So lotsa folk are flipping out about a little document that came out the other day regarding economic justice. Before making my own remarks, let me preface it with this useful bit of analysis that helps you peel away much of the MSM rubbish that tends to glom onto such documents, as well as the freakoutery that tends to form a secondary layer of hysteria from “faithful conservative Catholics” who are only too ready to believe the MSM when the Church says something that offends their dedication to conservative dogmas, prompting them to denounce some statement by a churchman as “insane gibberish” whenever it comes to really sacred things like money. But first, let’s get our bearings thanks to the invaluable Fr. Phillip Powell, OP:
OMG!!! The Pope says that ALL Catholics must support a One World Government!!!
@#$%!!! The Vatican wants just One Bank for the Whole World!!!!
WHAT!?!? Benedict XVI supports the Occupy Wall St protesters!!!
Deep breath. One more time. Now, OK. . .so, if any of your friends, family, co-religionists have expressed any of the above or some version of one of the above, sit them down, give them a beer, let them catch their breath, and ask them a simple question: have you actually read the recently published document on economics and finance that has upset you so?
Betcha they will say, “Um, no.” Good. Get them a copy and give them about 30 mins. to read all 18 pgs. Once they are finished, roll up a newspaper and swatch them briskly across the nose three times while saying in a firm voice, “Bad, bad Catholic! Bad Catholic! You never believe a word that the media say about the Church! Never!”
If they are sufficiently contrite and promise to never do it again, make the following points about the document:
1). The document was NOT written by “The Vatican” or “The Pope.” It’s a product of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Not the Secretary of State. Not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Not the Congregation for Bishops. A pontifical council. In terms of magisterial authority, that’s somewhere near a Christmas postcard from your pastor. ‘Nuff said.
2). The document says nothing new about economics or economic theory nor does it promote one model of economics over any other. The focus is placed squarely on the current difficulties in the monetary market, arguing that some sort of international control needs to be established over these transactions so that we might avoid another global bank collapse. There is a pointed critique of what the document labels “economic liberalism and utilitarian thinking,” that is, unregulated free market capitalism. This is nothing new either. The Church has been suspicious of unfettered capitalism since at least the mid-nineteenth century.
3). The “world authority” proposed in the document is placed within the context of all the usual Catholic caveats about human dignity, morality, respect for cultural and national traditions, the authority of the nation-state, subsidiarity, etc., etc. In other words, Global Governance advocates will dismiss this proposal out of hand. It’s too religious/ethical and not nearly powerful enough. Oh, and there won’t be enough opportunities for politicians to steal us all blind.
4). Yes, Church-haters and Prog Catholics will cover themselves with this document and proclaim a divine victory for the Occupy Wall St. type non-sense. Nothing we can do about that. Just don’t be pulled into the whole Benedict Is Calling For A One World Bank framing of the issue.
Bottomline: a little note from a minor curial department expressing the opinions of some Italian economist.
So, the document is not an encyclical, carries little magisterial weight, and is not a papal endorsement of whatever chaotic aims, goals, strategies and rhetoric that happens to emerge from the soup that is the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s a highly critiqueable product of a committee, and there are real critiques to be made as the redoubtable Sean Dailey notes.
That said, I feel bound to note that it is also not (pace George Weigel, Fr. Z., and sundry others who made such haste shout it down and refer us to the Acton Institute), nothing either. It is a response to the fact that Something is Wrong and that our current economic system is in deep trouble and that the trouble is only getting deeper.
What I want to note (since the hysteria from the Right is so palpable) is that it is indeed a reflection, as Fr. Powell points out, of the fact that the Church *doesn’t* have a fundamental horror (which American conservatives do at a visceral level) at the idea of a “one world government”, nor at the idea of the state having a limited power to redistribute property for the sake of the common good. The reasons for this are twofold.First, the Church was *born* in a world that knew One World Government. It was called the Roman Empire and Paul has no particular horror at it, nor does Jesus (who famously says to pay taxes to Caesar when the Tea Partiers of ancient Judea have very different ideas). Indeed, Jesus takes it for granted that Caesar has a legitimate role in ruling the world and even takes it for granted when the Caesar is pagan. He does not start a Judean People’s Front, a People’s Judean Front, or the People’s Front of Judea.
The Church more or less follows this notion that there’s no necessary reason to panic at the thought of a universal state. And quite reasonably so. If you believe in the idea of government at all, then you eventually believe in all the principles that logically imply One World Government: namely, that things like justice, ordered liberty, human rights (e.g., right to life, freedom and property) are not special to a particular people but common to all humans and things which humans have from God by virtue of being human, not graciously granted by the State. If you believe that, then it’s just a matter of time before you believe that the task of the state is to protect those rights, not merely on your particular piece of real estate, but wherever human beings live. So it should come as no surprise that the Vatican has had no deep objection to the project of state systems (whether it be the Holy Roman Empire, the US, the EU, or the UN) which appear to be reasonable attempts to bring large portions of the earth’s surface under the rule of law rather than leave them to lawless anarchy.
In short, the Church doesn’t *just* teach subsidiarity (the only doctrine libertarians care about in the Church’s patrimony of social teaching). It also teaches solidarity: the fact that we humans are all in this together. Solidarity, sooner or later, implies that a one world government–that is, a system of “liberty and justice for *all*”–really is preferable to leaving the human race in selfish anarchy.
Now, as Fr. Phillip points out, that teaching about solidarity is wreathed round with all sorts of caveats. But the Church does not, as American conservatives reflexively do, simply declare that a global system of government *must* perforce be a tyranny which annihilates subsidiarity, murders millions, subjugates mankind to the enslavement of Antichrist, and lives out all the worst fears of American Protestants. And Americans are particularly ill-positioned to declare the Church wrong on that point since our own system of government is a rather impressive example of the fact that it is indeed possible to have a state which possesses a strong central government, yet which honors local culture, self-governance and individuality at least 50 different ways. If we can have a United States of America, it is quite on the cards that the day could come when the human race cooks up a United States of Earth. We are clever monkeys after all.
Is such a project fraught with danger? Of course! But the Church has backed dangerous ideas ever since it proclaimed that God became man and the poor were blessed. Speaking of which, that brings us to my second point: namely, that the Church also does not reflexively recoil with horror at the idea of the state having the power to redistribute property for the sake of the common good. Neither have we Americans in the past. For instance, the state took it upon itself to redistribute a great deal of property called “slaves” in the mid-19th century because the common good demanded it. It turned out the right of slaveholders to property was subordinate to the right of slaves to life and liberty. Much the same thing obtained with 19th century sweatshop owners, whose right to property was subordinated to the right of children not to function as virtual slaves in sweatshops. In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt argued that the right of trusts to monopolistic possession of property was subordinate to the common good, and he busted up the trusts accordingly.
The current mania of some “conservative” Catholics for reflexively denouncing the Church’s teaching when it threatens the sacred bonds of commerce has produced some readily lampoonable lunacy, as for instance George Weigel’s utterly ridiculous attempt to sanitize Caritatis in Veritate for your protection. It should at least give us pause when exactly the same voices attempt exactly the same tricks with the recent document, only with the added bonus of being able to say, “This isn’t the Pope, so feel free to heap contempt on it and never question your own assumptions.” A more fruitful approach might be to say, “This is saying some things you might find challenging or even scary. Why not try the thought experiment of looking at it from the perspective of historical Catholic teaching and not just batting it away as frightening to your American, protestantized, conservative gut?” Nobody’s saying you have to uncritically accept it. Sean Dailey, as I already note, makes some salient critiques as do numerous others. I’m just saying “Try thinking about it before sneering, reacting, rejecting, or responding.” As Chesterton points out, we don’t want a Church that’s right where we are right. We want a Church that’s right where we are wrong. One great virtue of being Catholic is that it puts us in contact with people who really think differently from us. Doesn’t automatically make them right. But it also doesn’t automatically make us right either.