Pope Benedict’s Message on Peace, Justice, and Wealth Redistribution

Pope Benedict’s interpretations of Catholic Social Thought have been consistently inspiring. His recent message on the World Day of Justice and Peace focused on the material foundations of a just and well-ordered society.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God”, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:9). Peace for all is the fruit of justice for all, and no one can shirk this essential task of promoting justice, according to one’s particular areas of competence and responsibility. . . .

Peace . . . is not merely a gift to be received: it is also a task to be undertaken. In order to be true peacemakers, we must educate ourselves in compassion, solidarity, working together, fraternity, in being active within the community and concerned to raise awareness about national and international issues and the importance of seeking adequate mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth, the promotion of growth, cooperation for development and conflict resolution.

This position confirms a long line of encyclicals urging the fair distribution of global resources. As Pope Benedict earlier stated in Caritas in Veritate, “Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function.”

While Catholic Social Thoughts acknowledges the innovation that capitalism sparks, Caritas in Veritate also judged that “[o]n the part of rich countries there is excessive zeal for protecting knowledge through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property, especially in the field of health care.” The Vatican has long demanded that the basic needs of all be met. As Leo XIII put it in Rerum Novarum,

Justice . . .demands that the interests of the working classes should be carefully watched over by the administration, so that they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create—–that being housed, clothed, and bodily fit, they may find their life less hard and more endurable.

This language insists on the importance of basic human needs as a reflection of a deeply incarnational religion. In contrast with economists’ efforts to fragment reality into more tractable units of analysis, a holistic, synthetic vision drives Catholic Social Thought. The encyclicals articulate a vision of global justice, based on an account of the nature and destiny of humankind as a whole. As Caritas in Veritate puts it:

In an increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family, that is to say, the community of peoples and nations, in such a way as to shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God.

Traditional economic goals of maximizing efficiency (at the micro-level) and gross domestic product (at the macro-level) do not necessarily create an “earthly city in unity and peace.” Indeed, when the lion’s share of growth is taken by the top 1%, such growth can merely reinforce conditions of exploitation. While contemporary economists resort to complex mathematics to model production and measure aggregate well-being, Catholic Social Thought is concerned with the basic conditions for human dignity and flourishing. Since its inception, it has been willing to challenge economic precepts in order to advance that vision.

Does this create a new conflict between science and religion—the rigor of economics, and the emotion of faith? Not really. As thinkers ranging from Mirowski to McCloskey to Roberts to Klein have demonstrated, the economic crisis has ripped the veil of scientism from the rather pedestrian interest-advocacy embedded in dominant strands of contemporary economic thought. It will fall to thinkers of good will of diverse perspectives to put real human needs back at the center of policymaking.

This task is particularly urgent in the field of financial and monetary systems. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s document, “Towards Reforming The International Financial And Monetary Systems In The Context Of Global Public Authority,” is a worthy contribution to this emerging dialogue. As the Council states, “The economic and financial crisis which the world is going through calls everyone, individuals and peoples, to examine in depth the principles and the cultural and moral values at the basis of social coexistence.” Here are some of their conclusions:

[T]he crisis has revealed behaviours like selfishness, collective greed and the hoarding of goods on a great scale. No one can be content with seeing man live like “a wolf to his fellow man”, according to the concept expounded by Hobbes. No one can in conscience accept the development of some countries to the detriment of others. If no solutions are found to the various forms of injustice, the negative effects that will follow on the social, political and economic level will be destined to create a climate of growing hostility and even violence, and ultimately undermine the very foundations of democratic institutions, even the ones considered most solid. . . .

On the way to building a more fraternal and just human family and, even before that, a new humanism open to transcendence, Blessed John XXIII’s teaching seems especially timely. In the prophetic Encyclical Pacem in Terris of 1963, he 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.

There are many paths to establishing a “financial system at the service of the real economy.” A Tobin Tax appears to be an obvious first step; David Graeber’s work on debt presents other, more radical approaches (such as jubilees, another concept with religious resonance). Whatever path policymakers take, I hope they pay more attention to the deep wisdom and insight reflected in Catholic Social Thought, and the NGO’s like Global Financial Integrity and the Tax Justice Network that help to put it into action.

Image Credit: Parable of Dives and Lazarus, retold in economic terms here.

You may also like...