Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI on Globalization

Another small summer project of mine was to read through Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), an encyclical letter released last summer by the Vatican. Despite the abstract title, it is really all about globalization and human development, returning to themes first laid out by Pope Paul VI in his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio and by Pope John Paul II in a variety of settings. Ignatius Press has a nice hardbound volume of Caritas in Veritate, which I enjoyed reading a few weeks ago (much more fun than reading the Vatican website version).

I found a few key themes informing what the former Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) and the Vatican think about globalization. Many of these are worth pondering (even if one might disagree with them). Here are some of my favorite passages and themes from the letter.

1. Globalization is unifying humanity and "to some degree" helping to advance the Kingdom.
Man's earthly activity, when inspired and sustained by charity, contributes to the building of the universal city of God, which is the goal of the history of the human family. In an increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family, that is to say, the community of peoples and nations, in such a way as to shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God (Paragraph 8, p. 16, emphasis in original).
"To some degree" is a key qualifier here; otherwise, I think we are in danger of rendering globalization as a kind of natural force, like gravity, that advances the Kingdom. I am suspicious of such claims, since they can baptize social or economic systems that might be quite harmful to the advancement of God's reign on earth (see my book).

This concern is addressed in paragraph 42, where "the breaking-down of borders is [seen as] not simply a material fact: it is also a cultural event both in its causes and its effects. If globalization is viewed from a deterministic standpoint, the criteria with which to evaluate and direct it are lost" (p. 85).

The solution, argues Benedict, is "to promote a person-based and community-oriented cultural process of worldwide integration that is open to transcendence" (p. 85), and "to steer the globalization of humanity in relational terms, in terms of communion and the sharing of goods" (p. 87). This latter process, he contends, will come through grasping the theological dimensions of globalization (a challenge that a number of Christian thinkers are undertaking).

2. The cultural dimension of globalization is important (paragraph 26).
Today the possibilities of interaction between cultures have increased significantly, giving rise to new openings for intercultural dialogue: a dialogue that, if it is to be effective, has to set out from a deep-seated knowledge of the specific identity of the various dialogue partners (p. 49).
3. The commercialization of cultural interaction threatens cultural flourishing (paragraph 26)

Benedict describes two dangers here: cultural eclecticism, which views cultures as "substantially equivalent" but separate blocs (shades of Samuel Huntington); and cultural leveling and "indiscriminate acceptance of types of conduct and lifestyles" (para. 26, p. 49). Similarly, chapter 10 of my book spends a few pages worrying about the shallowness of electronically mediated cultural communication, and about the clash of civilizations or global cultural hybridity.

4. Alternative business structures should be considered (paragraphs 38 to 41, also paragraph 46)

The Pope has put his teaching authority behind the efforts to build social responsibility into corporate structures, promoting what he calls "civilizing the economy" (para. 38, p. 76). Managers, he says, must not just focus on the interests of shareholders but on "all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference" (Para. 40, p. 79). This puts the Church squarely behind the Corporate Social Responsibility movement.

5. "Development" must focus on true human flourishing, which includes the environment and not just technological growth (paragraphs 43-77)

This was a particularly lucid passage on this, the central theme of the whole encyclical:
True development does not consist primarily in "doing". The key to development is a mind capable of thinking in technological terms and grasping the fully human meaning of human activities within the context of the holistic meaning of the individual's being. Even when we work through satellites or through remote electronic impulses, our actions always remain human, an expression of our responsible freedom (para.70, pp. 141-42).
And "development," of course, goes far beyond mere physical or material improvement. "There cannot be holistic development and universal common good unless people's spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as body and soul" (para. 76, p. 151).

Above all, says the Pope, development requires "Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer, Christians moved by the knowledge that truth-filled love, caritas in veritate, from which authentic development proceeds, is not produced by us, but given to us" (para. 79, p. 155). That is, we can only receive "truth-filled love" as a gift--a gift which can give us the courage to keep working to help all peoples move toward the love of God (para. 78, p. 154).

All in all, this was an interesting restatement of John Paul II's views on globalization, with some updating to take account of the recent global financial meltdown, making this analysis quite timely. For those who care about thinking Christianly about globalization, this is worthy summer reading.

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