As national economies stagger from the effects of the crisis in financial markets, Pope Benedict XVI on 29 June signed his new social encyclical calling for the rebuilding of economic policies by giving greater emphasis to social justice and equity in the distribution of wealth and opportunity.
The release of the text was delayed for some days because of the difficulties translating modern economic terms into the official Latin text, according to reports.
He sees the current crisis also as an opportunity to redesign our economies, particularly in the light of global warming, the environmental issues, and threats to world peace.
His new encyclical, Caritas in veritate (Charity in Truth) is the third and most important of Pope Benedict’s encyclicals, calling for a renewed moral basis in the global economy. He criticises in particular the exaggerated belief that markets of themselves provide the most ‘efficient’ mechanism to promote growth and distribute resources. He regards this as an ideology which downplays the moral demands of social justice and equity.
The encyclical has been delayed by the demand to keep abreast of the global economic crisis. The Pope has been writing when not only did this free-market ideology encourage a ‘greed is good’ mentality, demonstrated in the astonishing salaries given to the managers of large corporations, but it corrupted the moral standards in the wider culture, fuelling an unstainable debt binge and consumerism. Not surprisingly, there has been a massive increase in the wealth of the top income groups in richer countries.
At the same time, despite the huge gains in wealth in recent decades, most richer nations did little to honour their commitments to reduce global hunger and the severest poverty through the Millennium Development Goals and other development programs.
In view of global warming and threats to the environment, Pope Benedict is in effect challenging the belief in unrestrained economic growth, insisting that we need to adopt more modest lifestyles lest we damage the resources needed for future generations. He is calling for a better balance between the need to increase goods and services for poorer people while restraining extravagance and irresponsible consumption.
In addition, Benedict is calling for a renewed moral basis in international relations. With Pope John Paul II, as Cardinal Ratzinger Benedict vigorously opposed the war in Iraq and the neoconservative foreign policy under the Bush Administration. Benedict wants to refocus the efforts of all people of good will to develop cultures of peace and solidarity among nations. Particularly he wants to foster deeper respect and understanding between adherents of the great world religions, and so that extremists cannot claim the mantle of religion to justify killing or terrorism.
Many people may be surprised at how critical the Pope is of recent forms of capitalism, but this stemmed from a long tradition of Church social teaching, stretching back to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, On the Condition of the Working Class. Most people were aware that the Church had long opposed communism, but not all understood that it also strongly opposed abuses under capitalism as well.
The Pope realises how critical is this moment in human history. The fate of many millions of people will undoubtedly rest on decisions about how we learn to live more modestly within our resources, head off looming threats from global warming and nuclear proliferation, and ensure that everyone has the means to a decent life.
One hopes that the new encyclical will stimulate a more earnest global conversation not just among Catholics, but with other churches and religions, and indeed all people alarmed about the prospects for human wellbeing.
• Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the new Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, based at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.