"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Let Sin Die

Recently, a member responded to my commentary on the financial crisis as follows:

"Although as an Anglo-Catholic/Episcopalian and not a Roman Catholic, I'm not prepared for "a serious discussion of Catholic principles" beyond saying that I like your selection of texts, I do have a couple of comments.

Your point about the necessary abrogation of (some) property rights in times like these is made more clearly justifiable if we first put the necessary emphasis on the "if" in the phrase "even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise." Respect for property rights is always contingent.

Also -- we need to emphasize that it's a bundle of rights, not a unitary right. The common acceptance of the principle of zoning, even if sometimes it's done badly, shows how some of the rights associated with property ownership can justly be overridden.

About the current bailout: as a dedicated critic of our economic system, I still have to concede that the "bailout" is not primarily on behalf of capital vs. the common good. Capital has messed up so badly that the common good requires a bailout of some kind. (The credit freeze, as shown in international inter-bank lending interest rates, was/is real. As I write, it's been thawing rather slowly and the economic fallout may last a long time.)

The inadequacies of the (evolving) bailout are the issue. The common good requires that we move on from the necessary first steps of shoring up the financial system and proceed to start paying attention to human priorities, including the need for some basic as yet undefined and unagreed-upon 'systemic change' in our current corporate "structures of sin".

Universal sharing and solidarity are not possible when corporations rule. The sin which you describe doesn't merely "lurk" in the (mainly corporate) property system: it's the basic structural component.

I agree that the bailout will ultimately fail if we don't address the deep spiritual failures embodied in our current non-negotiable American Way.

Thanks for bringing so many apt and powerful quotes to my attention."

My reply is as follows:

Respect for the common good clearly takes precedence over the "if" of the Catechism. I'm attempting to contend that the "absolute" demand of property rights is neither Christian or human. Christianity is not worship of the status quo, unquestioning acceptance of current property relations. Respect for property rights is contingent on many factors. In fact it is far down on the Biblical priority list.

It is indeed a bundle of rights, all based on human as opposed to natural law, as Aquinas explicates. My key point turns on this distinction. The universal destination of goods negates individual rights to possession when they violate the common good.

As to your third point, I regret to say I disagree. The common good does not require the preservation of the current economic system. I believe the bailout is precisely about the preference for the current financial system over the birth of a new system. The current system must die for many reasons, one of which is its inherent prioritizing of capital requirements over human needs. Such a system will collapse from its own contradictions, and Christians should rejoice in the possibilities unleashed in that collapse.

I consider the current capitalist system a form of sin and like all sin, it will eventually destroy itself because it is based on a lie. Attempting to preserve it because of the evil a collapse might cause is temptation. I want to see a completely new system based on the priority of human development over monetary considerations. I have no interest in bailing out the current system.

So I would continue my disagreement by asserting that the inadequacies of the current bailout are not the issue. The issue is, as you state, to start paying attention to human priorities. That is the first step, not 'shoring up the current financial system' which inherently contains the same priorization of capital over those needs.

Far from being "undefined", systemic change can be adequately envisioned by those who see beyond the current system of injustice, whether that system is "agreed upon" or not. Agreement can only come by demonstration.

I firmly endorse your insight into the basic structural components of the corporate property system. Indeed, they do not "lurk", but dominate.

The bailout will fail precisely because it is a bailout, not a response to the American spiritual failure. In the words of Paulo Friere, "The church [or country in this case] that is not reborn through suffering, but merely rearranged in its domestic life, only succeeds in becoming more efficiently fascist."

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