On December 31, Pope Benedict XVI bid farewell to a world that had seen him as a protagonist of cultural and ecclesial life for more than half a century, ever since, as a young priest and academic, he had the opportunity to participate in the work of the Second Vatican Council.

So much has been written, and will be written, about Joseph Ratzinger; I take the liberty of sketching a brief reflection on the contribution that, as Benedict XVI, he made to Catholic social doctrine and, in particular, to the issues of the market and the political order—taking as a frame of reference the Augustinian notion of Tranquillitas ordinis and taking my cue from the encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which Benedict signed in 2009.

In Caritas, Benedict wrote: “In a climate of mutual trust, the market is the economic institution that permits encounter between persons, inasmuch as they are economic subjects who make use of contracts to regulate their relations as they exchange goods and services of equivalent value between them, in order to satisfy their needs and desires.” The market is presented to us as a form of cooperation based on the contractualist principle of “reciprocity,” meaning that the premise is voluntary exchange. Two people meet and, by exchanging information about their expectations, realize that they can be helpful to each other. You cannot give birth to the market by legislation or by decree. One can regulate a market, of course, or facilitate or hinder it, but no one can force anyone to engage in a transaction against his will: doing so puts us outside the market economy.

In this sense, market processes, however virtuous, should never be confused with gift—and evidently, however vicious, neither should they be confused with robbery. Gift appears as that indispensable dimension of living that makes relationships authentically human, and thus defines an existence authentically human. We know well that life is not resolved in the market; the experience of gifting allows us to see directly the partiality of market logic. The catallaxy, the market, is the social typology proper to free men who consciously compete to obtain the best possible result in the allocation of scarce and available goods; what is not scarce or not available does not and should not enter the market process.

It is in this conceptual framework that a statement of great propositional value emerges: “it was not just a matter of correcting dysfunctions through assistance,” Benedict writes. “The poor are not to be considered a ‘burden,’ but a resource, even from the purely economic point of view.” In these words are present all the themes already addressed by John Paul II in the encyclicals Laborem Exercens, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and Centesimus Annus. These arguments prompted some commentators of the time to speak of “barefoot capitalism”—reminiscent of the analyses of the Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto—but also that decidedly closer to us of the social market economy elaborated by Wilhelm Röpke and Luigi Sturzo.

Benedict XVI’s economic perspective fits into the framework of a world order inspired by the principles of subsidiarity, solidarity, and polyarchy. In Caritas in Veritate, the term “polyarchy” makes its entry into the lexicon of the papal social Magisterium.

The fact that this concept has entered a social encyclical and has been invested with the high rank of principle, I believe, deserves attention, because of its novelty, and because of the crucial function the encyclical assigns to it and the inevitable spillovers in terms of global policy. The term in question appears at the beginning of Part IV of the encyclical, in paragraph 57, where some concrete instances are advanced—among them, that of a reform of global governance in both the political and economic spheres: the system of powers that can help seize the opportunity constituted by globalization, Benedict XVI asserts, must be structured in a subsidiary and polyarchical way, “In order not to produce a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature.” This is far from the notion of a political authority with universal competence that transforms into a global Leviathan.

Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of interpretations of the document that have gone precisely in this direction, mainly because of the translation of the Italian version; there, where the locution moderamen globalizationis appeared in the Latin text, the Italian version adopted the formula “government of globalization,” unlike the English and French versions which, more correctly, translated it as “governance of globalization,” distinguishing the notion of government (gubernaculum) from that of governance (moderamen).

The lesson we can draw from Pope Benedict’s rich analysis tells us that economic and political institutions, always in competition with one another, irreducible to any monocratic authority, like any other dimension of human action, never operate in a moral vacuum or in a virtual world, but within a concrete cultural context, whose matrices can be recognized and appreciated or neglected and despised. When a social system denies the value of the human person, starting with the right to be born and to live by participating in the economic and political dimension, it proves to be inhumane, and deserves to be criticized: “a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized.”

From this perspective, a healthy market economy and an equally healthy democratic system, whether domestic or global, are always limited by a legal order that regulates them and by moral institutions that interact with them and influence them—and are in turn influenced by them.

Photo by Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis via Getty Images


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