Pope Benedict XVI has written two encyclicals, one on love, the other on hope. Especially last year, which was the 40th anniversary of Paul VI’s Development of Peoples and the 20th anniversary of John Paul II’s On Social Concern, speculation was rife that the pope would write a social encyclical on globalization. In his World Day of Peace Message, published on Jan. 1, Pope Benedict has now issued a commentary on poverty in the global economy under the title Fighting Poverty to Build Peace. It extends the teaching of his predecessors on solidarity in development to today’s globalized economy, with a renewed plea for the inclusion of the poorest nations in the world system.
The heart of the message is that solidarity, especially with those nations that participate least in the global economic system, is the virtue that meets the challenges of globalization. It urges us, “in our dealings with the poor, to set out from the clear recognition that we all share in a single divine plan: we are all called to form one family in which all—individuals, peoples and nations—model their behavior according to the principles of fraternity and responsibility.” Amid its praise for the productivity of the post-World War II economy—world poverty has been cut by as much as 50 percent in the last 30 years—it focuses intently on the world’s poorest nations, which stand outside the global economic system, especially in Africa. These countries are strapped, on the one hand, by lack of fair access to world markets for their products and, on the other, by the rapid rise in world commodity prices during the last year. Like Pope Paul VI’s Development of Peoples, the 2009 message appeals “for all countries to be given equal opportunities of access to the world market, without exclusion or marginalization.”
Though the message ends with John Paul II’s radical call in Centesimus Annus for “a change of life-styles, of models of production and consumption, and of the established structures of power,” its content seems less radical, surveying the dimensions of poverty today, the ambiguous effects of globalization and the implications of the world financial crisis for the prospects of alleviating poverty in the most disadvantaged nations. It is devoid of the insightful biblical analogies and ambitious proposals of Paul VI and the incisive social spiritual diagnoses of John Paul II. Given the shocking drop in the world economy, its confidence in economic growth as an engine of progress seems surprising. On the epochal dereliction of financial institutions leading to the current economic crisis, it simply comments that the “lowering of the objectives of global finance to the very short term reduces its capacity to function as a bridge between the present and the future, and as a stimulus to the creation of new opportunities....”
The message seems to break with previous church teaching on the importance of holding inequalities in check as a step to preventing deeper and more widespread poverty. Given the expansion of inequality worldwide during the last 30 years of growth, a phenomenon the message acknowledges, its outright dismissal of redistributive programs (“mere redistribution”) as an “illusion” is all the more remarkable. Only when redistributive measures, like investment in education, health care, maternal and infant nutrition and job creation, are in place has economic growth proven to reduce poverty across the population, and not just in a privileged segment of it.
The reality of contemporary poverty, the message points out, possesses several features in need of the world’s attention, including pandemic disease, child poverty, military expenditures and the food crisis. The food crisis, it notes, results primarily from speculation in petroleum and other basic commodities, including the price of imported food. It also results from the unfairness of so-called free trade regimes that open up poor countries to industrial products, whose prices “rise much faster than those of agricultural products and raw materials in the possession of poorer countries,” which in their turn have more restricted access to markets in developed countries.
The message gives special attention to the moral relationship between disarmament and development. Pope Benedict reminds his audience that “immense military expenditure...is in fact diverted from development projects for people, especially the poorest....” He continues, “The resources saved could then be earmarked for development projects to assist the poorest and the most needy individuals and people....” He concludes, “Efforts expended in this way would be efforts for peace.” We should expect high interest on the part of the church, therefore, in resolutions to be proposed to the new U.S. Congress and to the United Nations in 2009 that money spent on nuclear weapons should be applied instead to meeting the needs of children.