Interventions: Statements of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations
 
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Remarks by H.E. The Most Rev. Celestino Migliore
Apostolic Nuncio to Poland

“Catholic Social Teaching and the International Economic Crisis”

Fordham University, New York, NY
February 24, 2012




It is said that the social doctrine of the Church was born one hundred-twenty years ago, with the encyclical Rerum novarum of Leo XIII. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Rerum novarum was the first so-called “social encyclical,” because in truth the social Christian doctrine was given by Jesus Himself when He announced that at the end of time all of humanity will appear before Him who will judge us according to those occasions we recognized Him and came to His aid in those who were hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick, or imprisoned (cf. Matt 25:31-46). These, along with “bury the dead,” have come to be known to us as the “Seven Corporal Works of Mercy.”  

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, and well before the creation of the modern state administration, the Corporal Works of Mercy inspired the Christian communities to organize the very first hospitals, schools, universities, centers of agricultural education and formation, humanitarian and social institutions for orphans, destitute people, girls and women often neglected by society.

This specific commitment to and involvement in the works of mercy has provided the Church through the centuries with a unique perspective in dealing with social issues and also with social thought.  In his encyclical Rerum novarum, Pope Leo XIII said the Church’s social doctrine is a “Christian philosophy” -- a philosophy not disconnected from Christian revelation, but articulated in the language and proposals taken from the natural law, common to every human person, always and everywhere.  Forty years later, Pius XI, in Quadragesimo anno, dealt with more detailed issues like ownership, capital and labor, fair wages, proletariat, etc. He employed plain rational language and arguments borrowed from the natural law.  John XXIII, in Pacem in terris, of 1961, stated human rights “should prevail,” that is to say, human rights are the basis on which to build any society. He also referred to the then recently adopted UN Declaration of Human Rights, saying that “We are, of course, aware that some of the points in the declaration did not meet with unqualified approval in some quarters; and there was justification for this. Nevertheless, we think the document should be considered a step in the right direction, an approach toward the establishment of a juridical and political ordering of the world community.” (144).

Protestants countered the Catholic Church by arguing that her social doctrine was based mainly on natural law with only minor references to the Gospel. The Second Vatican Council inaugurated a new approach, especially with Gaudium et spes, where anthropological and social questions are examined from a more theological and biblical perspective in which the human community, the world at large, is viewed in light of the Trinity.

To commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of Rerum novarum in 1991, Pope John Paul II wrote another social encyclical, Centesimus annus, in which he explains that “The Church (...) has something to say about specific human situations, both individual and communal, national and international. She formulates a genuine doctrine for these situations, a corpus which enables her to analyze social realities, to make judgments about them and to indicate directions to be taken for the just resolution of the problems involved” (5).

The Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church published in 2004, clearly notes: “The Church's social doctrine was not initially thought of as an organic system but was formed over the course of time, through the numerous interventions of the Magisterium on social issues. The fact that it came about in this manner makes it understandable that certain changes may have taken place with regard to its nature, method and epistemological structure” (72).

As for the authors of this doctrine, the Compendium stresses: “The social doctrine belongs to the Church because the Church is the subject that formulates it, disseminates it and teaches it. It is not a prerogative of a certain component of the ecclesial body but of the entire community (...). The whole of the Church community — priests, religious and laity — participates in the formulation of this social doctrine, each according to the different tasks, charisms and ministries found within her. These many and varied contributions (…)are taken up, interpreted and formed into a unified whole by the Magisterium, which promulgates the social teaching as Church doctrine” (79).

While the term “doctrine” is normally used to express permanent and defined principles, with regard to social issues and events, “some elements have a permanent value; others, only a transitory one” (Gaudium et spes, footnote 1). This is why Vatican Council II preferred the expression “social teaching” rather than “social doctrine”.

Scholars of the social teaching of the Church believe the expression “social doctrine” in use from Leo XIII to Pius XII was adequate inasmuch as it presented itself as a body of principles deduced from immutable revelation and natural rights, and presented itself as a “third way” to the then thriving capitalist and socialist systems.

Beginning with John XXIII, the Church’s reflection on social issues used an “inductive” rather than “deductive” approach, as indicated in the encyclical, Mater et magistra, wherein he observed that “There are three stages which should normally be followed in the reduction of social principles into practice. First, one reviews the concrete situation; secondly, one forms a judgment on it in the light of these same principles; thirdly, one decides what in the circumstances can and should be done to implement these principles. These are the three stages that are usually expressed in the three terms: look, judge, act” (236).

