Letter from Rome


Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

The publication of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) Note entitled “Toward Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of a Global Public Authority” on October 24 gathered quite a bit of attention all over the world, mostly for the call for a “global central bank” that has drawn largely negative reaction from those who know much about international finance and banking.  In this regard, the reaction was similar to that of the 1986 US Catholic Bishops  Conference pastoral letter on economic justice, which was also heavily criticized by many Catholic laity proficient in economics.

A few of us at Acton also weighed in on the PCJP Note, with Sam Gregg writing for National Review Online, Fr. Robert Sirico in the Wall Street Journal, and yours truly quoted by a few journalists who asked for comments.  (Since I worked at the PCJP before Acton, they presumed I’d know something about how such documents are written – though I am absolutely ignorant about this one – and would speak freely, which current officials are not prone to do.)  I’d venture to say that we’ve done our best to read the Note with respect but also with critical attention to its political and economic soundness, a combination which, if you happen to read much of the rest of the commentary on the web about the Note, is not easy to find.  

The Note was a remarkable document for its astute reading of the problem of the alteration of the value of money, and its less fortunate remedy.  Now that I’ve had some additional time to reflect on its strengths and weaknesses, I’d like to offer some additional observations on why popes since John XXIII have expressed support for a “global public authority.”

The most obvious point is that it is quite natural for the Catholic Church to think in “universal” rather than “national” or “local” terms.  When popes and their offices issue statements, they have to aim for this sort of universal applicability; otherwise the matter could be better dealt with by the local bishop.  The upside of this scope is its almost guaranteed wide audience; the downside is that speaking at such a level often means speaking in very general terms that carry little weight for policymakers.  What is the point of re-issuing statements of principles if all the hard decisions are going to be prudential ones that will vary according to the circumstances?

A second point is that when John XXIII first made his plea for a universal authority in 1963, the United Nations was already in existence and the pope did not explicitly equate the two entities.  Popes Paul VI, John Paul II (1979 and 1995) and Benedict XVI have all addressed the UN with encouraging but also relatively harsh (for diplomatic circles) words in front of the most globally representative body on the planet.  Most of their criticisms were about the lack of respect for human life that often appears in UN discussions of poverty and development, which is, at root, an anthropological argument about the nature of the human person.  The papal addresses also reflected the Church’s long-standing teaching on a natural law that is knowable and valid at all times and places.

Having spent two years at the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the UN in New York and attended many other UN conference during my time at the PCJP, I can speak from first-hand experience that the Holy See is often the first and sometimes one of the very few states that is attempting to roll back the tide of population-control advocates at the UN.  Nevertheless, the Holy See does all it can to push for more international cooperation through these institutions.

With the increasing scope and scale of globalization, it would therefore make some sense for the Holy See to think in terms of a global institution or authority to ensure a certain ethical vision in the world economy.  And it is also right to insist on the primacy of the political common good over particular economic interests, provided that the contribution of economic growth and prosperity to the common good is recognized.  But there is no guarantee a single vision will necessarily be the right one in the Holy See’s perspective, or that any such vision can be universally enforced by a single authority.  And if the PCJP Note’s authors had read their Austrian economics more carefully, they would have realized that the problem of fiat money and central banking is closely related to the problem of knowledge that affects all economic decision-making and is the main reason why markets are more efficient, and even more just, when it comes to respect for human freedom and differences of opinion, than central planning.

A final reason why the Holy See supports a global authority may be its low regard for nationalist sentiment.   Most of the officials of the Holy See known their history well enough to realize that nationalism has been one of the main causes of war and genocide, and it is not rare for a nation to set itself up as an idol for the people’s devotion.  It is often hard to limit love for one’s country before it becomes hatred for one’s country’s enemies.  So the thinking is that weakened ethnic or national sentiments turned in a more universal, humanistic direction would better serve the cause of peace and order.  The question then becomes whether human beings can actually love and become attached to universal ideas, rather than particular places and causes.  The record for universal brotherhood is not a good one, to date.

One can therefore understand why Vatican officials may think a universal authority is a good idea, especially when (as is the case) the main objections tend to come from conservative American or British commentators who have little affection for the project of European unification.  When American pro-life and pro-family activists approach the Holy See with their concerns at the UN, for example, it is much easier to discount these concerns than if, say, a Kenyan or a Colombian raised the issue.  For better or for worse, criticism of international institutions has become the purview of the right-wing Anglosphere, which makes it easier to dismiss in the Roman Curia.  This is unfortunate because there are many reasons to think of a global authority in politics or economics as one that would be much more prone to tyranny than to the promotion of the common good.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the week before the publication of the PCJP Note, the Acton Institute honored Margaret Thatcher with its Faith and Freedom Award on October 20 in Grand Rapids.  Prime Minister Thatcher is perhaps most well-known for her refusal to give in to British decline, and along with Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan, can be said to have provided the political, moral and spiritual weapons that brought about the end of Soviet communism.  As our keynote speaker John O’Sullivan explained in accepting the award on Lady Thatcher’s behalf, she typifies many of the basic, “vigorous” Christian virtues that are being so regularly disparaged in modern-day society but that often serve as the foundation for the kindler, gentler virtues we so highly esteem.

There are also basic “foundational” loves, as writers such as Plato and C.S. Lewis have described, that apply to not only global and national politics, but also marriage, family and the economy.  Istituto Acton is pleased to co-sponsor a November 11 presentation in Rome of the Social Trends Institute report “Sustainable Demographic Dividend: What Do Marriage and Fertility Have To Do With The Economy?”.  Once again, it’s unlikely that a “global public authority” would have the moral consensus to do what individuals and other communities have always done with regard to the raising and education of children.

And finally, Acton will be holding a December 1 conference in London entitled “From Aid to Enterprise: Economic Liberty and Solutions to Poverty”.   The last in our Poverty, Enterprise and Integral Development series, this event will focus especially on the fallacies of the foreign aid regime that is the default answer held among many of the international institutions, to the great detriment of the world’s poor.

As I noted at the beginning of this letter, we at Acton welcomed the PCJP’s willingness to examine the global financial system from a moral and ethical perspective, and especially how this system serves the needs of the “real” economy and the ability of the working poor to increase their living standard and opportunities.  The Note was absolutely correct to raise the issues of fiat money and central banking at the root of the crisis, even when it errs in prescribing a remedy that would only exacerbate the problem.  But this disappointment will only increase our determined efforts to promote sound economics among religious leaders here in Rome and beyond.

Kishore Jayabalan

Director