Posts tagged with: Vatican

This morning the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a bold statement advising how to bring order to the global financial crisis. I was in attendance at the much anticipated press conference that was organized to debrief reporters on the statement’s content.

The statement came in the form of a “Nota” (“Note” in Vatican terms): Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority.

The President and Secretary of the Council, together with a University of Rome economics professor summarized the points and context of the Note. They were met with tough questions from 60 feisty Vatican-beat journalists representing international newspaper, television and radio outlets.

To say the least, the Council’s Note was controversial and not something you normally see released from a Vatican Council. Normally, concerning specific economic policy and governance, Vatican authorities speak much more boldly on moral and theological matters and much less so on practical prescriptions.

Before getting started with the debriefing, there were a few waivers and clarifications to make about the Note’s official extent of authority and relevance.

Both the council’s President, Cardinal Peter Turkson, and Vatican Press Secretary, Fr. Federico Lombardi, made it very clear that the statement was “not in any way the opinion of the pope”, but solely that of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and those that composed it.

One of the journalists present asked if the Holy Father himself had read the document, to which the Council’s Secretary, Bishop Mario Toso, said the document had only been reviewed by the Secretariat of State and was released to stimulate the practical and moral thinking of world economic leaders attending the G-20 summit this November 3-4 in Cannes, France and to “invite a process of discernment among all peoples of the world” as Cardinal Turkson later added.

Most of the heated questions at the Vatican press conference concentrated on the potential utopian vision of a single world government authority a la United Nations and IMF to promote financial and monetary security as well as greater equality among the rich and poor in teetering markets and destitute nations. Professor Leonardo Becchetti told journalists from the panel that “the world has changed…a globalized economy now calls for a global government”.

Bishop Toso was quick to point out that the statement’s opinions on a global financial authority took inspiration from Pope Benedict’s 2009 encylcical letter, Caritas in Veritate, where he said the Holy Father underscored that some form of world authority was necessary to bring order to the global economic chaos in full force. Therefore, as the Council’s officials argued, some legitimacy to their argument for a world economic authority stemmed from the Church’s official social teachings.

The reference to Caritas in Veritate had today’s journalists on edge with further demanding questions about the natural tendencies and historical proofs that corruption, self-interests and sin almost always destroy the good intentions and original human ideals of large-scale governance and any political authority wielding massive power.

Here are some extended clips from the first and third parts of the Council’s statement, where the issues of economic development, inequality and global financial authority are addressed.

The English translation is still in a process of final revision and should be released soon along with expert articulation and commentary from the Acton staff. Stay tuned for more!


1. Economic Development and Inequalities

The grave economic and financial crisis which the world is going through today springs from multiple causes. Opinions on the number and significance of these causes vary widely. Some commentators emphasize first and foremost certain errors inherent in the economic and financial policies; others stress the structural weaknesses of political, economic and financial institutions; still others say that the causes are ethical breakdowns occurring at all levels of a world economy that is increasingly dominated by utilitarianism and materialism. At every stage of the crisis, one might discover particular technical errors intertwined with certain ethical orientations.

In material goods markets, natural factors and productive capacity as well as labour in all of its many forms set quantitative limits by determining relationships of costs and prices which, under certain conditions, permit an efficient allocation of available resources.

In monetary and financial markets, however, the dynamics are quite different. In recent decades, it was the banks that extended credit, which generated money, which in turn sought a further expansion of credit. In this way, the economic system was driven towards an inflationary spiral that inevitably encountered a limit in the risk that credit institutions could accept. They faced the ultimate danger of bankruptcy, with negative consequences for the entire economic and financial system

After World War II, national economies made progress, albeit with enormous sacrifices for millions, indeed billions of people who, as producers and entrepreneurs on the one hand and as savers and consumers on the other, had put their confidence in a regular and progressive expansion of money supply and investment in line with opportunities for real growth of the economy.

Since the 1990s, we have seen that money and credit instruments worldwide have grown more rapidly than revenue, even adjusting for current prices. From this came the formation of pockets of excessive liquidity and speculative bubbles which later turned into a series of solvency and confidence crises that have spread and followed one another over the years…

A liberalist approach, unsympathetic towards public intervention in the markets, chose to allow an important international financial institution to fall into bankruptcy, on the assumption that this would contain the crisis and its effects. Unfortunately, this spawned a widespread lack of confidence and a sudden change in attitudes. Various public interventions of enormous scope (more than 20% of gross national product) were urgently requested in order to stem the negative effects that could have overwhelmed the entire international financial system.

