ROME – Flexing its political muscle, the Vatican has been making statements lately, from a papal message to the World Economic Forum in Davos, to a blistering new document on the global economy. Taken together, it shows the Church has something to say not only on matters of faith, but also when it comes to the wallet.
“Integral,” “sustainable,” and “discernment” have been among the key words of this pontificate, echoed by the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron and, more recently, by an all-star lineup of economists, diplomats and Vatican officials who attended the “Centesimus Annus Pro Pontefice” (CAPP) Foundation conference in Rome May 22-25.
“We need a long-term vision that looks beyond particular interests and serves instead the common good,” said Giovanni Marseguerra, Coordinator of the CAPP’s scientific committee. “The entire human family is called to collaborate to offer a development model that is integral and sustainable.”
CAPP, named after St. John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, is a pontifical foundation headquartered in the Vatican whose purpose is to support the pope’s teaching and charitable initiatives. This year, the organization is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its foundation, and organizers reported a record-high attendance with over 500 attendees from more than 20 countries.
Participants in the conference, held at the Cancelleria Palace in Rome, included members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global representatives of worker unions as well as highly respected economists, professors and entrepreneurs.
In his opening remarks, Italian Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, President of the Administration of Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA), praised the “foresight and creative ability” of the foundation. APSA is the department that oversees both the Vatican’s investment portfolio and its real estate holdings.
“No map is truly usable if it’s not accompanied by a compass,” Calcagno said, adding that today more than ever there is a need for an “ethical compass that is founded on the principles of the Church.”
A new part of the foundation’s tool kit is a recent document offering “Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System,” issued jointly by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s main doctrinal watchdog agency, and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
The text drew rave reviews at the conference and the Chairman of CAPP, Domingo Sugranyes Bickel, praised Catholic social teaching as a “treasure” that can promote a Church-wide effort in the context of financial uncertainty and technological innovation.
The title of the conference, “New Policies and Life-Styles in the Digital Age,” opened to discussion of many subjects, from agriculture to social media, all taking a cue from the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII’s 1891 document that launched the modern tradition of papal social teaching, and Pope Francis’s 2015 invitation to the care of creation, Laudato Si’.
A former Chairman of CAPP’s Scientific Committee, Alberto Quadrio Curzio – who heads the prestigious Lincei Academy in Italy – kicked off the conference with a roaring defense of the European Union, calling for its strengthening and praising its political role.
“The European Union has been an element of substantial equilibrium in the international context,” Curzio said, pointing to its primacy in charitable donations to the developing world and its mediating role in international diplomacy.
According to the academic, the three main challenges stressing especially European countries are immigration, social media, and the rise of powerful international oligopolies that challenge the power of states and international organizations.
Curzio made the comments at a moment when a new Italian government is taking shape, whose own attitude towards the EU appears ambiguous.
“If today I were to make a decision having all the necessary structures at my disposal, I would choose to increase education, education, education!” Curzio said.
The lack of access to education and poor resource allocation were the main concerns for Professor Carmen Herrero, the 2017 winner of the prestigious Rey Jaime I award for innovation, science and entrepreneurship, who spoke on a panel focusing on the “new challenges” facing society.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, 17 global objectives for 2030, were widely discussed, but according to Janez Potočnik, Co-Chair of the UN Environment International Resource Panel, while they “have definitely driven us in the right direction,” most of the responsibility is for developed countries to prove that they are achievable.
An example of synergy between developing and developed countries was offered by Wenge Fu, Director of the Economic Management School of China Agricultural University. With a population of 1.3 billion people, China represents one of the most competitive markets in the world as its economy shifts from commodities to being service-based.
According to Fu, over 50 million tons of food are wasted in China every year, both at a supply level and at a consumer and retail level. Fu has been working on a government-sponsored project to collaborate with European countries to introduce models to avoid and prevent such waste.
“Europe has all the experience and technologies, and this is what the Chinese need,” Fu said.
Laudato Si’ was the framework of the presentation made by Daniel Gustafson, Deputy General Director of FAO, who pointed to the importance of creating sustainable ways of providing for humanity’s basic needs, and quoted Francis’s 2013 call not to waste food.
“We know that most of the world’s poor are rural,” Gustafson said during a panel session focusing on a sustainable food chain, the first in the history of the foundation.
“They are the most vulnerable, they have the least access to basic goods, they are the hungriest and the most vulnerable to climate change,” he said.
Attention to what Francis calls a “throwaway culture” didn’t just focus on its practical aspects, but also on the moral and ethical consequences.
According to Father Gaetano Piccolo, a philosopher and professor at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, the digital age has given voice to a world that wishes to express its “emotional needs,” which have bypassed the primacy of logic rationality dating back to Greek philosopher Aristotle.
While alarming at times, he added, this trend “should not be disdained,” instead “this renewed space for affection paradoxically becomes a privileged starting point for discernment,” which in turn can open the door for religious spirituality.
Bringing an interreligious approach to the conference, which includes the participation of the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew and the Protestant scholar Stephen B. Young, who heads the Caux Round Table, drew parallels between contemporary beliefs and the timeless doctrine of the Church.
“We are given by God a moral sense, the faculty of relating us to other people,” Piccolo said, adding that today in a time of secularization and great change, “this moral sense must be trained and nurtured.”
“God in His grace has granted us all with an environment and a cosmos,” he added, “it’s our responsibility to maintain and protect it as children and stewards of God.”