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The Mistaken Faiths of Our Age

In the midst of financial crisis, Pope Benedict made a statement that immediately hit the headlines. He said "with the collapse of big banks we see that money disappears, is nothing and all these things that appear real are in fact of secondary importance." He further warned against attempting to build one's life "only on things that are visible, such as success, career, money... The only solid reality is the word of God."

His comments were extension of the Gospel message applied in perilous times. In times of plenty, there is a grave temptation to see in material goods the salvation of our lives. We cling to them, and we discover our disordered attachments in economic bad times. We can go further to observe that this is not only a problem in wealthy societies. Greed and godless materialism are also features of poor societies as well, though they are expressed in a different form.

Benedict also wrote about another form of materialism that has revealed itself in this financial crisis: the belief that the state can solve all problems. As the crisis deepened, there were ever more calls on the head of the Federal Reserve and the Department of Treasury to do something magical to raise home prices, to lift stocks, to make bankrupt institutions liquid again, and to make the credit crisis disappear. We looked to visible things to save other visible things.

This was an act of mistaken faith. The state has no magic buttons it can push to make this happen. The forces of economics alive in the world are as much an intrinsic part of reality as gravity, and the laws of physics obey no government or central bank. Somehow people have a hard time accepting this fact. The belief in salvation by the state has been cultivated for centuries by intellectuals who stopped believing that universe is in God's hands. The state became their alternate creative force that can do and know all things. This was not only a problem for communism and Nazism; it is also a problem in all rich countries.

No more evidence is necessary than to point to the election and the debates surrounding it. Many people were looking to the two candidates to provide all answers and solve all problems. Their answers, as we might expect, were some or another version of "expand the state's activities in one or another area of life."

It is long past time that we fundamentally question the belief that public authority is capable of miracles. If we look at the present crisis, we can easily find evidence that it was precisely a variety of government interventions that brought the crisis about. It was the perfect storm of intervention in many ways, and the problems are very deep, beginning with the inflationary policy of the central bank dating back decades. Issues more recent in time include the push for looser credit to fuel the housing boom, the efforts to prevent housing prices from falling, the attempts to "save" lenders who got in trouble, and the draconian interventions in capital markets that included even a ban on short selling. None of these attempts fixed the problem; indeed, many economists believe that they made them worse.

The root problem, however, is not a matter of economics but theology and ethics. The loss of faith in God led to a new and profoundly distorted faith in the state as the savior of the world. The loss in an ethic of life led to a disrespect for the truth of freedom itself, which is the ethical foundation of the market economy. Freedom can be a visible thing but its roots are in an invisible theological outlook that affirms that the universe and mankind have a transcendent origin and purpose. Let us turn to God and pray for conversion away from false faiths toward eternal truths.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.