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Globalization conference reveals gap among Catholics


A Timorese colleague who lives on Java recently visited Kansas City on his first trip to the United States. After talking with him about the local economy, I asked if he would be interested in seeing a retail store, thinking he would be fascinated by our nearby Wal-Mart.

No need, he replied. They recently built one in his native village.

Sometimes I find it difficult to describe the beast, but the notion of economic globalization gained another foothold in my psyche during the exchange with my Indonesian friend. I am not certain of the consequences of a new Wal-Mart in Indonesia, but it is an easily visible manifestation of a revolution, unthinkable not too long ago, that is radically changing the economic order.

Think back for a moment to the early 1980s. It was then the U.S. bishops set out to ponder a century of Catholic social teaching and to apply it to the U.S. economy. They formed a committee -- headed by Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, respected by his peers for leadership and intelligence -- and asked it to make moral sense out of changing economic life.

Weakland led a process of study, consultation, public hearings and drafting and redrafting texts leading up to the 1986 pastoral letter on the economy, "Economic Justice for All."

One decade later, it had become clear to Weakland and other Catholic economic observers that the pastoral, while containing seemingly timeless principles, had not adequately addressed the most dynamic economic development of the 1990s -- globalization.

No prognosticator had anticipated the confluence of the Cold War's end and the rapid rate at which national and regional economies were yielding to wider global forces -- even as some local economies, such as nations in Africa and Asia, had seemingly dropped off the economic map.

"Ten years later we know that such a distinction between domestic and global does not serve us well," Weakland said in May. "The global concern was a small section of the first document; now it would be the centerpiece."

Weakland has been echoing a concern of many Catholic ethicists, arguing that Catholic social teachings have failed to stay abreast of some of the most important developments in a newly emerging global economic order. Failure to update could mean Catholic thought won't be represented in some of the most far-reaching discussions of modern times.

With this in mind, Weakland and staff from a Washington-based think tank, the Center of Concern, decided two years ago to hold a conference in May of this year to examine economic globalization and the moral issues it was raising. Titled "Social Responsibility in the Age of Globalization," the conference was a way of observing the pastoral's 10th and the center's 25th anniversaries.

Months before the gathering in Milwaukee, the center's staff began culling information from Catholic statements. Using faxes and E-mail, the staff gathered responses and ideas from a diverse group of some 80 designated participants, most of them Catholics and all sharing interests in globalization.

After two rounds of pre-conference input, content categories and synthesis statements were drawn up, including areas such as world trade and issues of governance, burden of debt, technology, labor and capital. Also attempted was a draft of a covenant aimed at leading to collective and individual action.

Participants represented business, labor, government, church and education. They included religious, social activists, ethicists and members of several U.S. foundations. While North Americans predominated, participants also came from Japan, India, Europe and Latin America.

From pre-conference papers, many participants saw the upside of aspects to globalization including enhanced international trade and cooperation, but also saw the downside including increased concentration of wealth, homogenization of culture, spread of consumerism and "the subordination of political power to macroeconomic power."

In his welcoming address, Weakland was purposefully neutral on the notion of globalization. He took a "Let's make the most of it" attitude. "Personally, I am not one who feels we should lament that development. Globalization could be a good thing for all nations on this planet."

The conference, marred by extended discussions on process, revealed deep divisions among participants, with business executives feeling a sense of isolation from most others more critical of current economic dynamics.

When discussion focused on ethical principles, more common ground could be found; when it moved toward application, differences of opinion became most pronounced.

Conference organizers had envisioned the possibility of a "Covenant to Renew Community and Creation," with participants committing themselves to reverse the growing gap between wealthy and poor, to debt relief, to an economy that regenerates its ecology, to drastic reductions in military spending and to the eradication of poverty.

However, consensus was reached only at a level of greater generalities, resulting in a statement that contained signs of the times, a challenge of the spirit and a vision of Catholic social thought.

Little if anything was resolved by the gathering. Nor, in retrospect, did many think the issues could be settled. The gathering, however, did serve many as a reminder of a seemingly growing gap in perspective among Catholics on economic matters, with free market supporters generally applauding globalization and critics deploring its results.

That some Catholics recognize the pressing need for the discussion keeps hope alive that questions of morality including justice still have a place when assessing the economy.

Tom Fox is NCR's editor and publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 1997