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Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's Secretary of State and effectively the second most important official in the Catholic Church, takes a close look at economic globalization and the social nature of markets in a book published in September, in Italian and Russian, by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Bertone’s book, “The Ethics of the Common Good in the Social Doctrine of the Church” (L'etica del Bene Comune nella Dottrina Sociale della Chiesa) is also notable for its ecumenical character; it has a preface from Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kalingrad.

It's not often that the Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches have collaborated at such a high level. Such an effort could lead to closer relations and more dialogue in the future. Overall, there is a large degree of agreement between Kirill and Bertone, but there are also some strikingly different perspectives on economic globalization and the role of the nation-state.

Kirill writes that money should not be an end in itself, but a means of entrepreneurial activity that serves human development: “Genuine, totally exciting work, is the businessman’s real wealth! The absence of the worship of money emancipates man, makes him free interiorly.” He also asserts that globalization has increased the gap between rich and poor in the last twenty years and calls an international economic system always on the verge of crisis anything but ethical. He quotes from the final statement of the Third Christian European Interdenominational Conference held in Sibiu, Romania: “All over the world, even in Europe, the modern process of radical globalization of the market has deepened in human society the gap between those who succeed and those who fail, diminishing the value of many people, has catastrophic environmental consequences and, above all, due to climate change, becomes incompatible with a harmonious development of the planet.”

Bertone is not as dour regarding the new challenges brought on by rapid growth, stressing the potential common good realized by economic globalization. His positive appraisal is rooted in the history of economic development in the Christian West, as he extensively illustrates the various institutions founded thanks to a Christian spirit and an entrepreneurial vocation: schools, hospitals, banks and charitable organizations.

Not surprisingly, both Kirill and Bertone agree that a morally-orientated economy is a fundamental aspect for the development of a harmonious society, and both affirm that such a society should tend naturally to the common good when human activity is inspired by the principle of “fraternity.”

For Kirill, fraternity is primarily based on national identity and national growth; he often recalls the duty of serving the nation. At the conclusion of his prologue, he writes, “For us, the principal meaning of our work must be to serve God, our neighbour and the Patria [nation], through the creation of material and spiritual goods fundamental for a worthy life.”

Bertone, by contrast, stresses more universal, “transnational” aspects and never uses the nation-state as a center of focus. Recalling Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus caritas est, Bertone even criticizes the nation-state for crowding out charity with social spending. “The State, presupposing a [strong sense of] solidarity among citizens to realize their rights, makes social spending obligatory. In this way, the State compromises the principle of gratuitousness, denying space to principles other than solidarity.”

This criticism of the nation-state raises a question: is there some other, preferable level of political organization? Bertone does not say, focusing more on the principles that ought to animate social life. “Our societies need three autonomous principles in order to develop in a harmonious way and therefore be capable of having a future [….] Exchange of equal goods, (through contracts) redistribution of wealth (through the fiscal system) and reciprocity (through works that attest with deeds fraternity).”

For Bertone, markets are a compilation of economic organizations working together not only for profit but for the common good. “Along side the multinational capitalist corporations, we find artisan shops, cooperatives, social enterprises and those of the Economy of Communion, which bring to the market a non-utilitarian reciprocity. With their activities they allow for a ‘multi-dimensional’ market, not only as a place of efficiency but one where sociality and reciprocity are practiced.”

In general, Kirill’s assessment of globalization is largely negative; Bertone’s is more hopeful. Unfortunately, neither of them seems to take economics as a science very seriously. Many of their arguments, both positive and negative, on globalization would have benefited from an analysis of how markets work, or should work, in conjunction with the moral and ethical beliefs of individuals and society.

Kirill, for example, stresses the need for economy efficiency but does not explain how moral qualities such as trust, honesty, thrift and punctuality actually encourage such efficiency.

Likewise, Bertone’s insight on the social nature of markets is very welcome but it could also be extended to how market economies are necessary in order to meet the needs of human beings, and how economic expansion is the best way to reduce poverty. Here he would be following Catholic social teaching as developed by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus: Expanded international trade is not only a way to express solidarity, it also creates wealth and increases living standards.

This volume proves that Christian social doctrine, whether Orthodox or Catholic, cannot exist simply as a pious wish or a moral theory; at some point, it has to deal with reality -- the everyday world of human activities and relations, and especially economics. Without a grasp of this reality, social doctrine will most probably remain the Church’s “best-kept secret.”


Paola Fantini is an intern in the Rome office of the Acton Institute. For this review, she translated the text of “The Ethics of the Common Good in the Social Doctrine of the Church” from the Italian.