the note can flex, however, risks ignoring what is at least an equally revealing question: Whatever you make of it, does the note seem to reflect important currents in Catholic social and political thought anywhere in the world?

The answer is yes, and it happens to be where two-thirds of the Catholics on the planet today live: the southern hemisphere, also known as the developing world.

It’s fitting that the Vatican official responsible for the document is an African, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, because it articulates key elements of what almost might be called a “southern consensus.” One way of sizing up the note’s significance, therefore, is as an indication that the demographic transition long under way in Catholicism, with the center of gravity shifting from north to south, is being felt in Rome.

Much food for thought here — and you’ll want to read it all.

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22 responses to “Looking south: another view on the Vatican note on the economy”

  1. What I find interesting is that “conservative” “traditional” Catholics have ignored the long-standing position of the Church which has looked upon the world-scene and seen the need for a world-order — a tradition which goes back before the Reformation and was a major rallying cry of the 19th century Catholic-right!

  2. Center of gravity shifting to the third world ? Hmmm.

    That reminds me of a conversation I had with someone many years ago as we were celebrating an earlier anniversary of the start of Vatican II. He asked me if there would ever be a “Vatican III.” Knowing how much I loved to teach about Vatican II, he was shocked when I said “No.” I continued: “There will be more councils — historically they average every 85 years or so — but it will be the ‘First Ecumenical Council of Sydney.’ The agenda of this council will not be set by the bishops of the First World or even the Second World, but by the bishops of the Third World — below the equator.”

  3. Funny, Norb…I had the same thought. I suggested one time that there wouldn’t be a Vatican III, but there might be an Abuja I.

    Dcn. G.

  4. Somone came to my mind when I read this in the document:

    “Paul VI emphasized the revolutionary power of ‘forward-looking imagination’ that can perceive the possibilities inscribed in the present and guide people towards a new future. By freeing his imagination, man frees his existence. Through an effort of community imagination, it is possible to transform not only institutions but also lifestyles and encourage a better future for all peoples.”

    Steve Jobs?

  5. What the “Vatican” wrote made sense and was actually quite moderate. But some of the headlines and interpretations surrounding it in the media were sometimes bizarrely radical. The trouble is some people will treat the media’s headline version as equal to the Gospels.

  6. The coming dominance of the global south is one of the main themes of John Allen’s 2009 book The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church. It’s a must-read that will offer some comfort to both teams in today’s divided American church. On one hand, Allen argues that in the remainder of the 21st century, Catholics in the global south are likely to have little interest in liberalizing our teachings about sexual issues; in general, abortion and homosexuality are perceived as threats to human welfare there. But (as this NCR commentary also explains) Catholics in the global south are very much in sync with what Americans see as a progressive or left-wing political and economic agenda, and the new Vatican document reflects that line of thought. “Morally Conservative, Politically Liberal” – that is how John Allen says 21st century Catholicism will shape up, and I pray to God he is right.

  7. “George Weigel dismissed it as the product of a “rather small office in the Roman Curia’”

    That is a particularly galling statement. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has a direct connection with the document of Vatican II, Gaudium et spes.

    “The council, considering the immensity of the hardships which still afflict the greater part of mankind today, regards it as most opportune that an organism of the universal Church be set up in order that both the justice and love of Christ toward the poor might be developed everywhere. The role of such an organism would be to stimulate the Catholic community to promote progress in needy regions and international social justice.”

    It was established by Pope Paul VI in 1967 shortly before he issued his encyclical. “Populorum Progressio.” Since that time it has been involved in issues related to social justice and peace: ethics in economic systems, poverty, war, the arms trade, international security, and violence (e.g., terrorism) to name a just a few of the issues. In addition, the Council has engaged in behind the scenes efforts to free political prisoners and locate missing persons. (I doubt that such people and their families would consider the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to be a “rather small office in the Roman Curia.”)

  8. Follow-up to #9: The Council for Justice and Peace also produced theCompendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the first systematic presentation of Catholic social teaching ever authorized by the Vatican. Far more than a mere compilation, it follows the general outline of Gaudium et Spes to critique specific areas of modern life and explain in detail what it would mean “to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city.” Prepared under the direction of the saintly Vietnamese cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận, it speaks to a world–and a Church–undergoing globalization. Not bad for a “rather small office.”

