Acton Commentary

The Pope, the Rabbi, and the Moral Economy


In our oh-so-secular age, it’s paradoxical that religious leaders’ pronouncements on subjects ranging from marriage to markets invariably receive considerable media attention. This makes it even more surprising that no one seems to have noticed the parallels between Benedict’s XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, released on July 7th, and a provocative op-ed written by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, in the London Times two weeks earlier.

The pope and the rabbi had a similar message, which amounts to the following. Some of our contemporary economic problems reflect a deeper moral crisis within Western civilization. Until we acknowledge this, shifts in economic policy and business practice will only provide limited solutions.

To be sure, it’s not a message everyone will appreciate. But that doesn’t diminish its accuracy.

As individuals, there are many striking analogies between Pope Benedict and Rabbi Sacks. Both are widely recognized as formidable intellectuals in their own right. Each has unapologetically and directly challenged secularizing trends within his own faith-tradition. Neither is afraid to question the secularist zeitgeist which thoroughly intimidates so many rabbis and Christian clergy today.

In their recent reflections, both rabbi and pope underlined what a morally-confused, even dysfunctional, world we live in. It’s not that they consider the pre-1960s era as somehow morally superior. In Sacks’ view, more people today genuinely do care about issues that received less attention from our grandparents, such as extreme poverty in developing nations.

“But,” Sacks writes, “note this: the things we care about are vast, distant, global, remote.” When it comes to matters closer to us such as trust or simple truth-telling, Sacks says we have more or less abandoned notions of right and wrong. Instead the West has embraced a morality in which what ultimately matters, ethically-speaking, is whether we choose something.

Choice has become its own justification and the only sin is to question anyone’s moral choices. To do so is to be “intolerant” or “judgmental.” Who are you to question my choice to lie on my mortgage-application or my choice to betray my wife?

According to Sacks, one effect of this relativism is that we tacitly and increasingly rely upon the state to regulate our behavior. Nature abhors a vacuum, but especially moral voids. Thus instead of an all-seeing God to whom we must eventually account for all our choices, we have video surveillance. “The result,” Sacks claims, “is that we have created the most regulated, intrusive society ever known.”

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI makes a similar point. It is good, he writes, that people care about the environment. But, Benedict comments, “Human beings interpret and shape the natural environment through culture, which in turn is given direction by the responsible use of freedom, in accordance with the dictates of the moral law.” It follows that if we ignore this moral law, we are likely to treat nature as “a heap of scattered refuse” or, conversely, embrace “attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism.”

The other intersection between these pontifical and rabbinical reflections is their mutual insistence that we must look beyond what Benedict calls “the exclusively binary model of market-plus-State.”

Let’s be clear: Benedict and Sacks rigorously deny that markets are intrinsically flawed. Each also maintains that there are fundamental limits to state power. They do, however, insist that morality’s ultimate sources come from neither state nor market.

Instead they unabashedly nominate a divine foundation for morality that’s also accessible to human reason. Once this basis is forgotten, they contend, societies and economies are in deep trouble.

For years, Benedict has been spelling out the consequences of living and acting as if God doesn’t exist. Likewise, Sacks underscores the insight of the great Oxbridge philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (a Catholic convert) that words like “courage” and “criminal” only made sense in the moral world created by Judaism, the Greek Stoics, and orthodox Christianity.

Such expressions make no sense at all, Sacks states, in our world dominated, as it is, by a philosophy as incoherent as utilitarianism. “Concepts like duty, obligation, responsibility and honour,” he stresses, “have come to seem antiquated and irrelevant”. This also helps to make cheating and lying in commercial life more palatable.

None of this is to suggest that Benedict and Sacks are knee-jerk anti-moderns. Their respective faiths affirm that people have lied and stolen from history’s beginning. All of us, they say, are sinners. Hence the good achievable by fallen humanity, Benedict notes, “is always less than we might wish”.

What the pope and the rabbi question are those who limit morality to politically-correct causes and the associated refusal of many working in our economies to acknowledge, in the rabbi’s words, that “Without a shared moral code there can be no free society”.

To which this Catholic can only say “Amen!”