Excerpt from the prologue to The Ethics of the Common Good in Catholic Social Doctrine (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2008) by His Holiness Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. His Eminence Reverend Kirill is metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad and president of the Department of Foreign Religious Affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate. Translated from Italian by Paola Fantini, an intern in the Rome office of the Acton Institute.
The official documents of the Russian Orthodox Church, together with many other works of Christian scholars, bear the idea that the harmonious development of society can be possible only on the basis of essential values such as love, sacrifice, social responsibility and commitment to the common good.
In this sense, the volume written by His Eminence Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, “The Ethics of Common Good in Catholic Social Doctrine,” represents a vivid example of original interpretation of those challenges posed by secular society and that Christianity has to face daily. I particularly agree with the author’s thesis that both justice and “community,” that is fraternity of the members of the Church in Christ, play an important role in Catholic social doctrine and in the achievement of the common good. Cardinal Bertone also underlines the dangerous tendency, present in social life, to reject the primacy of ethical values before the expansion of an aggressive “Western” culture that, under the banner of universalism, destroys the identity and culture of other peoples.
The author draws a conclusion I fully share: In its aspiration to achieve the concept of the common good, the eternal moral imperative must not be substituted by social consensus, which is often founded on a subjective interpretation of the good by a human character wounded and obfuscated by sin.
Considering the Orthodox concept of the common good, it must be noted that this concept refers not only to material well-being, not only to peace and harmony on earth, but most of all to the aspirations of man and human society to eternal life, which is the ultimate good of every Christian. For this reason, according to the Orthodox conscience, the debate on the common good will always be incomplete if it considers earthly life exclusively, while the highest good – life in Christ – is ignored by the preachers of radical secularism and vulgar materialism.
This does not mean, however, that the Orthodox Church denies the material aspects of human existence or considers them of little importance to the cause of salvation. The Orthodox Church limits itself to identifying correct priorities and to remembering the words of the Gospel: “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mark 8: 36) Good hard work and the production of material goods can be justified only if they are meant to ensure man a dignified standard of life which will allow him to help others and develop to his spiritual potential. In following such teachings, the individual can actively serve God and his nation. At the same time it must be noted that material goods are not a necessary condition for salvation and therefore their attainment must not become an end in itself, which would destroy the person and the foundations of human society.
History demonstrates that only the aspiration to an ultimate good, the ability to sacrifice material goods in favor of heavenly ones, the ability to pursue duties of a higher order, render society vital and give meaning to the life of every single person. The states and peoples that have negated the value of spiritual life have disappeared from the scene of history. For this reason it is very important, when one speaks of the economy and the growth of well-being, never to forget their ultimate end: to serve the material and spiritual common good, not to hinder but favor man’s salvation.
It is not a coincidence that in Greek the word “economy” signifies building, construction. In his economic activity the individual is called to become like his Creator and to follow His holy will. One can say that the economy is a type of activity forever blessed by God. But it must not be limited to the sphere of exclusively material interests. Economics without morals is immoral and is no longer economics in its original meaning because it does not lead to construction, but to destruction. In the contemporary world there are not a few examples of this: blatant is the misery of millions of people, the worship of consumerism which renders people nitwits, the exploitation of instincts for vulgar purposes, the environmental crisis. All of this is the result of a management deprived of spirituality and the fruit of the “economy” of profit and egoism.
Russia’s cultural heritage, formed by Orthodoxy, is instilled with the priority of spiritual values over material ones. Such an ascetic tradition, however, is combined with another important tradition: a rapport of care and concern in the area of material goods, which gives us the possibility of doing good deeds. These two perspectives were born in the 16th century, during the famous debate between the followers of Joseph Volokolamsky and Nil Sorsky. Their canonizations prove that both traditions correspond to the spirit of Orthodoxy.
Blessed Joseph and Blessed Nil did not despise the material world, which was created by God and therefore has value and can be useful to man. For this reason, he who works honestly and multiplies material goods carries out a divine task. In this way, the discussion between the “Josephians” and the “Nilians” concerned the question of how to use material goods and not their value. The Blesseds discussed whether it was better to sacrifice such wealth, or use it for good deeds. The dialogue between these two different visions convinced the Orthodox conscience of the justness of both visions. The synthesis of the two approaches has opened vast horizons for the creation of national wealth and its utility for the good of men.
Later the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev said some beautiful words: “The problem of bread for me is a material problem, but the problem of bread for my neighbor, for all, is a spiritual, religious question.” On one hand, the economy is called to elevate the well-being of men. The administration of the economy must be efficient; otherwise, it does not meet its objectives. On the other hand, another aspect of the economy, on which the Church insists, is justice. Therefore, efficiency and justice. The national economy and the entire global economic system must answer to these two principles.
At present, economic globalization practically produces results contrary to those it first supposed. Only in the last twenty years, the difference in income between rich and poor has increased immeasurably, the international economy is always on the verge of a financial crisis, and like before, millions of human beings do not have access to the glories of civilization. An economic system of this type can certainly not be defined ethical.
In September 2007, a delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church took part in the Third Christian European Interdenominational Conference in Sibiu, Romania. The final appeal of the conference underlined how “all over the world, even in Europe, the modern process of radical globalization of the market has deepened in human society the gap between those who succeed and those who fail, diminishing the value of many people, has catastrophic environmental consequences and, above all, due to climate change, becomes incompatible with a harmonious development of the planet.”
This is a position shared not only by Christians of diverse denominations; many leaders of important religious communities are also united. It is not by chance that the theme of justice and the global economy was one of the themes at the center of attention during the world summit of religious leaders held in Moscow in 2006 and that gathered representatives of all the main religions of the world. In its final appeal, addressed among others to the leaders of the G-8 countries, the summit declared that “the international economic order, like all other spheres of global government, must be founded on justice. All economic activity must be sociably responsible and founded on moral norms. This will make the system truly efficient, meaning to bring good to all men.”
In the third millennium, the future of humanity will greatly depend in large part on the way in which the classes of political and economic leaders of developed countries listen to the advice of the world’s religious leaders to promote more just forms of global economic development.
In the Corpus of the Principles and Moral Rules of the Economy — an important document of the Ecumenical Council of the Russian People dedicated to economic ethics — it is correctly underlined that “money is only a means to meet a proposed end. It must always be moving and circulating. Genuine, totally exciting work, is the businessman’s real wealth! The absence of the worship of money emancipates man, makes him free interiorly.”
The real businessman always remembers that profit is only a means necessary to continue and develop his own work for the good of his neighbour. For us, the principal meaning of our work must be to serve God, our neighbour and the Patria [nation], through the creation of material and spiritual goods fundamental for a worthy life. Here lies the principal difference between Orthodox socio-economic ethics, our conception of the idea common good with the well-noted “ethics of capitalism.”
In this sense, the publication in Russian of the book of His Eminence Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, in which there are many similarities with the social doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church, will give a new important push to the development of dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics on the meaning of spiritual and moral values in the life of contemporary society.
Read the entire article on the Acton Institute website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the Action Institute.