March 4, 2009- In his first detailed public statement about the global financial crisis, Pope Benedict XVI may be revealing the outline of his forthcoming -- and highly anticipated -- social encyclical.
Besides a few general statements warning against greed and urging solidarity, made in differing contexts, Pope Benedict (as opposed to other Vatican officials) had not said much about the encyclical or the crisis. But in a February 26 question-and-answer session with priests of the Diocese of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI explained the difficulties in addressing the crisis with credibility.
He gave a lengthy response (Italian text here) to a question from a priest who complained about the poverty and uncertainty affecting his suburban parish and who concluded that "we must have the courage to denounce an economic and financial system unjust to its roots." The priest gave the Pope an opportunity to denounce free-market economics in his own words.
Benedict didn't bite. Echoing one of his few writings on the Church and the economy as Joseph Ratzinger, he warned against cheap, easy moralism without technical -- in this case, economic -- understanding. In many ways his answer was a more theological version of Pope John Paul II's observation in the 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus that what really ails the free society is not the economic system as such, but the cultural-ethical framework that absolutizes economics. By implicitly admitting he has no technical economic competence, Benedict also reveals his remarkable intellectual honesty and integrity.
Rather than denounce an economic system that encourages people to follow their self-interest, the Pope denounces realities with more of a past and deeper effects - original sin, human greed and idolatry. He does not equate profit with greed, probably realizing that waging spiritual warfare against profits would mean losing the interest, attention and perhaps possible salvation of all who know anything about business and economics. And maybe most importantly, rather than tell us that we need a "new" system of producing and consuming, buying and selling, the Holy Father takes a more sober, realistic approach by reminding us that there is no just system without just people, and that sin is a permanent fact of life that we must learn to combat slowly, persistently and above all spiritually.
Rumors of a social encyclical have been circulating Rome for two years or so, usually citing the need to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's social encyclical Populorum Progressio [On the Development of Peoples]. That anniversary has long since passed, so the occasion for a social encyclical would now be -- or perceived to be -- the global financial and economic crisis.
In addition to the expected encyclical, surely there is much more the Pope can and may say about the crisis. But I certainly do not expect him to follow the lead of Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, et al. in making the case for more government spending and bailouts, as if politicians and regulators are immune to original sin and greed, which would simply remind us of yet another Gospel parable - that of the blind leading the blind and falling into a pit.
Kishore Jayabalan is the director of the Acton Institute's Rome office. He translated the following statement from the Italian.