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Scott P. Richert

Will Pope Benedict XVI Strike a Blow Against Capitalism?

By June 16, 2009

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On June 29, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI is expected to sign his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate ("Charity in Truth"). Not much is known about the content of the encyclical, except that it will be a social encyclical in the tradition of Leo XIII's Rerum novarum, Pius XI's Quadragesimo anno, and John Paul II's Centesimus annus. And even less is known about the economic views of Pope Benedict XVI, which will undoubtedly play a central role in the text of the encyclical.

When Pope John Paul II released Centesimus annus in 1991 on the 100th anniversary of Leo XIII's Rerum novarum, it was widely regarded as an acknowledgment that capitalism had triumphed over socialism. The Berlin Wall had fallen two years before; Eastern European nations that had spent most of the 20th century under communist rule were beginning to embrace a free-market economy.

Centesimus annus reflected those developments, and yet those who actually read the text before commenting on it recognized that Pope John Paul II expressed reservations about the "triumph" of capitalism. He went to great lengths to point out—as Leo XIII and Pius XI had before him—that capitalism and socialism shared a common pedigree. The materialism of the modern world led to a reductionism that regarded man as made for the economy, rather than seeing the economy as made for man.

If socialists believed that the inexorable march of history would result in the triumph of their ideology, capitalists were no less certain that "economic law" would doom socialism and lead to a glorious future under capitalism.

Eighteen years later, that future does not look quite so bright. Some will argue that the economic collapse of 2008 was brought on by Western countries adopting some of the discredited policies of socialism; others will point to the housing and stock-market bubbles fueled by greed and made possible through the removal of Depression-era government regulations.

Yet both fail to see that the problem is much more basic, as John Paul II (and Leo XIII and Pius XI before him) saw. In a world that values consumption above our duties to God and our fellow man, no economic system will ever in itself make up for our moral failings.

That, I believe, will be the theme that Pope Benedict XVI will pick up in Caritas in Veritate and carry forward. Those who believed (wrongly) that Centesimus annus "baptized capitalism" will be disappointed—but so, I think, will be those who believe that the answer to our current economic crisis is the revival of socialism.

Instead, Pope Benedict will follow the course charted by his eminent predecessors as successor to Saint Peter, explaining why "economic law" cannot be allowed to trump Christian charity. The result will be a message that the modern world needs to hear; yet it will also be one that few, sadly, are likely to heed.

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June 16, 2009 at 4:06 pm
(1) Jeffrey Mark says:

I Trust That The Holy Spirit will speak too Us Through Our Blessed Holy father that the Lord has Given to Us As Our Spiritual Director To The whole Church.
—jeffrey mark

June 16, 2009 at 4:52 pm
(2) ave maria gratia plena says:

It is also worth remembering the Social Encyclical of Paul VI Populorum Progressio and Pope John Paul II’s reflection on its 20th Anniversary Solicitudo Rei Socialis.

It is sometimes said that the Social Doctrine of the Church is its best kept secret and that may well be because political partisans only refer to those selective parts of the doctrine that favour their particular cause. We should remember that the Church is a partisan for Christ and that means also for our neighbour whoever that might be. If we suppress parts of doctrine that we find politically uncomfortable it is showing a bias on our part away from God and towards Caesar.

As John Paul said in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (47) “I wish to appeal with simplicity and humility to everyone, to all men and women without exception. I wish to ask them to be convinced of the seriousness of the present moment and of each one’s individual responsibility, and to implement – by the way they live as individuals and as families, by the use of their resources, by their civic activity, by contributing to economic and political decisions and by personal commitment to national and international undertakings – the measures inspired by solidarity and love of preference for the poor. This is what is demanded by the present moment and above all by the very dignity of the human person, the indestructible image of God the Creator, which is identical in each one of us. “

June 16, 2009 at 11:05 pm
(3) Ed Barrings says:

Modern fractional reserve banking is the villian in the current economic crisis. Wealth is being consolidated in a very few hands. The bankers rule the system, politically and economically. The Pope will properly blame the hearts of men and materialism, but the “structures of sin” condemned by Pope John Paul II are concentrated in the major banks and banking.

June 18, 2009 at 12:21 pm
(4) SamIam says:

Thank you Ave Maria for your depth of knowledge. I would just like to say,

June 18, 2009 at 10:51 pm
(5) Latinae says:

Ed Barrings is partially correct in that fractional reserve banking is the principal tool accomplishing the enslavement of the masses. A significant problem however is your use of “economic law”. I maintain that there is a real science which could properly be called economics and that all of the establishment academic matter — courses, majors, etc. — are not properly economics but rather the continuing ideological rationalization of mercantilism. The substitution of getting rich (for a few) by trading or equivalently, according to Ben Franklin, by treason for economics.

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