New social encyclical should not be scanned for its practical policy proposals, argues Philip Booth

Upon the publication of Caritas in veritate there was the usual rush to scan the document for excerpts that justify preconceived political positions. Some have noted the strong support for the principle of the market economy, civil society and the removal of trade barriers. Others have noted the support for the welfare state, labour market regulation and for income redistribution. It is certainly not a document coming from the left – it lacks the condemnations of markets that some were hoping for. However, ‘big government’, in the form of the welfare state, is not attacked either.

In most cases, in fact, guidance on particular policy issues is heavily qualified. It is well known that Pope Benedict does not like being drawn into specifics on such issues. For example, fair traders and ethical investors might pat themselves on the back as the Pope praises ethical business and, in paragraph 66, applauds something that sounds like fair trade. But he then adds: ‘The word “ethical”, then, should not be used to make ideological distinctions, as if to suggest that initiatives not formally so designated would not be ethical’. Similarly, the Pope calls for development aid whilst making strong statements about its failure.

But all this is largely beside the point. The main purpose of this document is to hammer home the message that, whatever technical economic policies are followed, economic and social behaviour must be directed by moral truths and animated by charity. If we are to have development worthy of its name, then there must be moral renewal – both in rich and poor countries.

What is the answer to problems within the financial system? The Pope is clear: we need better people. As he puts it, ‘[Economic and financial] instruments that are good in themselves can thereby be transformed into harmful ones. But it is man’s darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the instrument per se. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.’

Is economic development mainly a matter of technical policy design? No. The Pope says: ‘It should be stressed that progress of a merely economic and technological kind is insufficient*. Development needs above all to be true and integral.’

The Pope returns again and again to a theme that is summed up in paragraph 34: ‘The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from “influences” of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way.’

Perhaps most importantly, the exclusion of God and the moral dimension from practical policy relating to the environment, technology and the provision of development aid and education are all roundly criticised before Pope Benedict ends with a flourish, saying: ‘Development needs Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer’.

The secular press have been keen to highlight the specific policy proposals of the Pope. But they are really not new – the BBC and its like are just desperate to avoid facing up to the encyclical’s real message. The proposal for a ‘United Nations with teeth’, on which many questions were raised at the Vatican press conference, has been around in Papal teaching for over 40 years. Many have difficulties with the practical realities of this. Such bodies do not become dysfunctional by accident: they are almost bound to be captured by their own bureaucracies, the EU and UN both being cases in point. Hitherto, we have discovered no clear-cut way that we can ensure that international organisations work for the common good, or limit themselves to enforcing the rule of law and, more generally, do more good than harm. But, this is something that Catholic scholars can work on and perhaps they can come up with better models. We must, though, avoid the reductionist fallacy (’the Pope calls for an international body, this is an international body, therefore the Pope calls for it’).

Are there any disappointments? Personally, I was surprised by the treatment of the welfare state. The pope hinted at disappointment that welfare states were being downsized as a result of ‘international competition’. Yet this year, in the UK, in common with much of Europe, the government will spend more than the citizen – with the biggest increases in recent years being on welfare. Most governments are experiencing the largest peacetime welfare budgets in their history. The rising costs are at least partly caused by the in-built incentives within welfare states towards family disintegration and job destruction. But what was more puzzling was that the possibilities for devolving responsibility for welfare provision to families and the community, in line with traditional Catholic social teaching, were not mentioned at all in the otherwise comprehensive section of the encyclical on civil society. Yet such possibilities were then mentioned, completely out of context, in a sentence explaining how an increase in aid budgets could be financed!

This, perhaps, reflects the fact that various drafts of the encyclical were rejected by the Pope and the end result was the product of many pens, not all of which were held by people who had the same view about what the encyclical should contain.

But, these specific policy issues are a sideshow. All Catholics are challenged by this document, but perhaps the most specific challenge is for aid agencies and Justice and Peace groups in the developed world. The Pope is telling them that they cannot separate discussions of economic development from the Church’s moral teaching: life issues, peace and justice are intertwined. They must promote Christian values in the public square and avoid bringing voices into the Church who stand against her teaching just because they happen to share the politics of the activists. It is also true that the Pope wants governments to write aid cheques, but the agencies must avoid bureaucratic ways and ensure money is spent on bottom-up programmes. Most of all, Catholic aid agencies should not deviate from the Church’s moral teaching – charity and the truth walk hand-in-hand.

See also IEA monograph
Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy