Memo to Pope: encyclical, please

"Wall Street forgot that the money at issue was not just a dollar figure on a balance sheet but the life savings of a human person, a grandmother who had earned her retirement or a married couple trying to put money away for their child’s college education".

Thus Michael Sean Winters’s last post, on how people became a means to an end.


The Biblical word for this is idolatry -- the theme, over this side of the Atlantic, of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s article in the new issue of the Spectator:

"We find ourselves talking about capital or the market almost as if they were individuals, with purposes and strategies, making choices, deliberating reasonably about how to achieve aims. We lose sight of the fact that they are things we make," writes Rowan Williams. "Once we get used to speaking about any of them as if they had a life independent of actual human practices and relations, we fall into any number of destructive errors."

This detaching of money and material reality is the consequence of "ascribing independent reality to what you have in fact yourself made", he adds, which is "a perfect definition of what the Jewish and Christian scriptures call idolatry."

The idolatry, in this case, comes about by people ascribing quasi-magical properties to the market -- the idea that growth, for example, was an inevitable, autonomous process destined to perpetuate itself, and before whose inexorable logic they have been powerless. 

You make an idol (use clay, fire it in a furnace, then cover it with sparkling gold and marvel at how it now seems to bring you all kinds of good fortune) and then you have to run around it feeding it, because it has taken on a life of its own and now it watches your every move and controls you.  

The task: to recover the connection between money and material reality, to restore the human dimension to financial transactions, to underpin borrowing with the kind of realism which is only possible when we still see the human being behind the bank account. 

Enter, then, a new phase for modern Catholic social teaching, which began, in 1891, with the denunciation in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum of the deification of the market and the consequent instrumentalisation of the human person.

Rerum Novarum appeared in the wake of the crisis of what is sometimes called "Manchester capitalism" - the kind of market-worship we have seen these past years on Wall St.

As we slip into recession, and the idols crumble, people will surely turn (as they did in the 1930s, remember, following the Wall St crash) to Catholic social teaching.

Your Holiness, now would be an excellent moment for an historic, idol-smashing, human-dignity-restoring encyclical that could turn out to be the foundation of a revived social-Catholic movement of the twenty-first century.

(But you’ve probably already thought of that.)

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10 years ago
Well, we can all pray for the best since I heard that the encyclical is due on Sept 30 and is entitled Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth). I think there's an article about it on the Ignatius Insight blog. Don't worry ... Papa never loses a teaching moment ...
10 years ago
Dear gentlemen, I am a catholic person. Maybe you do not post what I going to say, but if you do it; I will think, at least at this time, you are free truly. With the global economic disaster around the corner, one of the most important question to be solve is, where does come that global influent group of talented economists and finance advisors from? I believe you know the answer...from CATHOLIC universities. Those catholic universities have been teaching religiously free market theory, like an idol to serve, putting away to Christ and His Church. Then, I can not see any surprise between what is happening now and who are of most important responsible. Thanks God bless you, and our Lady pray for you and all America. With love Carlos
10 years ago
I've been reading for a while now that we can expect an encyclical from the Holy Father soon, on the subject of social justice. If that is true, it seems that he could very easily either weave this topic into it, or make his next encyclical on just what you mentioned, and springboarding off of a social justice encyclical. Either way, it seems to me that this pope is the perfect man for the job, and could address this issue in the way that you've said with unsurpassed intellectual, moral, and ethical clarity. I agree, I do hope he takes on this task. It may be just what the world needs to hear.


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