Vatican to Main Street, U.S.A.: The (Tea) Party’s Over

Poor Bill Donahue. The Catholic League president has made it his mission to rebut any prominent evangelical pastor who identifies the pope with the Antichrist — a tough job, even in the best of times. Today’s pronouncement from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace should make him want to clone himself. It’ll take at least two of him to handle all the incoming business.

Titled “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority,” the document blames “liberalist,” or free-market, economic policies for the 2008 financial crisis and its disproportionately harsh effect on living conditions in developing countries. To amend those policies, it calls for a “global political authority” to be installed gradually, and conforming to the principle of subsidiarity.

Any authority thus constituted, the document predicts, should retain “democratic legitimacy,” and be immune to “bureaucratic isolation.” Nevertheless, the Vatican means for the body to serve as both cause and effect of what businesses like to call a paradigm shift. No more will societies operate according to utilitarian principles, which dignify the good of the individual as the key to the good of society. “In many cases,” the document states, “a spirit of solidarity is called for that transcends personal utility for the good of the community.”

Though none of these plans has been infallibly defined, the drafters took great care to present them as the culmination of a long chain of encyclicals, from John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris and Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio to Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. It would be hard, given any hermeneutic of continuity, to use Benedict’s own phrase, to see this as an abrupt shift in direction. It looks very much in concert with the Bishops’ Conference’s decision to re-issue its 2007 Guide to Faithful Citizenship, which offers Catholics leeway to vote for economically liberal (in the American sense) candidates who are also pro-choice.

Nevertheless, as Michael Sean Winters notes in his National Catholic Reporter blog: “there is no denying that the document’s economic vision is somewhere to the left of the most vigorously leftie politicians in this country.” It won’t play in Peoria, is another way of putting it. The American middle class may be stricken, but when it vents its frustrations on the Washigton elites — or even on Wall Street — it’s comparing its current condition to the relatively exalted state it enjoyed 20 or 30 years ago. I’m not sure whether it would see any advantage in having its quality of life measured against that of the man in the street in Kinshasa.

But then, as far as the Church is concerned, Kinshasa’s where it’s at. Two-thirds of Catholics now reside in the global South; by the middle of next century, that figure should reach three-quarters. If the Vatican were in the habit of playing to its base, it couldn’t have made a smarter move at a better time.

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