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‘Horrendously hard, cruel and atrocious’ — This economy kills!

88 years ago Pope Pius XI issued an economic critique. Élio Gasda SJ, a Brazilian moral theologian, shows that in the Catholic view, the economy should not be devoted to the enrichment of a few but to the principles of social justice and solidarity.

Today, markets serve primarily the richest minority in the world and emphasise profit. 

However, “[a]lmost a hundred years ago, Pius XI foresaw the growth of a global economic dictatorship that he called ‘international imperialism of finance’ (Quadragesimo Anno, 15 May 1931, 109). […] They are harsh yet accurate words […] The entire social doctrine of the Church and the magisterium of my predecessors rejects the idolatry of money that reigns rather than serves, that tyrannizes and terrorizes humanity.” (Pope Francis, 3rd World Meeting of Popular Movements, 2016, Pope Paul VI Hall, Vatican City).

Francis was referring to the first Catholic Social Teaching encyclical of the 20th Century: Quadragesimo anno (QA). It was written by Pius XI (1875-1939) to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first social encyclical, Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891. On 15 May it was 88 years old — still so current.

The social doctrine of Pius XI was one of the most fruitful. QA came to light during the greatest crisis of capitalism. In the intervening period between the two world wars, the central event is the “crisis of 29” [also known as the ‘Great Depression’], whose greatest symbol is the crash of the New York Stock Exchange. 

The crisis caused the bankruptcy of thousands of companies from all sectors and a general bankruptcy of the banking system. It has led millions of people to unemployment and despair. The economy collapsed, “the doctrine was preached that all accumulation of capital falls by an absolutely insuperable economic law to the rich, and that by the same law the workers are given over and bound to perpetual want, to the scantiest of livelihoods. ” (QA54).

A situation generated by a capitalism, that is a strong concentrator of wealth. Controlled by large monopolies destroying the competition. Corporations emerge, uniting themselves in oligopolies, with the aim of increasing their profits. The first phase of the crisis is marked by the sharp fall in GDP, declining industrial output and bankruptcy of hundreds of banks. The system has become unmanageable. The rich do not care about democracy, they just want to make money.

For Catholic Social Teaching, this can be understood as economic despotism of the imperialism of money: 

“In the first place, it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure. This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the life-blood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will.” (QA, 105;106)

In this context, only the most violent competitors and those who have no scruples of conscience survive (QA, 107). Such accumulation of power generates three types of struggles: one to achieve economic dominance; another to gain control of the state in order to manipulate it to their advantage; and the struggle between the stronger states to secure economic advantages for themselves (QA, 108).

The consequences are disastrous. The greed of profit followed the unbridled ambition of power; the whole economy became horrendously hard, cruel, atrocious. Added to the serious damage caused by the confusion of the role of the public authorities: the degradation of the authority of the State, rather than in the service of the common good and justice it is seen as a slave, delivered and chained to the whim of unbridled passions; economic imperialism and international banking — no less fatal and terrible — “whose country is where profit is. (QA, 109).

The free competition of the strongest forces is a poisoned source, from which all the errors of individualistic economic science emerge. Ignoring that the economy is both social and moral. “This function is one that the economic dictatorship which has recently displaced free competition can still less perform, since it is a headstrong power and a violent energy that, to benefit people, needs to be strongly curbed and wisely ruled. But it cannot curb and rule itself. “(QA, 88). It is urgent to subject and re-subordinate the economy to higher and nobler principles of social justice and solidarity. It is necessary that this justice penetrate completely the institutions of the peoples and all the life of the society (QA, 88).

The situation in the time of Pius XI was so dark that it generated World War II. Periods of serious social crisis favoured the rise of authoritarian nationalists and the advance of totalitarian ideologies: Hitler in Germany; Mussolini in Italy; Franco in Spain; Salazar in Portugal. 

Despite the threats he suffered from his enemies inside and outside the Church, Pius XI did not omit himself. In QA he showed his firmness against an economy “horrendously hard, cruel, atrocious.” Against fascism, he published Non abbiamo bisogno (1931) [On Catholic action in Italy]] and condemned Nazism in Mit brennender sorge (1937) [On the German Reich]. In Divini Redemptoris (1937) [on atheistic Communism], he was relentless against Atheist Bolshevik Communism (Stalinism).

Pius XI, Pope Francis and all Catholic Social teaching revolts against the idolatry of money and a deified market whose interests are “the only rule” (Evangelii Gaudium, 56 [on the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world])

Any similarity is not mere coincidence!

This article was first published in Dom Total, a Jesuit-affiliated news portal in Brazil. The article is by Élio Gasda SJ, Brazilian Jesuit priest and moral and social theologian, lecturer and researcher at Faculdade Jesuíta de Filosofia e Teologia (FAJE) in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The article is translated into English by Ricardo da Silva SJ.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.