  9. Ron: your # 8

    “Morally Conservative, Politically Liberal” – that is how John Allen says 21st century Catholicism will shape up, and I pray to God he is right.”

    That is the very point I made to my RCIA folks on Sunday last when I brought up Reese’s preliminary “heads-up” on this Vatican treatise. I would also add, however, “Ritually Conservative” as well.

  10. Ron: #8
    I just finished reading John Allen’s book and agree it is a must read, both sobering and uplifting.
    I find the willingness of individuals such as G. Weigel to dismiss what they don’t agree with at best infuriating and at most hypocrisy of the first order. For people such as Weigel to comment on cafeteria Catholics and the non-adherence to Human Vitae in its whole, but then to argue with other encyclicals that he doesn’t agree with and suggest they are muddled and out of touch boggles the mind.
    THe current document presents a unique opportunity for conversation and reflection on not only our national system based on greed and domination of the few, but also our personal acceptance of this status quo. I hope that the conversation does not devolve into the left-right battle lines that are drawn in so many other areas.

  11. ANY – document, policy, idea or movement that contains the words “World Order” is suspect. Jesus never referred to world order, He considered all of us His flock.

    When you begin to mix faith with money we are in a very, very dangerous place. When the Church gets involved in politics – that is setting policy – or suggesting policy to meet Church doctrine – it is wrong.

    Lead by example.

  12. Bill

    Actually, since Christ is about the restoration of the whole world, and the reintegration and restoration of the original unity of humanity, something which classical theology has consistently discussed, looking to a world order is indeed something the Church has consistently done from the very beginning. It is, indeed, central to what we find in 19th century criticism of modern liberalism. The document continues basic Catholic principles which many in the secular West have abandoned (and to their own harm, I believe).

  13. I did not think this document was an encyclical, but a kind of white paper put out by the single social justice office. In view of the size of the overall vatican and church heirarchy, this office does represent a very small portion of the entire Church. That could be why so many are saying this has no real weight where an encyclical seems to carry more weight within the Church. And as the article states, “The note is hardly a dogmatic definition, and on matters outside the Catechism, the Vatican rarely speaks with one voice.”

    To make much out of this document is only a reflection on the need for those on the left to find anything dogmatic and magesterial that supports their desire for the Church to support the liberal viewpoint. Thus a white paper comes out and there is this huge rush with the desired “I pray to God he is right,” to support it as more than what it is and the attack on those who are conservative who simply point out the facts…Its not magesterial folks.

    As to the Church moving south, that remains to be seen as we see more of the southern portions of the worldwide church either leaving the Church or becoming much more conservative in approach. However it moves, we can be assured that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church and Jesus will be with us until the end of time.

  14. This document will have significance no matter what the so called Catholics such as the George Weigels and the Bill Donohues of the church think.

    Cardinal Turkson is no light weight in the Catholic Church. He is the head of the Vatican’s justice and peace office. The justice and peace office is responsible for promoting the church’s social teachings on justice issues, such as war, the death penalty and human rights. He is an African star on the rise.

    Born in 1948, Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson is the first Ghanaian to be appointed Cardinal on October 21, 2003. his appointment to the Curia confirms that he is in the ascendant.

    He has been the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference in Ghana since 1992. He is also the Chancellor of the Catholic University College of Ghana and the Archbishop of Cape Coast in Ghana’s Central Region.

    He was ordained priest on July 20, 1975; appointed Archbishop on November 21, 1992 and consecrated on March 27, 1993.

  15. Greta

    No, it is looking more like a political American view is upset the Vatican’s teachings are not one with theirs, and they are trying to find ways to dismiss the document. It’s one thing to have honest disagreement in a non-dogmatic decree, it’s another, however to suggest documents have no authority so it is just an easy shrug to dismiss it. Moreover, the fact that the document is consistently quoting and following policies found in encyclicals should say something — it’s an easy thing to say “see, this doesn’t it’s worth listening to, it’s not from the Pope,” but it’s another thing to say it when the document is consistently pointing out what Popes have said!

