Posts tagged with: Vatican

Not surprisingly, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP)’s latest document on water has garnered scant media attention. Why, after all, would journalists, already notorious for their professional Attention Deficit Disorder and dislike of abstract disputation, report on something named “Water: An Essential Element of Life,” especially when it is nothing more than an update of a document originally released in 2003, and then updated in 2006 and 2009, with the exact same titles?

Back then, First Things editor-in-chief Fr. Richard John Neuhaus mischievously remarked, “There is an unconfirmed report that under discussion at the UN is an International Year of Air. If that ambitious step is taken, informed observers say, the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace will be ready with a major statement, ‘Air, An Essential Element of Life.’” If nothing else, the PCJP, where I worked from 1999 to 2004, needs to hire a marketing specialist to come up with snazzier titles for their publications.

So you could be forgiven for thinking that reading such a document would make a spiritually-beneficial type of intellectual mortification during this Lenten period. But skipping it altogether would also mean neglecting the serious questions contained therein on how the Holy See thinks about important matters such as human rights and economics. In fact, one may wonder if those responsible for the document have taken them as seriously as they should have.

Thanks to the invaluable Real Clear Religion website, I came across this analysis by George McGraw of DigDeep Water. It’s a mainly positive appraisal of the Holy See’s call for an internationally-recognized “right to water” but it also draws attention to some problem areas:

[T]here is one aspect of the Vatican’s position on water that makes its international intervention decidedly controversial. In this year’s “Water, an Essential Element” the Holy See will defend water access as an essential human right, one still hotly debated in international law.

When legal human rights were first introduced in 1948, the right to water wasn’t included in either the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or in the treaties derived from it. Many scholars believe that water was considered so basic, that it was quite simply overlooked. Since then, other water-related obligations have found protection in international law, but the closest thing we have to formal recognition of a human right to water is a (non-binding) 2010 UN resolution.

It seems states have generally failed to acknowledge the right to water for two reasons: either due to a concern that it would make them liable for water provision (a costly endeavor), or because such a right might challenge traditional property rights.

The Vatican’s position is doubly controversial because it’s couched in a criticism of “an excessively commercial conception of water” which the Holy See insists isn’t just another “for-profit commodity dependent on market logic.” This language was used to announce the new position paper at last week’s World Water Forum in Marseille — a gathering that suffered criticism for allowing corporate interests and dissenting states to weaken consensus on the human right to water.

So, assuming the importance of water and sanitation has not been simply neglected, there are at least two reasons why the “right to water” doesn’t exist: 1) States are neither able nor willing to pay for “free” water, and 2) it would interfere with the property rights of those who, for example, own land with abundant supplies of water. These would seem to be quite understandable, but not insurmountable, concerns for those who care about the common good. There are many ways for necessary goods to be produced, distributed and consumed through a novelty called commerce, the supposed “excess” of which is criticized by the Holy See. In fact, the Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen has argued that calamities such as droughts and famines are most devastating where local markets and effective protections of private property do not exist.

One has to ask: Does the Holy See really believe that water is any less of a commodity, or any less necessary to human life, than food, normally considered the most common form of commodity? If markets don’t exist for important things like food and water, why should they exist at all? Wouldn’t markets be truly useless if they only traded “non-goods”?

If States are reluctant to recognize the “right to water,” why does the Holy See insist on it so regularly? One likely explanation is that most States and the Holy See have very different understandings of human rights. Does a right fundamentally entail freedom from state coercion or entitlement to a government-provided benefit? Should all human goods and needs, which obviously go beyond basic rights such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” be considered human rights? If so, who will protect and provide them, i.e., the State, civil society or individuals? Is accommodation or synthesis possible among these divergent understandings of rights, some of which would limit the scope and reach of governmental (and ecclesiastical) power while others would expand them? More basically, aren’t these notions of rights and government based on fundamentally different understandings of human nature, on which we are unlikely to agree at anything approaching a universal level?

It ought to be clear that such questions are central to our understanding of the liberal human rights project, much larger than that of providing “free” water for all. But I wonder if the idea of limited government that allows individuals and voluntary associations to provide for needs beyond those ensured by certain enumerated rights is adequately understood by those who promote previously-unrecognized human rights. Some will say that these new rights are proof of an increasing awareness of human dignity, but I am not convinced. Many of these “rights,” in fact, are not based on a fixed idea of human dignity or human nature, but a denial of it; man is nothing more than a historical, “progressive” being whose wants and needs are constantly evolving. And it is, of course, these “progressives” who are constantly calling for new “rights” to be delivered by the state, rather than the private sector (exhibit A: Obamacare).

