Since writing my first post on this blog, I’ve had a number of things I’ve wanted to write about. At first I thought I’d start from the beginning of my year in Texas and detail various basic aspects of my work and living situation, but I’m going to put all of that on hold for a little while in order to take advantage of a current event.
I don’t have much to add to the shock that’s already been expressed over President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. I deeply appreciate all that Obama stands for which is good and recognize the symbolic significance of the Nobel Committee’s decision, at the same time as I feel that the prize should go to someone who has not only accomplished something (which should be obvious) and is not (as my friend Hilary remarked when she told me what had happened) currently waging a broadening war, but who has suffered, personally, for his witness to peace. I am reminded of a discussion I had with my friend Eset about Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. After giving me a brief synopsis of some trends in contemporary Turkish literature, Eset suggested that while Pamuk may be one of the best contemporary Turkish writers, he will never be the Greatest Turkish Novelist, because he’s never served time in prison for anything he’s written. While other equally skilled Turkish artists have languished in jail, Pamuk has traveled the world lecture circuit and enjoyed lauds and celebrity in abundance. Similarly, when you look at other names buzzed in advance of the prize this year — like Dr. Sima Samar, Hu Jia, and Morgan Tsvangiri — it is hard not to agree with one of my housemates, who quipped, “Maybe they should have just given it to Obama’s speechwriters, instead.”
Still, their shifting the paradigm of eligibility for the Peace Prize has given me an idea.
To connect this to an account of one of my own experiences in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps: this weekend my friends and I were invited to attend a symposium on Global Solidarity and Immigration at the Mexican American Catholic College of San Antonio. Many of the panelists were really interesting; a highlight was speaking to a Sudanese refugee who sought political asylum in the US after a long stint in India and now works for Catholic Charities of San Antonio doing resettlement. He has invited us to a fantastic Indian restaurant he knows about on the South Side. But I digress…
The keynote speaker at this symposium was Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, president of Caritas Internationalis and archbishop of Tegulcigalpa, Honduras. Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga is a charismatic and brilliant man who had everyone’s attention throughout his eloquent and wide-ranging speech, which explored the ways in which different countries, social strati, and business sectors experience globalization differently and unequally and suggested that in order for justice to be reached, we need to create intentional, extra-economic structures which work very consciously to globalize human solidarity (this may involve various policy positions on immigration, demographic growth, human trafficking, farming and food production, etc.) so that we don’t view the phenomenon as exclusively economic to the point of ignoring its other social dimensions.
That’s a poor way to describe it, and I don’t have the text on hand from which to draw citations, but anyway…
One of the questions during the Q&A section was from an eloquent economics student who wanted to know what a Catholic economist’s responsibility is today. The Cardinal humorously suggested that if the young man’s research is as intelligent as his question was, perhaps he would win the yet-to-be-announced Nobel Prize for economics and set a good example for the world.
This gets me back to my main point. If Obama can win a Nobel Peace Prize for what amounts to little more than a good idea, then here is my modest proposal for the Nobel Prize for Economics (whose real winner will be announced tomorrow): Pope Benedict XVI, for his encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate.
I hope to discuss this densely nuanced, magisterial text many times on this blog, since a person working in social services (especially one who admires this pope as much as I do!) can derive many lessons from it. For now, here is a good synopsis of some of its main themes by Father Raymond J. de Souza (July 7, 2009):
Issuing a new encyclical letter today, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), Pope Benedict XVI presented a wide-ranging vision of a new economic order. The encyclical — the highest form of papal teaching — takes something of a turn away from the pro-enterprise teaching of Pope John Paul II toward the generally redistributionist vision of Pope Paul VI, who addressed questions of poverty and development in the late 1960s, the 40th anniversary of which Benedict’s document commemorates.
This encyclical has been in the works for several years, and was much delayed in order to permit Benedict to formulate a response to the current economic crisis. While insisting that the Church has no “technical solutions to offer,” Benedict is not reluctant to offer an analysis of the world economic situation that invites a rethinking of how economic life is organized.
