Revolution was not on the agenda when the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church opened on Oct. 11, 1962, almost exactly 50 years ago. However, the gathering marked the start of a new era, not only for the world’s largest centrally-run religion. During the following years, the hope for a better, freer world led to everything from the sexual revolution to the Prague Spring, from African independence to the hippie culture of Woodstock. A half-century on, it seems a good time for an economist to take stock.
The economy was not the top concern of the ’60s would-be revolutionaries, but calls for a new society had two revolutionary economic implications.
First, like so many other parts of the established order, the economic “system” was to be overthrown. The target was clear enough in Eastern Europe - the Communist planned economy. Elsewhere, the economic villain was harder to pin down, although it was often assumed that “capitalism” was intrinsically evil - heartless corporations and excessive materialism in the West and post-colonial exploitation in the Third World. It was time for radical change; if not a return to some imagined pre-industrial communal paradise then at least a massive refusal to become cogs in the machine. It hardly seemed to matter then that dissidents in the East were longing for what protesters in the West were loathing.
One of those 1960s dreams has come true. Communism is gone, save for Cuba and North Korea. Otherwise, the “system” appears well entrenched. Corporations, larger and more impersonal than ever, have extended their reach in a globalised world. Developing economies may be less in thrall to the former colonial masters, but indigenous entrepreneurs are just like their western exemplars. The communes are closed or have gone commercial. Alternative careers are rare, money and finance ubiquitous.
The second economic revolutionary demand was for the abolition of poverty in the midst of post-War plenty. This sentiment led to the foundation of the United Nations World Food Programme in 1961 and the U.S. government’s war on poverty in 1964. The post-Vatican II Catholic Church was one of the keenest promoters of global economic “Justice and Peace”.