Pacem in Terris, The Economic Crisis and the Renewal of the Hierarchy of Values


Martin Schlag

Pope Francis has repeatedly stated that the economic crisis is a moral-cultural crisis of man. The crisis in which we find ourselves is not solely an economic crisis. It is a deeply rooted cultural crisis that specifically affects Western civilization.[1] However, economic factors do play an important role therein: poverty, public and private debt, and unemployment are just some of the symptoms that point to underlying moral issues. Moreover, globally speaking, not only the West but also the rest of the world is suffering from severe tensions, taking the form of political extremism, terrorism, and war, that ultimately have their roots in crass economic inequalities and moral failures.[2] Thus, it is not wrong to speak of a global economic and cultural crisis. Its existence confirms the truth of Blessed Pope John XXIII’s words in his encyclical Pacem in Terris: “The world will never be the dwelling-place of peace, till peace has found a home in the heart of each and every human person, till all preserve within themselves the order ordained by God to be preserved.”[3]

St. Bernardino of Siena called money the “blood of society” that must circulate and flow back to the heart to keep the body healthy.[4] Using this image, we can attempt to describe the cause for the present economic difficulties as blood poisoning, or at least as a cardio-vascular disease. The financial system needs to be purified of the sinful elements within that have to a certain degree, and in some parts, diverted it from its essence as a service to the real economy.[5]

My brief reflections, however, shall not concentrate on the financial system or its reform – others, including the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace itself, have already published much on this topic. In the light of the encyclical Pacem in Terris, I will concentrate upon the renewal of the hierarchy of values necessary to overcome the economic crisis, formulating my thoughts into three theses for a global response on the level of principle: affirmation; freedom; and contemplation as solution. For Catholic Social Teaching, this encyclical signified a paradigm shift towards the centrality of the human person, with her rights and duties.[6] As the primary value in the social hierarchy, the human person was affirmed as “the source, the center, and the purpose of all economic and social life”, as the Second Vatican Council would later proclaim.[7] At the time the encyclical was published, Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens pointed towards a leitmotiv that occurs nine times in the encyclical and is developed especially in its third part: “Peace among all people requires: Truth as its foundation, justice as its rule, love as its driving force, liberty as its atmosphere.”[8] There is a necessary inner connection between these four fundamental principles.

1. My first thesis is: Truth and justice require that we first and foremost affirm the basic goodness of the Western economic and financial system as it is. It would be unjust to accuse the whole system as such of being inhuman, exploitative, corrupt, etc. On the contrary, it is a real “public good”. The first step in the process of cultural transformation, which characterizes the new evangelization, is loving the culture and the society, the people and the structures in which we live. The new evangelization does not mean the destruction of what exists but its transformation, the purification of our economic system from the sinful and demonic elements it unfortunately also contains.[9] Evangelizing the economy and the world of finance does not mean replacing the existing reality with something else, perhaps with a “religious” or “confessional” form of the economy. Such attempts would end in disaster.

A negative or accusatory stance of the Church would either offend and repel many people of good will or make the Church’s Social Teaching appear irrelevant in the eyes of experts. It is very important to take Caritas in veritate, 9 seriously: The Church’s Magisterium does not offer technical solutions. We should beware of going into too much detail, and leave the application of the principles of Christian wisdom to the specialists active in the economic sphere. Only they fully understand the mechanisms of finance and are therefore capable of discovering their morally relevant elements.[10] Medical doctors, for instance, have achieved something that is still lacking in the economic and financial world: in most hospitals there are ethical committees, which deliberate and decide upon the difficult questions implied in modern biotechnology. Even though the formulation of the criteria and the directives for action have been left to the laity, the task of the Magisterium in this context is still immense. It consists in clarifying and constantly reminding all people of the main principles of Christian teaching. As Pierre Manent writes: “The Catholic Church, mediatrix of the Mediator has no other political task, but it is an urgent one, than making itself a convincing witness of the goodness of God.”[11] The Church is the sacrament of the world, a visible instrument for invisible grace. A sacrament consists of word and matter, of teaching and of our own example. In this sense, Pope Francis, I think, is making an enormous contribution to the efficiency of the Church’s sacramentality in the economic field by his internal measures of economic and disciplinary reform, and by his desire for a poor Church for the poor.

