Economic Indicator

When the Vatican Confounds Conservatives

Will we soon see a distinguished-looking older man in long white robes walking among the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in New York's Zuccotti Park? Is Pope Benedict XVI joining the protest movement? Well, yes, and no. Yes, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a strong and thoughtful critique of the global financial system this week that paralleled many of the criticisms of unchecked capitalism that are echoing through lower Manhattan and cities around the world.

The report spoke of "the primacy of being over having," of "ethics over the economy," and of "embracing the logic of the global common good." In a knock against those who oppose government economic regulation, the council emphasized "the primacy of politics -- which is responsible for the common good -- over the economy and finance." It commented favorably on a financial transactions tax and supported an international authority to oversee the global economy. But Vatican officials were careful to say that their report was not a direct response to the worldwide demonstrations. "It is a coincidence that we share some views," said Bishop Mario Toso, secretary of the council. "But after all, these are proposals that are based on reasonableness."

Indeed, and that may be a larger compliment to the "99 percent" activists. This document got more attention than it might have because the demonstrators have heightened concern about the problems it addresses. Moreover, the Vatican office's intervention shows that those protesting against a broken and unjust financial system are not expressing some marginal point of view. They are highlighting worries shared by many, including the Roman Catholic Church. To challenge what the global markets have wrought is not extreme. It reflects, as Bishop Toso said, "reasonableness."

Needless to say, Catholic conservatives were not happy with the document, and did all they could to minimize its importance. George Weigel, the conservative Catholic writer, took to the National Review's blog to denigrate the Pontifical Council as "a rather small office in the Roman Curia" and to insist that its document "doesn't speak for the pope, it doesn't speak for 'the Vatican,' and it doesn't speak for the Catholic Church."

Oh really? Then for whom does it speak? Weigel wasn't done. "This brief document from the lower echelons of the Roman Curia no more aligns 'the Vatican,' the pope, or the Catholic Church with Occupy Wall Street than does the Nicene Creed," he wrote. "Those who suggest it does are either grossly ill-informed or tendentious to a point of irresponsibility."

My, my. It is always entertaining for those of us who are liberal Catholics to watch our conservative Catholic friends try to wriggle around the fact that on the matters of social justice and the economy, Catholic social teaching is, by any measure, "progressive." Conservatives regularly condemn liberal "Cafeteria Catholics" who pick and choose among the church's teachings. But the conservatives so often skip the parts of the moral buffet involving peace, social justice and what Pope John Paul II called the "idolatry of the market."

As it happens, the Pontifical Council is no mere "small office." It has been a pioneer over the years in Catholic thinking about solidarity and justice. And this document is firmly rooted in papal teaching going back to Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II. Pope Benedict's 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, spoke explicitly of the need for a global political authority to keep watch on an increasingly integrated world economy.

Inside-the-church politics aside, the Pontifical Council's document is important because it reflects an ethical approach to economics shared well beyond Catholic circles. In particular, the council grapples intelligently with the problem of how the economy can be subject to reasonable rules when the nation-states that once enforced such regulations have less and less power, given how swiftly and easily capital moves.

The document describes the benefits of globalization as well as its costs, and it does not pretend that establishing transnational structures will be easy. It addresses the importance of "democratic legitimacy" and speaks of "shared government" rather than some top-down world authority.

"We should not be afraid to propose new ideas, even if they might destabilize pre-existing balances of power that prevail over the weakest," the document declares. "They are a seed thrown to the ground that will sprout and hurry towards bearing fruit." Let's hope so. If our religious leaders won't challenge us to love mercy and do justice, who will? 

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

Related: But What Do They Want? by Christine Neulieb

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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"But the conservatives so often skip the parts of the moral buffet involving peace, social justice and what Pope John Paul II called the "idolatry of the market."

JPII calling the conservatives on having "idolatry of the market'... a market controlled by 'investors/traders' who are buying and selling in micro second computer investments.. That micro second BS system makes the Dutch tulip trades look like real rational investments.  conservatives worship this 'invisible hand' of their god who in microseconds 'blesses' the elite.  And if you don't worship' at their temple they call you a socialist.The OWS are the heathens at their temple doors.  DOW up today 400?



