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Can Religion Solve the Debt Crisis?

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Can Religion Solve the Debt Crisis?

The Vatican has again called for closer ties between religion and politics—a move that should come as no surprise.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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A potent cocktail of causes formed the current global financial downturn. Depending on whom you ask, however, you will likely receive wildly different answers as to the core issue.

Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission: “The official U.S. government report on what caused the financial crisis casts blame on Goldman Sachs for fueling the subprime mortgage bubble, Merrill Lynch for not telling investors about the true state of its financial condition and the Federal Reserve for failing to stop dangerous lending practices,” the Washington Post summarized the findings of the Congress-appointed committee.

Conservative politician: “Rather, this crisis, with its ensuing international recession and near-meltdown of our financial system, had as its root cause the social-justice agenda of Congress,” a former governor and senator wrote in an editorial for The Hill.

Occupy Wall Street protesters: “Our nation, our species and our world are in crisis…we can no longer afford to let corporate greed and corrupt politics set the policies of our nation,” the movement’s “unofficial de facto” website states.

The Vatican, however, sees a different cause: the loss of ethics and morals in society. This is what the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace stated in the report “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority.”

The council noted that “between 1900 and 2000 the world population increased almost fourfold and the wealth produced worldwide grew much more rapidly, resulting in a significant rise of average per capita income.” Yet it continues, “…the distribution of wealth did not become fairer but in many cases worsened.”

According to the 18-page report, called a “note,” the financial “crisis has revealed behaviours like selfishness, collective greed and the hoarding of goods on a great scale.” To curb these problems, the pontifical council called for the creation of a “public Authority with universal jurisdiction” that is “rich in solidarity…and geared to the universal common good.”

The note states that “the primacy of the spiritual and of ethics needs to be restored and, with them, the primacy of politics—which is responsible for the common good—over the economy and finance.”

In other words, the world needs a global financial authority that considers moral and spiritual implications when making political decisions. Simplified further, religion needs to have a bigger role in global affairs.

While a monetary crisis cripples Europe and has a stranglehold on the United States, both of which threaten to pull the world down with them, the pontifical council released their note when they knew it would receive maximum media coverage. The world is looking for answers, and the Vatican has become increasingly vocal on how to revamp global governance.

For now, the church at Rome is only offering its report to spur discussion. Yet the report is markedly bold: “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas, even if they might destabilize pre-existing balances of power that prevail over the weakest.”

In the Wake of the Downturn

To understand the statement from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, one must return to 2009. In the midst of a widespread financial meltdown, Pope Benedict XVI released the encyclical “Charity in Truth,” which advocated “the responsibility to protect” poorer nations and give them an “effective voice in shared decision-making”—that is, a prominent seat at the table of international affairs.

The stated goal: “To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration.”

The pontifical council researches ways to apply this teaching from the pope. “Charity in Truth” and encyclicals from previous popes were the basis for the recent note on global finances.

For Pope Benedict, the loss of morals has long been a concern. In his book Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, written while he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he described Europe as having denied its religious and moral foundation. He lamented a continent overtaken by secularism and materialism, a Europe that had slipped into immorality, cultural confusion, and irreligiousness.

The pope’s 2009 encyclical called for a world political authority to manage the global economy, disarm nations, guarantee the protection of the environment, and regulate migration. Such an authority, backed by a moral authority, would have the power to enforce compliance with its decisions.

To those born and raised under governments with strict separation of church and state, these statements seem strange—especially coming from a religious organization. Yet, when placed in the context of history, it should come as no surprise. The Vatican has a long history of working with and within civil governments.

Track Record

The Catholic church’s hand in European politics began with Roman Emperor Constantine’s (born about AD 285; died 337) conversion to Christianity. The emperor worked to unify Christian doctrines and beliefs, and to build a powerful Christian empire. Constantine also invited Pope Sylvester I to take part in the Council of Nicaea, an important move to legitimize the religious authority of the papacy.

Yet this was only the start of the symbiotic relationship between the Catholic church and European politics.

Recalling the successes of Constantine, Byzantine Emperor Justin I (AD 450-527) used his reign to heal the schism between the churches at Rome and Constantinople. Later in his life, Justin allowed the pope to crown him emperor.

Justin’s nephew Justinian I (AD 483-564) also saw political and religious policy as inextricably linked. Encyclopaedia Britannica states: “In the Byzantine Empire, church and state were indissolubly linked as essential aspects of a single Christian empire that was thought of as the terrestrial counterpart of the heavenly polity. It was therefore the duty of Justinian, as it was for later Byzantine emperors, to promote the good government of the church and to uphold orthodox teaching. This explains why so many of his laws deal in detail with religious problems.”

According to Britannica, “Justinian, like succeeding Byzantine emperors, regarded himself as the viceregent of [or ruling for] Christ, and the Eastern Roman Empire knew no such clear-cut distinction between church and state as developed in Latin Christendom.”

Later, Pepin the Short (AD 714-768) gained the throne and thought of himself as gratia Dei rex, “king by the grace of God.”

Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, (born about AD 747; died 814) furthered the church-empire relationship. The Catholic Encyclopedia states, “During the pontifical Mass celebrated by the pope, as the king [Charlemagne] knelt in prayer before the high altar…the pope approached him, placed upon his head the imperial crown, did him formal reverence after the ancient manner, saluted him as Emperor and Augustus and anointed him, while the Romans present burst out with the acclamation, thrice repeated: ‘To Carolus Augustus crowned by God, mighty and pacific emperor, be life and victory’…” The emperor considered himself the “devoted defender and humble helper of Holy Church.”