In my opinion, the continual expansion and discovery of new “rights” to cover all human needs have a particular appeal to religious believers because it institutionalizes and universalizes our social obligations to care for our fellow human beings. But we must also realize the particular, albeit partial, truths of liberalism and economics, especially with regard to the distribution of resources such as water. (The socialist paradise of Cuba, after all, recognizes the “right to water” as well as those to “health”, “religious freedom,” etc.) God did indeed create the world with enough goods for all. He also gave us the freedom and responsibility to cultivate and share these goods with each other, though we all too often fail at doing so. But let’s not assume He commands us to toss international law, private property, and economic good sense out the window as well.

The Secretary of State was not pleased.

I couldn’t believe my ears. But today I can.

Sandro Magister, one of Rome’s most veteran and credible vaticanistas, confirmed this afternoon what I had heard – and feared – nearly two weeks ago (See his Nov. 10 editorial “Too Much Confusion. Bertone Puts the Curia Under Lock and Key” ): The Pontifical Council’s controversial Note released two weeks ago “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” really had not been independently reviewed by the Church’s highest authorities.

The Note, of a very particular worldwide interest, rocked the boat of the Vatican approval system.

At the Vatican Press conference held to debrief international reporters on its Note, the Council’s two highest authorities – President Cardinal Peter Turkson and Secretary Bishop Mario Toso – openly admitted that neither the Pope or any other senior Curial officials had approved or necessarily read the Council’s bold public statement.

It was their Council’s statement. They took full responsibility for recommending a world financial authority and global Tobin tax to stabilize the most destructive financial storm in nearly a century.

The Note was not – and still is not – undersigned by His Holiness Benedect XVI.

Ibidem for Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s second in command.

And now Cardinal Bertone is upset, taking corrective action to prevent this fiasco from ever happening again – especially regarding the release of an opinion of such relevance and sensitivity to the world’s well being.

As Sandro Magister reported:

In the hot seat was the document on the global financial crisis released ten days earlier by the pontifical council for justice and peace. A document that had disturbed many, inside and outside of the Vatican.

The secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, complained that he had not known about it until the last moment. And precisely for this reason he had called that meeting in the secretariat of state.

The conclusion…was that this binding order would be transmitted to all of the offices of the curia: from that point on, nothing in writing would be released unless it had been inspected and authorized by the secretariat of state.

Finally, it has now become ever the more apparent that the practical prescriptions of the Note were not that of any religious professional. The marked economic language and financial terminology implied all along that a Vatican outsider had crafted the Note’s technical recommendations.

As Magister further writes:

On October 22, a further notification added the name of Professor Leonardo Becchetti to the ticket of the presenters [at the press Conference held on Oct. 24. See translation of his remarks].

Becchetti, a professor of economics at the University of Rome Tor Vergata and an expert on microcredit and fair trade, is believed to have been the main architect of the document.

And in fact, at the press conference presenting the document on October 24, his remarks were the most specific, centered in particular on calling for the introduction of a tax on financial transactions, called a “Tobin tax” after the name of its creator, or a “Robin Hood tax.”

What is next? A sequel or redraft of the Council’s Note on global financial and monetary reform? Let’s just say, it will not be any time soon.

Samuel Gregg is quoted in today’s New York Times story about the Vatican note calling for a central world bank — he gives the final word on the document. The “politically liberal Catholics” quoted before him reveal that they have missed a crucial distinction in the document produced by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice. Gregg, of course has picked up on that distinction; he wrote yesterday:

Putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature…. The text makes a legitimate point about the effects of a disjunction between the financial sector and the rest of the economy.

Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The academics and activists who see in the document a way forward to socialism have missed the split between the note’s diagnosis of the world economy, and its proposed economic reforms. I cannot resist quoting G.K. Chesterton: “The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.”

To say that “the time has come to conceive of institutions with universal competence,” as PCPJ President Cardinal Turkson did yesterday, is all well and good, but the possibility of such institutions running effectively is another matter.

Indeed, Kishore Jayabalan, the director of Istituto Acton and a former staffer at the Council, asked the National Catholic Reporter, “What makes the [Council] think that ‘global’ leaders will succeed where so many national ones have failed? It is a shame this document is based more on sentimental political hopes for world government than on actual experience and expertise of financial markets.”

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…)