True to his calling as the servant of the servants of God, Pope John Paul Ii used his first encyclical to uplift the world's 700 million Catholics on subject like prayer, faith and ecumenism.
But the eye of secular society was caught when the pope shifted from spiritality to economics.
Contrasting the wealth in some countries against the starvation and poverty in others, John Paul questioned "the financial, monetary, production and commercial mechanisms that, resting on various political pressures, support the world economy."These structures, he said, "unceasingly make the areas of misery spread, accompanied by anguish, bitterness and frustration."
As needed as the new pope's voice may be in the expanding dialogue on the distribution of global wealth, this latest encyclical from Rome hardly moves the discussion along, Decades ago, Pius Xi denounced the "despotic economic domination concentrated in the hands of a few." Paul Vi had an equally low regard for the capitalism of the wealthy West.
A repetition of these sentiments is a fine populist gesture, except that some evidence is now needed that the church's economic theories are being backed by some economic actions. How can Rome be taken seriously if it blasts capitalism while churchmen - some skilled, some not - use that same system to increase Catholicism's revenues and enhance its investments?
The spectacle is emerging of a powerful church - Catholicism is the world's largest religious organization-that wants it both ways: knock the system but enjoy its benefits.
The depth of the duplicity is difficult to explore. Except for an occasional Pallottine scandal, where the sign of the dollar replaces the sign of the cross, the financial skills of bishops and pastors are practiced well out of public view. Papal encyclicals do not tell the faithful-the stockholders in the pews-what banks the Vatican deposits its money in, what corporations receive its investments or which lay financial advisers it depends on for economic counsel.
From the other side, the financial pages of newspapers seldom report the economic side of religion, even though the local diocese may rank as one of the community's fiscal powers, as well as receive immense tax breaks.
The workings of the Vatican's financial office-the Prefecture for Economic Affairs of the Holy See-are guarded with pious secrecy for much the same reason that local bishops avoid publicizing their involvement in the business world: delicacy.
A rich church, like the biblical camel, cannot get through the eye of the needle; nor will the faithful see much need to keep filling the collection plates.
Discussions of church wealth and church investments are necessarily more theoretical than factual. Financial accountability is all but impossible in the absence of publicly available records. It is known, in a general way, that many American dioceses are land and building rich but income poor. Individual parishes, located on prime real estate, may operate at a deficit.
Estimates on the Vatican's holdings vary, ranging from tens of billions on down. But the guessing is sure to continue as lond as there is no central accounting system, either for countries like the United States or throughout the global church. The one certainty is that Catholicism has strong ties to the methods and ethics of capitalism.
The Catholic Church deserves to be proud that it has done so well in its fiscal affairs. Much of the economic power of Catholicism is devoted to a worldwide network of schools, hospitals and charitable agencies. No other modern institution can match it.
But despite this record of authenic good works, so much economic injustice persists in the world that even if the church were to double or triple its social work, the amount of global suffering would still be massive.
Is Catholicism's coziness with the money markets of western capitalism negating whatever good works the anonymous saints are bringing to the world's forgotten and scorned? The answer is anything but clear, no matter how often or loudly a pope criticizes the capitalist system.
The church has any number of shrewd money men who are financiers in black-the late Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York is their patron saint-but it has few theologians who are versed in the intricacies of economics. Questions beg for answers.
Is it ethical for a local pastor to deal with a bank that red-lines in poor neighborhoods?
Should presidents of catholic universities sit on the boards of companies that chisel their employes or maintain inadequate budgets for the health and safety of workers? Should priests at the parishes of Catholic captains of industry preach sermons on the specifics of marketplace ethics?
Should the Vatican divest its portfolio to allow the pope to become another Francis or Ghandhi, men who had no central headquarters and whose wealth was in examples, not words?
Without guidance from church leaders and in the absence of a theology of economics, a pope's denunciations of "maximum profits" or the "moral disorders" of excessive wealth aren't worth a nickel or a lira.