Posted by: Barry | June 29, 2010

“Our laborious work for justice”: the Pope on development and capitalism, one year later

One year ago today was Michael Jackson’s funeral.  Another event on the same day, big in the Catholic world, had little chance of being noticed in the midst of all the hubbub. 

On this day last year, Pope Benedict XVI released his encyclical letter “On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.”  (An encyclical is a major teaching document from the Pope.  Papal documents are generally known by the first two or three words of the text, in its official Latin version; this one is called Caritas in Veritate.)

This encyclical is the most recent contribution to a field of Catholic doctrine called “Catholic social teaching.”  That’s the Church’s teaching and reflection on moral issues related to how we live together as a society (topics like worker’s rights, racism, care for the poor, and the environment).

Human development is the economic, social, and technological development of human societies and cultures.  This has long been seen by the Church as part of its mission, and it has often made important contributions to this work.  (ABLE Families might be considered one example of that.)   Benedict speaks of “integral” human development because he wants to insist that development which does not take into consideration the whole person – including our moral and spiritual lives – will always be incomplete.

He writes:

Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is. … A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism. Only a humanism open to the Absolute can guide us in the promotion and building of forms of social and civic life — structures, institutions, culture and ethos — without exposing us to the risk of becoming ensnared by the fashions of the moment. Awareness of God’s undying love sustains us in our laborious and stimulating work for justice and the development of peoples, amid successes and failures, in the ceaseless pursuit of a just ordering of human affairs.  (section 78)

One of the most interesting aspects of the letter – especially from an American perspective – is its approach to capitalism.  The Pope is critical of the idea that profit is the only, or even the most important value, when it comes to economic thinking.  Besides asking what will earn the highest profits or save the most money, he says, people need to ask what will serve the common good most effectively.  And that’s true whether we’re running a company, buying stocks, or buying shoes.

Benedict rejects an idea that many consider the heart of capitalism – that the market is best left completely to itself, in some pure state, to adjust and control itself.  (Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations about the “invisible hand” that regulates the market, pushing all the different forces at work into harmonious cooperation.) 

No, says the Pope.  The market is determined by human choices, and part of human nature is that we’re weak and sinful; the strong are often inclined to take advantage of the weak.  (Evidence of this reality at work in the American economy is easy to find here in Appalachia.)

The point is not that capitalism is evil.  In fact, it can be an instrument for great good, and the Pope acknowledges this.  But it needs to be regulated, in order to protect the weakest among us. 

This thinking was bound to ruffle some American feathers. In fact, one of the most interesting things about the document was the reaction it received by some folks who are usually enthusiastic supporters of the Pope and Catholic teaching.  In this case, they were a bit more hesitant, working themselves into some interesting contortions to explain why this letter really shouldn’t be taken too seriously or why it’s not really meant for the average person-in-the-street. 

Nonsense.  Even people who would tend to dismiss topics like Jesus, the Church, and the sacraments as irrelevant would agree that how we make our money and what we do with it is real life stuff.  In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict has something to say about that.

The full document is here.

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