The book Charlemagne: Empire and Society records that the emperor’s bishops dubbed him a “New Constantine” and Bishop Paulinus of Aquileia compared Charlemagne to a “king and priest.”

After German King Otto I (AD 912-973) came to the aid of Pope John XII in AD 962, he was quickly crowned emperor. A treaty from Otto confirmed and expanded the power of the papacy, which would lead to the beginnings of the Sacrum Romanum Imperium Nationis Germanicae—the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

His son, Otto III (AD 980-1002) “assumed the titles ‘the servant of Jesus Christ,’ ‘the servant of the apostles,’ and ‘emperor of the world’ and saw himself as the leader of world Christianity” (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

During his reign, Otto III installed his childhood tutor Gerbert of Aurillac as pope, who took the name Sylvester II, after the pontiff contemporary to Constantine. The two men longed to restore the unity seen under Constantine.

This link between religion and government continued on and off from that time, notably during the Habsburg dynasty, which included the reign of Charles V (AD 1500-1558). Napoleon Bonaparte was also crowned emperor by the pope in 1805.

Constantine’s Contribution

Throughout the history of the Roman and Holy Roman empires, a few points stand out. Church and state used one another to acquire power and legitimacy. Also, the two entities consistently endeavored to regain the grandeur of the empire under Constantine.

Here is why. Constantine united the people under one religion and ruled as an unchallenged emperor. Under his watch, the empire enjoyed continual wealth and abundance. Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire describes the empire at that time, when the capital, Constantinople, “enjoyed, within their spacious enclosure, every production which could supply the wants or gratify the luxury of its numerous inhabitants. The sea-coasts of Thrace and Bithynia…still exhibit a rich prospect of vineyards, of gardens, and of plentiful harvests; and the Propontis has ever been renowned for an inexhaustible store of the most exquisite fish, that are taken in their stated seasons, without skill, and almost without labor.”

With Constantine, and under a unified religion, the people had anything they wanted to gratify their desires. This prosperity brought widespread support for the causes of both the emperor and the Catholic church.

This is the “winning” formula that the Vatican is again espousing, although not yet explicitly. If one reads between the lines, the ideas endorsed by Rome become very bold and ambitious. Due to globalization and the spread of Catholicism to virtually every corner on Earth, the Vatican is now suggesting that the historical model be modernized and applied to the entire world!

The question remains: would this work?

Whose Ethics?

Look back on the terms that fill both the pope’s 2009 encyclical and the note from the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace: “common good,” “ethics,” “solidarity,” “moral communion,” “spiritual,” “universal brotherhood,” “charity” and “truth.”

All of these terms are subject to interpretation. Ask 10 people on the street what each means and you will likely get 10 different answers. Whose definition of common good will be used by the proposed global financial authority? Who decides what morals will be used? What is meant by spiritual?

Most important, whose truth will influence political decisions?

When one considers that this proposal comes from a church, with theological opinions on all of these points, one does not have to wonder for long.

Yet there is a gaping problem in attempting to use religion to influence political decisions. The human element. The record of history is against any attempt to enact a perfect manmade government.

While the historical “Christian empire” did enjoy years of peace and prosperity, in between were periods of chaos (notably in the Dark Ages).

The fact remains, uniting religions and kingdoms, both ruled by men, is always doomed to fail. While church-state governments may have brought a few years of seeming success in the past, it has never lasted—and could never last.

The problem goes back to what is truly ethical and moral—what is right and wrong.

Final Unification

Any Christian empire would purportedly take its standards from the Bible. Yet this Book’s text soundly refutes the notion that man is capable of effectively governing himself: “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walks to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23).

Man cannot rule himself! Taking into account the record of history, this should not be a shock. Where man is involved, there are always the same problems: war, poverty, famine, disease, unhappiness.

Proponents of close ties between religion and government may counter, “But what if we apply biblical principles and laws to governmental systems?”

Reading the Old Testament, a towering lesson emerges: even by using a set of laws—both religious and civil—ancient Israel could never achieve permanent peace and universal prosperity. Even though God Himself wrote the laws for this nation, the “human element” caused it to fail!

Despite this, support for a kingdom with a close-linked church and state can be found in the Bible. Throughout the Old and New testaments, Jesus Christ is called “King of kings” and “Lord of lords.” Notice Revelation 19:16: “And He”—a returning Christ—“has on His vesture and on His thigh a name written, King of kings, and Lord of lords.”

Only Christ returning as both King (a civil ruler) and Lord (a religious ruler) will solve the problems of mankind.

At that time, financial regulation will be fair and just. This soon-coming supergovernment will ensure prosperity for all: “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid…” (Mic. 4:4).

This form of peace and abundance could never happen by modifying any of the current governments on Earth. Christ knows this, and is patiently allowing mankind to learn the lesson that it cannot rule itself. Upon His Return, the first order of business will be to depose every government in place.

Daniel 2:44 states: “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom”—one ruled by the true King and Priest—“which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.”

Notice that verse 44 begins with the phrase “in the days of these kings.” Soon, there will be an attempt to unite religion and government one last time. It will overhaul financial and world governmental structures. It will even bring a period of apparent peace and prosperity.

This “Christian empire,” however, will never bring lasting peace. Upon His Return, Christ will end this system and set up a new kingdom, not controlled by the ideas, morals and ethics of men. Ushering in an era of unrivaled peace and prosperity, Christ will set up a kingdom that will “not be left to other people” and “shall stand forever.”

Read Tomorrow’s Wonderful World – An Inside View! for a fuller picture of how the world will look under Jesus Christ’s reign.

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