Help Wanted: Someone to Translate What the Vatican Says

Peter Cardinal Turkson

Peter Cardinal Turkson

Since I’ve come back from vacation, I’ve been asked several times to comment on the recent statement “from the Vatican” that caused such an uproar a couple weeks ago. This was the note from October 24th that said there should be one global financial power, one central world-bank, etc. etc.

The commentary that followed ranged from, “Has the pope lost his mind?” to “It wasn’t really the pope so we can ignore it.” I looked up the document in question and even read some of the Italian from the press conference at which it was presented. I came to both of them with the prejudice that, most likely, everyone was overreacting. I presumed that once I read it I would discover a balanced document that had been taken out of context.

What I found…well, was disappointing. 

When Cardinal Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP), which was the body responsible for the note, was given said post, he was interviewed by Zenit News. I highly recommend readers look at this two-part interview of the Cardinal. Go here and here for parts one and two respectively.

The interviewer, a Mr. Jason Adkins, asked some straightforward and important questions of the Cardinal, particularly one which allowed his Eminence to admit that sometimes the language of the Church does not always translate well to the American scene. He also had this to say about how we Americans ought to understand the term, “social justice”:

Social justice is not so much about distribution or making the higher people in society help the lower. The point of departure is to recognize the sense of justice in relationships and be guided by it. When we are guided by it, it helps us remove some of the difficulties in understanding the term. We must look at social justice in terms of relationships.

Now nothing in the note that came out two weeks ago made me doubt this statement, but I mention it simply because it made me think that the Cardinal truly understood the concerns and the prejudices of the American ear. We hear “social justice,” and we think “socialism.” It seems the Cardinal understood that.

That interview was a year ago, November 2010. By January of 2011, the Cardinal admitted that sometime the language of the Vatican simply means something different in the American experience.

Thanks to this interview published by the Catholic News Agency, we read:

We found out that some of the vocabulary which is just taken for granted and used freely [by the PCJP] may not always have the same sense or may have had some nuances which sometimes are missed because of the way the terms are used in the American political context.

And then one reads this:

We just realized that probably in the future, when … this dicastery takes up the task of diffusing, presenting and talking about this it might be necessary to provide a footnote in which some of these expressions can be given an awareness of the different senses of expressions in different cultures and settings. We thought something like that would be useful and helpful to the readers.

I recall reading this with some relish because of course the language a European, social-democratic experience is going to be different than that of the American one. Finally, I thought, the Vatican understood that when speaking about some issues, they might want to include, yes, “a footnote” to better explain what they mean.

Thus my disappointment when, yet again, the language which the PCJP uses doesn’t translate to the American ear. But worse, this time the PCJP is commenting on events IN America and passing judgment on certain approaches. One paragraph in the note references the Lehmann Brothers collapse and characterizes the event as the result of a “liberalist” approach.

By “liberalist,” a term the PCJP uses variably in the note several times, they mean an approach that gives too much liberty to the free market. So my first thought is to ask why they have to use such a derogatory term – that is how it plays on the American ear after all. Second, what is so “liberalist” in the notion of allowing a company to fail for so irresponsibly acquiring mountains of bad debt?

Carl Anderson... what did he know and when did he know it?

Carl Anderson… what did he know and when did he know it?

But third, and perhaps more importantly, why is a Vatican dicastery commenting on the American financial crisis when not one American is a member of the PCJP, not one economist at the press conference is a U.S. citizen, and there is only one American consultor to the PCJP… and that’s Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus? A great guy I’m sure, but is he the best guy to advise the Vatican on how to release an international note on this subject?

At the press conference that introduced this note, there were statements about our Dodd-Frank law and the Volker Rule. These are U.S. political positions and legislative issues that have specific contexts. Why oh why would the PCJP be taking these up? What possible good could this serve?

As if that weren’t enough, in the 2010 interview from Zenit, Cardinal Turkson says this about the PCJP and its relation to the Holy Father:

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is one department among many in the Vatican and thus must be in line with the pope. You must speak like the pope would speak when you represent the pope.

That sounds just about right. But when this note was introduced at the press conference, so reports Michael Severence,

Both the council’s President, Cardinal Peter Turkson, and Vatican Press Secretary, Fr. Federico Lombardi, made it very clear that the statement was “not in any way the opinion of the pope”, but solely that of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and those that composed it.

“Not in ANY way”? Like at all? Then why say it? If indeed the PCJP “must speak like the pope would speak” then why say anything that would require you to say “not in any way the opinion of the pope”? It’s all so very disappointing.

Now, all of that said, I do have to point out that what the PCJP ultimately does convey, i.e. the “takeaways” from the note, are worthy ideas and in fact had been said before by Pope Benedict XVI. The important parts were not new, really. The fundamental notions are:

1)      The principle of solidarity means we are – to use the phrase from Blessed Pope John Paul II – “all really responsible for all.”

2)      This means that the global common good is part of our responsibility.

