Pope and Jewish Leader Discuss Economic Values

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The free market is the economic model that seems most consonant with biblical teaching, but the global economic crisis demonstrates that, without moral values, the market economy can implode, said Great Britain’s chief rabbi.

Sir Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, traveled to the Vatican Dec. 12 to speak with Pope Benedict XVI about united efforts to bring morality back to the marketplace and to deliver a major speech at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Speaking to reporters after both events, Rabbi Sacks said he and the pope focused “on principles we share about the need for moral markets and a people-centered approach to economics that His Holiness set out two years ago in his document, ‘Caritas in Veritate’ (‘Charity in Truth”)” and that the Jewish community shares.

“My real concern is that a clear voice be heard” in the midst of the global economic crisis, “a strong religious and moral voice,” he said.

Asked if he and the pope discussed the ongoing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land, the rabbi responded, “I believe in trying to solve only one impossible problem at a time.”

Rabbi Sacks began his speech at the Gregorian by recounting a quip in England that says if the chief rabbi visits you in the hospital, you know you are really sick, and added, “if the chief rabbi delivers a lecture about the economy in Europe, that, too, must be in need of a speedy recovery.”

He said the Judeo-Christian principles and values that gave birth to the free-market system, as well as the welfare provisions meant to balance its defects, are threatened today by “market fundamentalism” — a sense that the economy should be free from all ethical and legal constraints and obligations.

When it is working properly, he said, the market is the best economic expression found to reflect the Bible’s respect for human dignity, for personal property rights, for labor, for the creation of wealth and for alleviating poverty.

At the same time, he said, while the market is great at creating wealth, it is not so good at distributing it, which is why the Jews had sabbatical and jubilee years, and why Jews and Christians in Europe began welfare programs.

The problem is that the free market “tends to erode the moral foundations on which it was built,” powering self-interest to the detriment of the common good and making people think moral values are just another commodity to barter in favor of something bigger or shinier, he said.

The market economy worked when people trusted one another and were prudent, the rabbi said.

“In the end, we do not put our faith in systems, but in the people responsible for those systems and, without morality, responsibility, transparency, accountability, honesty and integrity, the system will fail. And, as it happens, it did fail,” he said.

Rabbi Sacks said Jews and Christians must strengthen their protection of areas of their lives that are not part of the market economy, but are important for human dignity, creativity and a future of hope.

The first is the Sabbath or the Lord’s day, a “day we focus on the things that have value, but not a price,” he said. Next come marriage and family, education and “the concept of property itself,” which sees what we have as a gift from God to be held in trust.

Preserving those values, the rabbi said, Jews and Christians remind themselves and proclaim to the world the truth that the worth of things cannot always be determined by the market.

Christians and Jews together need to infuse values back into the market, he said, and convince others — for the good of all — that “conscience is not for wimps, it is the basis of trust and confidence on which business, financial institutions and the economy as a whole depend.”

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