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The Pope on the Financial Sector’s Divinity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 16, 2012

Watch out: The Pope’s message about the new financial oligarchy is becoming increasingly direct. In an address on a visit to Rome’s major seminary yesterday, Benedict emphasized that the world of finance “has become an oppressive power—one that almost has to be worshipped.”

In the course of his remarks, he took aim at both finance and the media (which are, of course, closely intertwined). Both, he said, are “so easy to abuse that they often become the contrary of their true intentions”, with finance becoming a “false divinity that truly dominates the world,” and the media betraying a concern for appearances that “overlies the truth and becomes more important.” Perfect bedfellows!

Hold your screams. If you’re a liberal Catholic or an American Democrat, you’re already shouting that you told us so, that the Government (capitalized, just like God) must take all this in hand. And if you’re a conservative Catholic or an American Republican, you’re already yelling that the Pope should stay out of things that he cannot possibly understand.

I’m exaggerating (I have no doubt) as far as most of our users are concerned, but insofar as these suppositions adversely affect any of us, well, a pox on both houses.

Let me make three quick points which ought to turn shrieks into mere grumbles:

  • Neither the Church nor Pope Benedict has ever been an advocate of State management of finance and the market. This pope in particular has specifically deplored the “false dichotomy” of market vs. state, especially in his landmark social encyclical Caritas in Veritate. He has in fact emphasized the need for all institutions, including business, to be animated by the principle of solidarity. A brief explanation of the whole point of Caritas in Veritate can be found in the Pope’s general audience of July 8, 2009, the day after the encyclical’s release.
  • Government and finance are at present inextricably linked. The political fallout from the mortgage crisis and subsequent economic decline should have made this crystal clear to all those who had not yet understood. As one of my most observant and intelligent friends recently put it, “too big to fail” really means “too connected to fail”. Government is in bed with finance, and finance with government. This is demonstrated by the way regulation functions in practice, and it is demonstrated again by where the regulators come from and where they end up going.
  • These questions cannot be addressed without a clear grasp of Catholic social teaching and/or the natural law on which it is based. And Catholic social teaching cannot be understood unless and until we escape the false left-right dialectic which has dominated secular culture for the past two hundred years. If you hear the words “market” and “finance” and think instinctively of the need for government control, or if you hear the term “government” and think instinctively of the need for market and financial freedom, I can only congratulate on missing the whole point.

The Pope is well within the range of his special charism here. What Benedict has always wanted us to understand (unsuccessfully, it seems) is that the first, most important, and most fundamental fact about economic life is that it derives from human goods, human goals, human activity and human decisions, and so is inescapably moral in character. “Finance” and “markets” are not abstract entities born of inescapable laws which must be ceaselessly fed on human sacrifices to maintain their functional purity for the cosmic good of the universe. They are the result of a constant stream personal decisions, which are profoundly shaped by personal values.

Even with as little use as I have for the Occupy movement, it is only fair to observe that many of those involved have a deep and abiding sense that key aspects of their lives are mysteriously controlled by a financial oligarchy that has little regard for their welfare. It becomes clearer with each passing year that a new upper class is forming among those who control the world of “finance” and “markets”, who can manipulate them for their own benefit, and who can both influence and cross-fertilize with government in order to protect and enhance their positions.

It has always been the Church’s contention—and it has been a significant burden of the last two pontificates to argue—that man is a moral actor, that his actions and operations in all phases of life are value-driven, and that the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching must be the basis of these values if the common good is to be served. Or, as recent encyclicals often express it, moral decisions about finance and markets are absolutely essential for anything resembling integral human development to occur. All considerations of “how economics works” become useful only after this fundamental point is clearly grasped. Every institution must be morally animated, from within itself.

I admit to being a little surprised by Benedict’s rhetoric, for it is not his normal method to take off the gloves and swing bare-knuckled at those he finds obtuse. You’ll notice that he confines this particular spate of strong language to dispelling the widespread Western belief that “finance” is an abstract and Godlike entity. Doubtless he would be gentler and more pastoral in speaking directly with those on both the left and the right who are responsible for perpetuating this myth.

But perhaps, like many of the rest of us, he is beginning to get frustrated. So many of the problems we face—problems at every level and of every type—are caused or exacerbated by people who are, in fact, morally obtuse: People who deliberately and sometimes desperately cling to whatever available preconceptions will allow them to escape moral responsibility. One of these preconceptions of the new upper classes—one of their convenient fictions—is that Finance is as inevitable and unchangeable as God.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Antigone - Feb. 17, 2012 8:06 PM ET USA

    I have zero patience for the Occupy movement. I went to a top business school and studied finance. I haven't worked in finance in seven years, but I can tell you that even I don't know what to tell people who are worried about inflation and retirement. Over the past decade, if you did everything the "experts" told you to, your retirement fund would still have lost value. The game is rigged against the everyday man, and those in charge (in govt and finance) couldn't care less.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 17, 2012 2:02 PM ET USA

    Back in my eclectic days, I spent some time reading a French Protestant theologian named Jacques Ellul. Much of his work described human institutions as "Powers and Principalities" that assumed a reality of their own long after they ceased to serve the needs of the community. I was a little too naive to know if he were speaking metaphorically, but I find it to be a useful image.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 17, 2012 10:03 AM ET USA

    Cornelius is absolutely right, and I thank him for the opportunity to clarify my point. Every word in the quoted sentence was chosen advisedly. Institutions do not have morality. Only people do. Therefore, institutions must be animated morally from within, and this can be done only by those who have “anima”, that is, souls—by the people who constitute and run the institutions in question. Only in this way can each institution take on a moral character appropriate to its role and purpose. Attempting to impose moral behavior from the outside by regulation and/or correction may at times be needed, but it is no substitute for the real thing.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Feb. 17, 2012 8:05 AM ET USA

    "Every institution must be morally animated, from within itself." Hmmm. I suppose an institution can have a moral ethos that guides it, but if the PEOPLE that make up that institution lack a moral compass then the institution's moral ethos is not worth the paper it's written on, if it's written - like the old Soviet Constitution.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Feb. 17, 2012 8:00 AM ET USA

    Your points are correct: Government and finance are inextricably linked today; key aspects of our lives are controlled by a financial oligarchy that has little regard for our welfare; that oligarchy works with government to protect and enhance its positions; and men's actions are value-driven, whether consciously or not. Like you, I have little use for the Occupy movement. Catholic social teaching truly is the answer. Pastors need to start teaching it from the pulpit.

  • Posted by: Brad - Feb. 16, 2012 7:49 PM ET USA

    The Occupy movement blames only companies and not goverment. It is government over-meddling in the private sector that creates manipulation and lack of control for the individual. The government needs to prevent abuse and then get out so that all private citizens have a chance to pursue private property which the Church has always declared in her social enyclicals is both right and necessary for man.

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