Pope Benedict on Economic Justice
By: Thomas Reese
July 7, 2009
Pope Benedict's long awaited encyclical calls for a radical rethinking of economics so that it is guided not simply by profits but by "an ethics which is people-centered."
"Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end," he writes in Caritas in veritate (Charity in Truth), but "once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty."
He decries that "Corruption and illegality are unfortunately evident in the conduct of the economic and political class in rich countries...as well as in poor ones." He also says that "Financiers must rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity, so as not to abuse the sophisticated instruments which can serve to betray the interests of savers."
Benedict, like Paul VI, whose encyclical Populorum Progressio (Development of Peoples) he is commemorating, is concerned about the "The scandal of glaring inequalities." Both Benedict and Paul hoped that economic development would "produce real growth, of benefit to everyone and genuinely sustainable." Benedict disappointedly acknowledges that "The world's wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase" [italics in text].
"The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require," he affirms, "that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone."
In his encyclical, Benedict calls for charity guided by truth. "Charity demands justice: recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples," he says. "Justice must be applied to every phase of economic activity, because this is always concerned with man and his needs," he writes. "Locating resources, financing, production, consumption and all the other phases in the economic cycle inevitably have moral implications. Thus every economic decision has a moral consequence."
The encyclical notes the globalization that has taken place since Paul's encyclical was issued over 40 years ago. Alas, "as society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers." True "development of peoples depends, above all, on a recognition that the human race is a single family working together in true communion, not simply a group of subjects who happen to live side by side." The goal of such development is "rescuing peoples, first and foremost, from hunger, deprivation, endemic diseases and illiteracy."
Sounding like a union organizer, Benedict argues that "Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country's international competitiveness, hinder the achievement of lasting development."
Rather the goal should be decent employment for everyone, which "means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labor; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one's roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living."
The pope disagrees with those who believe that the economy should be free of government regulation. "The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from 'influences' of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way," he writes. "In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise."
Benedict even supports "a political, juridical and economic order which can increase and give direction to international cooperation for the development of all peoples in solidarity. To manage the global economy; 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: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago."
While Benedict acknowledges the role of the market, he emphasizes that "the social doctrine of the Church has unceasingly highlighted the importance of distributive justice and social justice for the market economy." He unflinchingly supports the "redistribution of wealth" when he talks about the role of government. "Grave imbalances are produced," he writes, "when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution."
Although Benedict's emphasis in the encyclical is on the theological foundations of Catholic social teaching, amid the dense prose there are indications, as shown above, that he is to the left of almost every politician in America. What politician would casually refer to "redistribution of wealth" or talk of international governing bodies to regulate the economy? Who would call for increasing the percentage of GDP devoted to foreign aid? Who would call for the adoption of "new life-styles 'in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments'"?
Benedict believes that if people understood God's love for every single human person and his divine plan for us, then believers would recognize their duty "to unite their efforts with those of all men and women of good will, with the followers of other religions and with non-believers, so that this world of ours may effectively correspond to the divine plan: living as a family under the Creator's watchful eye."