Caritas in Veritate makes the argument that both charity and truth are needed to underpin a just and free economic order. Truth is necessary so that “integral human development” is possible in which men and women are treated as their full human dignity demands, not as mere parts in an economic machine. Charity is essential so that our treatment of each other is not limited to mere contractual obligations, but to the real flourishing of others.
“Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth,” the Pope writes about the ultimate truth of human existence. “[True development] requires a transcendent vision of the person; it needs God.”
The economic crisis, which Benedict blames on investments that were motivated for “speculative” reasons rather than authentic development, highlights that moral behaviour — honest, generous and not selfish — makes for good economics, as well as good ethics.
“Development is impossible without upright men and women, without financiers and politicians whose consciences are finely attuned to the requirements of the common good.”
Forty years after Paul VI wrote on these questions, Benedict acknowledges that billions of people in vast areas have lifted themselves out of poverty — principally through markets which unleash the creativity and productivity of the human person. Benedict’s focus, however, is not on the successes of the past generations, but on those who have not yet participated in the prosperity of recent decades.
He calls for massive redistribution of wealth, protecting social security systems, strengthening labour unions, combating hunger by investments in rural life, enhancing access to employment, avoiding excessive protection of intellectual property especially in health care, granting access to world markets for the agricultural produce of poor nations, more open immigration policies and a significant increase in foreign aid. Indeed, Benedict argues the welfare systems in rich countries should be made more efficient, curbing bureaucratic waste, with the savings redirected to foreign aid.
On the environment, Benedict says affluent countries “must” reduce their energy consumption through greater efficiency and simpler lifestyles, while cheap energy should be made available to poor countries for their development needs.
All this will require substantial state intervention in economy, and even “a true world political authority … with real teeth,” though such a global body would have to respect local liberties of individuals, families and communities.
Globalization has made peoples around the world “neighbours but not brothers,” and Benedict argues for a new ethos, going beyond the market and the state. The market, while an ethically neutral instrument, responds to self-interest. The state operates according to the rules of power. What is needed, the Pope argues, is a wholly different approach, where economic and political actors look beyond their interest to the service of others.
Benedict proposes a “principle of gratuitousness” and the “logic of the gift” — concepts which would transform the potential for development in his view. “Gratuitousness” and “gift” encourage people to think not of their interest but of service. So Benedict argues that labour unions should think not of their own members alone, but of the good of workers — even foreign workers who might compete with union labour. More far-reaching, Benedict endorses the idea that corporations should answer not only to shareholders but also “stakeholders” — all those who have a stake in a company’s activities.
The last papal encyclical on economic matters was written in 1991 by John Paul II, who made a significant break with his predecessors in emphasizing the positive role of business, free markets and the role of creativity in the economy. He went as far as to say that economic liberty is an essential liberty alongside religious liberty, political liberty and legal liberty.
Benedict has taken a substantial step back from that analysis — the role of the entrepreneur and the potential for wealth creation are secondary. The primary focus is on redistributive solutions to economic disparities. How to reconcile the two approaches remains a task for theologians and economists to work out.
The Pope is not a professional economist. The best criticism of his encyclical seems to come from those who question his less theoretical suggestions, such as his support for a UN-like regulating presence and for the creation of a new economic sector concerned solely with generating profit that might be distributed liberally among the poor. (This may remind us of the well-intentioned yet scandalously meddling World Bank.)
Still, to rest content with such a critique would be to miss the point both of Truth and of Love. In his response to his economist interlocutor, Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga mentioned that once (before he undertook a rigorous study of economics, himself!), economists always used to challenge his populist rhetoric, asking whether he really considered himself an expert in world financial systems. “No, but the Church is assuredly an expert in humanity,” he responded, borrowing a famous phrase from the Second Vatican Council. “And the importance of its contribution is not to be underestimated.”
In his encyclical — which I would encourage anyone to read — Pope Benedict offers a powerful and broadly respected theoretical critique of our basic economic presumptions about the Wealth of Nations. Without establishing himself as an expert of the details, he calls us all to a recognition that our social, political, and economic life must be grounded in a dramatic sense of justice, a hopeful vision of transcendence, a loyalty to the truth, and a solidarity with the entire human family. He is, I should say, the Barack Obama of modern economics…and then some.