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Religion and Society

The crisis as labour and the transition to the beginning of the third millennium

For the vast majority of citizens, venturing into the twists and turns of the economic financial crisis is an impervious task. Any analysis that is just a little less than generic soon becomes unintelligible to the uninitiated. Thus the economic issue, and even more so the financial one, has become further and further away from the possibility of being understood by those who are also the receivers and final actors of it, or that is, everyone.



It is necessary that the economy and finance, obviously without disregrading their specialist level, never renounce carrying out the elementary and universal one. Everybody must be able to understand, at least along general lines, the ‘thing’ that economy and finance deal with. This is necessary so that not only can everyone defend his own rights, but is above all able to consciously assume his own responsibilities with reference to the construction of the common good, even through sacrifices and renewed commitments. Moreover, one cannot accept a reflection and a practice of the economy that disregards an overall cultural interpretation, inevitably entailing anthropology and ethics.



With regard to this, it seems to me that the perspective in which one chooses to look at the present situation is decisive. To speak of economic-financial crisis to describe the present critical situation of the beginning of the third millennium is not sufficient. In my opinion today’s crisis must be seen and interpreted in terms of labour and transition.



This moment of time in which providence calls us more than ever to act as co-actors in steering history is similar to that of a birth, a condition of even acute suffering, but with our eyes already turned to the life being born. When a woman is in labour she has to use all the energy that is humanly possible. In the same way we too, citizens submerged by the economic-financial crisis, are called upon to stake our all, devoting all our individual and community energy. Tomorrow will have a new facet if it reflects our hopes of today. A ‘hope full of trust’ must therefore guide our decisions and our hard work.



Widening the ‘economic and political reason’



To speak of labour and not to limit oneself to speaking of economic-financial crisis means not stopping at the even necessary technical measures to deal with the hardships that we are going through.



According to many experts, the root of the so-called crisis is in the overturning of the relationship between the banking-financial system and the real economy. The banks were driven to redirect many of the resources in their keeping (and therefore family savings) towards forms of investment of a purely financial type. This can be said even with regard to our city: in Milan all that is left is finance.



It does not rest with me to confirm or deny such diagnosis. Instead I want to highlight a fact that I consider decisive: despite the dogged attempt to put the anthropological and ethical dimension of the economic-financial activity between parentheses, at this time of hard trials the weight of the person and relationships obstinately returns to make itself felt.



Only together can we come out of the crisis, re-establishing mutual respect. And this is because an individualistic approach does not account for human experience in its totality. In fact, every man is always a ‘self-in-relation’. In order to discover this it suffices to see ourselves in action: from birth each one of us needs the recognition of others. When we are treated in a human way, we feel full of gratitude and the present seems full of promise for the future. With this confident outlook we become capable of assuming tasks and of making sacrifices if necessary.



This is the starting point from which to reconstruct an idea of family, neighbourliness, town, country, Europe, and of entire humanity, that it may recognise this experience, common – in its basic simplicity – to all men. Competence made up of calculation and experiment is not sufficient. In order to face the economic-financial crisis a serious rethinking of both economic and political reason is needed, as the Pope has invited us to do on numerous occasions. There is an urgent need to free the economic-financial reason from the cage of technocratic and individualistic rationality, the limits of which we have seen with the crisis. And it is just as urgent to free political reason from the arid ground of a realpolitik incapable of understanding the change and of seizing the challenges of such change.



In the present national impasse and the unfinished European project, politics needs a renewed creative responsibility since society cannot manage without being committed to planning and leadership. Along with its assumption of responsibility by politics must correspond the acceptance, on the part of all citizens, of the sacrifices that today’s situation forces us to accept. In order to lift up the nation everyone’s contribution is needed, like in a family: each member is called upon to give more especially in emergencies, according to their possibilities.



Three points of a cultural nature



I would now like to offer three short points of a cultural nature that are necessary for the widening of economic and political reason.



