Op-Ed: Papal Economics – it’s about a moral code

Op-Ed: Papal Economics – it’s about a moral code

Last year highly divergent reactions were unsurprising when Pope Francis critiqued capitalism in his first Apostolic Exhortation Evangelli Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). I received a few emails suggesting that the Pope should not speak on issues he was not qualified to speak about. Some dismissed him and others applauded him. Some said he was “Marxist” or clearly “confused”. By RUSSELL POLLITT.

Whatever way you look at it, one thing is interesting: people across the globe immediately reacted to his analysis. They were stirred, either way, by his critique of “the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” Others reacted to his call for solidarity with the poor. The preacher to the papal household, Raniero Cantalamessa, used his Good Friday homily last week to revisit these themes – sometimes in language stronger than Francis himself.

Cantalamessa, who holds doctoral degrees in theology and classical literature, was appointed preacher to the papal household in 1980 by Pope John Paul II. The papal preacher is, traditionally, the only one who is allowed to preach to the pope. He offers meditations to the pope and officials of the Roman Curia – especially during Lent and Advent (the preparation time before Easter and Christmas respectively). He also preaches on Good Friday.

This year, conceivably taking his cue from Pope Francis’ own sentiments and knowing the problems the Vatican bank faces to become transparent, he focused on the role that money played in Judas’ decision to betray Jesus. He then contextualised this scene by asking: “What lies behind the drug enterprise that destroys so many human lives, behind the phenomenon of the mafia, behind political corruption, behind the manufacturing and sale of weapons, and even behind – what a horrible thing to mention – the sale of human organs removed from children? And the financial crisis that the world has gone through and that this country [Italy] is still going through, is it not in large part due to the ‘cursed hunger for gold,’ the auri sacra fames, [Virgil, The Aeneid] on the part of some people? Judas began with taking money out of the common purse. Does this say anything to certain administrators of public funds?”

Cantalamessa continued, “But apart from these criminal ways of acquiring money, is it not also a scandal that some people earn salaries and collect pensions that are sometimes 100 times higher than those of the people who work for them and that they raise their voices to object when a proposal is put forward to reduce their salary for the sake of greater social justice?” He laments a social situation where money has become the focus and says that, because of this, “A sinister inversion of all values occurs.”

Cantalamessa may get the same reaction Pope Francis did; we don’t like being reminded of the social moral obligations we have. We might ask “Who does he think he is?” or say “He is not an economist” or “Stick to religious things because economics is more complicated than that!” The mistake we make is the assumption that Pope Francis or Cantalamessa are trying to prescribe an economic plan; they are not. Both are doing what religious leaders from antiquity have done: remind us that our economic lives have moral consequences.

This is not new to us in SA either; figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu (and formerly Rev. Beyers Naude), regularly remind us of the role that morality should play in public life.

It’s easy to blame government for the burgeoning problems that beset SA. We live in one of the most unequal countries in the world. The gulf between the rich and poor continues to widen despite twenty years of democracy. There is, however, a bigger problem than bad governance; there are too many rich and powerful people in SA that worship an economic ideology that places rights over human dignity. We have become so concerned about rights that we duck and dive from taking responsibility. We forget that with rights come responsibilities.

Let me give two unrelated recent examples of the appeal to rights where responsibility seems to have been forgotten. I was interested to hear that state advocate, Gerrie Nel, has been taken to the Human Rights Commission for apparently infringing the rights of murder accused Oscar Pistorius in the Pretoria High Court. What about the responsibility to uncover the truth? President Zuma refuses to take responsibility for the Nkandla mess, his private property is his right, some officials claim. What about his responsibility to SA taxpayers? All eyes at the moment may be on Nel and Zuma, but we know these cases are not the only ones. Rich and powerful people in all sectors of our society act in ways (“my right”) they know leaves other people disadvantaged. Examples abound: paying poor wages, overcharging (exaggerated profit mark-ups) and tax evasion. Rights have to be balanced with responsibility – if not, rights themselves become defunct.

Far from providing us with a “moral plan”, both Pope Francis and Cantalamessa propose that we give attention to our social moral framework. This is not the first time Catholic hierarchs have addressed issues related to the economy. Pope Leo XIII took up this very question more than a century ago in 1891, during the first wave after industrialisation, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (Rights and duties of Capital and Labour).

Pope Francis and Cantalamessa are therefore not meddling in economic affairs or “playing at being prophets” – as one angry person suggested to me via email. Both are in line with the traditional social teaching of the Catholic Church. Both, it seems to me, are encouraging us to re-visit our moral foundation invoking universal themes that are shared by many people who may be of various religious persuasions or none at all. Both are tapping into our humanity and sense of justice rather than espousing religious values alone or proposing an economic plan.

Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation, wants to awaken us from our lethargy – he calls this “global indifference.” He encourages, more than anything, an evaluation of our social moral structures. He is not the only voice suggesting that the current state of the global economy is morally problematic.

American economist, Jeffrey D Sachs, says that the award-winning documentary Inside Job exposes an economic profession that lost its moral compass. He says that this led to disastrous global consequences which were no more obvious than when what happened in the USA almost brought down the world economy. He suggests that society at large (including the elites and academia) have abandoned the poor and even blamed them for their condition.

As SA approaches a general election, how much of the political banter is about assisting the poor? It’s the constant drone of politicians as they cross the country electioneering. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that many of the policies they eloquently elaborate on are simply just that – policies. I suspect that we listen to their promises with a good dose of cynicism. What will bring about change is not political policies but a renewed sense of and commitment to a social morality that holds human dignity and progression as the highest form of morality. Morality and human dignity should be paramount, all other rights should be responsive to this higher calling of justice. It is not policies alone that will change the way things are, we need to realise this and take the bold step that’s needed to put things right in our own affairs, in other words, assess out own economic attitudes in a country where some people struggle to survive.

The reinvigoration of an economic moral code might be SA’s only lifeline. At a time when our society is driven by unprecedented inequality and hostility, when reckless destruction of the earth’s environment puts the lives of millions of people in peril, it will be our attitudes, our moral judgements, which will be the most important element of our fate. We face a moral crisis much more than a financial or economic crisis. It is for this reason that I think the Pope and Cantalamessa say something important to us as we ponder the problems that assail SA and head for the polls: how will we help people who have been left to fend for themselves, who struggle for survival against terrible odds? DM

Photo: Pope Francis flashes a thumb-up to faithfuls as he arrives to lead a Palm Sunday Mass in Saint Peter Square, in the Vatican City, 13 April 2014. Palm Sunday for Roman Catholic devotees symbolically marks the biblical account of the entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, signaling the start of the Holy Week before Easter. EPA/ANGELO CARCONI


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options