The consequences for the real economy, what with grave difficulties in some sectors – first of all, construction – and wide distribution of unfavourable forecasts, have generated a negative trend in production and international trade with very serious repercussions for employment as well as other effects that have probably not yet had their full impact. The costs are extremely onerous for millions in the developed countries, but also and above all for billions in the developing ones…

Global economic well-being, traditionally measured by national income and also by levels of capacities, grew during the second half of the twentieth century, to an extent and with a speed never experienced in the history of humankind…

First and foremost, an economic liberalism that spurns rules and controls. Economic liberalism is a theoretical system of thought, a form of “economic apriorism” that purports to derive laws for how markets function from theory, these being laws of capitalistic development, while exaggerating certain aspects of markets. An economic system of thought that sets down a priori the laws of market functioning and economic development, without measuring them against reality, runs the risk of becoming an instrument subordinated to the interests of the countries that effectively enjoy a position of economic and financial advantage.

Regulations and controls, imperfect though they may be, already often exist at the national and regional levels; whereas on the international level, it is hard to apply and consolidate such controls and rules.

The inequalities and distortions of capitalist development are often an expression not only of economic liberalism but also of utilitarian thinking: that is, theoretical and practical approaches according to which what is useful for the individual leads to the good of the community. This saying has a core of truth, but it cannot be ignored that individual utility – even where it is legitimate – does not always favour the common good. In many cases a spirit of solidarity is called for that transcends personal utility for the good of the community….

One devastating effect of these ideologies, especially in the last decades of the past century and the first years of the current one, has been the outbreak of the crisis in which the world is still immersed.

In his social encyclical, Benedict XVI precisely identified the roots of a crisis that is not only economic and financial but above all moral in nature. In fact, as the Pontiff notes, to function correctly the economy needs ethics; and not just of any kind but one that is people-centred. He goes on to denounce the role played by utilitarianism and individualism and the responsibilities of those who have adopted and promoted them as the parameters for the optimal behaviour of all economic and political agents who operate and interact in the social context. But Benedict XVI also identifies and denounces a new ideology, that of “technocracy”.

3. An Authority over Globalization

On the way to building a more fraternal and just human family and, even before that, a new humanism open to transcendence, Blessed John XXIII’s teaching seems especially timely. In the prophetic Encyclical Pacem in Terris of 1963, he observed that the world was heading towards ever greater unification. He then acknowledged the fact that a correspondence was lacking in the human community between the political organization “on a world level and the objective needs of the universal common good”. He also expressed the hope that one day “a true world political authority” would be created.

In view of the unification of the world engendered by the complex phenomenon of globalization, and of the importance of guaranteeing, in addition to other collective goods, the good of a free, stable world economic and financial system at the service of the real economy, today the teaching of Pacem in Terris appears to be even more vital and worthy of urgent implementation.

In the same spirit of Pacem in Terris, Benedict XVI himself expressed the need to create a world political authority. This seems obvious if we consider the fact that the agenda of questions to be dealt with globally is becoming ever longer. Think, for example, of peace and security; disarmament and arms control; promotion and protection of fundamental human rights; management of the economy and development policies; management of the migratory flows and food security, and protection of the environment. In all these areas, the growing interdependence between States and regions of the world becomes more and more obvious as well as the need for answers that are not just sectorial and isolated, but systematic and integrated, rich in solidarity and subsidiarity and geared to the universal common good.

As the Pope reminds us, if this road is not followed, “despite the great progress accomplished in various sectors, international law would risk being conditioned by the balance of power among the strongest nations.”

The purpose of the public authority, as John XXIII recalled in Pacem in Terris, is first and foremost to serve the common good. Therefore, it should be endowed with structures and adequate, effective mechanisms equal to its mission and the expectations placed in it. This is especially true in a globalized world which makes individuals and peoples increasingly interconnected and interdependent, but which also reveals the existence of monetary and financial markets of a predominantly speculative sort that are harmful for the real economy, especially of the weaker countries.

This is a complex and delicate process. A supranational Authority of this kind should have a realistic structure and be set up gradually. It should be favourable to the existence of efficient and effective monetary and financial systems; that is, free and stable markets overseen by a suitable legal framework, well-functioning in support of sustainable development and social progress of all, and inspired by the values of charity and truth. It is a matter of an Authority with a global reach that cannot be imposed by force, coercion or violence, but should be the outcome of a free and shared agreement and a reflection of the permanent and historic needs of the world common good. It ought to arise from a process of progressive maturation of consciences and freedoms as well as the awareness of growing responsibilities. Consequently, reciprocal trust, autonomy and participation cannot be overlooked as if they were superfluous elements. The consent should involve an ever greater number of countries that adhere with conviction, through a sincere dialogue that values the minority opinions rather than marginalizing them. So the world Authority should consistently involve all peoples in a collaboration in which they are called to contribute, bringing to it the heritage of their virtues and their civilizations.

