July 12, 2009
New York Times
MUNICH — The collapse of Communism in the East two decades ago did not provide much of an opening for the Catholic Church to influence economic policy, but perhaps the near-collapse of Western capitalism will. Two German authors — one named Marx, the other his patron in Rome — are certainly hoping so.
The first is Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising, who has written a best seller in Germany that he cheekily titled “Das Kapital” (and in which he addresses that other Marx — Karl — as “dear namesake”). The second is Pope Benedict XVI, who last week published his first papal encyclical on economic and social matters. It has a more gentle title, “Charity in Truth,” but is based on the same essential line of thinking. Indeed, Archbishop Marx had a hand in advising the pope on it, and a reading of the archbishop’s book helps explain the intellectual context in which the encyclical was composed.
The message in both is that global capitalism has raced off the moral rails and that Roman Catholic teachings can help set Western economics right by encouraging them to focus more on justice for the weak and closely regulating the market.
Unlike the 19th-century Marx, who thought organized religion was a trick played on the impoverished in order to control them, Archbishop Marx and other Catholics yearn for reform, not class warfare. In that, they are following a long and fundamental line of church teaching. What is different now is that some of them see this economic crisis as a moment when the church’s economic thinking just may attract serious attention.
Archbishop Marx has already drawn a following in Germany by arguing that capitalism needs, in a grave way, the ethical underpinnings of Catholicism. The alternative, he argues, is that the post-crisis world will fall back into furious turbo-capitalism, or, alternatively, experience a renaissance of Marxist ideology based on atheism and class divisions.
“There is no way back into an old world,” Archbishop Marx said in a recent interview, before the encyclical was issued. “We have to affirm this world, but critically.”
Catholic voices have long had influence on the debate in the West about social justice, but never as much as the church would have wished. That reflected the enduring challenge of devising alternative policies, rather than simply criticizing secular authorities.
Pope John Paul II, a Pole with an intuitive feel for Communism’s injustices, was an important voice in bringing that system down. But he had to watch in the 1990s as Eastern Europe embraced Communism’s polar opposite — a rather pure form of secular capitalism, instead of any Catholic-influenced middle way.
“John Paul II was often very clear what he was against: He was against unbridled capitalism and the kind of socialism of the Soviet sphere,” said John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter Vatican watcher. “What he was for was less clear.”
Now Archbishop Marx, who at 55 occupies an ecclesiastical perch once held by Benedict, is trying to wriggle out of that intellectual straitjacket.
With his talent for turning a provocative phrase, he has more in common stylistically with the evangelist St. Paul or the philosophes, who popularized Enlightenment thought, than with Karl, who ground out his dense texts from exile in London. After beginning his book puckishly by addressing Karl Marx personally, the archbishop races through 200 years of Western economic history in a way that pays tribute to Karl’s core analytical conclusion — that capitalism embodies contradictions that threaten the system itself.
But he also makes it clear he is no Communist. He admires Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, a 19th-century writer who put Catholic theory into practice as a member of Germany’s first national Parliament in 1848, and later became a bishop and a fervent critic of Karl Marx.
The gregarious Archbishop Marx has cut a profile in the German business community for his willingness to walk into a roomful of executives and raise the roof. (“Are you marionettes?” he once asked a manager who protested that markets sometimes dictate unethical actions.)
In his book, which was published last fall, he offers a vision of a world governed by cooperation among nations, with a vibrant welfare state as the core of a market economy that reflects the love-thy-neighbor imperatives of Catholic social thought.
On the first point, Archbishop Marx is in good, cosmopolitan company; many officials, from New York to London to Beijing, are calling these days for a world in greater regulatory harmony, though the specifics may be hard to agree upon. He sounds considerably more German when exhorting the world to create, or recast, the welfare state. People need the welfare state before they “can give themselves over to the very strenuous and sometimes very risky games of the market economy,” Archbishop Marx said. The burdens of aging, illness or unemployment “need to be borne collectively,” he added.
In support of his argument, the archbishop calls for a “global social market economy,” based on a concept familiar to Germans as the model for their own postwar system.
Of course, the archbishop says he realizes that a European’s ideal of welfare states and border-straddling institutions might not have universal appeal. At the end of his book, he quotes Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, who has said, “I approve of the notion that Europe sees itself, unpretentiously, as a model for the world, but the consequence of that is that we would have to constantly change that model because we are not the world.”
Neither, he might have added, is the Roman Catholic church.