3)      Just as the local State exists to create and maintain the structures for the common good, global relationships have developed to the point where a global authority ought to exist to create and maintain the structures for the global common good.

This, my friends, is the basic point of what came out on October 24th. Blessed Pope John XXIII was the first to express this idea and Pope Benedict does the same. What is often “lost in translation,” however, are the qualifiers to this set of propositions.

Pope Benedict says this in Caritas in veritate, for instance:

To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago. [emphasis in original]

This was billed in the media as “Pope advocates one world government.” Well, yeah, but they ignore a couple of things. First, before this sentence the Holy Father calls for a reform of the U.N. Now, what exactly about the U.N. the Holy Father wants to see changed, I don’t know. But it is clear from the perspective of many Americans, that the U.N. is a sham of an organization. Libya was not only on its Human Rights Commission, for crying out loud, the nation now famous for its abuses against citizens was the chairman of the Commission! How messed up is that?

The second thing people usually failed to mention – though I have to say that I do recall that Fr. Sirico was right on top of this at the time – is the fact that immediately after the above quote the Holy Father says:

Such an authority would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good[147], and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth.

Note first that such an authority must be “regulated by law.” Well that means that the authority envisioned by the Holy Father is not its own law-maker. It is regulated by another entity or entities. Also, it must adhere to the principle of subsidiarity. The solidarity we get, as I explain briefly above. But what does subsidiarity in this context look like?

Well to answer that we must go to footnote 147 in Caritas in veritate. That leads us to paragraph 441 in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and there we read:

…it is essential that such an authority arise from mutual agreement and that it not be imposed, nor must it be understood as a kind of “global super-State”.[JPII World Day of Peace 2003]

Political authority exercised at the level of the international community must be regulated by law, ordered to the common good and respectful of the principle of subsidiarity. “The public authority of the world community is not intended to limit the sphere of action of the public authority of the individual political community, much less to take its place. On the contrary, its purpose is to create, on a world basis, an environment in which the public authorities of each political community, their citizens and intermediate associations can carry out their tasks, fulfill their duties and exercise their rights with greater security”.[John XXIII Pacem in terris #141]

So we’re not talking here about a one-world government. We’re talking about an authority that is beholden by international law to the governments of the world whose purpose is to create and maintain the conditions for carrying out the common good within international/global interactions.

Happily, the PCJP makes the same distinctions in their note – not that many people reported that:

Instead, it is the world Authority that should put itself at the service of the various member countries, according to the principle of subsidiarity. Among the ways it should do this is by creating the socio-economic, political and legal conditions essential for the existence of markets that are efficient and efficacious because they are not over-protected by paternalistic national policies and not weakened by systematic deficits in public finances and of the gross national products – indeed, such policies and deficits actually hamper the markets themselves in operating in a world context as open and competitive institutions.

Notice that please. The world Authority exists to make sure markets, free markets thank you, function efficiently and efficaciously. The world Authority could make sure that markets are not skewed by national policies like, oh I don’t know, artificially pegging their currency – thank you China, or by getting into “systematic deficits in public finances and of the gross national products,” like, um social welfare systems that suck government coffers dry and create havoc on national budgets, debt, credit rating, etc.

Now you may be thinking, okay Omar – if that’s your real name – this all sounds nice, but doesn’t the Vatican understand that people are bad, that sin exists in the world, and that such an authority will ultimately mean corruption and abuse?

Be perfect... unless you don't want to.

Be perfect… unless you don’t want to.

The answer to that question is, yes. Yes, the Vatican understands that whole thing about sin. Trust me.

What we need to understand, and this goes for Americans, Europeans, Mongolians, whomever, we need to understand that the Vatican will always tell us what is best, what we ought to strive for, what is the ideal. In fact, that’s what we should want the Church to do for us. Why, after all, would the Church at once say, “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” and then say “but not in the real world”?

But also remember, that this world Authority does not exist as its own government. It exists at the bequest of smaller governments.

Lastly, remember that the principle here is the same one most of us believe in, namely, that higher authorities are helpful to make sure we all follow the rules. We try to limit that higher authority as best we can so that it doesn’t abuse its power. But that power is still necessary, and helps maintain our social fabric.

All of that said, while I think I can and ought to agree with the PCJP concerning the one world authority thing, I’m not really sure why it was that they felt it necessary to repeat this point from the Holy Father’s last encyclical. They certainly didn’t clear anything up, and it has only managed to confuse the American Catholic in the pew who hears – yet again – that the Vatican wants a one world order. Are the Catholics of the Southern hemisphere clamoring for clarity from the Vatican on this issue? I just don’t get it.

This may be stepping out of bounds, here, but if anyone at the Vatican is listening: could we find someone to help translate the PCJP’s statements into language that Americans can actually understand and act on? It doesn’t have to be me, but, hey, I’m available, sort of… just so long as I can work out of my home in Omaha. Have family, will travel. Just please get someone.

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