The establishment of a world political Authority should be preceded by a preliminary phase of consultation from which a legitimated institution will emerge that is in a position to be an effective guide and, at the same time, can allow each country to express and pursue its own particular good. The exercise of this Authority at the service of the good of each and every one will necessarily be super partes (impartial): that is, above any partial vision or particular good, in view of achieving the common good. Its decisions should not be the result of the more developed countries’ excessive power over the weaker countries. Instead, they should be made in the interest of all, not only to the advantage of some groups, whether they are formed by private lobbies or national governments.

A supranational Institution, the expression of a “community of nations”, will not last long, however, if the countries’ diversities from the standpoint of cultures, material and immaterial resources and historic and geographic conditions, are not recognized and fully respected. The lack of a convinced consensus, nourished by an unceasing moral communion on the part of the world community, would also reduce the effectiveness of such an Authority.

What is valid on the national level is also valid on the global level. A person is not made to serve authority unconditionally. Rather, it is the task of authority to be at the service of the person, consistent with the pre-eminent value of human dignity. Likewise, governments should not serve the world Authority unconditionally. Instead, it is the world Authority that should put itself at the service of the various member countries, according to the principle of subsidiarity. Among the ways it should do this is by creating the socio-economic, political and legal conditions essential for the existence of markets that are efficient and efficacious because they are not over-protected by paternalistic national policies and not weakened by systematic deficits in public finances and of the gross national products – indeed, such policies and deficits actually hamper the markets themselves in operating in a world context as open and competitive institutions.

In the tradition of the Church’s Magisterium which Benedict XVI has vigorously embraced, the principle of subsidiarity should regulate relations between the State and local communities and between public and private institutions, not excluding the monetary and financial institutions. So, on a higher level, it ought to govern the relations between a possible future global public Authority and regional and national institutions. This principle guarantees both democratic legitimacy and the efficacy of the decisions of those called to make them. It allows respect for the freedom of people, individually and in communities, and at the same time, allows them to take responsibility for the objectives and duties that pertain to them.
According to the logic of subsidiarity, the higher Authority offers its subsidium, that is, its aid, only when individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them. Thanks to the principle of solidarity, a lasting and fruitful relation is built up between global civil society and a world public Authority as States, intermediate bodies, various institutions – including economic and financial ones – and citizens make their decisions with a view to the global common good, which transcends national goods.
As we read in Caritas in Veritate, “The governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together.” Only in this way can the danger of a central Authority’s bureaucratic isolation be avoided, which would otherwise risk being delegitimized by an excessive distance from the realities on which it is based and easily fall prey to paternalistic, technocratic or hegemonic temptations.
However, a long road still needs to be travelled before arriving at the creation of a public Authority with universal jurisdiction. It would seem logical for the reform process to proceed with the United Nations as its reference because of the worldwide scope of its responsibilities, its ability to bring together the nations of the world, and the diversity of its tasks and those of its specialized Agencies. The fruit of such reforms ought to be a greater ability to adopt policies and choices that are binding because they are aimed at achieving the common good on the local, regional and world levels. Among the policies, those regarding global social justice seem most urgent: financial and monetary policies that will not damage the weakest countries; and policies aimed at achieving free and stable markets and a fair distribution of world wealth, which may also derive from unprecedented forms of global fiscal solidarity, which will be dealt with later.
On the way to creating a world political Authority, questions of governance (that is, a system of merely horizontal coordination without an authority super partes cannot be separated from those of a shared government (that is, a system which in addition to horizontal coordination establishes an authority super partes) which is functional and proportionate to the gradual development of a global political society. The establishment of a global political Authority cannot be achieved without an already functioning multilateralism, not only on a diplomatic level, but also and above all in relation to programs for sustainable development and peace. It is not possible to arrive at global Government without giving political expression to pre-existing forms of interdependence and cooperation.

On his flight to World Youth Day in Madrid this morning, Pope Benedict XVI responded to a question about the current economic crisis. Not sure what the question was, but the well-respected Italian Vatican analyst Andrea Tornielli captured the reply. Here’s my quick translation of the Pope’s answer:

The current crisis confirms what happened in the previous grave crisis: the ethical dimension is not something external to economic problems but an internal and fundamental dimension. The economy does not function solely on mercantile regulations, but needs an ethical reason to work for man. This is what John Paul II affirmed in his first social encyclical: man must be at the center of the economy and the economy must not be measured by profit maximization but by the good of all, which includes responsibility towards the other. The economy works truly well only if it works in a human way, in respect for the other according to different dimensions. The first dimension is responsibility for one’s nation, and not only for oneself. The second is responsibility towards the world: nations are not isolated, as Europe is not closed in on itself, but responsible for all humanity, and must confront economic problems with this “key” of responsibility also for other parts of the world, for those countries that experience hunger and thirst. The third dimension concerns the future, we have to protect our planet, but we must also protect the working of the labor system for all, to think of tomorrow as well as today. If today’s youth do not find prospects for their lives, our today is mistaken and wrong.

It’s pretty clear that the Pope is referring to the economic problems particular to Spain, where youth unemployment is over 40 percent, and also where protesters known as los indignados are blocking the reform attempts of the Spanish government. The same indignados who’ve attempted to start riots in Madrid with World Youth Day pilgrims. The Holy Father is clearly a gentle and patient man.

The Pope also addresses ethics, the central role of the person, our responsibility to others and to the future of our planet. Nothing he said was at all different from what he or his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, has indicated as a morally correct understanding of the market economy. And as he has previously said, dealing with our failings and weaknesses is the price of human freedom and responsibility. The more freedom we have, the greater the risk of our misusing it. But this is not a reason to restrict that freedom; doing so would actually replace the person from the center of the economy with cold, impersonal regulations.

Perhaps the Pope was referring to the record profits of some banks and other companies while unemployment remains high. Much of this is of course due to government policies to “stimulate” the economy in times of uncertainty, regardless of how that money is spent. Was the Pope questioning the results of Keynesian stimulus spending?

The real challenge for economists and policy makers is how do we move from the good intentions of providing ever-increasing, ethically-sound prosperity for all to actual results. Part of that challenge is the fact that our prosperity is the result of constant competition and rapid change, which can also endanger our current standard of living. It is unlikely we’ll ever be able to “guarantee” a stable, prosperous future for everyone because no one actually “controls” the global economy. The cost of putting someone in charge would effectively cut off the competition and innovation needed to create wealth, and would most likely be a force for evil rather than good. The most we can do is to expand opportunities for all, which is difficult enough for today’s local and national leaders, let alone for any global authority.

Last week the Federal Circuit Court handed down what seemed to many a funny decision: that human genes are patentable. Myriad Genetics owns patents for two tumor suppressor genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2 (mutations of these genes are correlated with increased incidence of breast cancer, making them of great interest to doctors and scientists). Myriad was sued by doctors and researchers who claim that genes fall into the category of “products of nature,” which makes them unpatentable, but the court disagreed.

Myriad’s patents allow it to charge licensing fees to doctors who wish to screen their patients for BRCA1/2 mutations, and also to researchers developing drugs that would target BRCA1/2 abnormalities in breast cancers. Myriad claims that its patents allow it to recover the costs of identifying the two genes, and so are just like the patents for Velcro, ShamWow, or the Segway. Aside from the legal dispute—i.e., the majority’s facially risible argument that “the molecules as claimed do not exist in nature,” since bits of the BRCA1 gene aren’t floating around in ponds—there are two problems with the patenting of genes: a moral one and a practical one.

In his Acton monograph The Social Mortgage of Intellectual Property, David H. Carey addresses intellectual property rights vis-à-vis the distribution of medicine. He focuses on the AIDS epidemic and infectious diseases in the Third World, and presents the Vatican’s 2001 argument that the principle of solidarity supersedes patent rights where the lives of the poor are at stake, even though the long-term consequences of a suspension of intellectual property might be severe.

Admittedly, personalized cancer treatment in the United States alters the moral calculation, but the American public has made its consideration, and by the establishment of the National Cancer Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health), has decided to fund early stage cancer research publicly. Certainly in order recoup the billions of dollars of testing required to bring a cancer drug to market, companies need the assurance of patent protection, but the sequencing of a gene comes years before any drug begins testing (Myriad filed for its patents in 1994).

As Francis S. Collins, head of the NIH, explained in a recent book,

The information contained in our shared [genome] is so fundamental, and requires so much further research to understand its utility, that patenting it at the earliest stage is like putting up a whole lot of unnecessary toll booths on the road to discovery.

Whether the Supreme Court reverses the Federal Circuit’s decision, or Congress passes a law making clear the proper extent of patent protections, this intellectual property mess must be untangled.

The President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, visited Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican yesterday, and the Vatican’s daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano carried a front-page article by Piñera on “Economic Development and Integral Development,” a theme of great interest to us at Acton and the subject of our current conference series Poverty, Entrepreneurship and Integral Development.

Chile is justly famous for its acceptance of free-market economics through the influence of the “Chicago Boys” who studied under Milton Friedman and others at the University of Chicago. Chileans can and should be grateful that their dictator, Agosto Pinochet, decided to leave the economy alone, unlike the other meddling dictators in Latin America who submitted their peoples to decades of economic planning and resulting misery. (Watch this clip from the fascinating PBS documentary The Commanding Heights on the Chicago Boys and Pinochet.)

Piñera’s article is noteworthy because 1) he takes economics seriously as a moral and human endeavor and doesn’t simply assume that it is vulgar albeit necessary aspect of life, and 2) he realizes that as important as economics is, it is just one aspect of life. He also backs up his economic arguments with facts and gives concrete examples of what his government plans to achieve.

If I were to quibble with anything, it would be his support of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG). No one will deny that the MDG are laubable goals, but as someone who worked for the Holy See Mission to the UN when these were being drafted, I find it a stretch to support them from a Catholic free-market perspective. The MDG rely far too much on mechanisms of the state to re-distribute wealth and do far too little to encourage entrepreunership through the core functions of the state – fighting crime, protecting private property, etc. Acton followers will recognize these arguments in our Poverty Cure initiative.

All in all, the President of Chile should be forgiven this misstep. His article nicely encapsulates what many of us know to be the surest way to promote material and spiritual advancment – through the promotion of a limited government, free entreprise, and a civil society based on sound religious and moral principles.

It doesn’t sound like rocket science, I know, but it’s always surprising how many religious leaders and development “experts” miss the boat on this.

Here’s my translation of Piñera’s piece from the Italian:

Economic Development and Integral Development
by Sebastián Piñera, President of the Republic of Chile
L’Osservatore Romano Italian daily edition, 3 March 2011

Development has always been a central objective of humanity and constitutes a top priority for nations, governments and the international community. Countries are usually classified as developed or developing, but in recent years a third category has arisen: emerging nations.

True development, however, is much more than the simple production of goods or the attainment of a certain economic output. In Caritas in veritate, Benedict XVI has deepened and emphasized the concept and necessity of an integral development, as proposed by Catholic social doctrine. Such development must favor the realization of the human person in his material and spiritual dimensions. So conceived – embracing the whole dimension of man – development is called to promote the quality of life, the common good, and defend the life and inalienable rights of the human person at all times and in all places and circumstances, with a view to a transcendent humanism. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
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Steve Connor in The Independent (HT: RealClearReligion) speculates about some happenings at the Vatican with regard to genetically-modified (GM) food. It’s important to note, as is the case in this article, that things that happen in various committees and study groups at the Vatican do not by default have some kind of papal endorsement.

To wit:

A leaked document from a group of scientists linked to Rome has set a hare running about the possible endorsement of GM technology by the Pope. The document, from scientists linked to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, suggested that there is a moral duty to adopt GM technology in order to combat hunger.

Connor’s larger point is more chastened and more accurate, however. “Intriguingly, although the debate over GM crops has died down in Britain for the moment, something tells me it is set once more to become one of the most contentious scientific issues of our time – and one where both sides will invoke morality to justify their position,” he concludes.

I’m generally in favor of allowing GM food, with the caveat that animals have a different moral status than do plants. I sketch out a case in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” More recently you can see an Acton Commentary from earlier this year, “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods.”

I also should note that the use of GM foods to patent certain seeds, which then naturally circulate to non GM cropland, raises a whole host of issues related to property rights that are quite complex and can’t be dealt with here. I will say, though, that it’s not obvious to me why farmers shouldn’t have the rights to keep their crops from being exposed to GM seeds if they don’t want them to be and further how in the case of such involuntary exposure the responsibility to mitigate lies with the non GM crop farmer.

Last Thursday at Rome’s (but technically part of Vatican City) Pontifical Lateran University, Istituto Acton held a day-long conference on “Ethics, Aging and the Coming Healthcare Challenge.”

It was a successful event, if a bit unusual compared to some of our other Roman gatherings. It’s not often that an Acton conference is so focused on the finality of death, after all; we often stick to the other “inevitability” of life, i.e. taxes. Yet in both spiritual and economic terms, there’s no sense in denying it.

The conference covered many different aspects of the changing demographics affecting health care, ranging from declining fertility rates to pharmaceutical research to pensions to hospice care. One of the main objectives of the conference was to help participants understand how both ethics and economics can work together to help us confront the challenge of aging populations.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family, the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and Family, the Centro di Orientamento Politicio, Associazione Famiglia Domani, Human Life International, and Health Care Italia. As you can tell from the nature of these organizations, we sought to place health care issues in the context of the family, following Catholic social teaching’s emphases on this fundamental institution and the principle of subsidiarity.

Here are audio clips from three of our speakers who appeared on Vatican Radio’s English World News service:

Bishop Jean Laffitte, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, click here

Dr. Daniel Sulmasy of the University of Chicago, click here

Dr. Michael Hodin, executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, click here

For the first time, we live-streamed a conference on the Acton website, and we’ll soon post the conference papers and presentations as well as related media on the Istituto Acton webpage.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 19, 2010
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Today is my last day at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meeting in Atlanta. I plan to make my purchases from the various book sellers this morning, having already reconnoitered the exhibits and mapped out my plan of attack.

One thing that has struck me is that there are a number of new books discussing ecumenism and Christian unity from host of different perspectives. On the one hand this shouldn’t be surprising. The unity of the church is a constant theme, one that is confessed in the Nicene Creed (“We believe…in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”).

But for a period of time it seemed that ecumenism was in decline. After all, it used to be its own area of theological specialization; there have been (and still are some) professors of ecumenics. On the broader level one thing that breathed life into the ecumenical movement in the last half-century was the founding of what is now known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (I had the pleasure of meeting the pope’s representative, Fr. Gregory Fairbanks, at the WCRC Uniting General Council earlier this year in Grand Rapids).

An ENI story notes a recent address from Pope Benedict XVI regarding ecumenism: “Today, some people believe that this journey has lost its impetus, especially in the West,” the Vatican Information Service quoted Pope Benedict XVI as saying. “Thus do we see the urgent need to revive ecumenical interest and give a fresh incisiveness to dialogue.”

Now this story is in the context of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican dialogue. But “new energy” needs to be found in the mainline ecumenical movement as well. I outline some of the reasons for the decline of groups like the WCC, LWF, and WCRC in my book, Ecumenical Babel. And as the Vatican celebrates fifty years of institutional ecumenical efforts, we have seen a corresponding decline in vigor in the mainline Protestant groups. Some evidence of this is the consistent outreach and emphasis on engaging “evangelicals” from the WCC, whose new president expressed such sentiments at both the WCRC Uniting General Council and the recently concluded Cape Town 2010 meeting of the Lausanne Movement.

So says Mark Tooley of IRD. “Sadly, over the last 50 years, it (the ecumenical movement) has faded into the sidelines and is now largely ignored,” he said. In the 1980s Ernest Lefever, founder of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, observed that “the ecumenical movement’s social witness has become obsolescent, marginal, irrelevant, or worse.”

I outline some of the things needed to reinvigorate the mainline ecumenical movement in my book. I outline correctives on three main levels: the ecclesiastical, the social ethical, and the economic. But I conclude too that

Without pursuing correctives along these general lines, the answer to Gustafson’s challenging question, “Who listens to the moral teachings of Protestant churches?” will continue to be indeterminate, and deservedly so. Without doing the hard work of serious ethical deliberation that engages a variety of conflicting perspectives, the ecumenical movement has little claim to possess authentic moral authority in the public square or among the churches.

After the break you can read the full ENI story on the fiftieth anniversary of the Vatican secretariat (now council) for promoting Christian unity. (more…)

The front page of a recent issue of the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano read like an Italian “Help Wanted” listing: “Lavori per Giovani Cercasi” (cf. Aug. 13 2010).

Unfortunately, this eye-catching headline was not a classified ad targeting young professionals for job openings at the Holy See’s many curial and administrative offices – the prized “stable” positions that would have Roman youth queuing in lines much longer those to enter Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica!

Rather, the Vatican newspaper summarized alarming statistics on worldwide youth unemployment released by the United Nations International Labor Office (ILO) in its detailed 87-page Global Employment Trends for Youth. In its special report the ILO confirmed global unemployment rates for young men and women (ages 15-24) are caught in a dangerous tailspin.

In only a two-year span between 2007 and 2009, an estimated 81 million out of 620 million youth have lost jobs –the unfortunate fall out from the massive lay-offs, non-renewed contracts, and start up bankruptcies during the Great Recession. That’s an average 13% unemployment rate for a young generation whose lives are on pause at critical stages of their vocational and financial development.

Some naysayers claim we are witnessing a veritable free fall into what may be a very long and bitter winter for job seekers, further extended by inevitable “double dip” periods of recession. So pessimistic are they, that we hear them quip: the currently frozen jobs market has activated a financial Ice Age. They argue that world’s unemployed youth are stuck in a very long-term socio-economic downturn in which many of them may never fulfill their basic dreams without stable jobs. Hence they can forget about plans for marriage, having children, purchasing homes, and saving for proper retirement.

Well short of claiming that the sky is falling, in the very least we can agree wit the ILO report: rising unemployment among youth will surely “lead to socio-economic instability and political unrest.”

NEETs and Nullafacenti

A 13% youth unemployment rate would be a “dream figure” for some industrialized countries, like Italy where I live and work. Here average unemployment for the same age bracket hovers regularly above 20% and drastically worsens when counting those young adults older than 25 who are not counted in most official unemployment figures.

Those young Italians who procrastinate entry into the workforce by not graduating university on time or who are still stuck in the starting blocks of their career by taking on un-paid company apprenticeships are typically not counted as unemployed. When we include them in the unemployment statistics, some estimates rise to well over 30%.

Finally, there is the most worrying segment of the young jobless population: the so-called NEETs (Not in Employment or Education or Training). In Italy, NEETs have now reached two million and account for over 21% of the country’s unemployed youth. NEETs are often tarred and feathered as the nation’s nullafacenti (“do nothings”), who help Italy maintain the number one EU position for this ever-growing detriment to society. They invest absolutely nothing in themselves to find traditional jobs or create entrepreneurial business opportunities – a financial and social welfare time bomb just waiting to explode.

