The pope’s long-awaited treatise on economics — and our global economic problems — is long, expansive and quite critical of unregulated, profit-hungry capitalism.
Commentators who call Obama a socialist will not see it as a good thing, I think.
“By Benedict’s standards, Obama is a middle-of-the-roader,” Kirk Hanson, a business ethics professor at Santa Clara University, told me a few minutes ago.
The encyclical “Charity in Truth” can be read in its entirety on the Vatican website. All 144 pages worth. I gave it somewhere between a quick read and a thorough skim.
Pope Benedict, as you might expect, has no use for unregulated markets that are detached from their effects on people, communities and nations. He writes:
Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.
The pope calls for nothing less than a new financial world order in which the ultimate goal is…ethical behavior, not profit.
He writes: “Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.”
Benedict weighs the positive and negative effects of globalization and decides that the global economy can be a good thing. But he wants global financial regulation.
This is an economic vision that grows from a commitment to Christian charity, not from economics textbooks. The encyclical opens with a long explanation of what charity really means. The pope writes:
Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine. Every responsibility and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine is derived from charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire Law.
I am aware of the ways in which charity has been and continues to be misconstrued and emptied of meaning, with the consequent risk of being misinterpreted, detached from ethical living and, in any event, undervalued. In the social, juridical, cultural, political and economic fields — the contexts, in other words, that are most exposed to this danger — it is easily dismissed as irrelevant for interpreting and giving direction to moral responsibility.
Of course, many conservative, free-market gurus will say that the pope’s economics are simply wrong, that increased regulation will only slow economic growth and hurt the poor even more.
But Benedict isn’t buying. He writes:
Above all, the intention to do good must not be considered incompatible with the effective capacity to produce goods. Financiers must rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity, so as not to abuse the sophisticated instruments which can serve to betray the interests of savers. Right intention, transparency, and the search for positive results are mutually compatible and must never be detached from one another. If love is wise, it can find ways of working in accordance with provident and just expediency, as is illustrated in a significant way by much of the experience of credit unions.
I spoke earlier with Hanson from Santa Clara University, who is doing a lot of interviews this morning because he is in a good position to comment on the encyclical. Not only does he teach business ethics, but he chaired hearings for the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference when it released a statement on economics way back during the Reagan administration.
“To me, it is the first encyclical of a true global age,” he told me (at 6 a.m., California time).
Hanson was really struck by the sweep of the document, which ties in a complete commitment to environmentalism, concerns about weakening social safety nets and uncertain water supplies, musings about migration and global interdependence, you name it.
“This has been in the works for a long time,” he said. “Its release is well-time for the opening of the G8 summit (tomorrow) and the pope’s meeting with Obama (Friday). It is well-timed to foster debate.”