In October 2011, the Vatican proposed an overhaul of the world’s financial systems with the establishment of an international authority to oversee the global economy. In making this proposal, the Holy See was seeking to bring more democratic and ethical principles into play on economic and financial matters. If the proposal is not specifically religious in nature, it can legitimately be asked whether the ecclesiastical authors were credentialed sufficiently in the domains covered by their proposal. Furthermore, the matter of any opportunity costs from the encroachment can be raised.
The New York Times reports that the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace “argued that ‘politics — which is responsible for the common good’ must be given primacy over the economy and finance, and that existing institutions like the International Monetary Fund had not been responding adequately to global economic problems.” It is notable that religion does not even come into play here. Rather, it was “the Roman Catholic Church’s concerns about economic instability and widening inequality of income and wealth around the world” that fueled the proposal.
“The time has come to conceive of institutions with universal competence, now that vital goods shared by the entire human family are at stake, goods which the individual states cannot promote and protect by themselves,” Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, the president of the pontifical council, said as he presented the report. “That is what pushed us.” What is perhaps most striking from a religious standpoint is the potential collision between the proposal and the view held by some Christians that a one-world government is the vehicle used by the anti-christ to gain earthly power. Such a theological discussion would fit with the cardinal’s religious credentials. Such credentials do not convey any particular expertise in international relations, political theory, economics, finance or even ethics. To see that religion is not, or does not reduce to ethics, one need only consider the distinctly unethical divine decrees in the Torah. Besides the killing of women and children simply because they did not convert to Yahweh, Job does not deserve the harm inficted on him by the devil, which God allows.
To be sure, links to the theological or religious domain can be made. For example, the Vatican’s report states: “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas, even if they might destabilize pre-existing balances of power that prevail over the weakest.” Rather than proposing an earthly international organization, the proposal could have preached on the nature of the Kingdom of God, which turns the world on its head. In other words, what we presume to be power may not evince strength in a distinctly Christian sense. Furthermore, the proposal could have picked up on its reference to the weakest to cite Jesus’ saying, to wit, What you do to the least of mine, you do to me. Also, the theme in Mark wherein the outsiders—the strangers—“get it” while the disciples do not understand could also be mentioned. Indeed, most of the first can be last, while the last are first—those who are presumed to be weak by the world’s standards. The Vatican officials would have been on terra firma had they pursued this route rather than ventured off into the governance of international political economy.
Bishop Mario Toso, secretary to the pontifical council, claimed that the proposal is “in line with the Magisterium of the church.” Interestingly, he pointed to reasonableness rather than to a distinctly religious criterion. It seems that he may have been unconsciously conflating philosophy with theology. Indeed, ethics is a sub-field in philosophy, and the Vatican’s report avers, “To function correctly the economy needs ethics; and not just of any kind, but one that is people-centered.” Whether or not the authors had advanced degrees in ethics—whether ethical theory or business ethics—was apparently of no concern to them or their religious superiors. On this basis, one could say that a propensity to encroach without limitation exists in the Vatican. Perhaps the operative rubric confides that religious education and authority proffers legitimacy in virtually any domain because religion or theology can be applied to anything. A similar claim could perhaps be made of the study and practice of law—it is virtually everywhere in modern society (even in the church in terms of criminal law applied to priests).
The wanderings of Vatican officials into other back yards carry rather significant opportunity costs. First, the document itself could have stressed distinctly religious points such as I have suggested above. Second, extending the teaching authority of the Church onto fields other than theology, even the latter can be related indirectly, risks relegating or even severely undercutting that authority even where it is at home in theology. Politically conservative Catholics, for example, “hastened to assure their camp that the document does not carry the full force of church teaching, since it was produced by a Vatican office, not by the pope himself.” The Times continues by observing that “some dismissed the report as nothing new, or simply misinformed.” In other words, the clerics at the Vatican risked losing their credibility not only on account of their intransigent arrogance and lack of empathy for the least of mine in refusing to hold their priests accountable for pedophilia, but also for being ideologically greedy in refusing to confine the magisterium to distinctly theological matters.
According to a survey (led by a sociologist at Catholic University and published in The National Catholic Reporter) of 1,442 American Catholic adults, 86% say “you can disagree with aspects of church teachings and still remain loyal to the church.” Only about 30% accept the teaching authority claimed by the Vatican. It could be the low number reflects the greediness of that teaching authority with respect to forays into extrinsic domains without any apparent hesitancy or humility. Alternatively, the lack of any limiting factor could risk an even lower acceptance rate in the future.
It is a paradox that in being greedy—wanting more, even in terms of ideological influence—one can wind up with less. Ignore the inherent strictures of your credentials and you will suffer in terms of credibility. Ignore the delimited nature of your knowledge and you will come off as ignorant. Ignore your own base and the floor will fall from beneath you.
In the 1980s popular business press, one of the main mantras for managers was: get back to the knitting. In other words, get back to focusing on what you do well, rather than diversifying into other businesses. It would appear that the Vatican might take this business advice to heart and return to the Church’s native fauna of religion, wherein Vatican officials are credentialed and well-studied, and thus legitimate and credible. Another 1980s business mantra was: management by wandering around. This one the officials should not follow, given their proclivity to wander into other back yards; any walking around should be assiduously delimited in the spirit of humility that enervates the insipid instinct to overreach. At the very least, it is bad form to tell a neighbor how to clean up his or her yard while one’s own could stand some attention.
Elisabetta Povoledo, “Vatican Calls for Oversight of the World’s Finances,” The New York Times, October 25, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/25/world/europe/vatican-calls-for-global-oversight-of-the-economy.html
Cathy L. Grossman, “Survey: U.S. Catholics’ Religious Identity Slips,” USA Today, October 25, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-10-24/catholic-religious-identity-survey/50891152/1?csp=34news