This method has been adopted by subsequent documents of the Magisterium up to the recent Compendium which places it within the framework of the virtue of prudence (547).

The term “social doctrine” resurfaced with Pope John Paul II who liked to emphasize its genuine theological and moral dimensions. Nonetheless, the methodology implemented by John XXIII was maintained as evidenced in Sollicitudo rei socialis of twenty-five years ago: “The Church's social doctrine is not (…) an ideology, but rather the accurate formulation of the results of a careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence, in society and in the international order, in the light of faith and of the Church's tradition. Its main aim is to interpret these realities, determining their conformity with or divergence from the lines of the Gospel teaching (…). It therefore belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology and particularly of moral theology” (41).

In 1993, Pope John Paul II traveled to Denver, Colorado, for World Youth Day. Immediately afterwards he left for the Baltics: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. This was an historical moment: in Europe, the Berlin Wall had crumbled just a few years before, and the Communist States that had been part of the Soviet Union were dismantled. Meanwhile, in the United States, the fall of Communism was interpreted by many as a victory or the immediate “canonization” of the capitalist system. During his two trips in the land of capitalism and in several republics of the defunct Marxist system, John Paul II spoke often of the social doctrine of the Church and its propulsive role toward a new social order. However, mindful of what he had just written in Centesimus annus, namely, that “the Marxist solution ha(s)d failed” (42), the Pope pointed out the “error of economism (or capitalism)” underlying both systems though at different levels. In Laborem exercens, of 1981, he had already explained that “economism” viewed “human labour solely according to its economic purpose. (…). Economism directly or indirectly includes a conviction of the primacy and superiority of the material, and directly or indirectly places the spiritual and the personal (man's activity, moral values and such matters) in a position of subordination to material reality” (13).

To the youth gathered in Denver for the prayer vigil he said: “In a technological culture in which people are used to dominating matter, discovering its laws and mechanisms in order to transform it according to their wishes, the danger arises of also wanting to manipulate conscience and its demands. In a culture which holds that no universally valid truths are possible, nothing is absolute. Therefore, in the end – they say – objective goodness and evil no longer really matter. Good comes to mean what is pleasing or useful at a particular moment. Evil means what contradicts our subjective wishes. Each person can build a private system of values” (5).  Pointing to economism and ethical relativism as the modern alienation of human society, John Paul II proposed the social doctrine of the Church as a method for discerning and inspiring action (cf. 3).

Pope Benedict XVI, in his almost seven year-long pontificate, has given us clear indications on the nature and scope of the social doctrine of the Church. In his encyclical, Deus caritas est, he places the social doctrine of the Church at the crossroads between faith and reason, and portrays it as the space in which charity cleanses justice and faith cleanses reason.

In his lucid and profound analysis of modern culture, the Pope identifies two constants underlying the current social thought that merit emphasizing.

First of all, he notes: “Since the nineteenth century, an objection has been raised to the Church's charitable activity, subsequently developed with particular insistence by Marxism: the poor, it is claimed, do not need charity but justice” (26). Nowadays, the same claim is nurtured perhaps no longer by  Marxism, but by a philosophy or new religion of human rights, which is characterized by fundamentalist overtones.

Public opinion and international organizations now lean so heavily on a rights-based approach to many subjects, including poverty, that charity is not only denounced as insufficient, but is attacked for being part of the problem and thought to perpetuate laissez-faire attitudes or the worst excesses of capitalism, without addressing the root causes.

Using both expressions, “Church’s social doctrine” and “Church’s social teaching”, Benedict XVI affirms that the Church recognizes the necessity of observing the social rules of living. However, he reasserts that the mere formal implementation of the rules is not enough. To turn legality into justice demands a clear ethical component. True justice stems from the respect and implementation of rights and duties combined with the exercise of charity – of love. Love is not an addendum, an addition to justice; it is never an excess, even in cases where institutions operated as they should.

What is more, charity stimulates the works of justice. Throughout history, the Church has proven her ability to anticipate and address the needs of the poor well before society or the State administration. Consider the education of girls and women, the organization of welfare centers, primary healthcare services; schools and universities, local banks, unions and human rights protections for workers. It should also be noted that the very first shelters and clinics for terminally ill HIV/AIDS patients were organized some thirty years ago, not by the State’s administration, but, by Mother Teresa and her community.

In addition to stimulating justice, charity stimulates subsidiarity, an indispensable component for a just society. “We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything--writes the Pope--but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces” (ibid.). “This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place –continues Pope Benedict--: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just” (28, a).

To avoid misunderstandings, the Pope adds: “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper” (28, a).

In light of this brief overview of the development of the social thought of the Church in the last one-hundred-twenty years, the questions raised are: How does the Church view the ongoing economic-financial crisis we are experiencing today? How does she assess it?

Every time Pope Benedict speaks of the current crisis, he continually uses the terms “re-plan,” “re-think,” “re-discover.” In a recent address to the Ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, he said: “We must not lose heart, but instead resolutely rediscover our way through new forms of commitment. The crisis can and must be an incentive to reflect on human existence and on the importance of its ethical dimension, even before we consider the mechanisms governing economic life: not only in an effort to stem private losses or to shore up national economies, but to give ourselves new rules which ensure that all can lead a dignified life and develop their abilities for the benefit of the community as a whole”.

Pope Benedict believes that the current crisis, which has not only affected the West but is reverberating throughout all countries, especially the poorest, is foremost an ethical crisis rather than an economic and financial one. That which we need to re-think is the model of development. We need to reshape its ethical dimension prior to its economic mechanisms.

It is not only a matter of stemming the loss of national economies, but of adopting new rules to the degree of ensuring all a chance to live with dignity and develop their potential.

There is something wrong with capitalism as it is lived, particularly in the West. And this “something” has little to do with finances and the economy, because we are dealing with a more profound level of our culture.

The crisis we are experiencing is like a fever that signals something is not well within an organism. And as the temperature lingers and rises, the fever becomes more serious.

There are certain pathologies that take over.

The first has already been cited by the Pope in Caritas in veritate, almost three years ago, taking up the expression of Populorum progressio of Paul VI: “the world is in trouble because of the lack of thinking” (53).

In 1933, when the USA, Europe and the rest of the world were coming out of the great depression from three years before, the British economist, John Keynes, commented on the then deep economic crisis with this image: we find ourselves in the same situation of two truck drivers crossing one another in the middle of a narrow road. They get stuck because no one knows the rules about the right of way. Their muscles are not of any use; an engineer could not help them; to think of a larger road is a good idea for the future, not for now. Only a little thing could help in this case: clarity of mind; cool blood and clear ideas. The same in our situation, today. It’s not a matter of muscles or engineering, or banks and enterprises. On the contrary, ours is a problem of political economy. We got stuck, people are queuing behind the trucks, honking, they come out of the cars and protest –the indignants or defiants. However, also today we need to think more and better and perhaps also together.

“A new trajectory of thinking is needed in order to arrive at a better understanding of the implications of our being one family” (ibid.). The center of attention of this new way of thinking, that is to be recovered, rediscovered, re-adopted, is in the category of relation: “Interaction among the peoples of the world calls us to embark upon this new trajectory, so that integration can signify solidarity rather than marginalization. Thinking of this kind requires a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation” (ibid.). Hence, the new way of thinking we need today, to overcome the crisis, centers around the category of relations. This is a task that cannot be undertaken by the social sciences alone, insofar as the contribution of disciplines such as metaphysics and theology is needed if man's transcendent dignity is to be properly understood (ibid.).

When we say that the social doctrine of the Church has a strong contribution to make to the solution of the current world crisis, we think also of the proposals it has recently made to remedy the structural economic-financial crisis (for example, the re-launching of the idea of a world governance to oversee this sector, or the support of the Tobin Tax). But, first and foremost, we think of this leading contribution, this call to a new way of thinking that gives rise to the category of relation. This is a category very familiar to the Christian message which has affirmed a new relationship between God and man and among human beings themselves.

