If that combination—a more socialist economics and a more traditional culture—is possible, then we need more explanation than Chapter 2 gave us, and, not surprisingly, it is with an explanation that Chapter 3 opens.
The intellectual problem that Benedict has set himself is a thorny one: The encyclical has to discern and present a higher unity of philosophically and practically disparate elements, and it promises to do so not with philosophy and recommendations for practice, but with theology.
Let’s admit, as well, that this is a tough literary problem for the encyclical. John Paul II, the greatest papal writing talent of modern times, divided the topics when he produced two of the best-constructed modern encyclicals: Centesimus Annus and Evangelium Vitae. If commentators are stumbling over what seems the inconsistency Caritas in Veritate, the first cause may be that, regardless of the success or failure of Benedict’s higher-order theological solution, the encyclical’s topics simply cannot be developed side-by-side in sufficient detail to make them feel coherent. An email from a judicial clerk yesterday complained that Caritas in Veritate reads “like what you get when a three-judge panel that fundamentally doesn’t agree decides to write an unanimous opinion that rides a few of each judge’s hobbyhorses.” Reactions like this, heard over and over again from across the ideological spectrum, suggest that, whatever he’s accomplished, Benedict didn’t manage to solve the literary problem of the encyclical.
In paragraphs 34 and 35, opening the chapter, Benedict points to the concept of gift as the key, writing, “sometimes modern man is wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life and society. This is a presumption that follows from being selfishly closed in upon himself, and it is a consequence—to express it in faith terms—of original sin.”
I can’t say I care much for that interjected “to express it in faith terms.” What other terms is a pope supposed to use, and, for that matter, what other terms are there for the concept? Maybe Kant’s “crooked timber of humanity,” or something, but it all goes back to the idea of original sin, anyway.
Still, the point here is that charity is necessary because the world is fallen, and though humanity is open by nature to the gift of grace, the world needs the concept of givenness and original sin to provide a horizon of hope for human activity.
Amen. Exactly right. Benedict then applies the point: “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. 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.” To which one wants to say: Yes, but . . .
Yes, but Adam Smith’s ideas and the subsequent American economic system were predicated, to a large degree, on that concept of original sin. There are perhaps open to the accusation that they did not guarantee a place for grace, and thus, in their long working out, they can dissolve the virtues that made them possible. This is, to use the old phrase, the cultural contradiction of capitalism.
The accusation can be turned around, however, to any socialist economic vision—which is exactly what the religious neo-conservatives did, in a line of argument echoed in Centesimus Annus: A mandated, market-making command economy may guarantee a place for grace, but it closes down the idea of fallen human nature. The system might work, if the commanders of that economy were angels, but—to express it in faith terms—they, too, suffer from original sin, and so they operate as humans do: out of self-interest and self-delusion, and in this case, without any chance of correction by the countervailing force of the market choices of free citizens.
Benedict sees the cultural contradiction of capitalism: “Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function.” And in paragraph 35 he takes the line that the market is an economic good, but a good that needs the virtue-creating horizon of faith in God: “It must draw its moral energies from other subjects that are capable of generating them.” Richard John Neuhaus would have said the same thing.
Indeed, “economy and finance, as instruments, can be used badly when those at the helm are motivated by purely selfish ends,” Benedict writes. “But it is man’s darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the instrument per se. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.” Michael Novak would have said the same thing.
So where, then, does paragraph 40 come from, declaring, “Today’s international economic scene, marked by grave deviations and failures, requires a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise. (As an aside, the italics in the English text of the encyclical are embarrassing. Will they be in the official Latin? As applied in the English, they seem to mark out the most hackneyed and spiritless lines.)
If the market fails because of individuals failing in the conscience and their responsibility, why do we need a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise? The examples the encyclical gives—transfer of capital abroad (a concern of Paul VI’s) and speculative use of financial resources (meaning derivatives?)—seem to be instances of investors behaving immorally rather than business needing to be redefined. The question raised here remains unanswered in Chapter Three.
Benedict wisely sees the continuing role of the nation states: “Both wisdom and prudence suggest not being too precipitous in declaring the demise of the State. In terms of the resolution of the current crisis, the State’s role seems destined to grow, as it regains many of its competences.” And the absence of a coherent state makes matters very bad, as Benedict notes in yet another swipe at the African thugocracies: “The focus of international aid, within a solidarity-based plan to resolve today’s economic problems, should rather be on consolidating constitutional, juridical and administrative systems in countries that do not yet fully enjoy these goods. Alongside economic aid, there needs to be aid directed towards reinforcing the guarantees proper to the State of law: a system of public order and effective imprisonment that respects human rights, truly democratic institutions.”
But he returns to globalization at the chapter’s end, quoting John Paul II: “Despite some of its structural elements, which should neither be denied nor exaggerated, ‘globalization, a priori, is neither good nor bad. It will be what people make of it.’” The conclusion is just: “The transition inherent in the process of globalization presents great difficulties and dangers that can only be overcome if we are able to appropriate the underlying anthropological and ethical spirit that drives globalization towards the humanizing goal of solidarity. Unfortunately this spirit is often overwhelmed or suppressed by ethical and cultural considerations of an individualistic and utilitarian nature.”
Who could disagree?