By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Benedict XVI’s stinging criticism of both Marxism and capitalism this afternoon may have caught some off-guard used to thinking of him as a consumate conservative, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Joseph Ratzinger’s history.
“Both capitalism and Marxism promised to point out the path for the creation of just structures, and they declared that these, once established, would function by themselves; they declared that not only would they have no need of any prior individual morality, but that they would promote a communal morality,” the pope said this afternoon at the opening of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean.
“And this ideological promise has been proved false. The facts have clearly demonstrated it.”
That declaration builds on a lifetime of reflection.
In 1988, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger published a collection of essays under the title of Church, Ecumenism and Politics. In it, he argued that capitalism is little better than national socialism or communism, in that all three propose false idols (prosperity, the Volk, and the state, respectively). Ratzinger said that to build a humane civilization, the West must rediscover two elements of its past: its classical Greek heritage and its common Christian identity.
From the classical era, Ratzinger wrote, Europe should rediscover objective and eternal values that stand above politics, putting limits to power. Ratzinger used the Greek term eunomia to describe this concept of the good. In that sense, one could say that Ratzinger proposed a eunomic, rather than capitalist, model of Western culture.
Over the years, Ratzinger has been close to the Communio school within Catholic theology, which stresses the need for cultures to take their point of departure from the Christian gospel rather than secular ideologies. Its primary exponents have repeatedly criticized capitalism for promoting an ethos of individualism and “survival of the fittest” that is at odds with the communitarian thrust of Catholic social teaching.
Since becoming pope, Benedict has often criticized what he considers the injustices of a growing neo-liberal system of economic globalization.
On April 23, for example, Benedict wrote to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, current president of the G-8, demanding the “the rapid, total and unconditional cancellation” of the external debt of poor countries, describing it as a “grave and unconditional moral responsibility, founded on the unity of the human race, and on the common dignity and shared destiny of rich and poor alike.” In a recent message to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, Benedict highlighted three key challenges: 1) the environment and sustainable development, 2) respect for the rights and dignity of persons, and 3) the danger of losing spiritual values in a technical world.
It’s also worth noting that to some extent, skepticism about capitalism is built into Ratzinger’s DNA. His great uncle on his father's side, Georg Ratzinger, was one of the towering Bavarian figures of the nineteenth century, a Catholic monsignor with a strong track record of political and social engagement on behalf of the poor.
Georg Ratzinger’s best-known book was Die Volkswirthschaft in Ihren Sittlichen Grundlagen (“The economy in its ethical foundations”), published in 1881, which offered a critique of capitalism that reflected a growing body of Catholic social analysis which culminated in Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum novarum.
George Ratzinger was twice elected to the Bavarian and the federal legislatures, and helped found a political party, the Bauerbund, which represented the interests of poor farmers against large capitalist industrial concerns. The Bauerbund stood for a mix of populist protectionism and progressive social measures such as child labor laws and minimum wages. The Bauerbund's chief goal was a system of social supports that would insulate poor farmers and small traders from the “boom and bust” cycles.
Benedict XVI has spoken warmly about his great-uncle’s political legacy. In 1996, he said: “As a representative of the state and national assemblies, he was really a champion of the rights of the peasants and the simple people in general. He fought – I’ve read this in the minutes of the state parliament – against child labor, which at that time was still considered a scandalous, impudent position to take. He was obviously a tough man. His achievements and his political standing also made everyone proud of him.”
Benedict XVI’s tough comments about the failures of capitalism at the opening of the CELAM general conference thus represent something of a family legacy.