Wealth and happiness


If we want to avoid resorting to the Lord’s drastic warning – ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’ (Luke 12,15) – it will suffice to remember that Aristotle considered a life unacceptable that identified happiness with wealth, or which exchanged a means with the end. One cannot be resigned towards a conception of the ‘exchange’ that has not only become increasingly diffused, but which seems to govern the entire economic machine. According to this viewpoint, the citizen is (pessimistically) reduced to the homo oeconomicus, exclusively concerned with maximising profits. At the basis of the economic and financial activity there only in fact seems to be the assumption according to which the increase of wealth is an asset to pursue in any case and, even better, as soon as possible.



Secularisation and the Catholic world


Secondly, the weakening of those ‘voices’ that would lead to this hoped for widening of reason is worth highlighting. The variegated process of secularisation is partly responsible for this weakening, which has in fact fostered the establishing of the positivistic mentality denounced by Benedict XVI.



It must however be noted that, even in the Catholic field, a latent ambiguity in a certain interpretation of the principle of the ‘autonomy of earthly affairs’ has played its part. The II Vatican Council confirmed the value of such principle ‘If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men’, since ‘then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy. Such is not merely required by modern man, but harmonizes also with the will of the Creator’ (Gaudium et spes, 36). Nevertheless the same Council states that ‘but if by the expression, the independence of temporal affairs, is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is. For without the Creator the creature would disappear’ (Gaudium et spes, 36).



The principle of the autonomy of earthly affairs – if correctly understood – consequently leads to the appropriate recognition of the autonomy of the laical faithful in the field ‘proper to them’ (see Apostolicam actuositatem, 7). Sometimes though, the reference to the principle of autonomy in this context has been transformed into a pernicious renunciation to make the anthropological and ethical significance emerge, needed to deal with the actual contents of social, political and economic action. In such a way though, ‘autonomous’ has in fact become synonymous with ‘indifferent’ with respect to such substantial values. In this framework the Church’s very social doctrine has risked being considered more like a premise of pious intentions than as an organic and incisive context of reference.



In short, it must be asked whether the Catholic world, by its nature called upon to watch over the great anthropological and ethical challenges at stake, has not in its own way been co-responsible, at least due to naivety or delay or poor attention, for the present state of things. The authoritative invitations to the laical faithful to a more decisive and direct political commitment demand the whole assumption of the Church’s social doctrine based on principles of reflection, criteria of judgement and action directives and not party alchemies.



‘Worse than the cicada’


There is also a third factor that is worth mentioning. Not even the combination of such unfavourable circumstances would have led to today’s economic-financial crisis if it had not been able to take root on the ground of widespread irresponsibility: what drives people to systematically spend what they have not yet earned for their own consumption. Until not long ago this kind of behaviour would have seemed so stupid as to even surpass the level of moral definition (compared with the wise ant, the immoral cicada basically only consumed what it had), and is now increasingly perceived as normal and systematically encouraged (to the point of resorting to advertising that shamelessly encourages people to take out loans to have a second holiday).



As proof of this drifting it suffices to think of a certain way of conceiving rights in our society. In the past decades, also by virtue of a considerable wellbeing and without taking into account the resources that were actually available, excessive claims have been put forward in terms of rights towards the state. The result has been the forming of an increasingly disjointed and disconnected society. Such process has obscured a set of anthropological and ethical values and, therefore pedagogical ones of prime importance: the capacity to wait for the realisation of a desire; the limitation of one’s own needs and the control of greed; the care for things instead of their compulsive substitution; an overall look at the length of one’s life and the sense of eternal life; joint sharing, in the name of justice, of the needs of others starting with those of the less well off. One could almost say that the present crisis has shown a widespread ‘obscenity’ in the use of assets, in the etymological meaning of ‘bad omen’.



All this calls for a radical change in life styles, so much so that, as many like to stress, it will not be possible, nor can be hoped for, to return to the modus vivendi of the pre-crisis period.



* Extract from the Sant’Ambrogio Speech - 6 December 2011




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