2. My second point is: The liberty given to us by the Spirit of the Lord, a further principle of Pacem in Terris, is also a freedom from the idolatry of money and from the trap of relying exclusively upon material means to achieve our happiness. The Christian faith helps us discover that the structures and institutions that make up our economic system are the unintended collateral effect of something much larger. As Josef Pieper understands culture to be the result of leisure, Western civilization is the result of the intention to achieve something other than itself. I would posit that Western civilization, with its economic, financial and political institutions, is a byproduct of contemplation. In order to regain the right ordering of the economy, we must once again be contemplative.

What is contemplation? Contemplation is the attitude of accepting the truth as it is, without trying to produce one’s own version: contemplation quietly observes and is amazed at what it beholds. Contemplation is not compatible with the reduction of reason to its scientific - technical dimension: contemplation desires to know how and why things are, not only how they function or for what they can be used. A contemplative person does not rely exclusively upon his own efforts but is open to God and to transcendence. Contemplation is open to the Savior. It is eccentric, with its center outside itself.

Rémi Brague describes the characteristic element of European, and of Western civilization in general, as “romanitas,”[12] an element captured by the symbol of the aqueduct bridging a cultural divide in the service of mediation and transmission. The Romans were aware that they were indebted to the Greeks, and that the barbarians, in turn, had received this heritage from them. In order to allow water to flow, an aqueduct must be slightly inclined: both ends cannot be on the same (cultural) level. This allows for superiority. Christianity has transformed the notion of “romanitas” by its conception of the sacrament, and elevated it to the dimension of grace. Like an aqueduct, the sacramentality of the Church straddles the chasm between heaven and earth; it is a real symbol for a greater, invisible heavenly dimension. It points beyond itself; it is eccentric. The eccentricity of Western civilization, and thus Western civilization itself, derives from its orientation towards something else, towards someone utterly other, towards God. I would argue that our Western economic and political institutions have emerged from this loving devotion to God, expressed in a spontaneous, even playful, way.

Take the Franciscans, and other mendicant Orders, as an example: their vow of poverty consecrated them to God, and nevertheless, or rather precisely as a by-product of this vow of devotional poverty, they discovered essential elements of modern economic life and contributed decisively to overcoming the canonical ban of interest as usury. As they were not allowed to possess money, but were permitted to use it, the value of an object clearly was its use, or utility, not its possession. Even less could they hoard money, so they were obliged to bring it into circulation – they thus discovered the possibility of economic growth through investment. The money to invest was entrusted to a “spiritual friend” who had to care for the friars’ economic needs – the first managers. As these friends had to be accountable for the money entrusted to them, the friars invented double-entry bookkeeping. The Franciscans, in contact with the poor and the working class, realized that the canonical ban on any form of interest excluded the craftsmen, the small and medium enterprises, from credit, and drove them into the hands of usurers. They thus created the Montes Pietatis, the first form of a normal bank in our modern sense of the word.

The same is true for our Western political institutions. Certain religious orders, in particular the Cistercians, were the only institutions of the Middle Ages (except for the Republic of Venice and the northern Italian Comuni) ruled according to democratic principles. In absence of any other model, the National Assembly of the French Revolution adopted the Cistercian rules of procedure for its deliberations.

The aim of these monastic institutions was always something greater: it was service of God. “Nihil operi Dei praeponatur[13]: nothing is more important than prayer. However, in his rule, Benedict does not command only serious work and prayer, but also the siesta. This was to be held in the camerata, consisting of ten monks and one prefect. These eleven men then met in the time of recreation to play soccer, the global European sport that still requires eleven players on the field, as an unconscious reminder of its origins. I can therefore not agree with Jacques Delors, who in 1992 said we would have to give Europe a soul. We need only to rediscover it.

3. I have already said that the crisis in which we find ourselves is a cultural crisis of the West. We can tackle it through a program of cultural transformation, that which John Paul II and his successor have called a "new evangelization". The approach of Roger Scruton’s identifies this program in seeking to protect culture against self-destruction through internal corrosion and against annihilation through external attacks. In the case of the West, the internal self-destruction arises from a certain resentment towards the past: Christian values are either associated with unpleasant memories, such as the Inquisition or the Crusades, or our culture is ridiculed as the heritage of “dead white men”.[14] Moreover, we are anxious and uncertain about our future. On the other hand, during March of 2013, I was able to experience the culture of the young and budding Canadian West Coast. I was amazed that, as in Europe, Canadians too are quite uncertain as regards their past, especially the treatment of the First Nations, but on the other hand, they are very confident about the future. One cannot say the same of Europe or the West in general: we are not so confident about our future.

