Benedict XVI recently issued his third and greatly anticipated encyclical Caritas in Veritate and it was immediately parsed by political analysts and operatives for partisan evidence of their Catholic bona fides. Liberals were generally pleased that the pope criticized the excesses of capitalism and globalization, extolled the virtues or property redistribution, and defended the claims of labor unions. Even better, they were dizzy with enthusiasm regarding his call for the creation of a true world political authority to protect the disenfranchised from systemic poverty. Its easy to forget that only few years ago the pope was roundly criticized by liberals for his anachronistic attachment to conservative values and tradition; now with one encyclical he has become fully rehabilitated and, in the grand tradition of Jeremiah Wright, is an important spiritual advisor to President Obama. To hear the liberal embrace of the latest encyclicals economic recommendations, one would think it was coauthored by Larry Summers.
However, liberals who scrutinize the document with the care it deserves will find their celebration has been premature.
First of all, the encyclical is not an economic policy paper with the primary intention of advocating any particular institutional program. Benedict goes to great pains to stress from the beginning that the Catholic Church does not have technical solutions to offer and that its central concern is not economic development per se but integral human development, or the understanding of true human progress as a vocation. For Benedict, a proper understanding of the challenges to our moral development requires further and deeper reflection on the economy and its goals but this is only a first step towards bringing about a profound cultural renewal that could not legitimately be captured by the technical language or categories of academic economics.
In fact, the entire encyclical is marked by a principled skepticism regarding any political or institutional response to a set of problems that are not primarily of the material order. Generally speaking, institutions by themselves are not enough partly because, like individuals, they are vulnerable to corruption and partly because any genuine moral progress involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity by everyone that is negated by excessive state coercion. More specifically, Caritas is devoted to the virtue of charity understood in light of the commitment to the common good which has greater worth than a merely secular or political stand would have. According to Benedict, true charity is an individual vocation that can only be properly practiced by a free and responsible person”its exercise surely has political implications but is not first and foremost a political virtue. While charity demands justice it also transcends justice”authentic charity is not reducible to some technocratic mechanism or easily encouraged by bureaucratic regulation. Rather than a duty of the state, it is an obligation of the soul.
The great challenge that confronts us is today is the apparently irrepressible fact of globalization or what the pope calls an explosion of worldwide interdependence. In itself, globalization is neither good nor bad”if suitably understood and directed it can function as an engine of economic growth, opportunity, and prosperity and, if badly directed, can lead to unprecedented levels of poverty and oppression. The political problem of globalization, according to Benedict, is that the new context of international trade and finance which corresponds to the increasing mobility of financial capital and means of production exposes and strains the limitations to the sovereignty of the modern state. In other words, the world of finance continues to become more fluid and truly international while the moral stewardship of international exchange is still largely conducted by compartmentalized states, some of which are incapable of properly competing and others who are shamefully predatory.
This is not intended as a justification for simply dismissing sovereignty (a conclusion the pope calls precipitous)”it should be the case that that increased access to the global marketplace and increased wealth and economic self-sufficiency will produce greater and stronger opportunities for national self-determination. Nevertheless, the popes abiding fear is that globalization has the potential to undermine the foundations of democracy and disguise economic warfare as collaboration.
So while the pope does recommend the establishment of a true world political authority this shouldnt be thoughtlessly conflated with something akin to Al Gores recent call for global governance. Benedict is careful to point out that any international institution must be authentically democratic and devoted to the fostering of democracy among its members and that any centralization of power must be appropriately deferential to the involvement of local communities in choices and decisions that ultimately affect their own economic fate. While he wants to protect poorer countries from abuse and destitution he also recognizes that they are often to blame for their economic failures and that it is imperative any such federation work toward sustaining the productive capacities of rich countries. Benedict never argues that profit is evil or that free markets are inherently immoral”his argument is that without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function. In fact, what he most deeply pines for is the opportunity for individuals to freely choose to act according to principles other than pure profit, without sacrificing the production of economic value in the process. This is not a condemnation of free markets as immoral but rather a reflection on the dangers posed to both freedom and markets when economic activity is completely delinked from fully human outcomes.
