Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
The last few weeks have provided us with even more evidence that the European project is crumbling and its leaders are plainly ignorant as to why. Three seemingly unrelated news items from Ireland, Italy and the Vatican reveal the continent’s misplaced faith in secular progress and continued rejection of orthodox Christianity. Instead of some kind of Promethean liberation and flowering of European spirit, the results are confusion, stagnation and boredom.
Let’s start in Ireland and the overwhelming defeat for the culture of life. By a two-to-one margin, the Irish chose to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, removing the legal protections of unborn babies that two-thirds of the country had voted for in 1983. No political party or prominent public figure campaigned to keep the amendment. The result and especially the margin are nothing short of shocking in what was once one of the most Catholic nations in the world. (Phil Lawler notes the sad irony of the vote coming on the eve of Trinity Sunday and the Irish Constitution’s explicit reference to the “Most Holy Trinity.”)
There were no evident signs of concern about Ireland here in Rome. In stark contrast to the case of Alfie Evans just a few weeks ago, Pope Francis was remarkably silent. No one in the Italian government rushed an offer to take in unwanted Irish children. Having lost their moral credibility over clerical sexual abuse and other scandals, the Irish bishops were low key, preferring to voice their personal opposition to repealing the amendment but not much else. Pro-life advocates stressed the violation of human rights rather than the Fifth Commandment, accurately sensing that God matters much less than He used to on the Emerald Isle.
Supporters of repealing the Eighth Amendment, including the formerly pro-life prime minister, say they have chosen “progress,” presumably over their priest-ridden Catholic past. Progress towards what? Ireland can now claim to be a full member of the “civilized” nations of Europe. Poland, Malta and Northern Ireland are the only remaining European countries that ban most abortions. with The last is sure to fall out of this group soon, and the first two will come under increasing pressure to choose between modern Europe and the Catholic faith.
Political choice continues to result in chaos in Italy, where the President of the Republic exercised his constitutional prerogative by rejecting the coalition government of two populist parties. The sticking point was the nomination of euro-skeptic Paolo Savona as finance minister. Brussels and Berlin apparently made their displeasure know to the Italian President and that was that.
Back in 2009, Istituto Acton co-sponsored the presentation of an Italian collection of Peter Bauer’s essays with Savona as one of the speakers. Bauer was one of the great dissenters from mainstream development economics during the second half of the 20th century, preferring to unleash ordinary people and local business rather than international institutions and foreign aid in the fight against poverty. Just about every honest economist now recognizes that Bauer was right and his critics were wrong about how to achieve economic development, but the high priesthood of economics still reigns and Bauer remains relatively unknown. Italy and Europe definitely need more economists like Savona and Bauer, not fewer.
Italian politics are notoriously opaque and hard to predict, so no one really knows what to expect from a new rounds of elections, which could come as soon as July. The rise of populist parties in Italy shows disgust with the ruling class whether it is in Rome or Brussels, and the rejection of the populist coalition by governing elites will only make the populists stronger. Whether or not Italians actually want to leave the euro zone, which would certainly be a messy, complicated process, there are other bold ideas to get the Italian economy growing, such as the implementation of a flat tax for individuals and businesses. Why not try something new and different in economics? Like other sensible pro-growth ideas, the flat tax will undoubtedly face much opposition from those who benefit from the current byzantine system.
We seem to have reached a point where economic orthodoxy is more important than the religious kind – even, apparently, at the Vatican with the release of “Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones. Considerations for an ethical discernment regarding some aspects of the present economic-financial system” by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. As a former Vatican official and professional Catholic, I have to pay attention to papal encyclicals such as Laudato Si’ and the 2011 note of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on the global financial system. I still don’t know why the Vatican’s doctrinal office needed to get involved in economic questions, as if one’s eternal salvation depended on the propriety of credit default swaps.
My Acton colleague Sam Gregg has some good things to say about the new document (for which there is, unfortunately, no shorthand title; why are there no competent editors in the Vatican?), especially the general principles that should guide moral thinking about finance. It is a different matter when it comes to policy proposals and an awareness of the Church’s own thought on these questions. Similarly, long-time Acton friend and lecturer Philip Booth praises “the best Vatican document on economics for some time,” but wonders whether it fully understands the use and misuse of government regulation.
For my part, I decided to ask a few Catholics who work in finance what they thought about the document. One told me it was over-wrought and would be quickly forgotten, wondering why the Vatican doesn’t consult outside the narrow circle of Italian academics when addressing the issue. Others said that the authors don’t seem to realize how much regulation is to blame for creating or extending financial crises. It’s as if regulators are immune to the sins, weaknesses and mistakes of their counterparts in the industry. To paraphrase Karl Marx, who will regulate the regulators?
Taken together, these recent political events in Ireland and Italy and the Vatican’s doctrinal foray into finance reveal wider problems of leadership provided by our elites. We see institutional weakness in government and the Church. We see a lack of respect for authority in society. And perhaps most seriously, there is an absence of true faith, not in some vague humanitarian ideal of “progress” but in the Triune God that countries like Ireland and Italy were once famous for. Having forsaken belief in God, Europeans remain vulnerable to seduction by the gods of autonomy, pleasure, entertainment, diversity, etc.
As European nations discard Christianity, the Vatican and Church hierarchy may think they can make themselves more relevant by speaking about trendy social and economic issues, when it should be reminding people of what it does best: the salvation of souls and eternal life. Pastors, feed your hungry sheep and the rest will follow.