Cardinal Turkson: Beyond Wall Street

Cardinal Turkson: Beyond Wall Street October 26, 2011

By now, it’s been pretty well established that “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority,” the document issued Monday by the Vatican’s Council for Justice and Peace, is not binding on the simple faithful. Anyone who disagrees with its proposal for new regulations on the global economy, remains a Catholic in good standing.

But the understandable rush to place the document in its proper perspective has turned into a stampede. Commentators are protesting too much. After dismissing the council “a rather small office in the Roman Curia,” George Weigel goes on to praise Cardinal Turkson and Bishop Toso for presenting their ideas with the humility befitting their station. “Both Cardinal Turkson and Bishop Toso indicated, in line with long-standing Catholic social doctrine, that the Church-as-Church was incompetent to offer ‘technical solutions’ but rather wished to locate public policy debates within the proper moral frameworks.”

So Turkson didn’t speak for the pope or the Church — fair enough. Still, Turkson has spoken to the Church — in fact, to the whole world — and not always with the diffidence that might be expected of someone banished to the Vatican equivalent of Siberia. In the document, he condemns “economic liberalism” — i.e., “an economic system that spurns rules and controls” — as “a form of ‘economic apriorism’ that purports to derive laws for how markets function from theory…while exaggerating certain aspects of markets.“ Since theorists never actually test theory against practice, the system “runs the risk of becoming an instrument subordinated to the interests of the countries that effectively enjoy a position of economic and financial advantage.”

Basically, Turkson (along with his fellow contributors) is saying that apologists for laissez-faire capitalism, or whatever passes for it these days, are too dogmatic. Whether readers agree or disagree, it’s the kind of statement that should bring them up short, considering it comes from a Prince of the Catholic Church, a pretty dogmatic outfit in its own right.

Turkson may not claim the authority to impose this view, but he has plugged it with real conviction in other venues. At a press conference Monday, he mentioned America’s favorite financial center by name: “The people on Wall Street need to sit down and go through a process of discernment and see whether their role managing the finances of the world is actually serving the interests of humanity and the common good.”

Turkson is worth singling out, and paying attention to, not because he might be papabile — every Catholic knows what happens to those guys in conclave — but because he represents a sizable constituency. He is a Ghanian, the first cardinal from that country, and his elevation was celebrated even by Ghana’s Protestant leaders. In National Catholic Reporter, John Allen, Jr. places him in context — as part of a “southern wave” of African, Asian and Latin American Church leaders who take a critical view of unrestrained globalization because of the economic inequalities it’s produced in their backyards. Dismissing Turkson’s work on the PCJP as “nothing more than the rogue perceptions of an isolated Vatican department,” warns Allen, means ignoring “the demographic and cultural realities of the church in the 21st century.”

In the late document, Turkson spells out quite clearly the kind of poverty he’s protesting. “In countries and areas where the most elementary goods like health, food and shelter are still lacking,” he writes, “more than a billion people are forced to survive on an average income of less than a dollar a day.” Occupy Wall Street, famously, has no official agenda or list of demands. Its slogan, “We Are the 99%,” refers specifically to the over-concentration of American wealth. In the eyes of Turkson’s billion, many of the protestors, simply for being American, might look like lucky duckies in their own right. Would regulating the world’s economy — unlikely as such a event might seem at this point — leave them more comfortable or less so?

I don’t have the answer, but I think the question is worth asking. George Weigel may be right that the notion of Pope Benedict as chaplain to Occupy Wall Street is nothing but “rubbish, rubbish, rubbish.” But the fact that America’s entire economic system has gained some powerful critics, in theVatican and in the Church, seems to me a fact that all American Catholics ought to underscore heavily before filing away. Otherwise a whole big bunch of us, liberals and conservatives alike, might look up one day and wonder, “When in heck did this place turn into Live Aid?”

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