FaithWorld

Japan’s rare Catholic PM Taro Aso meets Pope Benedict

aso-popeJapanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, a member of Japan’s tiny Roman Catholic minority, had a chance toenjoy some time away from political trouble at home when he met with Pope Benedict on Tuesday.

As his first stop during a trip to attend July 8-10 summit of G8 leaders in Italy, Aso went to the Vatican, gave the pope a Sony digital video camera and discussed the global economic crisis with him. (Photo: Prime Minister Aso presents video camera to Pope Benedict, 7 July 2009/Danilo Schiavella)

His visit was timely in that respect — Benedict published an encyclical on economic and social issues today, calling for a bold reform of the world economic order to overcome the financial crisis and redirect the focus of business to the welfare of all people.

aso-pope-officeAso, the first Japanese prime minister to meet a pope in 10 years, told Benedict that Japan wanted to cooperate with the Vatican, according to his aides. According to the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano, the two men had a cordial discussion that “touched on current international issues such as the economic crisis and the commitment of Japan and the Holy See to Africa. On the bilateral level, the good relations between Japan and the Holy See were noted.” (Photo: Aso and Benedict in the papal private library, 7 July 2009/Osservatore Romano)

For the unpopular prime minister, who looks set to lose a general election due by October, meeting Pope Benedict was probably a personal highlight of his trip, even though voters would not care much.

Pope urges bold world economic reform before G8 summit

popePope Benedict issued an ambitious call to reform the way the world works on Tuesday shortly before its most powerful leaders meet at the G8 summit in Italy. His latest encyclical, entitled “Charity in Truth,” presents a long list of steps he thinks are needed to overcome the financial crisis and shift economic activity from the profit motive to a goal of solidarity of all people.

Following are some of his proposals. The italics are from the original text. Do you think they are realistic food for thought or idealistic notions with no hope of being put into practice?

    “There is urgent need of a true world political authority. .. 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… such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights.” The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly – not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centred…” “Financiers must rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity, so as not to abuse the sophisticated instruments which can serve to betray the interests of savers. Right intention, transparency, and the search for positive results are mutually compatible and must never be detached from one another.” “Without doubt, one of the greatest risks for businesses is that they are almost exclusively answerable to their investors, thereby limiting their social value… there is nevertheless a growing conviction that business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference… What should be avoided is a speculative use of financial resources that yields to the temptation of seeking only short-term profit, without regard for the long-term sustainability of the enterprise, its benefit to the real economy and attention to the advancement, in suitable and appropriate ways, of further economic initiatives in countries in need of development.” “One possible approach to development aid would be to apply effectively what is known as fiscal subsidiarity, allowing citizens to decide how to allocate a portion of the taxes they pay to the State.”
(Photo: Pope Bendict, 1 July 2009/Tony Gentile)

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Sarkozy dons burqa to camouflage reform agenda

sarkozy-speechIn a column last week, I noted how Nicolas Sarkozy was a master at signalling left while turning right. Well, in his keynote address to both houses of parliament today, the conservative president went a step further. He summoned up the burqa to camouflage his real intention — relaunching a drive to reform France’s ossified social, education and tax system. (Photo: President Sarkozy delivers his speech, 22 June 2009/Pool)

By declaring war on the all-enveloping full-length veil worn by only a tiny minority of Muslim women in France, Sarkozy ensured that his secularist assault on religious fundamentalism would grab the headlines, and dominate intellectual debate. Here’s what he said:

The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity. The burqa is not a religious symbol, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic. We cannot accept women in cages, amputated of all dignity, on French soil.

Markets and morality: a tale of two uproars

excessThe howls of protest against fat cat bonuses during this financial crisis stem from a deep-seated source of moral outrage. For many people, it just seems like common sense that it’s unfair for Wall Street executives to reward  themselves for creating the mess robbing millions of their savings. (Photos: Protest outside Goldman Sachs in New York, 19 March 2009/Eric Thayer)

Evolutionary biologists and social psychologists believe this moral sense is innate, an instinct for cooperation and fairness that has been honed over millions of years of natural selection into a universal moral grammar that gives us a “gut feeling” about ethical dilemmas.

If we have this moral instinct, it would seem natural for politicians to appeal to it. Some are doing that, while others seem to be missing the mark. The news over the weekend from the United States and France shows the two different approaches in action.

What would John Calvin say?

With the financial crisis erupting around the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Protestant theologian John Calvin, many people in the Netherlands — where his thinking played an important role in forming the local culture — are looking back at his influence and what he might say of the current crisis and the people involved. (Photo: Dutch Old Masters used skulls and stubby candles to portray the Calvinist idea of the vanity of greed/Robin van Lonkhuijsen/United Photos)

Several of the issues are described in my feature “Moral rebound finds Dutch exploring Calvin.” One of the most interesting elements was an online survey by the Protestant newspaper Trouw called “C-Factor.”

