A Response to “On Financial Reform”
In recent days the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released an extended treatment of the world’s current economic state, “On Financial Reform.” An unofficial translation of the text is available on the Vatican’s website. What follows is a brief response to this statement, especially the section entitled “A Global Authority.”
Much good can be said of the statement, especially its insistence on the need for mature ethical reflection on economic issues, sadly lacking among too many who support the free market absolutely. One suspects some of the Council’s suggestions for regulation of the market would be rendered unnecessary were affluent Christians the world over divesting themselves of personal wealth in the service of the poor, rather than living “on earth in luxury and self-indulgence” (James 5:5, NIV). If we had more of the voluntary communalism commended by the early church, perhaps we would face fewer calls for institutionalized socialism.
Nevertheless, some aspects of the Council’s recommendations seem troubling. Particularly so is the call for a “supranational Authority” to respond to the pressing needs of globalization. The Council believes such an authority necessary considering the growing complexity of speculative markets, and the deleterious effects of these markets on the “weaker” nations. This authority would offer regulation—and presumably moral decrees—to ensure the common good of all, and not merely the individual or particular good of certain nations or interests.
Two questions emerge at this point.
1. When did the Church assume the State to be free of the corruption of sin?
That an authority like the one proposed would have to be free (or at least substantially so) from the effects of sin—an implicit denial of the doctrine of total depravity—the statement makes clear: “The exercise of this Authority at the service of the good of each and every one will necessarily be super partes (impartial): that is, above any partial vision or particular good, in view of achieving the common good.” However, the belief that this organization could be so seems blissfully naïve. Interestingly, the statement opens with a reference to an encyclical by Pope Paul VI. Perhaps this approach to government springs from an eager acceptance of his views. In the pontifical letter Octogesima Adveniens (1971), he says of the State, “It always intervenes with careful justice and with devotion to the common good for which it holds final responsibility.” A cursory review of history would suggest government—even democratic government—does not in fact function this way. To assume as much might well create more problems than it solves.
I can recall a conversation I had with a friend after reading an op-ed piece from The Washington Post in the wake of the earthquake that rocked Japan. The editorial rightfully questioned “our own sense of infallibility”: no matter how mathematical the formula, it still springs from fallen minds, steeped in the sin of “greed, denial, hubris.” My friend questioned why some within the ranks of evangelicals persist in believing in the essential goodness of those who profit from the free market—an excellent question, and one too few have wrestled with sufficiently. And yet, have too few on the other side of the aisle failed to wrestle sufficiently with the inherent fallibility of government? Can any collection of humans ever be truly super partes? freed from the sin of “greed, denial, hubris”? I suspect not. Rather than place our faith in a pipedream, let us place our faith in Christ’s Body here on earth: imperfect, to be sure, but being carried from glory to glory by the Spirit of perfection. Where regulation is needed—as it certainly is in a variety of public and private sectors—let the Church offer it by its clear prophetic voice.
2. When did the Church abdicate its responsibility to care for the poor to the State?
More troubling even than the naïve assessment of the State is the willingness of the Church to forego its responsibilities, to leave them to another—and one far less able to bring real compassion and justice. International diplomacy will not ameliorate the economic suffering of “weaker” nations—or even “weaker” members of affluent societies—else it undoubtedly would have done so already. (Hasn’t this task been attempted multiple times before?) Change will come when an increasing number of affluent Christians willingly spend themselves in service of the poor. Incarnational ministry, buoyed by the prayer and resources of those who “send” rather than “go,” can and does bring about small-scale change in hurting communities around the world. Our hope lies not in political machinations but in the gospel of Christ—preached and lived—before those in desperate need of it.
When the early Christians faced the twin horrors of the decadent Roman society and the decay of the plagues, they did not petition the government to effect change. They moved into the cities the rich had fled, and cradled the dying with the very arms of Christ. Many died themselves, having contracted the plague from those they served. Their faith was in Christ, not in Caesar; their hope in the gospel, not in diplomacy. And their ministry was fruitful, their glory assured. Has anything changed?
Lord, fit us for our task until you—the truly supranational Authority—come and establish your perfect kingdom in our midst.
 As quoted in P.T. Bauer, From Subsistence to Exchange (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000): 98.