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The Pope opines that war is how the great world economies ‘keep their balance sheets in the black’. I repeat: shouldn’t he be more careful with what he says?

Much of what he says in his public statements appears not entirely intellectually well thought through; at times it is even totally incoherent

By on Thursday, 19 June 2014

Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard the flight from Tel Aviv to Rome last month

Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard the flight from Tel Aviv to Rome last month

The Holy Father has just delivered himself of one of his famous spontaneous declarations, the likes of which prompted Damian Thompson to dub him (affectionately and respectfully, I am sure) our “chatterbox Pope”. I wrote about this phenomenon last time, quoting the judgement of Fr Dwight Longenecker, who is, like me, an admirer of the present Pope, but who is nevertheless getting a little worried about this aspect of his pontificate. “In almost every impromptu press conference, personal phone call, informal conversation, and unscheduled event”, he wrote, “the Pope’s candid and relaxed style has caused confusion, consternation, and bewilderment among the faithful … such an informal and often ambiguous method of communication cannot help but erode the more solemn teaching authority of the papacy”.

To that may be added the fact that much of this confusion is caused by the fact that some at least of what he says appears not entirely intellectually well thought through; at times it is even totally incoherent. Take the following quote from Pope Francis, from a “wide-ranging interview” published on June 12 in the Spanish daily La Vanguardia.

We are in a world economic system that is not good. A system that in order to survive must make war, as great empires have always done. But since you cannot have a Third World War, you have regional wars. And what does this mean? That arms are made and sold, and in this way the idolatrous economies, the great world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money, obviously keep their balance sheets in the black.

Now, it’s one thing to say that Churchmen often make what look like purely political statements and that they ought to have in mind that they are also responsible for the pastoral care of Catholics who may disagree with them politically. But at least, their remarks, though usually cliché-ridden, are for the most part at least coherent. But this statement is not coherent. Not only does it show no sign of reflection or knowledge: it just doesn’t make sense. What does it mean to talk of a “world economic system”? There is no such system. There are national economies, or in one case an attempt at an economy which is in a limited way international — the European “Union”, which is set up behind tariff barriers which cut it of and protect it from the economies of other countries. But even here, the fact is as clear as day that more important than what unites the economies of the EU, even now, is what distinguishes them. Think of Germany and Greece, or England and France: they are run along wholly different lines and always have been. Globally, what about China and Russia: are they really both part of a “world economic system”? And if so, how on earth is such a system to be defined?

Having spoken of a “world economic system”, the statement seems to imply that this system operates as imperial systems have supposedly always done by having wars to “keep their balance sheets in the black”: but there isn’t an empire, the world is fragmented, disunited: if it were an empire, who would it fight? The intergalactic federation?

I don’t simply disagree with what the statement says, since I’m not quite sure what it does say. One part of it seems to be that waging war is a good way of making money. I disagree with that strongly, though there do appear to be some economists (highly eccentric, I would have thought) who are currently putting this theory forward. Has the Holy Father been reading them, perhaps? Who knows? He can’t have much time for reading at the moment, I would have thought. Anyway, The New York Times recently reported — under the headline “The Pitfalls of Peace: The Lack of Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth” — that some economists are explaining the continuing slowness of economic growth in the US as being due to “the persistence and expectation of peace”. Here’s the argument:

Counterintuitive though it may sound, the greater peacefulness of the world may make the attainment of higher rates of economic growth less urgent and thus less likely. This view does not claim that fighting wars improves economies, as of course the actual conflict brings death and destruction. The claim is also distinct from the Keynesian argument that preparing for war lifts government spending and puts people to work. Rather, the very possibility of war focuses the attention of governments on getting some basic decisions right — whether investing in science or simply liberalising the economy. Such focus ends up improving a nation’s longer-run prospects.

In other words, if the Obama régime had to face a real war, on the scale of Vietnam, it would pay more attention to getting its basic decisions right. Is that it? But surely, the fact that so many of Obama’s decisions have been palpably wrong, even disastrous, has more to do with his incompetence and inexperience, the fact that until he became president he had never run anything, let alone a country. Faced by a major war, does anyone suppose that his decision-making would suddenly improve?

It’s surely the case that the Iraq war, waged at colossal expense, is one major reason for America’s huge indebtedness. With the war in Afghanistan, it could end up costing as much as $6 trillion dollars, or $75,000 for every household in America. The American national debt is well over twice that, so it’s not the only explanation: but the least we can say is that America’s wars have absolutely not put the US economy “in the black”. The idea that the arms trade must have had this effect, both in the US and elsewhere, “that arms are made and sold, and in this way the idolatrous economies, the great world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money” have made a profit which has got these idolatrous economies out of debt is almost comically not the case.

The thing is this. I don’t mind that the Pope knows and understands nothing about economics: that doesn’t worry me at all: it’s not what he’s there for. What worries me is that when the Pope sounds off in this way on any subject at all, whether or not it lies within his area of competence and responsibility, it will in the end undermine the magisterium of which he as pope is the guardian and chief embodiment. As Father Longenecker says, it “cannot help but erode the … solemn teaching authority of the papacy”.

I fear it’s already happening. Even when he’s talking about spiritual or doctrinal questions, does anyone now think that what he has to say necessarily represents the teaching of the Catholic Church? Sometimes it does: but how are we to know?


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