Malta's leaders will examine the relevance of Pope Benedict's latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate to the current social and economic reality at a seminar organised by the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation's Malta Chapter on Friday at 5.30 p.m.

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, opposition leader Joseph Muscat, and Archbishop Paul Cremona will address the event at Birkirkara's ÄŠentru Animazzjoni u Komunikazzjoni, before Fr Paul Darmanin launches the Maltese translation of the encyclical.

Economist Joseph F.X. Zahra, who is president of the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation's Malta Chapter, describes Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical as a "masterpiece" which focuses on the connection between morality and economics. It is a must-read for economists, financiers, bankers, board members and senior executives.

"It is a thoroughly modern encyclical dealing with the social doctrine of the Church in relation to the big issues that society worldwide is facing today, like globalisation, the environment, economics, business, technology and social networking, modern poverty, bio-ethics, migration..." Mr Zahra told The Sunday Times.

"Within the context of our country, the encyclical addresses issues on investment promotion, illegal immigration, the setting up of business services such as call centres, and the role of small economies within the international economic community. Its publication was delayed to respond in more detail to the international financial and banking crisis. This further reflects its relevance to today's social and economic reality."

Mr Zahra pointed out that one of the Papal letter's main messages is that ethical values are needed to overcome the current economic crisis, to eradicate poverty and social injustice, and to promote real development - real development is based on human development, a communitarian development where stakeholders take priority over shareholders.

Political parties, Mr Zahra said, are open and influenced in their policy-making by encyclicals. The last 20 years had seen the fall in influence of Marxist ideology on political parties after the collapse of the centrally-planned systems of the USSR and Eastern Europe.

He emphasised that all Maltese political parties embrace the market economy, and global economic growth and prosperity has been the result of the operation of the market.

Caritas in Veritate accepts that the market mechanism provides the most efficient provision of goods and services, but it does not propose an economic model based only on economic logic or commercial logic alone. Rather, it promotes a model which does not undervalue the social and human factor, described as "the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules" - the proposal is less of the Anglo-Saxon economic model and more of the social market mechanism of continental Europe, Mr Zahra explained.

The former Bank of Valletta chairman, who emphasised that a discussion of this nature is timely and relevant, particularly after the crisis of the financial system, said it is important for Malta's political parties to take heed of the Pontiff's message.

Anywhere in the world, parties' policies reflect the mores and ideologies of their populations. He points out that Germany, Holland and Belgium's Christian Democratic models are underpinned by a social Christian ethic. Despite decades of attack, it is still alive. Sweden's social democratic system survived because of its Lutheran work-ethic, reflected in the generosity of its social welfare system.

Even in secular Japan, he insisted, the sociologist Francis Fukuyama argued that inherent Buddhist beliefs sustained the growth of the Japanese economy after World War II; the economic decline was the result of the Western imports of individualism and materialism.

Mr Zahra said Malta's political parties will find comfort in reading the encyclical because there is nothing in it which surprises them - it is a reflection of the ethical framework within which they set their policies and decide.

"The encyclical, however, strengthens the principle that the human being must be right in the centre of economic development, and therefore strengthening the values of the human person is a necessity for sustainable social and economic growth," he stressed.

There is some criticism that the Church still has a strong grip on Maltese political affairs. Asked whether he believed this was true and whether it was necessarily a bad thing if it were true, Mr Zahra replied it depended what was meant by "the Church".

"If we are referring to the Curia and to the institutional Church, my reply is no, this is not the case. The Curia has lost influence on political affairs. But if we are referring to the population, a large majority of whom are baptised Catholics who had their formation in Catholic thinking in their homes and schools, my reply is definitely 'yes'," Mr Zahra explained.

"'Yes' meaning that the Christian thinking has a strong influence on all our politicians and the population at large. Every human being thinks, decides, behaves and acts within an ethical system. Our point of reference in this case is Roman Catholic social thinking, and indeed this is good and not bad. It is good because the Church provides values that are open to life as a centre of true development."

Named after Pope John Paul II's 1991 encyclical, the Vatican City-based Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation aims to spread the human, ethical, social and Christian values named in the papal letter, and support the late Pontiff's charitable initiatives through fundraising. Set up in 1993, it is governed by the Church's Canon Law and Vatican City's civil law and by-laws.

The Malta chapter was established a year ago by a small group of financiers, bankers, economists, stockbrokers, board directors and professionals, and has formed a permanent collaboration with the Pastoral Formation Institute.

Its initiatives over the past year have included a seminar on the ethical issues related to the financial crisis with the participation of Catherine McGeachy, Roderick Chalmers and Salvino Busuttil, and a discussion on economic policy and social issues with Malta's bishops.

It has also co-championed a Master's degree in Business Ethics with the University's faculties of Economics, Management and Accountancy, and Theology.

In June, the chapter presented a paper on 'Co-operation and Subsidiarity' at the foundation's annual convention at the Pontificial Gregorian University in Rome.

The response to its local initiatives has been positive and Mr Zahra said meetings have been very well attended by people who are genuinely interested in Maltese social and economic affairs who have found time to discuss fundamental principles which guide them in business policies.

Next year, the Malta chapter is to launch an outreach programme by meeting the ethics committees of various business and professional institutions.

Friday's seminar, which is organised in collaboration with the Justice and Peace Commission, the Faith and Justice Centre, and the Theological Commission, is open to all.

Mr Zahra, who will chair the seminar, particularly encouraged politicians, business people, bankers, social policy makers, social workers, professionals, and Church and community leaders to attend.

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