Discussing the latest encyclical with social ethics Professor William O'Neill
David Ian Miller
Monday, July 13, 2009
You know you're living in interesting times when the pope decides to write about the economy.
As the Wall Street Journal pointed out on Tuesday after Pope Benedict XVI released his 44-page encyclical, titled "Caritas in Veritate" or "Charity in Truth," popes only address financial issues in encyclicals "during moments of tectonic shift" such as the Industrial Revolution (1891, Pope Leo XIII, argued for workers' rights) and the Great Depression (1931 Pope Pius XI, warning about the dangers of capitalism run amuck).
In the Catholic tradition, encyclicals are open letters written by the pope to the bishops of the church, addressing big issues ranging from dangers to the world at large or the souls of church members. Although the Vatican does an outstanding job of utilizing modern communications -- Pope Benedict XVI has a Facebook page (you can be his friend, but you can't poke him) and his Web site, pope2you.net, offers iPhone content -- videos of the pope's travels and speeches -- encyclicals remain a critical form of discourse.
Caritas in Veritate addresses very modern issues such as globalization, market economy, hedge funds, outsourcing, and alternative energy, calling for people to put aside greed and let their consciences guide them in economic and environmental decisions. Many of the ideas put forward would likely rankle conservatives, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote that the encyclical "places the pope well to Obama's left on economics..."
I spoke about the encyclical with William O'Neill, a professor of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and a visiting professor of ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology in Nairobi, Kenya. O'Neill has worked with refugees in Tanzania and Malawi, and conducted research on human rights in South Africa and Rwanda. His writings address questions of human rights, ethics, social reconciliation, and conflict resolution. We discussed the politics of the encyclical, tensions within the church, and how the current economic crisis might reshape our world.
Let's start with your general take on the new encyclical. What were your first impressions?
I was very impressed, both with its scope and its depth. It is, I think, a remarkable document that raises very difficult questions, particularly for many Americans, partly because it speaks to the possibility of economic redistribution.
It seems that Pope Benedict is offering a much more radical set of economic prescriptions than even the most liberal Democrats in this country. Does that surprise you?
I wasn't surprised as much as I was delighted to see that so many of the fundamental themes that have been a part of the heritage of modern Catholic social teaching were articulated in such a profound and theologically grounded way. Benedict is a theologian, and you see the theological wisdom permeating the entire encyclical. But the concern of mediating the tradition to the specific problems that we are facing in light of the economic crisis and the suffering of so many of the people in our world today -- that, to me, was very heartening. I think what he is doing is taking a rich tradition and trying to apply it to novel circumstances. And I think he does that quite well.
Will the encyclical, in your opinion, actually change anything?
That's the question. How will it be received? I suspect, had this been issued prior to the economic crisis, it would have been met with a kind of constrained interest. Today, we would almost say it's prophetic, because there is a general understanding that the failures of international regulation, the crises of a globalizing economy, will require a kind of profound ethical appraisal.
This encyclical comes at a time when many of us would say business as usual is no longer acceptable. We need significant structural change rather than just making minor modifications and hoping that the great capitalist engine will continue to function. It doesn't give a precise prescription for policy. But it does give a moral perspective for thinking about global economic integration. In many ways, I think it is the beginning of a conversation, rather than the end.
What are the main themes of that conversation?
Some of the central themes are his emphasis upon a kind of integral humanism and a concern that the market must be made moral from within, that the economy is one of the most socialized activities we engage in today, and consequently our economic interdependence has to be leavened with moral solidarity.
Another theme is recognizing the need for appropriate measures, given the vast economic shifts that have occurred just within the last decade of the globalizing economy. The question is, how do we regulate the financial and capital markets in a way that will protect fundamental rights, especially for those who are least prosperous? These are concerns that go back to the gospel, and I think Benedict is trying to cultivate them in a way that could actually make a difference in terms of prevailing policies.
Do you know if encyclicals are written primarily by the pope, or are they a group effort?
Sometimes they are the product of a number of authors. I would say this encyclical bears the imprimatur of Benedict himself, to use a very papal term, just given the coherence of the text and its theological density.
This isn't the first time that he has spoken out about the lack of ethics in capitalism. In 1985, for example, he presented a paper entitled "Market Economy and Ethics" warning that the lack of ethics could cause financial markets to collapse. Is this pope particularly well-educated in financial issues?
He's certainly not an economist or a financier. But there has been a rich tradition, not only for Benedict, but really since 1891 when the first major social encyclical dealing with the massive dislocation of workers at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a whole history of Catholic social thinking in this regard. This encyclical is the 40-year commemoration of Paul VI of Populorum Progressio, which was the first encyclical to deal with the problems of development and globalization in such detail. It emphasized not only the rights of Western workers, but the profound systematic deprivation of underdevelopment in so many parts of our world.
