The Roman Catholic Church has had difficulties with modernity for a long time. In 1861 Pope Pius IX (famous for his Syllabus of Errors, an exhaustive compendium of modern heresies) made matters very clear in a famous “allocution”, which rejected the notion that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Two distinctly modern institutions intended by the term “liberalism” are democracy and capitalism. As far back as the French Revolution the Church aligned itself, throughout the 19th century and beyond, with one anti-democratic cause after another. And it suffered defeat after defeat. In 1870 the troops of the new Italy marched into Rome and liquidated the Papal States (that was in the last years of the pontificate of Pius IX, who defiantly convoked the First Vatican Council, which defiantly proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility). In 1905 the long struggle between the French Republic and Catholic conservatism ended with the decisive victory of the former, solemnized by the law separating the state and religion. And this kind of conservatism was fundamentally discredited by the victory of democracy in World War II (though there was a final gasp in the project of the Franco regime to remake Spain as an “integrally Catholic” nation). But it was only in the 1960s that the Second Vatican Council solemnly endorsed democracy and the democratic catalog of human rights. Since then the Catholic Church has been a reliable advocate of democracy wherever it has influence, with remarkable effects in Eastern Europe, in Latin America and elsewhere.The difficulty with capitalism has been less clearly resolved. Catholic teaching in this area has been greatly influenced by two papal encyclicals—Rerum Novarum, by Leo XIII in 1891, and Quadrogesimo Anno, by Pius XI in 1931. Both affirmed the right of private property, rejected socialism and class struggle. But they also expressed great concern for the plight of the poor, endorsed the right of labor to have a voice, and advocated an ethic of solidarity. The details of the economic and political arrangements that were to realize these principles were left rather vague. Thus it was that these encyclicals were used to legitimize both democratic labor unions and the “corporate state” instituted by fascist regimes. An important step came with the encyclical Centesimus Annus, by John Paul II in 1991, which for the first time made favorable mention of the “market economy” (which it also called the “free economy”), though it rather unconvincingly differentiated this from “capitalism.” The Polish pope issuing the encyclical had no illusions about socialism and had used his authority to oppose the quasi-Marxist Liberation Theology movement in Latin America. Yet there continues to be a lingering Catholic animus against the “creative destruction” which Joseph Schumpeter had correctly ascribed to capitalism. Conversely there continues a Catholic nostalgia for a harmonious society, with just prices and just wages enforced by the law (though, needless to say, it remains unclear just how such “justice” is to be defined).One had every reason to expect a resurgence of anti-capitalist sentiments as a result of the economic crisis unleashed in 2008. It was rather slow in coming, but it has come now—with the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States and with intensifying demonstrations expressing similar sentiments in Europe. Given the aforementioned history, it was probably inevitable that a Catholic voice would chime in. It now has.On October 24, 2011, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, customarily referred to by its Latin title Iustitia et Pax, issued a document ponderously titled “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary System in the Context of Global Public Authority.” Iustitia et Pax is an agency within the Roman Curia, presently headed by an African cardinal, Peter Turkson from Ghana. It is generally regarded as a sort of leftist lobby within the complex bureaucratic labyrinth of the Curia. Its utterances are definitely not to be taken as authoritative statements of the papacy. Indeed, on the very day that this document was published, the Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi stated that the document is not a papal statement—in his words, “not an expression of papal magisterium.” One may imagine that the present pope, Benedict XVI, was eager to create distance between himself and the document, which Catholics are free to disagree with. All the same, Iustitia et Pax has a significant constituency in the Catholic world, and its statements have potential consequences.The document (some forty pages long) is quite complex, though its basic thrust is clear: It asserts the moral and practical bankruptcy of the current international economic order, and it calls for its replacement by what amounts to a world government. In practice, the International Monetary Fund and other institutions of the global economy are no longer able to control the reckless adventurism of many capitalist actors. Morally, the current order ignores the interests of the poor in favor of the rich. The document does acknowledge (grudgingly, one surmises) that in recent decades there has been a great increase in “global economic well-being”, but it makes no mention of the crucial fact that this development has been caused by the global spread of capitalist economics. Instead it emphasizes the inequalities between rich and poor, between and within countries. The inequalities are supposedly caused by policies inspired by “economic liberalism” (also referred to as “neo-liberal thinking”), which is characterized by a blind faith in market forces, an aversion against state interventions in the economy, and an ethic of “selfishness, collective greed and the hoarding of goods on a mammoth scale.” (I don’t understand the last phrase. It may be due to the fact that the English translation is described as “provisional”—I believe the original text was in Italian).Much in the document is not new. After every few sentences there is a reference to a papal encyclical or some other prior expression of Catholic teaching, with which the document is supposed to be in accord. (This is standard practice: The Catholic Church never admits to saying anything really new, even when it does. Each new statement is to be seen as emerging logically from a long line of previous statements.) There are some rather moderate recommendations, which have been made by others—such as taxes on financial transactions to create a “world reserve fund” for troubled economies, or special regulations for the “shadow markets” created by obscure financial instruments. But the truly novel recommendation by Iustitia et Pax is for the creation of a “supranational authority” to regulate the global economy.This entity is also called “a world political authority” and a “global government.” In addition to replacing the allegedly dysfunctional institutions set up by the Bretton Woods agreements, this world government is also to deal with issues of peace and security, arms control, human rights, migration and food security. The document admits that creating the entity will be difficult and can only happen gradually, building on steps that have already occurred (such as the expansion of the G-7 to the G-20, which gives voices to some of the more important emerging economies). There is no detailed description of how the new entity is to be structured, though the process to do so is to begin “with reference” to the United Nations. One can only guess what “reference” means here—probably that the process to set up the world government should start with negotiations at the United Nations.Does this document mean that the Vatican is about to join the Occupy Wall Street movement? Is Benedict XVI about to bless the encampment in Zuccotti Park? Definitely not. But the document does stand in a distinct tradition of Catholic thought, not limited to the far left in the Church. It deserves some credit for adopting a gradualist rather than revolutionary approach, and for refraining from a call for socialism. But its analysis of the current situation is pure neo-Marxism: All our problems are due to the financial predators headquartered on Wall Street and the “neo-liberal” intellectuals who legitimize them. There is no understanding at all of the fact that millions of people have been lifted from degrading poverty to a decent level of material life by, precisely, “neo-liberal” economic policies. As to the most novel recommendation of the document, its call for world government to be negotiated at the United Nations, this would be a grotesque disaster if it were ever successful. Fortunately, its chances of success are nil.There are indeed financial predators on Wall Street (as well as in the City of London and other centers of the global economy—including the Shanghai Stock Exchange). Quite a few of them should probably be in jail. However, it is salutary to remember that the current crisis began with a bursting bubble in the American housing industry. This did not originate on Wall Street, but in Washington, where (presumably well-intentioned) liberal politicians pressured banks to give mortgages to people who could not afford them. Only then did Wall Street predators come in with their opaque financial instruments, which nobody could understand and whose collapse eventually infected the entire global economy. The capitalist economy should not be rejected because of some predatory capitalists, any more than democracy should be rejected because of some corrupt or (in this case) foolish politicians. Iustitia et Pax can be blamed for a faulty diagnosis and a disastrous prescription. It will encourage a revival of the Catholic Left, which will do nothing to solve our current problems and only suggest solutions that would make them worse.
Published on: November 9, 2011Is the Vatican about to Occupy Wall Street?