EJ, I am working on a piece contrasting the way Weigel characterizes the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peacein his article with how he characterizes it in Witness to Hope. It will be a strong example of doublespeak in the service of ideology. I will post link here and email it to you when I finish it. The research has been fascinating/disturbing evidence of willful manipulation of language to denigrate and marginalize a group he has written so favorably about and ackowledged signficance of. Thanks for pushing back on this nonsense.


A good document, and a good article.  Now, if we could just get the Vatican bank, the "Institute for Works of Religion", and the rest of the Curia to follow these principles....  It doesn't seem that soliciting and accepting bribes, misappropriating funds intended for charity, or money laundering for the Mafia qualify as good financial practices.  In this case, it might be better if one hand knew what the other was doing.

The new Vatican position is nothing new.  Compare it to the following Papal teachings:


All those measures ought to be favored which seem in any way capable of benefiting the condition of workers.    Pope Leo XIII, 1891

The riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes that the common good of all society will be kept inviolate. . .  Measures taken by the State ought [to] affect those who actually possess more than their share of capital resources, and who continue to accumulate them to the grievous detriment of others.  Pope Pius XI, 1931

If legislation is to play its part, it must see to it that the worker is not condemned to an economic dependence and servitude which is irreconcilable with his rights as a person.  Pope Pius XII, 1951

The economic prosperity of any people is to be assessed not so much from the sum total of goods and wealth possessed as from the distribution of goods according to norms of justice. . . It is especially desirable today that workers gradually come to share in the ownership of their company, by ways and in the manner that seem most suitable.  Pope John XXIII, 1963

The right to property must never be exercised to the detriment of the common good. . . Let each one examine his . . . conscience that conveys a new message for our times. Is he prepared to support out of his own pocket works and undertakings organized in favor of the most destitute? Is he ready to pay higher taxes so that the public authorities can intensify their efforts in favor of development? Is he ready to pay a higher price for imported goods so that the producer may be more justly rewarded? . . If certain landed estates impede the, general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation.   Pope Paul VI, 1967

The basis for the social doctrine of the Church is the principle of the universal destination of goods. According to the plan of God the goods of the earth are offered to all people and to each individual as a means towards the development of a truly human life. . . The Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them. And if the common good requires it, there should be no hesitation even at expropriation, carried out in the due form. . .  Workers' rights cannot be doomed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at maximum profits. The thing that must shape the whole economy is respect for the workers' rights within each country and all through the world's economy. . . The primary destination of the resources of the earth to the common good demands that the necessities of life be provided for all human beings before individuals or groups appropriate for themselves the riches of nature or the products of human skill. . . The needs of the poor must take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximization of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion; production to meet social needs over production for military purposes. Pope John Paul II

It is necessary to choose between the logic of profit as the ultimate criterion for our action, and the logic of sharing and solidarity. . . Catholic social doctrine has always supported that equitable distribution of goods is a priority. . . Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.   Pope Benedict XVI, 2010


The new Vatican position is also not new when compared to the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Consider the following:


On President Obama

Please help the king to be honest and fair just like you, our God.  Let him be honest and fair with all your people, especially the poor.  Let peace and justice rule every mountain and hill.  Let the king defend the poor, rescue the homeless, and crush everyone who hurts them.   Ps. 72:1-4

The king rescues the homeless when they cry out, and he helps everyone who is poor and in need.  The king has pity on the weak and the helpless and protects those in need.  He cares when they hurt, and he saves them from cruel and violent deaths.  Ps. 72:12-4

On  The  Accumulation  Of Wealth

It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God's kingdom.  Mt. 19:21-24; Mk. 10:21-5

You rich people are in for trouble.  Lk. 6:24-5

Rich people will disappear like wild flowers scorched by the burning heat of the sun.  Jas. 1:9-11

You rich people should cry and weep! Terrible things are going to happen to you.  Jas: 5:1.


