Vatican’s Proposed Financial Reforms Not So Stupid After All

There’s a widespread impression that the international financial system which the United States and its friends put in place after World War II is breaking down. The old system may of course be patched up and limp along for some time to come, but sooner or later something else will take its place. What that will be no one now knows.

Against this background, it’s a pity that friends and foes of the Vatican’s new statement on international financial reform hastened to all but torpedo the document’s reception right at the start. Issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace with an eye on an economic summit of world leaders, the Holy See’s proposals deserve a lot better than that.

For my money, the best one-paragraph explanation of the Vatican’s initiative was provided by The New York Times: “The document grows out of the Roman Catholic Church’s concerns about economic instability and widening inequality of income and wealth around the world, issues that transcend the power of national governments to address on their own.” With the possible exception of people nostalgic for the protectionism of the 1930s Smoot-Hawley Act, it would be difficult to find any sane person who takes exception to that.

The friends and foes of the document nevertheless seemed to go out of their way to undermine it by likening it in some way to the Occupy Wall Street movement. On the face of it, this was more than slightly absurd.

Occupy Wall Street is after all an amorphous, leftwing gaggle whose most notable feature up to now has been its lack of any clear program. By contrast, the Catholic Church has been developing a body of social teaching since the days of Pope Leo XIII in the late nineteenth century and continuing through Benedict XVI. The result by now is a well articulated and sophisticated set of principles addressing social and economic issues.

Still, what really produced “hyperventilation” (Bill Donohue’s word) among critics of the Vatican statement was undoubtedly its advocacy of a “global public authority” as a key component of a new international system committed to the common good.

It is not a new idea. Popes including Benedict XVI have been suggesting the same thing for several decades. And although it appears to conjure up images of the proverbial black helicopters among some, it should be borne in mind that the statement says the supranational authority it has in mind should be “set up gradually,” should be friendly to “free and stable markets,” “cannot be imposed by force,” and must arise from a “maturation of consciences” after extensive consultation. There is no suggestion in the document that the Pontifical Council imagines this will happen either soon or easily.

Perhaps the strongest argument for something of the sort is the process of globalization that is already such a marked feature of the contemporary world. Years ago, globalization fans like Thomas Friedman were touting its advent as something very like a panacea. In a day and age when the threat of a possible Greek default can rattle markets around the globe, however, it should be abundantly clear that globalization has minuses as well pluses. Here is a truism sufficient in itself to underline the need for some kind of global monitor—a “supranational public authority” in fact—with scope and outreach comparable to globalization itself.

The Holy See’s document is an invitation to a conversation, not a final word. The foes and friends have done their worst. Now let the conversation begin.

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Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, DC. He is the author of more than twenty books and previously served as secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference.

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