The notion of “proximate immorality” is the most remarkable news in the just released text by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for the Promotion of the Integral Human Development, titled Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones.
According to the document, proximate immorality occurs in “occasions in which misuse and fraud can be easily produced, especially damaging the less advantageous counterparts.”
In the document, the reasoning is particularly applied to banks. In fact, the document reads that “to commercialize certain financial instruments is in itself licit, yet in a situation of inequality it profits from a lack of knowledge or weaknesses on the side of either of the counterparts”, because this is “a violation of due relational propriety, which is already a grave violation from an ethical point of view.”
This is the issue: there are structures that are not per se evil, and that they do not work as evil as long as they care for the closest ones. However, in the moment when their goals are set farther afield, and lose sight of the human being, they can become evil.
Applied as it is to banks, this theological notion might also be applied to a series of other issues, because anytime proximity is lost there is the possibility of not doing things for the sake of the common good.
Beyond this theological notion, which is in a certain way the evolution of the notion of the “structures of sin” denounced by St. John Paul II, the just-released Vatican document on the ethical discernment of financial activity does not come out of the blue. It is, in fact, the latest outcome of a series of documents, lectures and texts that, since the 1980s, have characterized the Church’s reflection on economic issues.
In the end, the document provides a moral-theological framework for the economic sphere. It does not criticize free enterprise and the free market, but it emphasizes that moral economic activity, in the end, depends on the way man uses economic tools.
The document states that the integral development of every person, of every human community, and of all people, is the ultimate objective of the common good that the Church, as the universal sacrament of salvation proposes.”
The document stresses that “this ethical order, rooted in the wisdom of God, the Creator, is therefore the indispensable foundation for building a worthy community of persons, regulated by laws, and imprinted with a true justice”
And the document claims that the Church recognizes among its primary duties the duty to beckon everyone, with humble certainty, to some clear ethical principles,” because “human rationality searches, in truth and justice, for that solid foundation upon which to support its work with the awareness that without it, its orientation would be weakened.”
The document also emphasizes the missed opportunity of the most recent financial crisis.
A financial crisis, it reads, “could have been the occasion to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and a new regulation of financial activities neutralising the predatory and speculative dimensions, and valuing the service of the actual economy.”
It rather brought back “the heights of myopic egoism limited to insufficient terms that, excluding the common good, excludes from its horizons the concern not only to create, but also to spread wealth and eliminate the inequality so pronounced today.”
How can this situation be solved? By going beyond the individualistic and consumerist man, whose profit is based on money.
The human person “actually possesses a peculiarly relational nature and has a sense for the perennial search of an earning and wellbeing that may be total, which is reducible neither to a logic of consumption nor to the economic aspects of life.”
This would also lead to recognize “the validity of economic strategies that aim above all to the global quality of life achieved before that of the indiscriminate growth of profits, toward a wellbeing that, as such, is always integral of the entire person, and of every person,” since “no profit is in fact legitimate when it falls short of the objective of the integral promotion of the human person, the universal destination of goods, and the preferential option for the poor.”
This is the approach proposed for a “healthy” financial system, with no toxicity, because “an unacceptable phenomenon under the ethical profile is not simple profit, but to avail oneself of an inequality for one’s own advantage, in order to create remarkable profits damaging others”.
The document also notes that cooperation is needed, because “when the human person recognizes the fundamental solidarity that unites he or she with all of humanity, one realizes that he or she cannot keep only for oneself the goods that one possesses.”
In the end, the document gives ethical guidance for finance and economics based on “asymmetric relations”, and on an ever deeper drift between poor and rich, weak and strong, and points the finger at incorrect financial practices like offshore financial activities, and at business schools, which are required “to foresee and provide, within their curriculum of studies, in a manner not marginal or supplementary, but rather well founded, a formational dimension which educates one to understand the economy and finance in the light of a vision of the totality of the human person, avoiding reduction of the person to only some of his or her dimensions.”
The CDF’s document also goes more in depth on technical details, but its clear point is that integral human development, solidarity, preferential option for poor have always been the key for the Holy See to approach financial issues.
Looking backward, there two documents of the 1980s that frame the CDF’s text.
The first is a 1986 document released by the Pontifical Council for the Justice and Peace. The document was titled “At the service of the human community: a human approach to international debt.”
The document backed “a reform of financial and monetary institutions” in order to avoid new situations of crisis, It previewed the effects of financial economy and noted that the growing interdependence, that was called to “give rise to new and expanded forms of solidarity that respect the equal dignity of every people”, instead to lead to the dominion of the strongest.
It is noteworthy that the 1986 document quoted many times the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, one of the two documents dedicated to the issue of the Liberation Theology.
One of the quotes of the instruction read that “grave economic problems will not be solved but with new funds of solidarity: solidarity of poor among themselves, solidarity with poor, solidarity of workers with workers. Institutions and social organizations, at different levels, must participate to a general model of solidarity.”
The second document is a 1985 lecture by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on “Market, Economy and Ethics.”
The document, already in 1985, reflected some of the themes of the just released CDF document.
Cardinal Ratzinger noted that “the economic inequality between the northern and southern hemispheres of the globe is becoming more and more an inner threat to the cohesion of the human family.”
Then, he questioned the theory of the market’s inner logic.
Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “Even if the market economy does rest on the ordering of the individual within a determinate network of rules, it cannot make man superfluous or exclude his moral freedom from the world of economics.”
Cardinal Ratzinger tried to reach a balance between the amoral determinism of the capitalistic model and the centrally planned economy of Marxism. And, in the end, he concludes that a lack of ethics “can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse.”
When he became pope, Benedict XVI came back to the economic issues. The encyclical Caritas in Veritate which introduced the notion of the economy of gits, was just the last in a series of Benedict’s interventions on economic issues.
In particular, Benedict XVI gave a meditation during the 2011 special Synod on the Middle East that addressed the “false divinities” that govern modern times.
“Let us remember,” the Pope emeritus said “all the great powers of the history of today. Let us remember the anonymous capital that enslaves man which is no longer in man’s possession but is an anonymous power served by men, by which men are tormented and even killed. It is a destructive power that threatens the world.”
From the documents of the 1980s through the 1990s until now, the Holy See’s approach to economic issues has always been ruled by the attention for integral human development and for a human economics, based on relations and not on profit.
The ultimate goal has always been Christ, no matter how difficult it can be believed. The CDF / Integral Human Development document is part of a long-standing Vatican approach to handling financial issues.