Bruce Duncan. Pope runs moral template over G20.

Pope France outlined a sharp moral template for world leaders at the G20 meeting in Brisbane. In a letter on 6 November to the current chair of the G20, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the Pope warned that “many lives are at stake”, including from “severe malnutrition”, as he highlighted the values and policy priorities needed for the global economy.

Francis regarded the Global Financial Crisis as “a form of aggression” equally serious and real as the extremist attacks in the Middle East. He specifically condemned abuses in unconstrained speculation and maximising profits as “the final criterion of all economic activity.”

In effect, the letter was a firm rejection of the neoliberal policies that have been driving economic policies in recent decades, resulting in a yawning chasm between the very rich and the poor, within and between nations.

In line with his earlier statements, Francis called for urgent measures to reverse “all forms of unacceptable inequality” and poverty, and to restore social equity and opportunity for everyone, but especially to focus efforts on the needs of the most vulnerable. “Responsibility for the poor and the marginalised must therefore be an essential element of any political decision”.

His concern about “the spectre of global recession” springs from his experience of the economic collapse in Argentina in 2002 and the terrible results of the 2008 financial crisis. In parts of Europe unemployment is still running up to 50 per cent among youth. He urged “improvement in the quality” of public and private spending and investment, especially to create “decent work for all”. He warned that prolonged social exclusion can lead to criminal activity and “even the recruitment of terrorists”.

Mr Abbott would welcome the Pope’s comments in support of “concerted efforts to combat tax evasion” and proper financial regulation to ensure “honesty, security and transparency”. Abbott would also take heart from the Pope’s support for the United Nations legal system to “halt unjust aggression” against minorities in the Middle East. The Pope affirmed the duty of the international community to protect people from extreme attacks and violations of humanitarian law.

But the Pope also contended that there can be no military solution to the problem of terrorism, since the roots causes derive from “poverty, underdevelopment and exclusion” as well as distorted religious views. The Pope did not mention the huge cuts to Australia’s overseas aid, but urged support for the UN Assembly’s post-2015 Development Agenda.

Mr Abbott may not have been so happy to read about the Pope’s concern with climate change and “assaults on the natural environment, the result of unbridled consumerism”, with serious consequences for the world economy.

Mr Abbott may not have been so happy to read about the Pope’s concern with climate change and “assaults on the natural environment, the result of unbridled consumerism”, with serious consequences for the world economy.

Nor would Abbott feel too comfortable with the Pope’s appeal about the humanitarian crisis of refugees around the world. While not mentioning Australia’s extremely harsh treatment of refugees arriving by boat, the Pope asked the G20 states “to be examples of generosity and solidarity”, especially for refugees. Australia’s current quota of 13,750 refugees, reduced from 20,000 by the Abbott government, appears inordinately meagre in comparison to our wealth and resources.

None of what Pope Francis is saying about the moral criteria for a more just economic system will come as a surprise to those who have been following his earlier criticism of abuses in capitalist and other economies. Indeed, the critique of capitalism by the popes has been consistent since Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 document, On the Condition of the Working Class, and more especially since John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council which finished in 1965.

Pope Benedict also reiterated the call for reform in economic systems in his 2009 document, Caritas in Veritate, in which he extolled Pope Paul VI’s incisive critique of neoliberalism in his landmark 1967 document, Development of Peoples.

What is new with Pope Francis is his ability to communicate refreshingly in a friendly and popular way, and articulate clearly a renewed moral perspective on our global economic plight. Even people who are not Catholic or Christian can hear his voice as a call to reason, humanity and sanity at this critical moment in the human story.

Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy in Melbourne.

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