“Test how Calvinist you are, in your convictions, at work and in your love life,” it said in its challenge to readers. It asks 25 questions (sorry, only in Dutch) such as:

from UK News:

‘We are all to blame for financial crisis’ – archbishop

Bankers, auditors, money-market speculators and regulators all came in for criticism at the Church of England's General Synod during a discussion on the implications of the financial crisis and the recession.

The City had lined its pockets, regulators had not done their job properly and auditors had signed off financial deals that should not have seen the light of day, the synod heard at its meeting in London.

The result is a deep recession, the first since the early 1990s, with Britain suffering a shrinking economy, rapidly rising unemployment and falling output.

Bishop sorry for stinging “idolatry” attack on banker

Of all the denunciations of greed coming from the pulpits in this financial crisis, few have had as much sting as the attack that Bishop Wolfgang Huber of Berlin delivered just before Christmas. Huber, who as council chairman of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) is the country’s top Protestant prelate, singled out the head of the biggest German bank when he lambasted top financiers for their rush for profits. (Photo: Bishop Wolfgang Huber, 5 Nov 2006/Alex Grimm)

Referring to Josef Ackermann, he told the Berliner Zeitung that he hoped “a Deutsche Bank chief executive should never again set a profit goal of 25 per cent.” Such goals fuelled excessive profit expectations and amounted to a form of idolatry, he said. “In these circumstances, money has become a god.”

The bank angrily rejected his criticism as inappropriate.”

Now comes the news that Huber has apologised to Ackermann. “Since many have suspected I was personally attacking Mr Ackermann, I have apologised to him,” he told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung. “The issue now is not to criticise a single person, it must be to discuss at length what led to this financial crisis. And what we must avoid, so as not to fall into equally destructive mechanisms again.”

Cardinal Schönborn links financial crisis to evolutionism

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is one of the Catholic Church’s most vocal critics of what he calls evolutionism, which he defines as an ideology that applies Darwin’s theory of natural selection to a wide variety of questions beyond biology. He usually directs his criticism at scientists and philosophers who say evolution proves that God does not exist. (Photo: Cardinal Schönborn, 16 March 2007/Leonhard Foege)

In an interview with the Austrian provincial newspaper Vorarlberger Nachrichten on Jan. 5, Schönborn, a former student and close associate of Pope Benedict, said his criticism also applied to the current financial crisis:

Q, One of your favourite topics is evolution and creation. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to devote yourself to more practical things than those that cannot be proven anyway?

British charities offer no haven for laid-off bankers

How ironic is this? When the financial industry was riding high, many bankers and brokers had no time for charity work. Now that lots of them have been laid off and have the time, Rebekah Curtis reports from London, many can’t find a charity that can use their skills.

It turns out the economic downturn is forcing charities to cut back their own staffs and many can’t find a way to use the skills the laid-off finance wizards are offering. The British international development charity VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) said it received 2,572 enquiries for voluntary work between September and mid-November this year, more than double the 1,233 it received for the same period in 2007, but it could hardly place most of them.

“It’s a shame,” said VSO spokeswoman Catherine Raynor. “People are keen to offer their time and commitment, so it’s never easy to say they’re not right … if you’ve had management experience within your role … rather than very specific financial skills, then we’d love to hear from you.”

Islamic finance sector needs more sharia scholars

Articles about Islamic finance are usually long on finance and short on Islam. Knowing that the various schools of Islam can interpret and apply sharia in different ways, I recently wondered how this looked in the financial sector, especially since Islamic banking has spread in recent years and non-Muslim institutions and investors were getting into the business. A conference on Islamic banking in France brought several sharia scholars to Paris, so I took the opportunity to interview them for the news story posted here.

While the financial side wants as much standardisation as possible, the scholars insist it would be un-Islamic to impose rules that apply fully around the world. So rulings from the sharia boards of financial institutions can differ, although the existence of voluntary standards — such as those worked out by the Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) in Bahrain — has helped to harmonise them. Also, the fact that individual scholars sit on several sharia boards at the same time brings a certain conformity.

But, as Mufti Barkatulla told me, there are not enough young scholars entering the field. A sharia board needs a minimum of three members and can have up to 10, depending on its workload, he said. The problem is that acquiring the needed knowledge can take years. Barkatulla himself was a sharia judge at London’s Central Mosque for 30 years, mostly ruling on family issues such as divorce, before getting involved in Islamic finance five years ago. Like him, Sheikh Nizam Yaquby of Bahrain, another scholar at the Paris conference, continues to decide such family cases in addition to his work in the world of finance.