Pope Criticizes World Economic System, Urges Social Responsibility

The Washington Post (Link) - Jacqueline L. Salmon (July 8, 2009)

Pope Benedict XVI criticized the international economic system yesterday and called for a new global structure based on social responsibility, concern for the dignity of the worker and a respect for ethics.

"Today's international economic scene, marked by grave deviations and failures, requires a profoundly new way of understanding human enterprise," Benedict wrote in his latest encyclical, which is the most authoritative document a pope can issue. "Without doubt, one of the greatest risks for business is that they are almost exclusively answerable to their investors, thereby limited in their social value."

In the sweeping 144-page document, Benedict sketches a radically different world economy, in which access to food and water is a universal right, wealthy nations share with poorer ones and profit is not the ultimate goal of commerce. He advocates the creation of a "world political authority" to manage the economy.

He blames "badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing" for causing the economic meltdown. The primary capital to be safeguarded is people, he says, adding that economic systems need to be guided by charity and truth.

The encyclical comes a day before President Obama and leaders of other industrial nations are to gather in L'Aquila, Italy, to discuss the global economic crisis at a Group of Eight summit. The timing demonstrates that Benedict, 82, aims to insert his voice into that discussion by focusing on the moral underpinnings of the meltdown.

The document buoyed the left wing of the Roman Catholic Church, which focuses on the church's social justice teachings, and disappointed some socially conservative Catholics, who emphasize wealth creation and believe in the market's capacity to empower the poor.

Conservative George Weigel, a Benedict biographer and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank, said that two drafts of the document prepared by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace had been rejected by the pope and that it was possible that the encyclical's stress on wealth distribution, rather than wealth creation, was a conciliatory gesture toward more left-leaning members of the Vatican bureaucracy.

Benedict is scheduled to meet with Obama on Friday and is expected to raise the issues discussed in the encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate" ("Charity in Truth"). This is Benedict's third encyclical since taking office four years ago. He has been working on this document since 2007 but has said that he delayed releasing it to reflect the world's current economic troubles.

Analysts say the document places the usually conservative pontiff on the left as to economic issues. But the document also gives a nod to the more conservative wing of the Catholic Church, maintaining that birth control, for example, is not only immoral but also poor economic policy because it narrows the "brain pool" of qualified labor. He makes comparable arguments about abortion and gay marriage.

In all, though, "Benedict is significantly to the left of any major political position in the United States," said Vincent J. Miller, a professor of Catholic theology and culture at the University of Dayton. "You don't have anything like this kind of trenchant critique of capitalism."

Benedict again urged that people show more respect toward the environment. But this time he added specific prescriptions -- more research into alternative energy, worldwide redistribution of energy resources and pushing more advanced countries to lower their energy consumption, either through technology or through greater "ecological sensitivity" among residents.

The timing of the encyclical is unusual because it addresses a current crisis, said Maryann Cusimano Love of Catholic University's Life Cycle Institute. Normally, "the emergence of major Catholic teachings are often quite slow."