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Morals, Markets, and the Pope

Friday, July 17, 2009

The desire for the worldwide redistribution of wealth in Pope Benedict’s encyclical is a stubborn temptation. It is the siren song of utopianism.

Adam Smith, 18th-century author of The Wealth of Nations, might easily be a struggling, under-employed hack in today’s cultural milieu. People are not interested in the “invisible hand” of self-interested capitalism. They want very visible hands—the big, boorish, bear claws of government—to fix the global economic crisis. Free markets are a fool’s errand, we are told, a playground for corporate predators.

Into this cultural moment arrives the latest encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI, “Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). Its large themes are economic development, globalization, environmental protection, and the culture that promotes a more humane economic system. Anyone hoping for a papal rebuke of the free market will be disappointed, as will the apologists for unfettered capitalism. That should come as no surprise: to its great credit, the Catholic Church has embraced market economies with a deep sense of realism and social responsibility. The difficulty with “Caritas in Veritate,” however, is not its qualified endorsement of global capitalism, but rather its murky, mutually exclusive set of propositions. Conservative thinkers and activists will be heartened by the document’s defense of free economies as the best context for nurturing human potential and upholding human dignity. But the political and religious left, the self-styled apostles of “social justice,” will also find fodder to rationalize massive government intervention at the expense of individual freedom.

Pope Benedict rejects the notion that the “structures of society”—modern manufacturing, multi-national corporations, free-trade policies—are the engines of inequality. Likewise, the free market cannot be blamed for the current economic crisis. The market is an instrument of human activity, and as such can provide a setting for the exercise of civic and Christian virtues. “Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations.”

Anyone hoping for a papal rebuke of the free market will be disappointed, as will the apologists for unfettered capitalism.

The encyclical takes aim at top-down approaches to international aid, which too often “lock people into a state of dependence.” Though the document does not name names, the pope shows little enthusiasm for the Jeffrey Sachs school of development—the failed models of assistance that underwrite what he calls “localized oppression” by propping up corrupt governments and statist economies. Such policies ignore the Catholic principle of subsidiarity: look first to grass-roots groups, churches, and other local institutions to confront social and economic challenges. “The most valuable resources in countries receiving development aid are human resources,” writes the pontiff. “Herein lies the real capital that needs to accumulate in order to guarantee a truly autonomous future for the poorest countries.”

Most importantly, Benedict XVI builds on his predecessor by insisting that markets do not operate in a moral vacuum. “Caritas in Veritate” reminds us—and we need constant reminding—that economic systems rely upon a culture of trust and a commitment to the common good. Put another way, capitalism demands truth-telling: economic cultures severed from moral and religious truths cannot sustain the ideals and values critical to healthy free-market economies. “Without truth,” he writes, “without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility.” That is about the best diagnosis available of what launched the current financial tsunami.

‘Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility.’

This wise and welcome counsel, however, gets lost in loose talk about redistribution schemes and global governance. The encyclical seeks support for poor countries “by means of financial plans inspired by solidarity.” It calls for “a worldwide redistribution of energy resources.” It envisions the “large-scale redistribution of wealth on a worldwide scale.” How do Biblical teachings on justice and charity support these goals? Does political prudence suggest they should be attempted? We are not told. Neither is there enough attention to the great obstacles to economic development—political oppression, corruption, bad governance, illiteracy, disease, and war. All told, the redistribution of wealth gets far more papal ink than the creation of wealth.

The encyclical eventually drifts into the realm of fantasy. It claims an urgent need for “a true world political authority” to accomplish its economic objectives. Such an authority, we are asked to believe, would compliantly and reliably observe the Catholic principles of subsidiarity. “Such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights.” Such an authority, it must respectfully be noted, is not imagined in Christian theology until the Second Coming of Christ. Nevertheless, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Catholic convert, wrote gushingly about the pope’s “left-right fusionism.” George Weigel, a leading Catholic theologian, was much more sober. Writing for National Review, he warned of “a confused sentimentality” that detaches charity from Christian realism.

The desire for the worldwide redistribution of wealth—and for a global political authority to impose it—is a stubborn temptation. It is the siren song of utopianism. It is strange that an encyclical devoted to truth would undercut its own premises by neglecting the theological truth most easily verifiable: the doctrine of original sin. Like no other doctrine, it has been validated by the horrific history of utopian projects, and memorialized by the tears of their victims. It is this truth that casts the deepest doubt on every human endeavor—including the grand economic and political dreams implied in the encyclical.

It is strange that an encyclical devoted to truth would undercut its own premises by neglecting the theological truth most easily verifiable: the doctrine of original sin.

“Caritas in Veritate” is at its best when it warns that “without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.” This has been the besetting sin of the modern welfare state. At its wisest, the document rebukes the liberal tendency to obsess over the structures of society while ignoring the tragic nature of the human condition. “It is not the instrument that must be called to account,” writes the pontiff, “but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.”

Here is the echo of Adam Smith, in his lesser known but immensely important work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The Scottish moral philosopher, influenced both by the Enlightenment and Protestant Christianity, never stopped believing in the existence of a higher moral law—the voice of conscience. Most people might not act altruistically most of the time. But most people fear the “contempt and indignation” of society if they violate its sacred rules of behavior. For Smith, it was this stern voice, not the appeal to compassion, that would help regulate and civilize economic activity. “It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love,” he wrote. “It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.”

Renewing the man within is supremely difficult work—the work of spiritual formation, the work of the church. If read judiciously and taken to heart, “Caritas in Veritate” can help in that task. Lord knows we need it.

Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at The King’s College in New York City and the author of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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