ROME – In the context of global economic uncertainty, rampant inequality and a growing trade in illegal offshore bank accounts, the Vatican on Thursday issued a document offering ethical guidelines for economic and financial systems and calling for stronger oversight by public authorities.
“This joint document offers some guidelines or ‘regulations’ from the ethical side of the spectrum, with the hope that they can help discern how to manage world resources with freedom, responsibility, justice, solidarity and love,” said Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
Spanish Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the Vatican’s top doctrinal officer, warned that such a discernment cannot be delayed “unless we want to slip toward a social collapse at the global level, with devastating consequences.”
While the document offers regulations for “all men and women of goodwill” and encourages “the financial world to learn from the lessons of the latest financial crisis,” it makes no mention of the Church’s own struggles with economic management, including the fact that a handful of recent Vatican trials have highlighted cases of misappropriation or corruption.
Titled Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones: “Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System,” the document was 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.
“It’s an appeal to the common wisdom of global populations,” Turkson said during a press conference on Thursday, adding that it’s solidly based on Catholic social teaching.
According to Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Francis did not commission the document although he ultimately approved it.
“It originated, so to say, from the ground up,” Ladaria said.
It draws from a 2011 document produced by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, a precursor of Turkson’s current department, titled “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in The Context of Global Public Authority,” which called for a global public authority to oversee financial and economic questions.
“We understand the demand, felt more and more today, that public authorities should provide a certification for every product generated by financial innovation, in order to preserve the health of the system and prevent negative collateral effects,” the new document reads.
Turkson recognized that while many companies are happy to embrace the ideals and proposals made by the Church, “they had great difficulty accepting that a company or institution regulate this activity.” Therefore, the document limits itself to suggestions and reflections.
The document points to several issues that lie behind economic uncertainty, such as a materialistic understanding of the human being, blind faith in the development of “financial innovations,” and a fundamental asymmetry between the agents in the financial markets and those who live at its margins and often suffer its consequences.
Taking these issues into account, Turkson said that the guidelines offered by the Vatican are based on a moral and integral understanding of the human person that “can also help us to counter an economy that, because it has sidelined its own ethical basis, tends to ‘rule rather than to serve’ humanity.”
“Equally, these ‘regulations’ can help counter a financial system that is focused more on speculation than in serving the real economy,” he added.
The document condemns fiscal evasion, financial mismanagement, unsurmountable public debt and the increase of offshore accounts, which “expanded from an important European country to other countries of the world, paving the way for a real alternative financial network to the official financial system and the jurisdictions that protect them.”
The United Kingdom was cited as a trendsetter in terms of offshore accounts, and the document also condemned the “immoral behavior” responsible for the subprime mortgage scandal in the United States.
The document does not mention that the Institute for the Works of Religion, informally called the “Vatican Bank,” was for many years seen as a preferred tax haven in Italy, or that its former president is currently on trial for embezzlement.
Turkson insisted it’s entirely appropriate for the Church to comment on economics.
“Some people still think that economics or finance is something distant from the Church’s mission,” Turkson said. “However, as the document we are presenting emphasizes, the Church is concerned with all human activities that can hinder or help human flourishing, economic activities being no exception.”
The cardinal added that while “radical change is always difficult,” the document might help “to acknowledge our blind spots and make finance more ethical.”
The document describes a “missed opportunity” offered by the global financial crisis “to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and a new regulation of financial activities that would neutralize predatory and speculative tendencies and acknowledge the value of the actual economy.”
Its authors see a lack of coordinated plans to rethink “the obsolete criteria” that govern financial dynamics in the world.
“On the contrary, the response seems at times like a return to the heights of myopic egoism, limited by an inadequate framework that, excluding the common good, also excludes from its horizons the concern to create and spread wealth, and to eliminate the inequality so pronounced today,” the document reads.
The text condemns a “profoundly amoral culture” that allows for illicit and selfish behaviors, especially by financial agents.
“Such behavior gravely pollutes the health of every economic-social system. It endangers the functionality and seriously harms the effective realization of that common good, upon which is necessarily founded every form of social institution,” it reads.
The text concludes by calling society not to give into cynicism before the vastness and complexity of economic life, and instead “to make ourselves catalysts of a new social behavior, shaping our actions to the search for the common good, and establishing it on the sound principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.”