Cardinal Marx in DC

Cardinal Marx in DC May 31, 2012

Yesterday, I went to a talk at Georgetown by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, one of the leading experts in Catholic social teaching. His talk did not disappoint. 

Echoing the thought of the current pope, Cardinal Marx talked about how Christians are tasked with changing the world and making it better. When we die, he noted, we will be asked to account for how we tried to make the world a better place. This is really unique to Christianity, as most of the other major religions have a more static foundation. Our goal is not to create a paradise on earth, but we need to change the world. We cannot preach the gospel with its social aspect. Jesus meant what he said about riches!

Cardinal Marx called for a new humanistic synthesis. He noted that the new evangelization is only possible when it goes beyond the narrow religious aspect. Christian faith must enlighten the culture across all dimensions – social, cultural, economic, political.

Cardinal Marx strongly defended the social market economy, the need to go beyond both capitalism and socialism – a free market tempered by strong regulation and strong social protections. The basis of the social market economy is freedom with responsibility – the financial crisis was the result of too much freedom and not enough responsibility, especially in the financial sector. We need to think beyond a model of financial capitalism that is concentrated on financial returns, he argued. We need strong regulation here, to fix incentives. We need to include other priorities besides profit – the poor, the environment, the climate. We need to think beyond consumer oriented lifestyles, and think beyond GDP.

Echoing John Paul II, he stressed that not every good should be private and subject to the market. He gave the specific example of health care. We need public goods that are available to all.

Responding to a question, he talked a bit about subsidiarity. He started by noting that it didn’t make sense in isolation from solidarity. Christians cannot regard the state as bad, as we are fundamentally Aristotle’s disciples. Both the state and the family are natural institutions. Without the state, man cannot achieve the fullest possible life. It is simply not possible to achieve the common good through an assembly of families, with no role for the state. Germany has a good experience with subsidiarity, especially with its welfare state. For example, the state will ask the Church to operate a kindergarten, and provides the finances to do so. If this is not possible, then the city will provide the kindergarten.

Unemployment, he noted, is never your own responsibility. Since we cannot have a market economy without unemployment, it is a common risk and the state must provide social insurance. A hundred years ago in Germany, a priest was minister of labor and was instrumental in setting up the social insurance system.

Cardinal Marx was asked about the views of American neocons who claim to be orthodox Catholics (not by me!). Diplomatically, he refused to answer, claiming that he was not familiar enough with their positions. He said that we should answer the question ourselves, by stacking up when he says against what they say. He said that these questions also arose in Germany, although there was not such a tradition of black and white, which excluded all compromise.

He put a lot of emphasis on the international dimension – the search for an international order, a framework for the universal common good. In this, he clearly echoed recent Vatican thinking. Christianity is about universalism, emphasizing the common nature of mankind where every person is created in the image and likeness of God. Again, this is unique to Christianity. In Christianity, the Church is an instrument of the unification of all mankind, not just Christians. This is difficult, yes, but it is possible.

Being German, the future of the European Union was very much on his mind. Recalling the Christian foundations of the European Union, he called for a return to the principles of solidarity and the common vision. In Europe, the economic crisis is everybody’s crisis. We cannot say 40 percent youth unemployment in countries like Spain or Greece is not a German problem. It’s about solidarity. We must find a way of sharing the burden. The Church must stand squarely against what he saw as the “re-nationalization” of Europe.

All in all, Cardinal Marx was excellent. The only disappointment is that his book is still not available in English! Everything he talked about was Catholic Social Teaching 101. So how come Americans never hear this?

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