The Pope, the Rabbi, and the Moral Economy

Acton Institute | Samuel Gregg | July 15, 2009

The pope and the rabbi had a similar message, which amounts to the following. Some of our contemporary economic problems reflect a deeper moral crisis within Western civilization. Until we acknowledge this, shifts in economic policy and business practice will only provide limited solutions.

To be sure, it’s not a message everyone will appreciate. But that doesn’t diminish its accuracy.

As individuals, there are many striking analogies between Pope Benedict and Rabbi Sacks. Both are widely recognized as formidable intellectuals in their own right. Each has unapologetically and directly challenged secularizing trends within his own faith-tradition. Neither is afraid to question the secularist zeitgeist which thoroughly intimidates so many rabbis and Christian clergy today.

In their recent reflections, both rabbi and pope underlined what a morally-confused, even dysfunctional, world we live in. It’s not that they consider the pre-1960s era as somehow morally superior. In Sacks’ view, more people today genuinely do care about issues that received less attention from our grandparents, such as extreme poverty in developing nations.

“But,” Sacks writes, “note this: the things we care about are vast, distant, global, remote.” When it comes to matters closer to us such as trust or simple truth-telling, Sacks says we have more or less abandoned notions of right and wrong. Instead the West has embraced a morality in which what ultimately matters, ethically-speaking, is whether we choose something.

Choice has become its own justification and the only sin is to question anyone’s moral choices. To do so is to be “intolerant” or “judgmental.” Who are you to question my choice to lie on my mortgage-application or my choice to betray my wife?

According to Sacks, one effect of this relativism is that we tacitly and increasingly rely upon the state to regulate our behavior. Nature abhors a vacuum, but especially moral voids. Thus instead of an all-seeing God to whom we must eventually account for all our choices, we have video surveillance. “The result,” Sacks claims, “is that we have created the most regulated, intrusive society ever known.”

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI makes a similar point. It is good, he writes, that people care about the environment. But, Benedict comments, “Human beings interpret and shape the natural environment through culture, which in turn is given direction by the responsible use of freedom, in accordance with the dictates of the moral law.” It follows that if we ignore this moral law, we are likely to treat nature as “a heap of scattered refuse” or, conversely, embrace “attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism.”

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