Letter from Rome

July/August 2012

Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

The beginning of July signals the start of the summer vacation period here, so we’ve been seeing a flurry of activity coming in the form of new nominations for key Vatican posts, including a new Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a new President at the Pontifical Council for the Family, and even a new position created to handle the very challenging public relations side of Vatican affairs – with my good friend Greg Burke at the helm.  Kudos to Greg, whose reporting on all kinds of bizarre things, including the latest on the Italian “super tomato,” at Fox News we will surely miss.  But on second thought, I’m not sure which is a more “bizarre” assignment: trying to explain the European/Italian way of life to American television viewers or trying to get senior Vatican officials to speak and act “on message”, as they say in the media world. 

As everyone now knows, there are plenty of internal power struggles going in within the Roman Curia; most of these are of interest only to professional Vatican-watchers and have little effect on the life of the Church or the average Catholic.  Such distractions, however, take away from Pope Benedict’s mission to re-evangelize the Christian world and resist the secularization that is turning Europe into the world’s least spiritual and hence least hopeful continent.  Despair would be increasing here even without the on-going economic crisis, and every few months there is new concern over the viability of the financial sector in Spain, Italy and beyond.  What needs to be done?  The Asia Times columnist Spengler put it in terms of a Chinese proverb: “Kill the chicken [Spain] and let the monkey [Italy] watch.”  (Spain, of course, re-gained some of its dignity with a dominating victory over Italy in the Euro 2012 football championship.  With the London Olympics coming soon, sports seem to be one European activity that is thriving these days.  As a friend in Chicago who has many European clients told me, no one will be working in Europe this summer.) 

The need for reform, for getting back to some fundamental truths about life, is urgent.  The “form” that needs to be recovered has everything to do with faith and freedom, as discussed by many of us at Acton University in Grand Rapids last month and now onlineHere, for example, is one Italian participant’s take on what she saw and heard at our annual seminar.  And during my recent stay in Washington, DC, I was alerted to a former US Ambassador’s 2009 farewell speech in which he summarizes what ails the Italian economy:

Why does the Italian economy grow so slowly?  There are many reasons and the demographic factor surely plays an important role.  But I think the heart of the problems resides in policies and the economic climate.  Italy repeatedly finds itself very low in international rankings on the conditions to do business and invest.  We all know the problems: a heavy bureaucracy, a rigid labor market, organized crime, corruption, a slow justice system, the lack of meritocracy and an education system that doesn’t respond to the needs of the 21st century.

In these years, I’ve asked myself why Italians don’t react when they see their own country at the bottom of rankings on world competitiveness.  Italy cannot maintain the status of an economic power if its results remain so low.  I certainly don’t want to say that a country must blindly depend on these economic analyses, but there exists a tight connection betwen the postive data of these studies and economies that are improving.  Italians should ask for changes that grow the country and above all look to build a consensus around these.  Would it not be a pleasure to see Italy rise again in the international rankings and each year obtain better rankings?  Wouldn’t it be a reason to be proud for the representatives of all parties, all social groups and all generations?  

There’s also been a recent study that claims there’s a link between strong families and rigid labor markets, giving the impression that countries have to choose between close-knit families and economic growth.  The same tension was mentioned by Pope Benedict during his homily at the Mass for the World Meeting of Families in Milan:

In modern economic theories, there is often a utilitarian concept of work, production and the market. Yet God’s plan, as well as experience, show that the one-sided logic of sheer utility and maximum profit are not conducive to harmonious development, to the good of the family or to building a just society, because it brings in its wake ferocious competition, strong inequalities, degradation of the environment, the race for consumer goods, family tensions. Indeed, the utilitarian mentality tends to take its toll on personal and family relationships, reducing them to a fragile convergence of individual interests and undermining the solidity of the social fabric.

