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Pope Benedict XVI, Scourge of “Unregulated Capitalism”

January 4, 2013, 9:47 am | Posted by John Gehring

If many progressives are disappointed that President Obama and most political leaders have not done more to reign in the corruption and greed of Wall Street titans who sparked a global financial crisis, they have an unlikely ally in a theologian who leads a global church of more than a billion souls.

While Pope Benedict XVI is viewed as a staunch conservative for his opposition to same-sex marriage and frequent pronouncements on sexual ethics, his powerful voice on economic justice issues too often gets short shrift. But it’s hard to ignore the pope’s recent blistering critique of what he describes as “unregulated financial capitalism.”  Pope Benedict, who has urged world leaders to pay more attention to the “scandal of glaring inequalities” between rich and poor nations, used his recent World Day of Peace message to challenge “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset” that gives rise to economic models based on “maximum profit and consumption.”

It’s unlikely that Catholic Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan or House Speaker John Boehner, free-market fundamentalists with a soft spot for Ayn Rand-libertarianism, will be passing out copies of the pope’s address in the halls of Congress. You can also bet many lawmakers from both parties, dependent on corporate campaign contributions from the financial services industry, paid scant attention to the Vatican’s call in 2011 for more robust financial regulation and a financial transaction tax.

But as we navigate the shoals of post-fiscal cliff Washington, with Republicans hankering for a fight on the debt ceiling and insisting on deeper spending cuts, political leaders could do worse than reflect on the Catholic justice tradition’s prudent balance between acknowledging a vital role for government while advocating for a market system that is tempered ­­ – and made more humane – by reasonable safeguards that serve the common good. In fact, Catholic social teaching on taxes, the role of government, the importance of unions, strong social safety nets and the need for robust regulation of global financial markets offers a progressive blueprint for building a moral economy.

The next time you hear a Catholic politician or a “pro-life” leader who argues for gutting financial regulations and slashing vital programs that protect children and the elderly so the wealthiest few can get more tax breaks, tell them to take it up with the pope.

One Response to “Pope Benedict XVI, Scourge of “Unregulated Capitalism””

  1. Hugh Macken says:

    John – Good for you for highlighting this. I consider myself pro-life and a fiscal conservative in the sense that I believe quite strongly in small government.

    However, I believe just as passionately about the importance of encouraging responsible, “big-hearted” business and a system of responsible (regulated) capitalism. I believe more attention needs to be paid to initiatives like B Corporation and companies like Salesforce who are trying to reshape the nature of what it means to be a responsible business. That it should be more than giving back. It should be, to quote Carol Sanford, author of “Responsible Business,” “giving as.”

    I agree with Carol that responsibility needs to be baked into the DNA of companies.

    I believe a serious conversation needs to happen among capitalist like myself who believe private capital – not government funds – and capitalists working together should be used to protect children, the elderly and the innocent unborn.

    I’ve tried to start doing my part in encouraging this discussion by interviewing experts like Carol Sanford on Blog Talk Radio but much more needs to happen.

    The good news is that the Rep Ryans of the world share more common ground than we might think.

    Let’s be clear and fair: The sticking point has not been whether “we” should provide for the common good.

    The sticking point – I can speak at the very least for myself – has been the role of *government* in achieving that objective.

    I’d say one way of addressing that sticking point is to start focusing on the role of capitalists, capitalism and private capital in bringing about a more compassionate society that cares for the least among us.

    Rep Ryan and his colleagues in congress would do well do formulate a bold vision of responsible *capitalism* that this country desperately needs.

    And I believe Catholic universities like the one I attended, Fairfield University, could do a better job of integrating Catholic social justice teaching into the business and economics curriculum.

    Catholic academics could do more as well to spur conversation among capitalists about whether initiatives like B Corporation deserve more attention and support than they have thus far received from Catholic organizations.

    And, as you alluded to in your post, as we move forward in this dialogue and as our need for guidance arises, we need look not much further than the Catholic Church for guidance in formulating what I hope will be a new vision of responsible capitalism championed by American Catholics.