The Holy See
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Friday, 15 October 2010


Ladies and Gentlemen, Directors of Aspen Institutes from around the world,

I would like to express special thanks to the Hon. Giulio Tremonti, in his capacity as Chairman of “Aspen Institute Italia”, for kindly inviting me to share some thoughts with you based upon the principal themes discussed over the last few days at the Aspen International Committee Meeting. There are two key questions that you have addressed: first, the economic, political and social challenges to Western democracies, with particular reference to strategies for emerging from the present crisis, and second, the problems associated with information media that are now globalized.

In this regard, I would like to begin by providing some pointers, in the light of the Church’s Social Doctrine and especially Pope Benedict XVI’s Encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which can help shed light upon your reflections and the decisions that need to be taken for the common good.

The present economic crisis has forcibly reminded us of something which has always characterized human existence, but which in recent years seems to have been forgotten, partly through growing material prosperity, namely the precariousness of life and the sense of human finitude. We are brought up against our limitations by the restlessness of our desires, which profoundly characterize our human nature, since there is an irrepressible demand for eternity inscribed in our DNA. Despite the dramatic nature of the crisis, with all the discouragement and demoralization that ensued, it can paradoxically serve as a positive occasion for rediscovering the most authentic human desires and opening up to a new outlook on humanity and the present moment. In his Encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI states that “the current crisis obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negative ones. The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future. In this spirit, with confidence rather than resignation, it is appropriate to address the difficulties of the present time” (Caritas in Veritate, 21). The Holy Father urges us, therefore, to look to the future with confidence, since the present crisis, far from causing us to become closed in on ourselves, can actually provide incentives for the release of new creative energies and initiatives. These are more necessary now than ever, and yet they must be built on solid foundations.

Here we can learn from European history. The world that Saint Benedict faced 1500 years ago was a world in crisis – politically, economically and socially. Yet Saint Benedict did not despair. On the contrary, through the monasteries that he founded and the Rule that he wrote – which brought together the spiritual, transcendent dimension of man (the ora) with the material dimension (the labora) – he contributed to the shaping of a new era, heralding a new culture, a fresh economic conception and a renewed political inspiration.

What was Benedict’s genius? We could summarize it by saying that he sensed the need to put man back into the centre, recognizing the value of every dimension of his existence, his needs and his desires. Now, when the Holy Father speaks of an ethical dimension in the economy, is he not referring precisely to the need to put man back into the centre, just as Benedict did (cf. Caritas in Veritate, 45)? This means, first and foremost, becoming aware of the original and indestructible relations that constitute the human being. Undoubtedly, one cause of the economic crisis is the pervasiveness of a false ethical notion of efficiency, that would make personal profit into an absolute. Behind this “ethic” lies not only greed, but above all a concept of man severed from all relations: man fundamentally alone, pursuing his own fulfilment within a restricted horizon that is exclusively materialistic. Whereas putting man back into the centre means rediscovering the relations that make him who he is and make possible his integral human growth. We are not talking here about merely functional relations, but rather relations that could be defined as “ontological”. The then Cardinal Ratzinger recalled this when speaking of the crisis of cultures: “We need men who keep their eyes looking at God, learning from there true humanity” (Address given at Subiaco, 1 April 2005). Putting man back into the centre means valuing and favouring his transcendental dimension. Man is not truly at the centre unless he in turn can affirm the centrality of God, and unless his economic choices guarantee the life conditions that are indispensable if people are to be able to rise towards God.

At the same time the original horizontal relations that nurture human growth must also be promoted. In central place is undoubtedly the family, a reflection of the communion of love between God and men (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 12). The family is the principal setting for every person’s growth, since it is here that we learn to open ourselves to life and to the whole world. The bonds that it creates are therefore indispensable for development, as we can see for ourselves: where the family is stronger, the fall-out from the recent crisis has been humanly less damaging. This is mainly because the family generates relations of trust and teaches trust. We cannot think to recover from a crisis that thoroughly undermined the fiduciary system, without the help of “places of trust”, since “human life becomes impossible if one can no longer trust other people and is no longer able to rely on their experience, on their knowledge” (J. Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures - The Europe of Benedict). What is more, the family has the capacity to open all mankind to the dimension of genuine fraternity, “to the recognition that the human race is a single family” (Caritas in Veritate, 53). The Holy Father reminds us that “the theme of development can be identified with the inclusion-in-relation of all individuals and peoples within the one community of the human family, built in solidarity on the basis of the fundamental values of justice and peace” (ibid., 54).

