Mirror of Justice

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Monday, March 1, 2010

John Allen and Globalization

This is the seventh installment of our examination of John Allen’s book, The Future Church.This time, we consider with Allen the Church in relation to globalization.

Allen begins his discussion illustrating the Janus-faced leviathan of globalization with descriptions of two Indian teen-aged girls, one wealthy and the other poor. It is a fact that while the past few decades have brought wealth and prosperity to many formerly impoverished countries, there remains a global underclass that is poor, famine stricken, disease-ridden, and oppressed. Allen notes that “1.2 billion people still live on less that $1 a day. Half of the planet lives on less than $2 a day.” Allen suggests that it has become increasingly evident that the world trade regime cannot be relied upon to provide a solution to the problems of global poverty and social injustice.

He wonders whether Catholics can make any difference to a world that seems at times out of control. Looking to Fr. John Coleman’s 2005 collection of essays, Globalization and Catholic Social Thought, he looks for structure in the list of eight core Catholic social principles that Coleman develops: (1) Human rights rooted in the theological claim that the human person bears the image of God (imagio dei); (2) The social nature of the human is intrinsic to human existence; (3) Individual rights must be balanced with the  common good; (4) Solidarity, or a concern for others that goes beyond what justice requires; (5) The preferential option for the poor, or giving the most attention to the most vulnerable; (6) Subsidiarity, the opposition to excessive centralization and bureaucratization, and the unjustified intrusion of the State; (7) Catholic theories of justice in three modes: communicative, distributive, and social; and (8) Integral humanism, which reflects the Catholic concern for the whole person—the belief that human beings flourish both in spirit and materially.

Allen applies these principles to six “fronts” in the globalization debates.

(1)   The gap between rich and poor. Allen discusses loan forgiveness and, in particular, the Millennium Project, in this section.

(2)   Global conflict and the Arms Race. Allen suggests that global arms trade increases the number of civil wars around the world.

(3)   Human Trafficking. It is estimated that up to two million people (80 percent women) are victims of trafficking each years.

(4)   Corruption. According to South Korean democracy advocate, Jong-sung You , Protestant populations are less tolerant of corruption than Catholic populations. This is particularly relevant to African nations where corruption is widespread. Developed nations might help by boycotting corrupt regimes. Catholics can be instrumental in encouraging governments to reject corruption.

(5)   Migrants and Refugees. This topic was discussed in a previous chapter.

(6)   The Internet. Internet usage continues to grow, and wired connectivity is bringing telecommunication to remote regions for the first time. Yet experts also warn of a growing digital divide. Allen notes that “only 3.6 percent of Africans use the internet, a thin elite atop a vast ‘unplugged’ majority.” (279)

What it Means?

Allen offers some predictions with varying degrees of confidence.

Nearly Certain

1. Tension between the Local and Universal. Struggles to maintain cultural identity.  In many cases, the Church can contribute to a recovery of local tradition, while also maintaining a commitment to the universality of its message.

2. More favorable attitude toward the United Nations. It is likely that the Catholic Church’s anti-poverty, peace and sustainable development goals will be furthered through traditional UN structures.

3. Growing tensions with the American-style capitalism. Here, Allen quotes Pope Benedict XVI, “The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way.”

4. “Horizontal Catholicism” is the term that Allen uses to describe the growing influence on the Church’s public role of non-hierarchical and decentralized organizations and affiliations. Although he does not specifically mention the importance of social networks and viral distributions, the connection seems clear.


1. A Nuncio to Standard and Poor’s. Allen correctly argues that political theology will be of greater concern as the Church struggles to deal with the emerging political forms and actors of the new globalism. Contemporary transnational corporations, influenced by global capital flows and still nascent governmental structures (like the WTO), are not yet well understood by Catholic social thought. Allen suggests, following Coleman, that the market itself might provide some structures for self-regulation. He looks to Standard and Poor’s bond ratings as an example of a “global policy network” that “does a pretty good job of regulating the bond market.” This was obviously written before the collapse of the bond market and the finger-pointing at rating agencies that became a “part of the problem.”

2. Financial Accountability in the Church. More modern accounting and auditing of Church finances is badly needed, according to Allen.

3. Multi-National Corporation theology. Allen suggests the need for a theological understanding of the multi-national corporation that leaves behind the Marxist/capitalist dialectic polemics. The new MNCs are new to human experience. They are vastly powerful aggregations of wealth and influence, responsive to forces that are not well understood (as the global financial crisis indicates). And, they are growing in political influence, gaining power through political processes as well as markets. Traditional legal analysis of corporate speech may miss the subtly of the threats posed by MNCs (as Rick points out in his recent post). Allen suggests that a careful, theologically informed, consideration of the nature of the MNC is urgently needed.


Dynamic Diplomacy and Disinvestment. Catholicism is the majority or near majority religion in many nations, and notably in the African Great Lakes region. Catholics can exercise political and economic influence, either through formal structures or decentralized, informal associations and market behavior. This could lead to more dynamic interaction between the Church and governments in areas such as diplomacy, and in markets through selective investments.

Long-shot Consequences

Avignon in Africa. Might a pope someday relocate temporarily in Africa? It is possible, Allen says.

My Take:

I think Allen is correct to point out both the newness and potential dangers of the new globalization. This new phase of human development must be met with caution and thoughtful investigation of the current situation.  The way ahead must be rooted in a proper understanding of the human person—one which moves beyond the nineteenth century anthropologies that gave rise to Marxism and neo-classical market capitalism. And we need to better understand the pathologies of globalization so that we might respond to them. This is an area where Catholics can contribute their efforts, drawing from the heart of their religious traditions to explore and speak to this new world.  Some questions;

1.  Do we need to give greater attention to the destabilizing influences of globalization on families, both in developing and developed nations?

2. Is the "autonomy" that Selya Benhabib has described as the emerging "cosmopolitan norm" ultimately incompatible with a Catholic conception of the person? (This seems likely to me). Will that ultimately create conflicts in cooperating with the United Nations?

3. What sorts of structural changes are needed in the global trade and finance regimes to promote social justice? And, what resources do Catholics have to bring about these changes?

Parting Thought

If globalization in technology and economics is not determined by a new opening of the conscience of God, before whom all of us have a responsibility, then there will be a catastrophe. This is the great responsibility that weighs on us today as Christians.

-Pope Benedict XVI


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Thank you for this great post. I had no idea that Catholic legal theory existed, but it sounds like a very interesting theoretical concept. Thanks again!

Posted by: NMLS Licensing | Apr 8, 2011 3:20:33 PM