Monday, October 24, 2011

Vatican reform note cause for conservative face-palms

Whatever else you can say about the various cardinalatial functionaries at the Vatican, this much is true: Media-savvy they ain’t.

This weekend, on the eve of the G20 economic summit, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority. In this document, the PCJP looks at the current economic situation and forecast, and critiques the presumptive causes from the perspective of Catholic social doctrine.

The one recommendation the document (hereafter shortened to TRIFMS) makes that’s causing much conservative Catholic garment-rending begins well into the document:

In the prophetic encyclical Pacem in Terris of 1963, [Bl. John XXIII] observed that the world was heading towards ever greater unification. He then acknowledged the fact that a correspondence was lacking in the human community between the political organization “on a world level and the objective needs of the universal common good”. He also expressed the hope that one day “a true world political authority” would be created.
In view of the unification of the world engendered by the complex phenomenon of globalization, and of the importance of guaranteeing, in addition to other collective goods, the good of a free, stable world economic and financial system at the service of the real economy, today the teaching of Pacem in Terris appears to be even more vital and worthy of urgent implementation. …
As [Pope Benedict XVI] reminds us, if this road is not followed, “despite the great progress accomplished in various sectors, international law would risk being conditioned by the balance of power among the strongest nations” [Caritas in Veritate §67].

Sandro Magister’s lede in his L’Espresso blog sums up much of the Catholic right’s reaction: “In the view of Fr. Thomas J. Reese, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington and a former director of the magazine of the Jesuits of New York, America, not only is the document released today by the Holy See ‘to the left of Barack Obama, it [is] to the left of Nancy Pelosi, and it [is] closer to views of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement than anyone in the U.S. Congress.’”

Tom Peters has the MSNBC clip featuring Fr. Reese, along with some comments from a press conference given by Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson and Bishop Mario Toso S.D.B. (respectively the president and secretary of the Council). Peters’ argument, and it’s well taken, is that the problem is one of framing:

…[T]he very authors of the document make clear how it should be evaluated: namely, as a “contribution” (as opposed to a mandate), as a “possible path” (as opposed to a moral proscription), in line with the Magisterium’s social teaching (as opposed to introducing a new teaching), without getting into the technical issues (because the Church is an expert in humanity, not economics) while fully staying within the Church’s religious and ethical functions.

Peters makes this argument because, in the interview of Fr. Reese, Alex Witt and Fr. Reese make constant reference to “the Pope” when Pope Benedict has no obvious hand other than having written Caritas in Veritate, to which TRIFMS refers quite a bit. However, this doesn’t save TRIFMS and the Pope for the Sons of Hayek and the Austrian School, as the paragraph in Caritas already speaks of “an urgent need of a true world political authority”, as well as reforms of existing economic and financial institutions “so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth”.

Magister notes dispassionately, “What is utopian and what is realistic in the invocation of such a supreme world government can be seen in the general disorder that the coverage of the current economic and financial crisis describes for us every day.” This is mild compared to Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s reaction:

Some of my favorite points in the new “white paper” include the suggestion that there should be global monetary management and a “central world bank” to regulate it and that the United Nations should be involved. National banks have, after all, done such a good job that we should now make the effort transnational! And is this the same UN that had nations such as Saudi Arabia and, till recently, Libya on the their human rights commission? Wasn’t there a UN financial corruption investigation still going on? Is this the same UN that is pushing contraception pretty much in every poor country on earth? Was that a different UN?

Indeed, TRIFMS concedes we live “in a society capable of mobilizing immense means but whose cultural and moral reflection is still inadequate with regard to their use in achieving the appropriate ends”. This doesn’t halt the PCJP from suggestions such as a central world bank: “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas, even if they might destabilize pre-existing balances of power that prevail over the weakest. They are a seed thrown to the ground that will sprout and hurry towards bearing fruit.”

That is possibly the most utopian statement in the document. Because of the framing problem, people who want a one-world state built along principles they choose are likely to point to TRIFMS as “the Pope’s backing” for their schemes … even when their principles run 180° counter to Catholic social justice teaching. The weeds of rampant materialism are more than likely to choke off any positive fruit from the document.

More to the point, as Samuel Gregg points out, TRIFMS’ suggestions fall apart on several levels, summing up his critique with this damning phrase: “Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

Fortunately, the Catholic Church is not tied to any particular ideology or economic theory; it doesn’t need to be wedded to classic theories of economics any more than it needs to be wedded to a particular political party. And, as Gregg also says, “despite the Catholic Left’s excited hyperventilating,” there isn’t much to this document that’s unconventional.

Unfortunately, what is there is still enough in the Vatican note for conservative face-palms. To say TRIFMS is to the left of Obama and Pelosi and close to what OWS wants is hardly a recommendation.