07/22/2009, 00.00
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Encyclical: the person must be at the heart of economics

by Maurizio d’Orlando
‘Caritas in Veritate’ reiterates the key notion of the Church’s social doctrine in a globalised world. It urges everyone to rediscover the notions of responsibility and merit which are found in each of us, in the family, the firm, the local and national community, which in turn are more than a collection of nameless atoms with neither past nor present. As ‘actus personae’ economic activities must have a specific and concrete meaning in relation to a body, a plural one, wherever necessary, but one that is united internally and close-knit. The Encyclical issues a warning against the dangers of technological absolutism.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Caritas in Veritate is a social Encyclical, cut from the same cloth as those that came before, starting with Rerum Novarum. As such it does not add to the doctrine of the faith, but speaks to our age, which is one of transition. For this reason we can consider it as the highest form of Christian enlightenment, an Encyclical of “transition” but also an implicit warning.

Those who expected or feared the new social Encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI would be a throwback to the past, a kind of restoration, let us say reactionary in terms, are proven wrong. The issues it touches are indeed many and it is really impossible to talk about all of them, partly because they are clearly laid out. In particular, in terms of the analysis of risks and opportunities, the study of the arguments covered shows views largely shared and shareable even by those who are far from the Catholic Church and the Christian faith.Ultimately this is what the Pope set out to do. He did not want to speak to Catholics alone but to everyone, irrespective of their religion, faith, political or philosophical view, whatever their nation, civilisation or race might be.

One of economic issues examined stands out—one already addressed by John Paul II, namely that economic activity must always be understood as actus personae.

The centrality of the human person has always been the key trait of Catholic doctrine since it addresses each and every one of us, asking us for an answer (‘But who do you say that I am?”). The person  and what he or she  actually does, understood not only in social or economic terms but also in terms of solidarity, are more important than the collective subject.

Globalisation, the lynchpin of today’s economic debates, represents a major challenge to this way of thinking. Irrespective of sector and commodity, the removal of tariffs and non tariff barriers has gradually created a single one world market for each product. By consequence of market dynamics, corporate conglomerates of planet wide dimensions and impersonal shape got formed A number of microeconomic theories found in textbooks used by most first year university-level economics courses can explain such an outcome.

Given such a background, a generic condemnation of greed and avarice will not capture the profound significance of what has happened and thus will remain unheeded. There is also another grave risk: such condemnation could be easily dismissed as an impracticable jeremiad far from everyone’s everyday concerns and experience. It would end up being  without effects, a meaningless ethical statement incapable of informing human behaviour. Yet condemning greed and avarice always has a personal and universal import for it is found not only in the Old and New Testaments but also in the works of a pagan thinker like Virgil, outraged by the “sacred hunger of pernicious gold” (sacra auri fames).

The need to focus on preserving a personal dimension in the accomplishment of economic deeds provides a yardstick to use and a track to follow when we are involved in developing the economy. Of course, this does not mean reducing economics to the restrained personal sphere , reserved simply to quasi artisanal feats. Rather it entails to rediscover the notion and awareness of responsibility and merit affecting each person , relevant to any and each family, pertaining any given firm, concerning any local and national community. In turn any entity needs to be more than a collective body,  a fluid collection of nameless atoms without their own story, with neither past nor present. As actus personae, any economic activity, where , as it may be needed, it relates to a plural entity, must take on a specific and concrete personal sense ,  and it needs to refer to a body that is an internally united and close-knit whole.

The warning that the Encyclical implicitly makes, represents a distressed appeal  by a Pope who lives and is steeped in a modern and post-modern world. For this reason and with the many admonitions in Caritas in Veritate Benedict XVI warns against the dangers of technological absolutism. A worldwide imperial tyranny could emerge, putting at risk not only democracy but also republican institutions, whereas in recent decades even the internal administrative organisation of the Apostolic See has come to resemble more that of a republic government than that of a kingdom. Ultimately technology, economics, politics and every other domain of human endeavour cannot be self-referring without risking utter self-destruction without recourse.

Once , after the World War Two, humanity archived the  1922 (the Fascism) and the 1933 (the Nationalsocialism) and then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it shelved the 1917  (the Communism)   and with it every form of  “1793” , the revolutionary terror), the modern man has persisted nonetheless on a self-referential path that is leading him to an even greater epochal shift. , The Pope does not put it in writing in such a direct and brutal form, but this is in the actual deeds of today’s events.

The gradual waning of the principles of 1648 (the notions of national sovereignty and non interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state based on cuius regio eius religio) and those of 1776 (US Declaration of Independence and the sovereignty of the people) as well as the primacy of Homo oeconomicus as an anthropological concept and the utilitarianism of Benson’s social mathematics are added to the long-term effects of 1968 (when it was proclaimed “forbidden to forbid”, when social and personal habits and morals were revolutionised and an anarchist-individualist-nihilistic narcosis developed).

A whole set of different multi centuries-old cycles are converging to a junction in ways that no human can untangle. The recent economic crisis due to the failures of the financial system (in a recent report to Congress Special Treasury Department Inspector General Neil Barofsky said that about US$ 23.7 trillion or 167 per cent of GDP were committed to the rescue of US financial institutions) is a symptom of the problem, not a cause.

Like the Age of Absolutism which set off the revolutions that overthrew the monarchy as a form of government and opened the way to modernity, the absolutism of technology and individualism could pave the way for the overthrow not only of the “1944” (the Bretton Woods financial construction) and of the “1945” but even altogether of the 1789 (the democratic system and the republicanism).

On this track we are on this one-way road with no way back, and we might already be close to the brink. Benedict XVI’s new Encyclical is almost like a forlorn omen and a passionate call to humanity not to fall into an abyss that will be a trap for many.


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