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Pope’s dream of heaven on Earth

by Kevin Rafferty

HONG KONG — Of all the criticisms and critiques of the state of the world since the financial crisis that triggered global recession, the most devastating and yet the most profound and constructive came this month from such an unusual and unlikely source that many media ignored them. Yet the comments deserve a global audience.

The critique denounces the “grave deviations and failures” of capitalism and blames the mentality of making profits at all costs for the global meltdown. Here are some sample quotes:

• “Financiers must rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity, so as not to abuse the sophisticated instruments that can serve to betray the interests of savers.”

• “Profit is useful if it serves as a means toward an end that provides a sense of how to produce it and how to make good use of it. Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.”

• “To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is an urgent need of a true world political authority.”

The author is His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical letter “Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth),” addressed to the bishops and faithful of the Roman Catholic Church and to “all people of good will.”

You have only to read the last quotation above to understand how ambitious and sweeping the pope’s analysis is — as well as how dense and difficult is his prose. Yet it is worth the effort because he presents a new worldview in this age of galloping globalization.

He acknowledges the swirling global changes and tries to offer a holistic solution to the world’s woes that places human beings, not money or power or raw economic efficiency, at its center. The pope essentially finds that existing institutions, including individual national governments, have not kept pace with the scale, force and speed of change.

He sums up the tremendous benefits and the damaging side effects of globalization: “The world’s wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase,” he writes. “Corruption and illegality are unfortunately evident in the conduct of the economic and political class in rich countries as well as in poor ones.”

At the heart of the pope’s world is the individual human being, who, he declares must be given the opportunity of living with dignity and access to food, water and employment. “I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded is the human person in his or her integrity: Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life.”

Pope Benedict has little faith in markets and still less in financiers to solve the problems of inequality and oppression, and points to the evils of “badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing, large-scale migration of people and unregulated exploitation of Earth’s resources.”

Since so many changes are occurring beyond the reach of national governments, the pope calls for reform of the United Nations and creation of a “true world political authority” that would have the duty to “manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result.”

The pope delayed publication of his encyclical until the eve of the summit of the Group of Eight rich nations in nearby L’Aquila. Whether this was a masterstroke of political imagination or because the Vatican had problems turning expressions such as “tax haven” and “market value” into Latin of the principal text is not clear.

Too bad that the release was overshadowed by the memorial for Michael Jackson, driving the pope into exile on CNN, to second place on the BBC television business news after an item that Tokyo is again the most expensive place for expatriates to live, and to the inside pages of newspapers. The news choices are themselves a sad commentary on the values of the media.

Who will read the encyclical, and who cares? These are legitimate questions. Reading the 144 pages of the encyclical, I frequently found myself lost in dense prose. A Catholic blogger in the U.S. said the encyclical would be greeted “with a holy yawn from the pew.” If Catholics won’t care, what is the chance that 6 billion non-Catholics will read it?

May I suggest that it would be worthwhile to produce a plain English version of the encyclical’s contents, with the turgid German thought processes cut out and references to previous papal encyclicals placed as footnotes.

The next step would be to persuade Benedict XVI to apply his considerable intellect to answering the glaring questions that remain in his thesis — what kind of world government, and what teeth should it have?

Time after time, I wanted to applaud the pope for his vision, his moral sense of human beings in a world created by a loving God, and his common sense about stewardship of Earth and a need to curb cruel power whether wielded by greedy financiers or politicians. But the real world is not as simple as he paints it.

Economically, just how do you curb the power of transnational corporations or stop them from cutting pay, laying off workers, sending jobs abroad, striking mineral or forest deals with corrupt dictators in developing countries? Their actions may make no sense in terms of the well-being of the whole world, but they may be eminently sensible to ensure corporate profits and satisfy shareholders.

Politically, does the pope really want to give more powers to the U.N., a collective of squabbling ambitious nations, and more powers to the politicians of developing countries whom he correctly criticizes for corruption?

What does the pope say to the public snubbing this month of the U.N. secretary general by Myanmar’s junta, which epitomizes the model of Third World military dictatorship suppressing its own people and greedily making money from big corporations stripping the country’s resources? The pope deserves praise for his vision of heaven on Earth, but he does not say how to banish sin.

Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, then the world’s biggest English Catholic newspaper.