Why is this new way of thinking or of conducting politics, based on the category of relation so important? Because generally speaking, politics, economy and finance, are thought of as being opposed to one another. International relations are viewed mainly in terms of friends and enemies, of co-operation with privileged countries and disregard for partners lacking any particular political or economic interests. Economy is perceived more in terms of conflict among enterprise, State and labor. In spite of various lip service paid to them all over the world, freedom and equality are not proportionately integrated. For example, the current financial crisis has been provoked for many years by unbridled speculation, which has used the market in a parasitical way.  The absence of adequate rules and monitoring are due to political free reign which has removed itself ever more from the real life situation of people and their needs. Even where politics has done its duty, and there have been many cases of it, it has failed to keep pace with the rapid evolution of culture and society.  Almost twenty-years ago, a European author, Edgar Morin, affirmed that economy, which is mathematically the most advanced social science, is also the least advanced science from a human and social point of view. All the while, those same economists and politicians who have built this collapsing system, today grope in the dark to analyze the causes and the remedies of the current crisis.

The encyclical Caritas in veritate begins to equate liberty and equality. In order to do this a third link is needed, namely fraternity, which until now has often been forgotten. This new link allows us to speak of the family of States and of civil economy, and not only of international balance of power or complementarity of economic subjects although impervious to one another.

From the ‘social question” of Leo XIII to our present day, the social doctrine of the Church has drawn more deeply from both the inspiration of the Gospel and the daily life of man and society.

Another pathogen to cure, in the present crisis, is the relationship between the human community and his Creator. In the last decades we have plundered the environment, we have harmed it and humiliated it. In the course of a couple of generations, we have consumed oil and gas resources that took the earth millions of years to produce; and in the process of this impoverishment we have also harmed the atmosphere.

All of this suggests that we are mistaking one of the fundamental relations of our existence, namely the relationship between earth and nature. And when such an important relation is not respected, it is difficult for other relations to work well , as demonstrated by the increasing intolerance in our cities, the growing loneliness, or the threatening attitude towards the resources of populations that are most vulnerable.  

The social doctrine of the Church, during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, nicknamed by some as the “green Pope,” has been enriched by this important role. This Pope speaks about it often, highlighting the close connection between environmental ecology and human ecology.

Another contributing cause to the fever is the economic inequality that is growing in the world, also as a result of the financial revolution. Without economic equality, which does not rely solely on economic return but also on labor, the principle of equality remains too abstract, because people cannot achieve the quality of life they wish to live.

The financial revolution deeply affected the understanding of finance and credit. When credit or financing was first being developed it was done at a local level with store keepers or businesses extending credit to people whom they knew and trusted; they could be trusted to repay their obligations.  This system relied upon creditors having intimate understanding of the individual whom they were going to extend credit. Lenders had a holistic understanding of those they were lending money to and borrowers recognized their responsibilities and obligations.

However today, politics and finances are separated from the real life of people, from their needs, and from their endeavors. To give you an example, recent studies have brought to light that after 15 September 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, banks have returned to profitability yet have lowered the amount of credit available to business, even to profitable and virtuous ones despite their demand for and need to have access to credit. This evident inefficiency is due to the spatial remoteness, if not estrangement, from where decisions are made and where companies operate.  

These banks, more consolidated than ever and separated by distance, no longer have familiarity with the local territory, the local people and their priorities. Therefore decisions are based on goals, targets and indicators, such as credit scores, that don’t always show the pertinent information about an individual or business which is apparent only to those who live in the region and know each person on a more personal or familial level.

The first message that comes to us is the necessity of bridging the gaps between central headquarters and where people live.  It is a critique of financial institutions which have strongly wanted the consolidation of banks to be large, distant and anonymous, which has been the modus operandi for the past two decades. It is no surprise therefore that many local banks are coping better with the crisis.

All of this suggests a kind of golden rule: that when applied to policies and economics, greater fraternity is urgently needed for institutions to work more effectively and be more resilient when great crises come.

In an epochal crisis, when time is of the essence to find solutions, different proposals are voiced in order to help see the light at the end of the tunnel. There are those who, confronted with the complexities of today’s social reality, political and economic, believe it is impossible to reach a common understanding and, therefore, also impossible to pursue a true “common good.” Others, instead, thinking it necessary to get a common reading of current events, limit their views to some aspects of the whole, and thereby again distance themselves from reality.  However, the Church for her part, believes that we can and must pursue the common good and that in order to do so we must move beyond a limited view of the problems and challenges and instead focus on an integral understanding of political, economic and social reality.

In this context, permit me to close by quoting a passage from the Introduction to Caritas in veritate: “Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church's social doctrine receives it (the truth), assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life-patterns of the society of peoples and nations” (9).


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