  16. Don in NH, I think this Cardinal is obviously well thought of. I wonder why those on the liberal side had so much trouble acknowloging Cardinal Francis Arinze. It seemed like every time he came out with a statement, the left trashed him such as his statement on those who support abortion should not receive communion. The simple fact is that this document does not carry the same weight or requiment for belief is a statement of fact acknowledged in the document. We can go either way on this document. Pope Benedict has not come out and said things about this document like he has the following

    “As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable. Among these the following emerge clearly today:

    – protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death;

    – recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family – as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage – and its defence from attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its particular character and its irreplaceable social role;

    – the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.”

    When I see this type of non negotiable statement on economic policy for the world, then it will have the same weight. The real question is how Catholics ignore something the pope said on issues of faith and morals this firmly?

  17. Henry Karlson

    Your first error is to suggest this is a “Vatican’s teaching.”

    “It’s one thing to have honest disagreement in a non-dogmatic decree, it’s another, however to suggest documents have no authority so it is just an easy shrug to dismiss it.” No, it is simple fact that when a document is
    “non- dogmatic” we are free as Catholics to believe it or dismiss it.

    As I said above, the real issue is how Catholics can ignore the clear dogmatic teaching which the Pope lists as non negotiable and dismiss them when we as Catholics are called to believe and accept them as matters of our faith.

    If the Pope and Magestrium want to put out something we are called to believe, they would not put it out in a white paper format from one of the various agencies in the Vatican. It does not matter if this note or white paper quotes some language from an encyclical, it does not as such rise up to a standard of dogmatic belief. Is that not true? I and others are not saying it should not be read and put into the hopper with other economic discussion or thought, but you seem to be trying to say that we cannot dismiss this or state the fact that it holds little weight toward being something we must accept and believe.

    To me, you and others who want to make this document into some dogmatic statement are the ones doing the wrong.

  18. Greta #19

    I think you are entirely too dismissive of statements that are not “dogmatic.” Humanæ Vitæ was not explicitly presented as dogmatic. If we are as free as you say to dismiss all non-dogmatic statements, then cafeteria Catholicism is what we have. The true Catholic position, as I understand it, is that all pronouncements from the hierarchy must be considered respectfully. Among the factors that add to the weight of a statement is the competency of the one making the statement. For example a statement on economic justice carries more weight if it comes from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace than if it were from the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Another factor is consistency with previous teaching. Thus, a statement which restates, develops, and gives concrete application to earlier encyclicals, Conciliar documents, and the like, is of greater weight than one which enunciates a completely novel doctrine in response to an unprecedented situation.

    So while it is true that not all pronouncements have the same force, a response of, “Oh, it’s not dogmatic so I can just ignore it,” is not Catholic.

  19. naturgesetz

    In order of importance, a “note” from one of the offices in the Vatican, no matter how much it uses some of the wording from various papal enclyicals, is not of the importance of an encyclical. An encyclical, is not of the weight or importance in Church teaching as a statement by the Pope Magesterium that is stated as did Pope John Paul II did on the issue of women priest.

    I am not saying that this “note” should not be read and considered, just that in the manner of release, it is not on the level of others discussed. If the Catholic Church wants to make this type of statement something we are called to accept and believe, it has a clear way of doing so. It appears I am not alone in this view. I think it is instructive for Catholics to understand the various methods of communication and the weight each carries.

    To be attacked for stating the facts without a concise statement showing why what was stated was in error. I said that it should be read and considered with other information on the economic issues. Is that not true Catholic teaching? Are you suggesting that this note holds the same authority as an encyclical such as Humane Vitae which many now calling for this Note to be considered essential to Catholic teaching chose to ignore. How about some facts showing how this Note should be considered at the same level and one that we are called to accept and believe rather than read and put in consideration with other economic input.

  20. greta,

    I never said that the note should be taken at the same level as Humanæ Vitæ. I was reacting to your saying, “that when a document is ‘non- dogmatic’ we are free as Catholics to believe it or dismiss it.” That struck me as suggesting that we may base our conclusion on nothing more than whim and fancy. All I’m saying is that it, like any other statement from a Vatican Office which has responsibility for the subject matter, should be considered carefully and respectfully. The fact that a statement is non-dogmatic does not mean that it may be dismissed out of hand simply because one finds the conclusion unappealing. Any disagreement should be based on solid reasons in response to the arguments it puts forth.

    And I stand by what I said about some factors to consider in considering the degree of authority which a statement has.

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