By Frank Wessling
In the mind of Pope Benedict XVI, “badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing” is a cause of today’s economic troubles. In a papal encyclical made public last Tuesday, he said the world needs new styles of management by people who will keep an eye on the common good, not simply short- term business profit.
On the same morning last week, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission announced in Washington, D.C., that it is working on new rules to limit speculation in oil, gas, agricultural products and other commodities. Based on his new encyclical on Catholic social teaching, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), the pope would approve. The big Wall Street trading firms don’t like the idea, though, according to the Washington Post: their profits could be affected.
Buying and selling basic goods like grain with an eye only for the profit of traders is behind a worldwide increase in food prices. This gambling casino atmosphere in markets is also thought to be responsible for a run-up in fuel costs to consumers this spring. Who is hurt most by this kind of profit-seeking? Poor people and the near-poor everywhere, the very ones Catholic teaching says deserve help, not further pain.
Benedict’s letter, the latest in a series of papal statements on social life dating back more than a century, asks for “a profoundly new way of understanding human enterprise.” Integrated human development requires that charity, truth and solidarity be the principal guides in every activity. And the pope insists that this is the best way to ensure sustainable development and a healthy spread of prosperity.
“The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly,” says Benedict. But this must be “an ethics which is people-centered,” not based merely on correct technical balance in a transaction.The character of the people at the controls of both business and government is crucial. Development that unfolds with justice “is impossible without upright men and women, without financiers and politicians whose consciences are finely attuned to the requirements of the common good.
“Both professional competence and moral consistency are necessary.”
Since modern technology and communication have made people around the globe interdependent, fresh thinking on “world political authority” is needed. Benedict points out that globalization has taken us beyond the time when “the balance of power among the strongest nations” is enough for stability and peace in the world. It is time for a reform of the United Nations and other international institutions “so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth.”
Nearly 50 years ago Pope John XXIII made the same plea for governing structures adequate in the collapse of space and time brought on by modern technology. That was in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). Benedict says the need is now urgent.
The new papal encyclical is a long (estimated 30,000 words) meditation on the implications of Christian charity in today’s world without borders. The Christian truth has always been that human life originates and develops in the relationship of love. The crisis of our time happens to have an economic face, so the pope uses that lens for much of his focus. What he sees is a failure of attention by the strong and prosperous to the needs of the poor; a failure of attention to our impact on the environment; a failure of nerve and imagination when we refuse to welcome new life; failure to do business with a strong sense of human solidarity, failure to see that our tribal and national sense of separation violates the truth of our common origin, common needs, and global common good.
Benedict also sees hope. It operates where believers accept the truth that love is never absent from relationships, business as well as personal, and where all people of good will join in “understanding life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a spirit of solidarity.”