One of the encyclical's more controversial elements is a call for a "world political authority" to play a central role in regulating the economy. This has been interpreted by some critics as an endorsement of a new world government, though Vatican officials have taken pains to deny that was Benedict's intention. What do you make of the pope's statements on this issue?
He is certainly not calling for a new world government. I think this has to be put into context. One of the key themes in Catholic teaching for many many years is that effective participation for the common good is going to involve different levels of authority. In other words, we have a global common good, so how is that to be implemented? It would be implemented through appropriate international structures and regulations, but also through the appropriate activities of state and regional actors. One of the keys is that the state, or in this case a global authority, should never absorb the appropriate authority of so-called intermediate associations, or hosts.
So it's not a recommendation for world centralized government but an attempt to develop the kind of wise appropriate redistributive measures that would allow an economy to satisfy its moral purposes -- to provide a decent standard of living, especially for those who have been effectively marginalized by the processes of globalization. I think what he is looking for is appropriate redistributive measures that would regulate the economy rather than displace it. That's at least how I would understand it.
It is interesting that to me that the pope's thinking on issues like globalization, the economy, outsourcing, and alternative energy, are in line with liberal or progressive thinking in this country. Yet, he is very conservative on social issues like gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research. How do you explain that dichotomy?
I think that it represents the tension within church teachings generally between personal and social morality on the one hand, and economic ethics on the other hand. Since the end of the 19th century the church social teachings have emphasized workers' rights, appropriate (wealth) redistribution measures, and the common good, while emphasizing more traditional morality relating to sexual ethics and family life. The teachings are not opposed, but they overlap. It's a matter of different emphases rather than fundamental conflict.
Do you feel the church in its recent history has done enough to address economic inequality?
I think in some ways we have been excessively lacking, and of course, I include myself in this as well. One of the problems is how Catholic teaching becomes Catholic learning. I think one of the tragedies is that we often have done very good social analysis, for instance, on the rights of workers or migrants, but we haven't done a very good job in disseminating that research, and as a result so often the church's moral teaching seems to be reduced to the popular mind largely to its views on sexuality.
What, if any, changes in your work and spiritual practice will you make in response to the teachings of this encyclical?
It will probably take a little more discernment for me to see what this would mean, to be very honest, in my own life. It does suggest to me that I haven't strayed as widely as some might think in emphasizing, for instance, the importance of global solidarity or defending the rights of migrants. The inmates at the federal women's prison where I am a chaplain are mostly migrant women. They are not non-persons. Their lives matter. That's one of the hallmarks of this encyclical, and it's something I can actually bring to my preaching in prison -- that they appear in the text, these women who in many ways are marginalized by a global economy and largely forgotten, even in our criminal justice system.
What does it mean, ultimately, to go back to Jesus' first words in Luke, to preach good news to the poor? If Catholic social teaching means anything, it's at the service of this gospel. So I take from that a sense of being heartened that my church has not forgotten the least among us, and that Benedict, who has been criticized in many ways for being excessively cautious and conservative, has taken such a prophetic view. I think that's both courageous and wise, and I really applaud him for that. Differ as I might with some of his other teachings, I really think that he has effectively spoken the gospel today for us.
Do you want to say anything more about the teachings you disagree with?
I would say here, and maybe this is going a little astray, but I think that for the American church to be prophetic, it first has to be repentant. We have to recognize our complicity in the sexual abuse crimes, for example, and that's a language that Benedict would probably not apply to the institutions of the church, but I think that to recognize the sinful structures of the church and to repent of them is a real condition for allowing the grace of the spirit to be prophetic.
For some to believe that, if we truly repent then we foreclose the possibility of prophecy, that we abdicate our moral authority, is a mistake. I think we have to recognize that the church, in its official and institutional structures, has contributed to social sin. In many ways Benedict has done this in his text by speaking with courage about an integral need to restore the human purposes to our economy. Those are noble sentiments, but I think they will be received, if we recognize that prophecy always requires a certain ability to repent.
Does the Vatican have a history of repentance?
Yes, actually. Benedict wrote a rather remarkable apology to the bishops for lifting the excommunication order on Richard Williamson (a bishop who publicly stated that the Holocaust never happened). And there has been a series of papal apologies beginning with John Paul and others, for anti-Semitism in the church.
I just returned from a week-long conference at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, looking at the behavior of the churches during the Holocaust, and again, it's very sobering to see what happened there. I think of what Martin Luther King speaks of in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," of the silence of the good, the appalling silence of the good. That is perhaps the greatest malaise for Christians. It's not our overt racism and anti-Semitism but rather the complacency of the good. And my hope is that this encyclical may in subtle ways be a subversive antidote to that tendency, that it may help us imagine our world a little differently and call us to action. If it does that, then it has achieved its purpose.
During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.