Gordon Brown was due at the Vatican on Thursday to discuss the global economic crisis with Benedict XVI. Sceptics wonder why Mr Brown wished to discuss the crisis with a world leader who freely admits that he is no economist. Why, they ask, would the Prime Minister think the opinions of the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church worth hearing?
The answer is that Mr Brown was not seeking the Pope’s financial expertise, but rather his moral expertise. For there is a growing consensus that the present crisis concerns not only the complicated financial arrangements of banks but also the moral underpinnings of global capitalism.
At first, many commentators suggested a simple solution: greater regulation of the economy. They argued that, if there had been greater oversight of the banking sector, the meltdown would never have happened. Perhaps they are right, but the regulatory system must be overseen by fallible human beings. Who will regulate the regulators? The challenge therefore is not to design a perfect system of oversight but rather to encourage a keen moral sense among those who make the decisions by which our economy stands or falls.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor made this point in a cogent interview with the Times on Monday. Using the Greek word kairos (meaning “the time when things are brought to crisis”), the Cardinal said: “This particular recession is a moment – a kairos – when we have to reflect as a country on what are the things that nourish the values, the virtues we want to have... Capitalism needs to be underpinned with regulation and a moral purpose.” The Cardinal argued that the financial downturn was just one expression of a deeper moral crisis. Not only banks but also the general public were at fault. People kept on spending money they didn’t have to fill “a void” left by the collapse of organised religion and community.
The Cardinal was surely correct when he said that all of our failures together have fostered “a ‘me, me’ society, a more consumerist society, a utilitarian society, and our values and virtues have become diminished”.
His solution – a national ethics council – is intriguing. This would surely be comprised not only of religious leaders, such as the Cardinal himself and the Archbishop of Canterbury, but also secular thinkers such as Baroness Warnock and Richard Dawkins. But would such a diverse group be able to reach agreement? The profound lack of moral consensus in Britain today may prevent us from rising to the urgent challenges posed by the crisis.