In what has been said so far, there has been no distinction made between Europe and the USA. Quite on purpose: The USA cannot emerge from the cultural crisis without revitalizing its own cultural roots in Europe. Similarly, Europe cannot overcome the crisis of Western civilization without the USA, because the USA is the determining cultural leader of the West.

How can we renew the hierarchy of values and overcome the economic crisis? I am convinced that it is possible, but only if we rediscover what it means to be contemplative, because our economy and our society are a byproduct of contemplation, i.e. a fruit of Christian spirituality. In other words, who wants to save the economy for the economy’s sake will fail, who wants to make money for money’s sake will be unhappy.

When politicians like Guido Westerwelle (on 1.5.2013 in St. Gallen) and the authors of the Treaty of Lisbon[15] say that the European values are the values of the Enlightenment alone, and not of Christianity, then they make the same mistake as Kant: they want Christian values without Christ. This does not work.[16] Pierre Manent has spoken of the “religion of the absence of God that is currently destroying and demoralizing the West.”[17] He is right. I rather tend to agree with Viktor Orbán that the West will only recover economically if it returns to Christian values.[18] Charles Taylor has put it in more academic terms: he foresees a decline of the secular narrative understood as a subtraction story, because the theory of the withering away of religion has now become simply implausible.[19] What he wrote in 2007, we confirm only a few years later: religion has a future in the West.

How can we renew the hierarchy of values and overcome the economic crisis? I intentionally repeat the question. I think “love in truth” (“caritas in veritate”), already present in John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, is the answer. Charity as a social principle is the most important contribution of Christian humanism to society. As John Bequette has said, “At the heart of the Christian humanist endeavor is the theological virtue of charity.” The disinterested practice of Christian charity will “achieve that integral restoration of the human person which is the aim of Christian humanism.”[20] However, how is charity infused into institutions? It cannot be done directly. Asserting charity as a directly applicable social principle would be dangerous, typical of authoritarian regimes. Since the Stoics, love (or benevolence) has been considered as the correlative or secondary principle after justice. Justice is the primary principle for the shaping of social life. Charity can be infused into society by means of the aligning of institutions with the principles of Catholic Social Teaching: justice, human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity, powered from within by the “wild force”[21] of charity. In this sense, Christian humanism, by bringing into society the living presence of Christ, is a “disturbing element”. De Lubac put it beautifully: “Christ is, first and foremost, the great disturber.” He awakes us from our sleep. Faith continually disturbs us and upsets “the too beautiful balance of our mental conceptions and social structures.”[22] In a Christian worldview, “holiness comes before peace”[23], and the “prophetic minorities” of Maritain are really “shock minorities”.[24] To stay alive, free and democratic, our liberal democracies need this influence of charity that sheds light on those who suffer in the dark, gives voice to those who are inarticulate in their screams of pain, and recognizes the legal force of their claims.

Jesus did not instruct his apostles to build a Christian economy or a temporal Christian State. Jesus sent them into the world as witnesses of his resurrection. Where is God, where is Christ today? Where he always was: In the hearts of his people, on their lips and in their lives. We can therefore be confident that God's Spirit is already making “all things new”[25]. The hierarchy of values shall be renewed beginning with the contemplative life of the lay-people in the middle of economic life: out of their hearts will come the energy and the spiritual health to overcome the crisis.

[1] Among many other possible references, see Mario Toso, Una Riforma del Sistema Finanziario. Il Contributo della Dottrina Sociale della Chiesa, in Pontifical Acadamy of Social Sciences (ed.), The Global Quest for Tranquillitas Ordinis. Pacem in Terris, Fifty Years Later, Acta 18, (City of Vatican: LEV, 2013), 559 – 583, 562.

