Monday, July 13, 2009

Let's read what Benedict says

I have always felt somewhat ill at ease with economic theory. Probably because my training in social things comes, together with classical political philosophy, from sociology and social-cultural anthropology.

I mean a teaching that views people as essentially "social animals", zooi politikoi in Greek. Now the encyclical Caritas in veritate sounds to me in line with the way I have learned to think about and understand human being and human things, generally.

Following his main stress of continuity in the Catholic tradition, the encyclical takes its start from underlining what is enduring in the message of Paul VI' Populorum Progressio. It is like Pope Benedict wanted to say: now I tell you the truth about it.

Populorum Progressio seemed to suffer of an inconsistency common in anthropological thinking about "underdeveloped" peoples: on one hand calling for their vocation to become participant in world commerce, on the other laying all the responsibility for their state on rich countries, so viewing them as mainly passive subjects of events on which they have no control whatsoever. That's why the new encyclical brings development back to vocation and responsibility.

Actually, with that acceleration of communication that we call globalization, each people is called to find in itself the cultural and spiritual resources to face commerce with other peoples. And many are at pains in doing so: not only among poorer countries, often falling in the area of Islam, but also among the richer ones, e.g. in Europe, which seems no longer to know why it exists.

But this is another story, which the Pope addressed in his previous encyclical. Today Europe seems to have nothing to say to anybody - unless it be to squeak and squeal an apology every so often, as it wallows in sentiments of guilt over its past wrongs.

I don't want to say that there were no such wrongs, mind you - and Africa has been the main victim of them. African nations' large and apparent inability to exploit their vast natural and human resources for their own advancement and the advancement of their peoples, is largely traceable to the circumstances and mode of European powers' abandonment of their colonial enterprises on the continent.

In their arrival, and again in their departure, Europeans destroyed African social structures, especially political ones (even as African Americans under the yoke of their three hundred years' servitude suffered not only the breakup of their families, but the near total disintegration of their family structures).

The nineteenth century division of Africa among European powers was the utmost of shame. It stopped the development of the African kingdoms toward political units capable of taking part in world commerce, scattering them into myriad little societies under a glass dome. And when the colonial dominion was no longer convenient, the same colonial powers washed their hands of it with decolonization, which left Africa cut into a series of States artificially defined by the old borders of colonial administration.

Caritas in veritate's view of this situation is anthropologically more accurate than that of Pope Paul's encyclical. The French sociologist Serge Latouche pointed out years ago that there is a solidarity still at work in Africa based on an economy of gift exchanges that allows people to survive, of which the official market economy doesn't take cognizance. This ethnographic reality is at the basis of the wish expressed in chapter III for an integration of the gift economy with the market economy. Framed, however, in the context of an embracing theory of gift that accounts also for market.

It is like saying: from society we can understand economics, from economics we cannot understand society. And because society makes sense only in the light of gift theory, that sense is eminently theological.

This should be kept in mind by Catholics prone to fall for the presidential rhetoric. With Obama they stay within the limits of homo oeconomicus, and of its inevitable counterpart, call it homo gubernativus, just slightly tempered by the slick theological charm of the President.

After all, to make abortion a matter of choice, is to make life a matter of economy under the aegis of government.

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