Those in the industrialized West continue to struggle with the effects of the financial crisis and ongoing recession. Unemployment is still on the rise. Businesses struggle to stay afloat even as consumers stubbornly, though understandably, refuse to increase their spending. Unprecedented policies have been implemented: massive bailouts of businesses deemed “too big to fail,” interest rates at record lows, stimulus packages the size of which boggles the mind and massive budget deficits.
As our economic troubles deepen, we are inclined to look inward, focusing exclusively on the damaging economic and psychological effects of the loss of a job or a home—and this is understandable. Yet the difficulties we face—real and damaging as they are—cannot compare to those of the world’s poor who struggle on a daily basis for mere survival. Christians must be ever mindful of Jesus’ call to “serve the least of these.”
A timely reminder of our obligations to the world’s poor comes in the latest social encyclical letter by Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity, or Love, in Truth”), the latest in a long line of social encyclicals that began in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (“New Things”). Leo addressed social problems that had arisen from the industrial revolution, especially the growing conflicts between labour and capital. Subsequently, popes have addressed topics relevant to their own times, thus developing a body of moral teaching on a broad range of economic issues and systems.
Caritas in Veritate builds upon and updates the encyclical Populorum Progressio (“The Development of Peoples”) issued by Pope Paul VI in 1967—the first encyclical to deal with development in the Third World. These two encyclicals address development in a broad sense, including but not limited to economic growth. The popes call this “authentic human development” or “integral development” that involves “the whole human person in every single dimension.” Authentic development, they argue, cannot be achieved by technical solutions or institutional reform alone, but require a vision of the human person as possessing inherent worth and dignity, grounded in the truth of our bearing the divine image. Development without God “ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development,” one that fails to address human needs as they really are.
Defying easy political classification as Left or Right, liberal or conservative, the encyclical addresses a wide range of topics including immigration, the environment and our responsibility toward future generations, the right of workers to organize and the social responsibility of business. Claiming that “the Church does not have technical solutions to offer,” the encyclical advocates broad principles and avoids specific policy proposals.
One such principle is the close connection between justice and love, justice being “inseparable from charity, intrinsic to it.” According to Benedict, justice is “the primary way of charity … [and] the minimum measure of it.” We cannot truly love others unless we desire and seek what is due them by right. Closely related is the notion of the common good, which he defines as “the good of all of us, made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society.” Pursuing the common good “is a requirement of justice and charity.” Furthermore, he contends that all Christians are called to seek the common good “corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors” and in doing so “the more effectively we love them.” But as Pope Benedict points out, “Deeds without knowledge are blind, and knowledge without love is sterile.” With regard to development, “the individual who is animated by true charity labours skillfully to discover the causes of misery, to find the means to combat it, to overcome it resolutely.”
Pope Benedict properly calls upon rich countries to allow goods, and in particular agricultural goods, to be imported from poor countries. For many poor countries, “the possibility of marketing their products is very often what guarantees their survival in both short and long term.” The United States and the European Union spend many billions of dollars annually on agricultural subsidies and price supports and impose tariffs on imported products, such as sugar, that effectively block agricultural imports from much of the Third World. We should call upon our governments to phase out agricultural subsidies and end this gross injustice.
We should also ponder carefully the claim that “every economic decision has a moral consequence.” How many of us take the time to consider seriously the moral consequences of our economic decisions to spend, invest or work at a particular job and for a particular company? Christians should devote more time to learning about the ways in which our economic actions either serve or fail to serve the common good and the well being of the poor.
Perhaps the most controversial proposal is Pope Benedict’s call for a “world political authority” that would “manage the global economy.” There is, he says, an “urgent need” for such an authority, “to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration …” In addition, the “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. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties …” What sort of “authority” could possibly amass the information necessary to manage the entire global economy? The power vested in such a body would need to be immense and well beyond anything we have known, or cared to imagine. We do need greater international cooperation to ensure just trade and monetary systems and to seek to prevent the rapid spread of financial crises throughout the world. But these matters would be best addressed through existing channels and treaties, rather than through a vast new bureaucratic body.
This matter aside, I strongly encourage all Christians and “persons of good will” to reflect deeply on the moral teaching offered by Benedict XVI. There is much here to ponder for those outside as well as inside the Catholic Church.