To judge from his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, published this week, Pope Benedict XVI agrees with those who say that something has gone wrong with the way the world does business. What makes his document unusually disturbing and thought-provoking is an assumption he does not share. The Pope does not think that making capitalism more moral will be a simple matter of bringing a few malefactors to account, whether this involves summoning a half-dozen bankers to hearings in Westminster or Washington, or chanting slogans against Bernard Madoff in Manhattan’s streets. “Many people today would claim that they owe nothing to anyone, except to themselves,” the Pope writes. “They are concerned only with their rights.” That certainly describes a lot of businessmen – and most of the rest of us.

Caritas in Veritate must have disappointed many people who had really been looking forward to it. Surely the leader of a faith with universal claims would not devote tens of thousands of words to globalisation if he did not mean to excoriate it. Yet Benedict has bigger fish to fry than Wal-Mart, say, or Nike. The encyclical is not anti-global or anti-capitalist. In fact, it accepts that “man is constitutionally oriented towards being more” – richer, yes, but also wiser and more loving. Business and finance have not created new excesses. They have opened new routes for an arrogance already present in the hearts of men.

The Pope, in perhaps his most radical passage, laments the “hegemony of the binary model of market-plus-state”. By this he means technocracy. Business and government have become specialised fields; each follows a logic that dispenses with the insights of religion. Globalisation can break down cultures, and with them the moral systems in light of which it can be judged. “If globalisation is viewed from a deterministic standpoint, the criteria with which to evaluate and direct it are lost,” the Pope writes. Certain cynics and idealists might agree that is precisely globalisation’s point. The teachings of the church can find no foothold in a totally free market.

Unfortunately, one of the lost insights concerns justice. The Pope would like us to think about justice as having three aspects. There is commutative justice (the idea of properly judging the prices of things), distributive justice and social justice. National governments, which used to address the second and third, no longer have full power to do so. The global institutions that have replaced them tend to be concerned only with commutative justice – and they do a bad job, the Pope thinks, of judging the value of labour. “If the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires,” he writes.

It is on the subject of justice that the Pope gives voice to a striking insight: “In the global era, the economy is influenced by competitive models tied to cultures that differ greatly among themselves. The different forms of economic enterprise to which they give rise find their main point of encounter in commutative justice.”

The marketplace is a narrow meeting place – the point of “encounter” is on the basis of a lowest common denominator. The only part of our culture that retains its value is that part that can be made intelligible to people we trade with. Most of what is distinctive and valuable about the cultures of trading partners gets left out. If this is true, then to the extent our lives are commercialised, we don’t live in an extended version of our culture but in a shrunken version of it. The idea that globalisation expands our horizons is an optical illusion. The same holds true of our technological gadgets. They may give us more instruments for communicating, the Pope says. But “it does not follow that they promote freedom or internationalise development and democracy for all”.

The Pope is optimistic that globalisation does not make loss of identities inevitable. One hopes he is right. But as soon as he addresses practical matters, he faces a series of Hobson’s choices. The Pope wants more worker protections and an equitable distribution of energy resources. But he has no more luck than others have had in figuring out how to produce distributive justice in this day and age. Development of poor countries may require open markets, which may weaken social protections in the rich ones. Our choice may be between exacerbating national inequality and exacerbating global inequality.

The Pope’s surprisingly firm political recommendation is for increased global government, based on existing institutions. He urges a “reform of the United Nations and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth”. But this begs the very question that his encyclical is meant to address. Before such institutions can be legitimately constituted, we need to know what their principles are.

A curious thing about this encyclical is that its theological and moral arguments are more pragmatic than its supposedly “pragmatic” ones. The Pope has discarded our broken ideological categories and looked more directly at the problems they purport to address. Benedict is certainly right to say that, if we wish to protect the environment, “the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society”. He is right to attack the presumption of technologically advanced societies that “confuse their own technological development with a presumed cultural superiority”. And he makes a convincing case that the recent financial failures are best understood in the context of a wider moral failure.

The writer is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard

More columns at www.ft.com/christophercaldwell

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