To prove my point, just watch this TV5 clip (see minutes 12.20-13:50). Last week on Italian national television, reporters covered the shocking story of a 25 year-old NEET male (living at home in a city near Rome) who violently threatened his parents, extorted them, and even locked them out of their own house as he demanded more “allowance” money to satisfy his various material caprices. Eventually local police had to intervene to subdue the nullafacente and “restore” the official property rights of his parents own home.

Adverse vs. Difficult Conditions

All this is going on while the 2010-11 forecast for economic growth in Europe appears dim, as the Old Continent sputters along a very trepid economic recovery.

In Euro-zone countries official reports for the first quarter of 2010 were modest at best and downright dismal in economies of its weakest Mediterranean partners, like Italy, Spain and Greece. Second quarter reports released on August 13 by Euro Stat were not inspiring either, with average Euro-zone GDP growth rates up by a mere 1%.

When studying conditions in impoverished and developing countries, our heartstrings are tugged by the increasing impossibility for young people to succeed while paralyzed by a most vicious circle of economic, political and social turmoil (no fault of their own!). These include massive obstacles such as absolute tyranny, decades of civil war and genocide, widespread corruption, little or now rule of law, no direct foreign investment, no regular lines of credit, devastating droughts and famines, deathly outbreaks of easily treatable diseases, faulty telecommunications, et al.

Now these are what I call adverse conditions. These are conditions which all but crush any chances youth have to find and create new work, despite their high ambitions, inventive strategies, and sincere vocations in their line of business. Their odds will improve only if radical changes and revolutions occur in their societies.

Yet, we cannot say the same about the chances of youth finding and creating work while living in the world’s largest but struggling industrialized economies, like Italy. Comparatively speaking, this is still a land in which youth can make it in life. Here some of the world’s most creative and unrelenting businessmen achieve success, even despite suffocating regional and national tax structures, turf wars with mafioso thugs, and a near bankrupt social welfare state in times of austerity. Believe it or not, it is still possible for enterprising youth to make it in Italy. It may be very difficult to succeed here, but not impossible as in, say, Cuba or North Korea. Far from it.

Too Much Dolce Vita?

Some stats claim an amazing 70 percent of Italian single men and women (both employed and unemployed) live at home until their mid-to-late 30s. Some critics from hardworking cultures typically say this population group lives the “sweet life”, a.k.a. the dolce vita. Others defend the socio-economic phenomenon, claiming this is the only way youth can save for a future home and a car down payment or to help keep their parents’ household afloat. In either case, they enjoy the benefits of a secure and relatively struggle-free home environment. In Italy no 15-24 year-olds starve or sleep on the street.

However they view themselves, Italian youth usually fail to appreciate that living at home provides a tremendous financial opportunity for them. Unlike others living own their own and barely making ends meet, they can save up small amounts capital over time to try their luck in entrepreneurial ventures on their own or in partnership with others who share their same business concept. This is what I think the Vatican newspaper meant to inspire, when it said youth should live up to their potential as the “forza motrice” (driving force) of the world’s teetering economy.

After all, in addition to being able to save a little venture capital, they have assets and resources that impoverished and developing nations would fight tooth over nail for. They are private owners of smart phones and wireless lap taps, have 24/7 internet access, enjoy affordable higher education (and cheap advanced education), have efficient and very inexpensive transport around the European Union (God Bless Ryan Air!), and can easily request small start up business loans – typically up to €5000 (with their parents as guarantors) to secure a little more investment capital.

And yet so many bitter young Italians sit idle in their beautiful piazzas with nothing better to do.

Ironically these historic squares were not built for modern day-dreamers, but to host and encourage vibrant hubs of entrepreneurial trading during Renaissance times –the very period that gave inspiration to the free market as we know it.

Notwithstanding, Italian youth know not their past nor perceive well their futures. They blame everyone from Berlusconi to the Madonna (not the pop-star!) for having no opportunities.

Parents Should Be Furious

The Vatican news piece of two weeks ago (written on Friday the 13th, another reason to blame the bad stats!) should have been dedicated to a story on inspiring young business leadership in the recession market. They should have interviewed a young Italian entrepreneur, a friend of mine, whose marketing agency was built on less than €1000 start up capital. It now approaches six figures in annual revenue and the business owner is now attempting to purchase his own home, get married and is considering hiring other young collaborators to help take his venture to the next level (yes he is about to create new jobs!).

Italian parents should furious, just like the master in Christ’s Parable of the Talents, whose timid servant had simply buried the meager capital he had received. The risk aversion is the same for Italian upper and middle class youth who do nothing worthwhile, even with a generous €200 paghetto (monthly allowance) that some of them receive. Worse still, they blow it at bars, movie theaters and cell phone shops. Did they know that some successful internet businesses humbly start with that very same amount?

