Pope deserves recognition for radical views on ethical economics
Leaving behind a conflicted legacy ... Benedict XVI. Photo: Getty Images
In my rough calculation, within 15 minutes of Benedict XVI announcing his historic departure from the papacy, the liberal commentary took on a tired refrain. Here was the ''authoritarian'' Pope, ''God's Rottweiler'', the ''inquisitor'', beaten down by scandals that had, finally, driven him from office.
Let's acknowledge two things straight up. First, Benedict shares in the collective culpability of the worldwide Catholic Church for its failure to purge itself of clerical sex abusers.
It did not remove sex offenders from ministry early enough and it did not insist that local bishops co-operate fully with civil authorities to investigate crimes. And it did not act compassionately in dealing with all the victims. On this matter, case closed.
Second, Benedict ticks all the boxes for being a ''conservative'' - the better word is orthodox - Catholic: opposed to abortion, contraception, married and female priests, and same-sex marriage.
But so what? Such values are probably shared by a slight majority of Catholics, if you include the growth areas in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
These are delicate issues for all people of faith. The ban on artificial contraception cries out for reform in the overpopulated, environmentally fragile ''global south''.
Meanwhile, the realistic objective of all faith communities should be to swiftly and dramatically reduce the abortion rate by being as pro-life after a child is born as they are while the child is in the womb.
This means pressuring governments to support public healthcare, child care, education, and - increasingly - gun control, all of which help families remain intact and safe.
For liberal and largely middle-class Catholics, who favour same-sex marriage and female clergy, this will be a continuing battleground. They might ultimately have to find another Christian denomination.
But on the biggest issue facing today's world - the shape of our economic order - Benedict was a radical. The Jesuit magazine America said Benedict's 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) ''may be the most radical since John XXIII's Pacem in Terris [Peace on Earth] 50 years ago''.
That's a serious compliment coming from a publication not known for its supplication to a conservative Vatican. But it's not surprising when you read the document.
Here's how the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council - not a radical body, unlike its predecessor the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace - characterised it: ''The encyclical addresses the challenges of an increasingly globalised world: the growing gap between the poorest and the richest, consumerism focused on 'having more' rather than 'being more', a financial crisis born of a morality that is not centred on humanity, and the search for a way of using earth's resources wisely and economically.''
The encyclical criticised governments that competed for international business by slashing corporate taxes and deregulating labour markets.
This leads, as the council summarised it, to the undermining of social welfare programs and the ''erosion of workers' rights and other human rights, and the decay of the solidarity we have traditionally come to expect''.
Nor was Benedict seduced by the whizz-bangery of ''globalisation'', attacking the outsourcing of production to cheaper countries as ''weaken[ing] the company's sense of responsibility towards … the workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society''.
He called for an international agency to regulate global capital and curb its inevitable predatory tendencies.
Charity in Truth is, as the political scientist Adrian Pabst characterised it, ''a Catholic Third Way''.
It is not a case of a monolithic state supplanting capitalism but of the people - expressed through the laws and edicts of their democratically elected governments - making hitherto unaccountable multinational corporations conform to laws and norms that uphold the dignity of labour and protect the environment.
In Benedict's world view, bureaucracies do not take over and meet everyone's material needs, undermining initiative. But democratic governments can ensure there are parts of the economy that are not driven solely by profit but through the growth of charitable, volunteer and non-government organisations.
Charity in Truth contains sharper insights and clearer objectives than we have ever heard from certain nominal social democrats or ''compassionate conservatives'' - political flakes such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, David Cameron and George W. Bush. More substantial figures, such as Barack Obama, are beginning to understand, and others still, such as the British Labour MP Jon Cruddas, have long appreciated the wisdom found in the thinking of those caricatured as ''religious conservatives''.
Cruddas, who is in charge of drafting British Labour's manifesto for the 2015 election, has long asked the same questions as Benedict: What does it mean to be human? Are we simply actors in a never-ending series of economic transactions or are we interdependent beings who require a society in which ethics and trust trump profit at all cost?
Benedict leaves a conflicted legacy. But ''God's Rottweiler'' deserves a more balanced assessment, especially given his insights into an unjust world.
Andrew West is the presenter of The Religion & Ethics Report on ABC Radio National.