The pope is criticizing a utilitarian mentality rather than market mechanisms themselves, but there’s no question he is placing a healthy market economy within a certain ethical framework that gives priority to non-economic goods, such as the family, over those that can be bought and sold.  But it’s not as if families can thrive if they don’t earn enough money: to paraphrase Aristotle, virtue requires equipment.  The question is whether strong families will be enough to get the Italian economy moving again and who can bring about the change that Ambassador Spogli was calling for.  Europeans are not working so much they don’t have time to start families or worship God in church.  Rather than a problem with modern economics, Spengler says it’s a combination of pre- and post-modern attitudes that ails Spain and Italy:

Excepting Portugal, the Mediterranean countries combine a pre-modern hostility towards central government with a post-modern indifference to the national future. At just 1.4 children per female, Italy and Spain have some of the lowest fertility rates in the world, which is to say that its citizens are unlikely to sacrifice their pleasures and prerogatives for a national future to which they do not contribute by raising children. Neither country's elite evinces a sense of national obligation. To pay taxes is to play the fool. Italy has a great deal of private wealth and very low levels of private debt (which is only 45% of GDP, one of the lowest ratios in the developed world). If Italians were public-spirited, it would be a simple matter to stabilize the country's public debt, which is tantamount to saying that if we had some meatballs, we could have spaghetti and meatballs, if we had some spaghetti.

If Italians and Spaniards treat their own national government as a hostile entity to be frustrated and evaded at every turn, how would they resound to a fiscal boss from Brussels? The notion that supranational controls can accomplish what national governments have failed to accomplish is one of the stranger ideas to achieve broad purchase in public policy.

Quite sadly, the United States seems to be moving in the same statist direction as Europe.  One of the few places in the US that has seen an economic boom in recent years is Washington, DC: its metropolitan area now boasts 4 of the 5 richest counties in the country, and perhaps even more surprisingly, can claim that 80 percent of its women under 45 years of age are childless. These economic and social dynamics have only been intensified under the Obama Administration, whose signature piece of social legislation has just survived a legal challenge by the skin of its decaying teeth and will now become a major issue in the November 6 presidential election.  The best that can be said about the Supreme Court ruling that preserved Obamacare is that the outcome will now be decided politically, at the election booth rather than by judicial fiat.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to explain to European friends why Obamacare is such a bad deal for not only economic freedom in the United States, but religious freedom as well, as the U.S. bishops are now well aware.  That the State can compel individuals to buy health insurance doesn’t sound like much of an imposition to Old World ears, but that’s because they’ve been surrounded by the same kinds of social policies for generations, to their great material and spiritual detriment.  Why any government would want to take on additional entitlement programs when the existing ones are about to collapse under demographic and economic stress is beyond all common sense.      

The statist mindset is also alive and well at the United Nations, where the “Rio+20” summit on sustainable development recently concluded.  I served on the Holy See delegation to Rio+10 gathering in Johannesburg a decade ago, and came away from that event even more cynical about the UN that I had been, which I can tell you is quite an achievement.   One noted economist writes that Rio+20 was “unsustainable nonsense” at some point, the nations of the world should pull the plug  on the charade of these mega-conferences, which nothing more  than crude attempts to re-distribute wealth to governments whose policies are largely responsible for their peoples’ poverty in the first place.  But I guess extorting money from the more successful is always easier than reforming one’s own draconian economies and putting corrupt politicians out of work.

So where can we turn for hope?  As I indicated at the beginning of this letter, and in previous ones too, Pope Benedict is perhaps the only European leader who can credibly talk about the continent’s true heritage of faith and reason.  We should wish him a restful vacation this July and perhaps a more permanent one for those in his service who are not committed to his vision.  With the “year of faith” to begin in October and dour economic times ahead, we really don’t need any more foot-dragging, do we?

This month’s newsletter is for July and August, so you’ll hear from us again in September, and I take this chance to wish you and your families a fruitful summer vacation – whether it’s of the American (one week of often frenetic, planned activities) or European (one month followed by a few more weeks to ease back in to work or school) variety!

Kishore Jayabalan