Perhaps it boils down to a question of values – values instilled in youth by an overly cautious post-war generation of parents who insist their offspring find the golden fleece of work (i.e. un posto fisso or permanent union-protected job). Their encouragement has done little but create false hopes in youth.

Sadly, this values system is broken. In Italy, we can no longer use the same macroeconomic and political “excuses” to define the youth’s scapegoats, like we still can in developing and impoverished countries or in 1940s post-World War II Europe. In modern industrialized, but often struggling countries like Italy, the forza motrice must be the the current generation of enterprising youth, whether they like it or not. To do so, they need to finally switch gears and overcome their aversion to risk, discover their special callings in life, invest their talents in worthwhile projects, and once again prove they are one of the most creative and resilient cultures on earth.

Headline Bistro, a news service of the Knights of Columbus, published a new roundup of commentary on Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate encyclical. I am joined in “Catholic Thinkers Reflect on Caritas in Veritate” by Michael Novak, Kirk Doran and Carl Anderson. Here’s the introduction and the article, which was written by Elizabeth Hansen:

Last month, Pope Benedict XVI released his much-anticipated social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. While it addressed the global economic crisis and the need for reform in business practices, the document was marked overall by its underlying premise of fostering true, integral development of the human person: a goal achieved by practicing charity in truth. Three Catholic economists and social thinkers shared their reflections on Caritas in Veritate via email correspondence with Headline Bistro.

Balance: In a word, that is what Michael Novak, Father Robert Sirico and Kirk Doran would name as the strength of Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical released one month ago today.

From discussing the pros and cons of development aid to a treatment on the theological principle of gratuitousness, the span of Caritas in Veritate is wide. The document’s suggestion of reform of the U.N. – “so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth,” the English translation said – grabbed headlines in the mainstream press, while Catholics noted Benedict’s insistence that true development involves the whole human person, on a spiritual as well as economic level.

Indeed, anything beyond a superficial read of the encyclical reveals its depth, which is what makes Pope Benedict’s ability to balance numerous perspectives and proposals on the technical end – even more, to transcend them – all the more impressive. (more…)

God is rational, and the universe is governed by unchanging natural laws instituted by Him. The Bible tells us in the Book of Genesis that “God created the heavens and the earth.” God is not arbitrary; the Bible also tells us that He is just and that He keeps promises to His people. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God has established “ordinances of heaven and earth.” Since they come from a perfect lawgiver, we know that these laws do not change on a whim.

These beliefs were radical, and given historical trends in philosophy, they remain so. Pagans argued that truth exists, but that it is dependent on the will of the gods. Since these gods were capricious rulers of the universe, there were no unchanging laws that could be discovered by humans. In our own day, postmodern constructivist philosophers like Giambattista Vico also argue that objective truth is unknowable. For them, this is because truth is only accessible to humans insofar as we agree with something we have manufactured and labeled as the truth. As Vico put it, “the norm of the truth is to have made it.” If pure naturalism is correct and there is no role for God, then Vico can reasonably argue “the mind does not make itself as it gets to know itself and since it does not make itself, it does not know the genus or mode by which it makes itself.” After all, our ability to understand things as they truly are is difficult to argue in the absence of any reason to think that human reason itself is reliable.

Christianity offers just that reason by asserting two main points: that God has made the universe according to natural laws and that He has given humanity the means to understand them. As God asks Job, “Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?” God gives understanding to the mind so that we may know Who has made the world and the universe as it is.

God intends for us to exercise our reason and seek to know reality. Jesus says that He is the Truth, and He promises His followers that “the truth will set you free.” The truth that Jesus speaks of is not, of course, purely scientific and rationalistic. It is the truth of the universe and of humanity. Pope Benedict XVI reiterates this in Caritas in Veritate, where he writes, “Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things.”

Since truth is objective, reason can discern it. Reason is the universal nature of humans, regardless of our race, culture, language, class, or religion. We all have access to the truth. In a world where subjective truths compete, humanity can no longer find common ground and rise above struggles for power and influence. The truth about humanity and natural reality becomes “Nordic,” “bourgeois,” “imperialist,” or “chauvinist.” The idea that truth is subjective does not set us free. It pits us against each other and fails to let us seek the truth.

Caritas in Veritate points out the dire social consequences: “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society at difficult times like the present.” If we are to seek true solidarity and the creation of a humane world, we must commit ourselves to pursuing the truth. Otherwise, humanity’s divisions will only grow.

By choosing instead to follow constructivism, fundamentalism, fideism, and the consensus view of the truth, we are enslaving ourselves to error and cutting off the truth that unites us. We are also rejecting the duty that God has given us to use the gift of reason to seek Him out. Since this sin only gives us error in place of the truth about us and the universe we inhabit, it results in suffering, tyranny, and conflict.

The truth will set us free in the measure that we are willing to seek it as God commands us to, and in the measure that we reject anything less than the full, universal, reasonable nature that it has.