[2] It is worth taking up the thesis of Pankaj Ghemawat, Redefining global strategy: crossing borders in a world where differences still matter, (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007), that the world is not globalized but semi-globalized, because of the many cultural differences. Thus there exists no one and only global technical solution to the crisis. On the level of principle, however, there are principles which are globally valid.

[3] Nr. 165.

[4] Sermo 42 in Bernardino of Siena, Quadragesimale de Evangelio aeterno. In S. Bernardini Senensis, Opera Omnia, vol. IV. (Quaracchi: Collegio S. Bonaventurae, 1956).

[5] Cf. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Towards Reforming
the International Financial and Monetary Systems
in the Context of Global Public Authority,

[6] For the origin and the history of the encyclical see Alberto Melloni, Pacem in terris. Appunti sull'origine, in Agostino Giovagnoli (ed.), Pacem in Terris fra azione diplomatica e guerra globale, (Milano: Guerini e associati, 2003), 129 – 145; Card. Pietro Pavan (a cura di), Pace in terra. Commento all'enciclica Pacem in terris, introduzione di Mario Toso, (Treviso: Editrice San Liberale, 2003); Instituto Social León XIII (ed.), Comentarios a la Pacem in Terris, (Madrid: BAC, 1963); Alceste Santini, Pacem in Terris e nuove ideologie, (Bologna: EDB, 2003); Peter Riga, Peace on Earth. A Commentary on Pope John’s Encyclical, (New York: Herder & Herder, 1963).

[7] Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, n. 63.

[8] Suenens, Foreword, in Riga, Peace, 11.

[9] See Francis Cardinal George, The Difference God Makes. A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company), 2009, 23 – 42.

[10] What Benedetto Cotrugli wrote in 1458 still seems valid today: “I am a merchant and understand the art of commerce. Even so it took me two years of practice to understand how the bills of exchange work – and I do not lack intelligence or desire to comprehend. Thus, may the theologians not be surprised if I audaciously write that they cannot possibly understand the subject and judge only by hearsay. They are like blind men talking of colors.” (Benedetto Cotrugli, Il libro dell’arte di mercatura, a cura di Ugo Tucci, (Venezia: Arsenale Editrice, 1990, l. 1, c. 11; 167f).

[11] Pierre Manent, L’Église entre l’Humanité Réelle et l’Humanité Rêvée, in Pontifical Acadamy of Social Sciences (ed.), The Global Quest for Tranquillitas Ordinis. Pacem in Terris, Fifty Years Later, Acta 18, (City of Vatican: LEV, 2013), 109 – 118, 118.

[12] See Rémi Brague, Eccentric Culture: a Theory of Western Civilization, (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002).

[13] Rule of St. Benedict.

[14] Cf. Roger Scruton, Culture Counts. Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, (New York: Encounter Books, 2007). However, I use a different concept of culture than Scruton. I define culture as the set of elements that shape and determine social life, not only “high culture of literature and art” as does Scruton.

[15] See the Preamble of the Treaty,

[16] Convincingly argued by Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue. A Study in Moral Theory, (London:Duckworth, 1985).

[17] Manent, L’Église, 117f.

[18] Among other possible sources cf.

[19] See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, Ma. – London: Harvard University Press, 2007). The “secular narrative as a subtraction story” is an attempt to interpret modernity as a process of withdrawal of religion from public, social, scientific, etc. life that will end in the disappearance of religion altogether.

[20] John P. Bequette, Christian Humanism. Creation, Redemption, and Reintegration, (Lanham: University Press of America, revised edition 2007), 168 and 171.

[21] Jacques Maritain, Christlicher Humanismus. Politische und geistige Fragen einer neuen Christenheit, Carl Pfeffer Verlag, (1950), 69. English version: Integral Humanism, Freedom in the Modern World, and A Letter on Independence, edited by Otto Bird, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996). (Originally published in 1936).

[22] Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995) (original Le Drame de l’humanisme athée, Paris 1944), 14.

[23] John Henry Newman refers to this phrase of a pastor as one of those that shaped his youth. It is also a characteristic of Christian humanism. Cf. John Henry Newman, Apologia pro vita sua, (London: Routledge, no year), 6.

[24] Jacques Maritain, Man and the State, edited by Richard O’Sullivan, (London: Hollis & Carter, 1954), 126 – 133.

[25] Cf. Rev 21,5.