Today, the advocacy for greater and more centralized regulation is almost always attached to an ideologically dogmatic dismissal of capitalism and free markets. Sadly, the recognition of the moral and political limitations (as well as economic) of an excessively consumerist and hedonistic approach to economics usually brings with it the unwelcome baggage of socialistic paternalism. At the heart of this updated Marxism is the pregnant expectation of a post-political triumph that finally discovers technocratic solutions to what has traditionally been considered permanent political problems. Benedict distinguishes himself from these fantasies by reflecting on the danger constituted by utopian and ideological visions that hastily dismiss political reality thereby placing its ethical and human dimension in jeopardy. Whatever the ultimate promise of globalization may be, there are limits to the kind of human community we can build for ourselves”we are rightfully animated to some degree by an anticipation and prefiguration of the undivided city of God, but we never overcome every division and become a truly universal community. Original sin”the fact of our wounded natures”will always express itself in the necessary imperfection of every human arrangement. So, for all of Benedicts discussion of a world political authority, only God is the guarantor of true human development.
For Benedict, globalization is not merely the result of blind and impersonal Historical forces but rather the organic outgrowth of our deep longing for spiritual unity. While the family, and by extension the local community, are the most natural stages for moral flourishing, we are constitutionally oriented towards being more, always striving to further approximate the image of God in which we are made. This basic and intestinal inclination towards transcendence expresses itself in the technological dimension of our freedom as well, evidenced by our ceaseless attempts to conquer and control the forces of nature by our own efforts.
The grave danger, what the Benedict identifies as the cultural and moral crisis of man, is that by idealizing either economic or technological progress as the ultimate human goals we detach them both from moral evaluation and detach ourselves from moral responsibility. Both of these idealizations produce the intoxicating sensation of our own self-sufficient autonomy or absolute freedom that seeks to prescind from the limits inherent in things. Our freedom, the pope argues, must always be understood in conjunction with our moral responsibility, rooted in a recognition of that which limits us. Our gravitational pull towards being more should never be confused with the possibility of being anything”the pernicious and radically un-conservative pretense that our being is the product of ex nihilo self-construction has the paradoxical consequence of reducing our existence to being nothing.
The Church has no intention of simply opposing globalization precisely because its deepest causes are to be found in the spiritual composition of man. In fact, our moral desire for solidarity is a temporal expression of our desire to find communion with the whole of humanity in the Kingdom of God and the recognition that the human race is a single family. Following Paul, Benedict XVI affirms that the Church can be seen as an authority on globalization largely because of its characteristic attribute: a global vision of man and the human race. Because of the insuperable limitations on political life, however, the principle of solidarity must always be counterbalanced by the principle of subsidiarity or the expression of inalienable human freedom. The combination of these allows the Church to navigate between the two excesses of unfettered social privatism and an unwieldy paternalistic social assistance. It is precisely this balance that allows Benedict to distinguish his view from various forms of totalitarianism which, unlike Christianity, attempt to absorb the individual, effectively annihilating his autonomy.
The statist argument typical of the American left”that economic activity must be politically managed by a bureaucratic elite for a collective moral end”has been so decisively discredited that it has made it difficult for conservatives to criticize the real moral inadequacies of free market capitalism. A moral criticism of mercenary economic activity, especially with respect to the stress and dislocation it can visit upon the family, is deeply conservative in spirit. The reflexive distancing evident in so many otherwise conservative quarters from the encyclicals moral teaching is powerful evidence that conservatism today is often overrun by its libertarian wing, especially when it comes to matters of the market. Still, what could be more conservative than the argument that while freedom certainly demands its proper due, it is the requisite condition of virtue rather than the whole of it?
In the narrow sense, Benedict is not so much concerned with globalization as an economic phenomenon but rather the underlying anthropological and ethical spirit of globalization and its theological dimension. It could be argued that this is economics in the grand sense as understood by the founder of capitalism, Adam Smith”that it is a subdivision of moral philosophy. This is what the pope seems to mean when he contends that every economic decision has a moral consequence. Benedicts economics respects the promise of free markets and also recognizes their failings”pervasive globalization both threatens and supports the inviolable dignity of the human person. This means that the central social question has become a radically anthropological question and that economics must become part of a truly integral humanism that respects not only profit but the moral condition of those who pursue it. This should be a conclusion that conservatives can happily embrace.
Ivan Kenneally, assistant professor of political science at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is currently writing a book on American politics and the problem of technocracy. He blogs at Postmodern Conservative .
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