What is the task of politics, then, in the present context? Above all, it is to help put man back into the centre, favouring those original relations of which I have just spoken. In this sense the role of the State is crucial. On the one hand, it cannot be “interventionist”, an absolute regulator of the life of individuals from the economic or the social point of view, drawing up legislation that, through a false understanding of the principles of freedom and equality, risks undermining social cohesion. On the other hand, neither can the State be a mere “onlooker”, viewing society as a great “market” capable of self-regulation and of discovering the right balance by itself. On the contrary, the present crisis helps to highlight the importance of the State’s role, while recognizing it as subsidiary to the family and to civil society. In this sense, public authorities at every level of government must permit and encourage the emergence and the reinforcement of a political and economic context in which different subjects are free to operate, taking care to avoid the systemic imbalances that helped trigger the crisis that erupted two years ago. Politics that gives pride of place to man in all his dimensions, not just to individual particular interests, would not only favour a more stable economic recovery, to everyone’s benefit, but would contribute positively to overcoming the crisis of confidence that has involved not only financiers, but also the world of institutions, especially in the West. At the heart of this renewed commitment there must be “an ethics which is people-centred” (ibid., 45), one that recognizes the value of the great resource that is labour – so-called human capital – and that at the same time favours a notion of enterprise for which the pursuit of profit is not the exclusive and self-justifying goal.

Such an approach can also favour adequate management of globalization. The internet is perhaps the most potent symbol of globalization today. Thousands of items of information can be simultaneously available all over the world to innumerable people. The risk of a depersonalization of communication to the great detriment of authentic human relations is all too evident. It is the centrality of the human person and the value of personal testimony that will form the nucleus of the Message for the next World Communications Day, to be published on 24 January 2011, which the Holy Father has entitled: “Truth, proclamation and authenticity of life in the digital age”.

Global communication raises serious questions, on which you had an opportunity to reflect yesterday, both concerning the political use of the internet, and concerning the protection of privacy. Once again it can be helpful, mutatis mutandis, to refer to the example of Benedict of Norcia. The holy Abbot sensed that one of the challenges of his time was the risk of losing the great cultural patrimony of antiquity. Accordingly he entrusted to his monks the custody and the transmission of that patrimony, giving rise to the dense network of libraries that has made it possible for our world today to benefit from the riches of antiquity. This was a real landmark in the history of culture, which Saint Benedict achieved at a time when it was extremely difficult to locate and obtain access to the great works that had shaped the world as it was then known. That particular difficulty no longer exists; paradoxically, one of the risks at present is that the great flow of information at our disposal, instead of generating culture, collates data uncritically and limits itself to spreading gossip, investigating people’s private lives, and influencing the life of entire countries, not always for the better. In this area too, it is the fundamental task of politics to search for solutions centred “on promoting the dignity of persons and peoples … clearly inspired by charity and placed at the service of truth, of the good, and of natural and supernatural fraternity” (ibid., 73). In this sense, Pope Benedict continues, “the media can make an important contribution towards the growth in communion of the human family and the ethos of society when they are used to promote universal participation in the common search for what is just” (ibid.). Political decisions must be inspired, therefore, not only by the concern, necessary though it is, for management and regulation of the internet, but rather by a broader reflection on the quality of communication in our globalized world, for the good of individuals and societies.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, the current crisis must not make us yield to despair or to malaise, neither can our response be limited to seeking new technologies with a view to escaping from the present situation. On the contrary, we can take the opportunity to reflect fruitfully on every aspect of man and human existence. I believe that the significance of my presence here today lies in the opportunity it gives me to share with you the positive stance that the Church has always promoted, the positive stance that colours our view of man with the realistic awareness that the soul of every reform is in the final analysis achieved through the reform of every soul. Genuine reform consists in acquiring greater awareness of everyone’s personal responsibility for his own destiny and for his neighbour. In the words of T.S. Eliot: “There is work together …and a job for each: every man to his work” (Choruses from the Rock).