Monday, September 1, 2014

Toward an Economy that Serves

TV coverage of Notre Dame's home football games are punctuated by inspiring promotional pieces for the university titled, "What would you fight for?"  Following Labor Day 2014, perhaps the question worth exploring is, "What would you work for?"

Many of us would likely answer, "For my family" or "For my future" or "For my economic independence."  However, economists of all stripes--along with many politicians--would suggest in a variety of ways that we work to serve the economy.  Whether they tend more toward free-market capitalism or state-controlled socialism, the powers-that-be want to frame human work in terms of whether or not it serves national or international economic growth.

Catholic social teaching offers a more "personalizing" vision for human work: We work "for" the building up of the human person.  Indeed, on its deepest levels our work reflects the work of God himself, who creates, redeems and sanctifies.  In a powerful section entitled "Economic Activity and Social Justice," the Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes that "Economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole man, and of the entire human community" (n. 2426).

Even as he simultaneously offered a profound critique of Marxism, St. John Paul II also incorporated insights from Catholic social teaching in his carefully qualified criticism of global capitalism.  In his encyclical Centesimus annus, John Paul asks whether capitalism is the answer for Third World countries; he then answers, "if by 'capitalism' is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative" (CA, n. 42).  The economy must serve the human person, not vice versa; economic freedom must serve human freedom more deeply understood, in the sense of the ability to choose what is true and good and beautiful. 

From the Pope Leo XIII at the turn of the 20th century and John Paul II and the Catechism at the end of the 20th century, to Pope Francis in this early part of the 21st century, the Church has called disciples of Jesus to find a "third way" beyond mere economic self-interest and mere economic collectivism.  Pope Francis has recently called Catholics to say No to working for an "economy of exclusion"; No to working for "the new idolatry of money"; No to working for a "financial system which rules rather than serves"; No to working for "the inequality which spawns violence" (EG, nn. 52-60). 

Sadly, such prophetic passages have rankled many 21st century Christians. Perhaps because we are comfortable and accustomed to having almost all of our needs met, we are tempted to lash out at the messenger:  Who is the Church to teach on such matters?! 

This Labor Day, let's open our hearts and minds to the fact that God himself has given us the Church as our Mother--and that Holy Mother Church beckons us to work for those who are excluded.  As Pope Francis puts it, "As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems" (EG, n. 202).

In addition to being grateful for the gift of work itself and to praying for friends and family members who are either underemployed or unemployed, perhaps it's time for seemingly small transformations in our daily spending habits.  Maybe it's time to re-evaluate not only what we produce but what and how we consume.  Perhaps this is an opportunity for an honest assessment of where we send our investment monies--and how attached we are to our portfolios or to our bank balances.  Ultimately, through his body which is the Church, Christ is challenging each of us to recognize that the universal destiny of goods takes preference over our right to possess private property.

In closing, it is stunning that both the Catechism and Pope Francis quote this provocative line from St. John Chrysostom:

Not to enable the poor to share in our goods
is to steal from them and deprive them of life. 
The goods we possess are not just ours, but theirs.

(CCC, n. 2446; EG, n. 57) 

Isn't this a truth worth working--and fighting--for?