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Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008

More here than meets the Dow

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Should we even be listening to religious leaders when they opine on the financial crisis? Ted Sorensen, in his marvelous new book "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History," is absolutely right to assert that in the United States, at least, "the wall between church and state . . . has served both church and state so well for so long in this country."

As a very close adviser to both current presidential candidates and former adviser to President John F. Kennedy, this gifted speechwriter and consultant helped JFK deflect concern back when people thought that a Roman Catholic could not govern this nation impartially — on the spurious ground that he'd be taking backstage orders from the pope. That fear was absurd and, in fact, worries about a Catholic candidate perished forever after JFK's inspiring performance as president, tragically short-lived though it was.

But residual distrust of any clerical comment on contemporary policy issues often triggers knee-jerk suspicion rather than careful attention in this political culture. The other day, for instance, Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI spoke out in Rome about the current global financial crisis. Because of the secular values of our media culture, the pope's observations were little noted here. But they were particularly noteworthy because they conveyed a perspective that one doesn't get from the average (or even above-average) economist, politician or even presidential candidate.

In his writings and encyclical letters, Benedict has been a consistent philosophical crusader for a definition of man/woman that transcends the material or the economic at the plainest or crudest. His viewpoint is in effect a large critique of the limitations of modernity. His attack includes a smart critique on the philosophical limitations of Karl Marx.

"His error lay deeper," he writes in his 2007 Encyclical "Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope)." "He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: Man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favorable economic environment."

Extending this point to the current crisis, Benedict emphasizes the crisis of the human spirit far more than the crisis in global credit. He reflects the Biblical notion that a rich man gains nothing if he loses his soul, and that it is "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

At a time when governments are — quite understandably — seeking to quantify the dimension of the problem, Benedict suggests that the problem is in the very definition of the crisis: "We are now seeing, in the collapse of major banks, that money vanishes, it is nothing. All these things that appear to be real are in fact secondary."

The primary reality of life, Benedict believes and preaches, is the individual's relationship with God and with spiritual growth: "We must ask ourselves, what does 'progress' really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise?"

The pope then quotes the clever quip of famous 20th-century philosopher Theodor W. Adorno that "progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb." Our global financial system is built on a similar illusion, the pope commented the other day at the Vatican: "Whoever builds his life on this reality, on material things, on success . . . builds (his house) on sand."

By no means is Benedict the lone religious authority offering an entirely different take on the financial crisis. Recently two Church of England leaders have offered parallel perspectives.

Dr. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, argues that "unimaginable wealth has been generated by equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders."

Dr. John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, likened the illusions of the stock market to "Alice in Wonderland" and speculators who peddled short-sold shares to "bank robbers and asset strippers."

It is hardly necessary to undergo a spiritual epiphany to accept a measure of value in these Christian perspectives. In many respects, they are undoubtedly shared by Islamic and other religious leaders as well. Karl Marx made an obvious point when he dismissed religion as "the opiate of the masses."

It is sheer fantasy to dismiss the realities of economics in everyday life. Reflect on even one baby that goes to sleep hungry or even starving and your faith can be shaken no matter what Lord or God you worship. Even so, words of guidance that emphasize matters that transcend the Dow Jones closing number, GDP and national liquidities help us understand the limitations of economics, and indeed the limitations of economists, financiers and those dreaded short-sellers.

They are not gods, even if some of them have sometimes sought to play God. For the immediate future, in fact, one rather greatly prefers to listen to the wisdoms of the pope and the archbishops of Canterbury and York.

Veteran journalist Tom Plate is writing a book on America and Asia. © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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