Only if there are new human beings will there be a new world, a renewed and better world.
When the Pope said these words at Vespers on Sunday, perhaps he had Bernie Madoff in mind.
Today, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison for defrauding his investors of nearly $65 billion over the course of 20 years. His corruption and crimes ruined the livelihoods of thousands of businesspeople, charity workers, and families that trusted his sterling reputation to protect everything that they had worked to earn.
Unfortunately, Madoff is not the only man to have betrayed his financial responsibilities to others. The last few years saw financial scandals at Enron and WorldCom shake the public’s trust in corporations. Just two weeks ago, Texas billionaire R. Allen Stanford was arrested by the FBI on charges that he used a bank in Antigua to mask his $8 billion fraud, stealing from his investors.
When Pope Leo XIII published his encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, he wrote that “A small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than slavery itself.” The global economy has come a long way since then, with the rise of laws designed to fight white-collar crime, the expansion of opportunities for Third World entrepreneurship with the removal of tariffs, and the creation of enough wealth to eliminate most of the horrific working conditions of the Victorian Era.
One thing that we cannot progress out of is sin. The same sins that led some businesspeople to exploit the human person for their own economic gain, the same sins that led industrialists to lobby the government to protect their privilege against competition, still exist today. Greed is real in every age and under every political system.
So too is guilt. Madoff himself seems to realize the terrible impact that his crimes have had. At his sentencing, he asked the jury: “How do you excuse betraying thousands of investors who entrusted me with their life savings? How do you excuse deceiving 200 employees who spent most of their working life with me? How do you excuse lying to a brother and two sons who spent their entire lives helping to build a successful business? How do you excuse lying to a wife who stood by you for 50 years?”
There is no way to excuse these crimes. As the Pope noted on Sunday, the only way to truly bring about a better world is through interior conversion and taking full responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions. No system of laws and no amount of external regulation can fully force people to live up to their responsibilities.
As Judge Danny Chin put it, “Mr. Madoff’s crimes were extraordinarily evil.” Evil obeys no laws. It is a corruption of the heart. Falsehood will lie its way out of every law. No matter how strong we make our regulations on the activities of financial managers and corporate executives, there is only one way to guarantee that the truth will hold sway.
As Pope Benedict put it, “Love is the test of truth. Ever more we must be measured by this criterion, that truth becomes love and that love makes us truthful.” Only through a commitment to the morality of love can we break the power of sin in our human hearts.