Not Your Grandfather’s Liberation Theology: The Church and Trade Policy

Not Your Grandfather’s Liberation Theology: The Church and Trade Policy July 28, 2016

There has been much talk over the years as to whether Liberation Theology has raised its status in the Church since the accession of Francis to the papacy. I will leave the theology to the theologians but as a political economist, if it has done, it certainly has a funny way of showing it.

When Catholics think of the economic side of Liberation Theology, it’s generally associated with Latin American economist Raul Prebisch and Dependency Theory. For those unfamiliar with this approach, in a nutshell, it claimed that the world is divided between a wealthy “core” and a poor “periphery,” with wealth extracted by the core through unfair terms of trade and the activities of multi-national corporations facilitated by a local comprador class. The policy response recommended at the time was Import Substitution Industrialization, which entailed protecting the domestic market with high tariffs and non-tariff barriers. By the early 1990s even its most determined adherents – India, for example – abandoned it as a failure.

Today, the Church’s position on trade – as expressed by the Holy See’s representatives to international organizations such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) – is light years away from the protectionist, “Dependista” model. Last week, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva addressed the 14th Ministerial Conference of UNCTAD in Nairobi. His words will come as a bit of a surprise to those who have not kept up with Rome’s positions on trade.

Jurkovic recognizes the importance of trade in the alleviation of global poverty while reiterating a theme that has been consistent across Vatican statements on trade: the necessity of prioritizing multilateral, global trade agreements over bilateral or regional accords. He noted:

“The  international  trading  system  is  regulated  by  an  increasing  number  of  preferential trade agreements  (PTAs). Most of the recent trade agreements address  not  only  goods  but  also  services,  and  deal  with  rules  beyond  reciprocal  tariff  concessions.  The Holy See strongly stresses the importance of recognizing a primacy  of multilateral agreements over bilateral and regional ones. Despite its limits and its  complexity,  the  multilateral  framework  gives  pluralism  a  universal  dimension  and  facilitates an inclusive dialogue.  More  specifically  in  a  multilateral  framework  weaker  and  smaller  countries  are better safeguarded than in a regional and bilateral setting where the counterparts  are  large  and  strong  countries.”

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, speaking last year at the WTO ministers conference struck a similar note:

“It is well known that trade is intimately connected with development as it is one of the most robust and effective channels for enhancing economic growth. In discussing trade policies all countries should be aware that we are all part of the same human community and we all make use of the same global resources.”

The concern with fairness for less developed states and the relative weakness of their negotiating position with high income economies together with a clear recognition of the importance of trade for poverty alleviation are found consistently across formal statements by the Holy See to multilateral institutions. The old Dependency era concepts of “core” and “periphery” and the view of trade as something inherently deleterious to poorer countries is dead and buried.

Why should American Catholics care? This election will see the candidates of the two major parties actively oppose free trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. While the latter is a regional rather than global agreement, Rome has noted the value of these as regards poverty alleviation. To those who think Catholic social doctrine entails a knee jerk rejection of the TPP and free trade, they would do well to reconsider that position in favor of a much more nuanced approach.

Browse Our Archives