Pope Benedict: Neither Power-Hungry Nor Naive

When the Drudge Report announced “Vatican Calls for World Bank” under a picture of Pope Benedict XVI, I got a frightened e-mail from a friend who is a recent convert calling the article  “the most disturbing thing I have read in a long time.”

As I told him, first of all, as with any Drudge scream-line, we need to clarify what the news is. The news here? A Pontifical Council study document quoted and expanded on a suggestion from a 1963 encyclical.

Second, we can evaluate it. What the Pontifical Council (not the Pope) is suggesting here is not only not crazy, it isn’t even novel: A financial oversight instrument along the lines their new “Note on Financial Reform” discusses will have to be made sooner or later. And when it is made, it won’t be new; it will be a reform of the several previous international financial oversight attempts.

Understand that the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is not a Congregation of the curia. It is a curial support organization tasked with making “action-oriented studies” of current issues. In the wake of the Greek crisis, the Euro crisis and the waning of America and rise of China in the financial world, it wouldn’t be doing its job if it wasn’t discussing the need for international financial oversight.

But, as the Council’s document puts it: “a long road still needs to be traveled before arriving at the creation of a public Authority with universal jurisdiction.”

To reassure my convert friend that the Church is not trying to take over the world, I shared with him this quote from Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est on what role the Church sees herself having in politics:

“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.”

In other words, the Church knows her place: She doesn’t start worldwide governing systems. But she also knows that she is in a unique position to see the worldwide ramifications of social justice questions.

But if the Church isn’t making a powerplay, isn’t the Church being naïve? Does she really think a world governing structure will be anything but a bureaucratic bully that sucks sovereignty away from people?

That’s the whole point of the document.

Not only does the Church understand the danger of worldwide governing structures, but Pope Benedict XVI’s most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate can be seen as an extended examination of the inherent tension between “solidary” and “subsidiarity.”

“Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone,” he writes (No. 38).

He describes the principle of subsidiarity by referencing the Catechism, which says: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (CCC 1883).

In other words, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity says “we owe it to others not to interfere” while solidarity says “we owe it to others to help.”

The Pope sees the need for both, and understands the Church’s social teaching as a reconciliation of the two. “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need,” he says (No. 58).

Caritas in Veritate describes what the Church sees as an alarming trend: The independence of a very powerful financial system as a global force without any oversight that matches its scope.

If hearing the words “world governing structure” makes you afraid of a global power influencing communities who are powerless before it, then you share exactly the fear the Vatican has about the market.

The new document from the Council of Justice and Peace vigorously decries the unfairness of the system that make poor people suffer the consequences of financial speculators’ mistakes. But the document is also very conscious of the Boss’s emphasis on subsidiarity:

“In the tradition of the Church’s Magisterium which Benedict XVI has vigorously embraced, the principle of subsidiarity should regulate relations between the State and local communities and between public and private institutions, not excluding the monetary and financial institutions,” says the Council’s document.

I, for one, am glad that the Church’s message of solidarity tempered by subsidiarity is one of the leading voices in the ongoing debate about the global response to the international markets.


Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.