If only bankers resigned as easily as clergy, one wag tweeted, when the news broke that the Dean of St Paul’s was to become the latest cleric to step down as the result of the way in which the Church has handled the capitalism-in-crisis protest by the side of the cathedral this week. Still, as one protester put it, it is all good publicity for the cause.
But is it? The received wisdom in Westminster is that if a minister was on the front page of the newspapers for four or five days, then he, rather than the original issue, had become the story, and he should resign. At St Paul’s, the Church, not the excesses of capitalism, has become the story. The scalps of a couple of prominent clerics are not much of a prize if you are setting out to overthrow the world financial order.
The Vatican has just demonstrated a different way of proceeding. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has issued a significant document in advance of this week’s meeting of world leaders for the G20 summit in Cannes, where the international monetary system and strengthening financial regulations is on the agenda. It calls for a more ethical approach to finance, the redistri-bution of wealth, an end to rampant speculation, and the establishment of a global central bank to which national banks would have to cede power.
The document has been branded “quasi-Marxist” on Wall Street, where some commentators, who supposed that the Pope was a closet Republican because of his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, have been brought sharply up against the radical stance of Catholic social teaching on economics.
Rome has been highly critical of the consequences of the Big Bang deregulation of the financial sector in 1986; for it dissolved not just financial restraints but also moral ones, and glorified the values of utilitarianism and individualism at the expense of the common good. Economic liberalism does not just spurn rules and controls: it promotes selfishness.
Ironically, the St Paul’s Institute had prepared its own report for the 25th anniversary of the Big Bang. But it has been suppressed, for fear that it gives succour to the tented ones. This was a mistake. The survey, which scrutinised bankers’ morality, would have underscored the Church’s position that it is entirely possible to be critical of capitalism, without wanting a bunch of campers cluttering up your churchyard till Christmas.
Of course, the Church needs to tread warily. Many who accept the Pope’s withering condemnation of contemporary capitalism would question whether he had the competence to offer detailed prescriptions. Saying that existing bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are unable to deal with the scale of the crisis is one thing; proposing a world banking authority, along with heavier regulation and more taxes on financial trading, is another — especially when the Vatican sees the new body as also having authority over disarmament, arms control, food security, and peacekeeping.
But the Pope’s call for “everyone, individuals and peoples, to examine in depth the principles and the cultural moral values at the basis of social coexistence” is valid and timely. Those who say it is impossible to constrain a free market are as wrong as those who say that if we don’t sell our arms to oppressive regimes, someone else will.
The continued ruthless arrogance of bankers, who, with their effective state guarantee against failure, are still paying themselves obscene bonuses, shows that the system has learned nothing. St Paul’s should publish its report, and turn the protesters’ indignation back where it truly belongs.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.