Benedictine Economics

Over the weekend in Brazil, Pope Benedict offered a stern warning to drug traffickers: “God will call upon you to account for your acts… Human dignity cannot be trampled in this way.”

These sorts of statements seemed to characterize the Pope’s recent visit to Brazil: a complex and layered interplay between ethics, morality, the Church and economics.

Pope Benedict similarly offered harsh words against both capitalism and Marxism, declaring that both have left “a sad legacy of economic and ecological destruction” and “a widening gap between rich and poor.”

But the Pope was relatively short on solutions. Certainly, he advocated a faith-based approach — there seems little doubt that his visit was in no small part aimed at firing up the large but waning ranks of Catholics in Latin America – but even a socio-economic system driven by the promise of a heavenly reward requires a long run view (eternal, you might say) and this is clearly not our strength as humans.

I spend a significant amount of time chatting with my students about these things: Why does ideology – capitalist or Marxist, Catholic or Muslim – stray so far from its noble and elegant beginnings in empirical applications? Why does short run optimality not always add up to long run bliss?

In the end, Pope Benedict came to the same conclusion that academics, policy makers and activists have advocated for decades, if not longer: a well-functioning society needs well-functioning structures. Of course, such simple statements cache the complexity below: historical legacies, political realities, religious biases, cultural practices, economic incentives.

But I would argue that everything delicious and good emerges from the messiness of human interactions. Indeed, the very purpose of this blogspace is to provide a positive and productive forum for the messiness to occur, and I eagerly anticipate discussions and conversations.

Future posts will certainly be more targeted, but I like to start any new project with the big picture in mind.

Un fuerte abrazo a todos.

Links to articles on the Pope’s visit to Brazil:


New York Times

Folha Online

3 Responses to "Benedictine Economics"

  1. Anonymous   May 14, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    Pope Assails Marxism and Capitalism   Monday May 14, 2007 3:46 PM   Associated Press Writer  SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI lamented the deep divide between rich and poor in Latin America but told priests to steer clear of politics as they work to reverse Roman Catholicism’s waning influence in the region.  Wrapping up five-day visit to Brazil, the 80-year-old pontiff denounced Marxism in an hour-long speech Sunday opening a 19-day conference of Latin American bishops in the shrine city of Aparecida.  “The Marxist system, where it found its way into government, not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful destruction of the human spirit,” the pope said.  He also warned of unfettered capitalism and globalization. Before boarding a plane for Rome later Sunday, he said the two could give “rise to a worrying degradation of personal dignity through drugs, alcohol and deceptive illusions of happiness.”  Marxism still influences some grassroots Catholic activists in Latin America, remnants of the liberation theology movement Benedict worked to crush when he was cardinal. Liberation theology holds that the Christian faith should be reinterpreted specifically to deliver oppressed people from injustice.  Benedict also defended the church’s campaign centuries ago to Christianize indigenous people, saying Latin American Indians had been “silently longing” to become Christians when Spanish and Portuguese conquerors violently took over their native lands centuries ago.  “In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture,” he told the bishops.  Throughout his first papal visit to the region, Benedict emphasized Catholic moral values as the answer to Latin America’s social and economic problems. Returning to that theme Sunday, he warned that legalized contraception and abortion in Latin America threaten “the future of the peoples” and said the historical Catholic identity of the region is under assault.  Speaking in Spanish and Portuguese, the pope called on the bishops to reinvigorate the church, still the dominant faith in the region but rapidly losing ground to evangelical Protestant churches. He urged bishops to mold a new generation of leaders, saying Latin America needs more dedicated Catholics at high levels in government, the media and at universities.  While Brazil is the most populous Roman Catholic country, home to more than 120 million of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, the census shows that people calling themselves Catholics fell to 74 percent in 2000 from 89 percent in 1980. Those calling themselves evangelical Protestants rose to 15 percent from 7 percent.  The pope did not name any countries in his criticism of capitalism and Marxism, but left-leaning leaders govern most of South America. The region’s most prominent promoter of Marxism is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose spokesman deflected the criticism on Monday. “We all know that the current Pope is characterized as a conservative man, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we must automatically think that any word he utters … is against Venezuela,” Willian Lara said.  Religious experts said Benedict failed to address key challenges to the church in Latin America, including a severe shortage of priests or a specific strategy for how parishes should try win back Catholics who have turned into born-again Protestants or simply stopped going to church.  “Psychologists say what you don’t talk about are often the most important things, and that was the case with the pope,” said Fernando Altermeyer, a theology professor at Sao Paulo’s Catholic Pontificate University.  Added former Vatican Radio reporter David Gibson: “By not looking to the church’s structural problems, he’s handicapping the chances for success.”  In events in and near Sao Paulo that attracted more than 1 million people, Benedict criticized the rising tide of Latin Americans flouting the church’s prohibition on premarital sex and divorce and told drug dealers they will face divine justice for the misery they cause.  Then he headed to the shrine city of Aparecida, telling the bishops to convince Catholics from all walks of life “to bring the light of the Gospel into public life, into culture, economics and politics.”  Benedict called the institution of the family “one of the most important treasures of Latin American countries,” but said it is threatened by legislation and government policies contrary to church doctrine on marriage, contraception and abortion.  Mexico City lawmakers recently legalized abortion and gay civil unions, and the Brazilian government routinely hands out millions of free condoms to prevent AIDS.  The pope called the region the “continent of hope” during a Sunday Mass before 150,000 faithful in front of the mammoth basilica of Aparecida home to the nation’s patron saint, a black Virgin Mary.  But the turnout fell far short of the 400,000 to 500,000 worshippers local organizers hoped would show up for Benedict’s last big public event of the papal tour, his longest since becoming pope two years ago.  Waiting to catch a glimpse of the 80-year-old pope at Aparecida’s basilica, 68-year-old Maria Costa said she hoped his trip would revitalize the church in Brazil.  “Catholics weren’t feeling very good with the Church, and that’s why so many were leaving,” she said. “I think that could change now. Let’s hope so.”  —  Associated Press Writers Tales Azzoni and Victor L. Simpson contributed from Aparecida.

  2. Ernst   May 14, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    Business and economics should not get mixed with religion. Although we know of many religious “cadres” where the leaders do extremely well profitwise. But that is another story. The Pope, nor any other christian religious leader should get involved in the business and economic side of any country. It is against current christian culture. This may well not be true with Islam, where Islamic culture bows to their religious edicts. But in mostly christian countries (America, Europe) the religious leaders should stick to theology.  Ernst

  3. Chris   May 15, 2007 at 8:39 am

    That the Pope was relatively short on solutions is of no suprise of course.  Of course we can be content to know that drug lords and corrupt officials will pay for their misdeeds eventually in the after life, but this has not been a very efective deterent so far.