"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, September 19, 2008

The Collapse of "Greed is Good"

"Greed says: 'I snatch all things to myself. I hug all things to my breast; the more I have gathered the more I have … When I have whatever I need, I have no worries about needing anything from someone else.' Simple sufficiency replies: 'You are harsh and devoid of mercy because you do not care for the advancement of others. Nothing is sufficient to satisfy you. I, however, sit above the stars, for all of God's good things are sufficient for me … Why should I desire more than I need?'" - Hildegard of Bingen.

The financial meltdown of the past weeks is an astounding validation of the truth of Catholic teachings regarding the seventh commandment. Arthur Jones in a recent NCR article has well-characterized the practices that led to the current crisis, "Americans mindlessly emptied their vast natural resource chest, and then lived off accumulated fat, not income (and that’s not capitalism). Trade went into the red as imports exceeded exports (though U.S. arms sales accelerated). Incredibly, Americans began borrowing while increasing their consumption of goods they no longer produced and couldn’t – and can’t -- afford to pay for." Arthur Jones, "America the Perplexed: The Economic Reality Show", NCR, Sept. 19, 2008.

Though I’m as worried about my 401K as anyone, I wanted to understand the moral breakdown that I felt sure was hidden behind this economic crisis, so I turned to St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas demonstrates that the goal of a society should be to create a field of virtue in which its members can pursue their salvation in solidarity. Well-being arises from two factors according to St. Thomas: "For the well-being of the individual two things are necessary: the first and most essential is to act virtuously (it is through virtue, in fact, that we live a good life); the other, and secondary, requirement is rather a means, and lies in a sufficiency of material goods, such as are necessary to virtuous action." St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regimine Principum, chap. XV. From this we see that the goal of economics is to provide sufficient material goods to form the basis for the life of virtue. Rather than making security or survival or the constant expansion of material goods the goal of economic policy, Christian economics must be centered in promoting the exercise of those virtues which lead to salvation.

What did the Fathers of the Church say about how the goods of the earth were to be distributed? St. Ambrose, mentor to St. Augustine, said, "God has ordered all things to be produced so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be the common possession of all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for few." St. Ambrose, Duties of the Clergy, 1. 132. To reassure myself that this was not an outmoded teaching, I turned to the most recent edition of the Catechism, where I found the following: "In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits ... The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise." Catechism 2402, 2403.

The Fathers were quite explicit about what the universal destination of goods implied for economic practice. St. Basil said, "Though you have not killed, like you say, nor committed adultery, nor stolen, nor borne false witness, you make all of this useless unless you add the only thing which can allow you to enter the kingdom ... whoever loves his neighbor owns no more than his neighbor does. But you have a great fortune. How can this be, unless you have put your own interests before those others." - St. Basil, Homilia VII. Notice that the emphasis is on production for sharing rather than survival and security. Of course, these are very important values, but the teaching implies that if we produce in order to share, then survival, security and many other such goods will be ours in abundance.

The current measures by the U.S. government are obviously the result of desperation, the desperation that always afflicts those who violate the moral law. "The wicked flee when no one is pursuing, but the righteous are bold as a lion." - Proverbs 28:1. The Catechism tells us: "The following are also morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who must make decisions according to law; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste." Catechism 2409. Though all of these apply to the current culprits of uninhibited neoliberal practice, the most pertinent one for the most massive transfer of wealth in U.S. history is "appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise", the "enterprise" in this case being the United States of America. AIG, Merrill Lynch, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, and those yet to come, have all pleaded to those in charge of the public treasury to absolve them of the consequences of their greed. And corrupt officials have gladly agreed.

What is blatantly obvious, though few in the Church seem willing to state it openly, is that the current economic system, far from creating the conditions for virtuous action, promotes and rewards precisely those economic vices that the Church explicitly condemns. In fact, we have been systematically blinded to the consequences of neoliberal economic practice by a system of corporate propaganda that has rarely been challenged from American pulpits. Instead, the Church has been glad to share in the bounty of these practices as long as they were successful. Now that it is too late, so let the denunciations begin.

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