The poor man died, and angels took him to the place of honor next to Abraham.   The rich man also died and was buried.   He went to hell and was suffering terribly. Lk. 16:19-31

You're doomed!  You made your family rich at the expense of others.  Hb 2:9

Those who trust in their riches will fall.  Pr. 11:28

One eager to get rich will not go unpunished.  Pr. 28:20

Those sinners may go to bed rich, but they will wake up poor.  Terror will strike at night like a flood or a storm.  Then a scorching wind will sweep them away without showing mercy, as they try to escape.  At last, the wind will celebrate because they are gone.  Job 27:16-23

You claim to be rich and successful and to have everything you need. But you don't know how bad off you are. You are pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.  Rev. 3:17

While here on earth, you have thought only of filling your own stomachs and having a good time. But now you are like fat cattle on their way to be butchered. Jas. 5:6

You are evil, and you lie and cheat to make yourselves rich.  You need to be punished.  Jr. 5:27-9

They have become rich from violence and robbery.  And so the Lord God has sworn that they will be surrounded.  Enemies will break through their defenses and steal their treasures.  Am. 3:10-1

You rich people are violent, and everyone tells lies. Because of your sins, I will wound you and leave you ruined and defenseless.   Mic. 6:12-3

God said to him, "You fool! Tonight you will die. This is what happens to people who store up everything for themselves, but are poor in the sight of God."  Lk. 12:16-21

The stingy are eager to get rich and are unaware that poverty awaits them.  Pr. 28:22

Whenever you failed to help any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you failed to do it for me. Those people will be punished forever.  Mt.  25:31-46

On  Money

Do not want anything that belongs to someone else. [9th Commandment]   Ex. 20:17

One person pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth.  Pr. 13:7

It's better to obey the Lord and have only a little, than to be very rich and terribly confused.  Pr. 15:15-6

It's better to be honest and poor than to be dishonest and rich.  Pr. 16:8

Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.  Pr. 16:19

Cheat the poor to make profit or give gifts to the rich - either way you lose.  Pr. 22:16

Do not wear yourself out to get rich; do not trust your own cleverness.  Pr. 23:4

Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone.  Pr. 23:5

It's better to be poor and live right, than to be rich and dishonest.  Pr. 28:6

The rich think highly of themselves, but anyone poor and sensible sees right through them. Pr. 28:11

Anyone who refuses to get rich by cheating others will live a long time.  Pr. 28:16

Don't be selfish and eager to get rich - you will end up worse off than you can imagine.  Pr. 28:22

Don't store up treasures on earth.  Mt. 6:19

You cannot serve both God and money.  Mt. 6:24

They are fooled by the desire to get rich and to have all kinds of other things.  Mk. 4:19

You cannot serve both God and money. Lk. 16:12

May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!   Ac. 8:19

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have.  He. 13:5

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.  1 Tm. 6:10

On  Distributive  Justice

Jesus looked closely at the man. He liked him and said, "There's one thing you still need to do. Go sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come with me."  When the man heard Jesus say this, he went away gloomy and sad because he was very rich.  Mk. 10:21-5

Sell your possessions and give to the poor.  Lk. 12:33

There is one thing you still need to do. Go and sell everything you own! Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come and be my follower.  Lk. 18:22-5

All the Lord's followers often met together, and they shared everything they had. They would sell their property and possessions and give the money to whoever needed it.  Ac. 2:44-5

The group of followers all felt the same way about everything. None of them claimed that their possessions were their own, and they shared everything they had with each other.  In a powerful way the apostles told everyone that the Lord Jesus was now alive. God greatly blessed his followers, and no one went in need of anything. Everyone who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles. Then they would give the money to anyone who needed it.  Ac. 4:32-5

You know that our Lord Jesus Christ was kind enough to give up all his riches and become poor, so that you could become rich.  2 Co. 8:9

It doesn't matter how much you have. What matters is how much you are willing to give from what you have. 2 Co. 8:12

I am not trying to make life easier for others by making life harder for you. But it is only fair for you to share with them when you have so much, and they have so little. Later, when they have more than enough, and you are in need, they can share with you. Then everyone will have a fair share, just as the Scriptures say, Those who gathered too much had nothing left.  Those who gathered only a little had all they needed. 2 Co. 8:13-5

They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.  2 Co. 9:9


EJ and others--here is the promised piece on Weigel using this article by Dionne as springboard.

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