“God Bless America.” We’ve made it our national hymn and we force our elected officials to recite the words from every podium, on every occasion, every time, else have their patriotism challenged.
Patriotism? Where along the way did our nation of immigrants – our masses of indebted, desperate and persecuted ancestors – acquire the belief that the USA’s great wealth is a blessing from God? Which if true would mean, ipso facto, that those who suffer must be fallen from grace? Hmm. Our Country ’Tis of Thee, and as for unbelievers, Let the Heathen Rage.
Pope Benedict’s encyclical this week on economic justice skewers this careless attitude toward faith and the economy. It is an explicit intellectual challenge to the moral fragility of a worldwide economy answerable solely to shareholders. And it is a hopeful note for progressives in the Roman Catholic Church – and for the faithful of any brand of spiritual and human conscientiousness around the world.
“Charity demands justice … Justice must be applied to every phase of economic activity … Every economic decision has a moral consequence.” Benedict wrote these lines in a 144-page document that has been in the works since before our current Great Recession began, but is prophetic nonetheless.
One knee-jerk response, of course, is to attack the Church’s wealth as a way of deflecting the argument from the excesses of unrestrained capitalism and our religious devotion to free markets. “The Pope in his gold shoes is a hypocrite,” one responder commented on a Washington Post blog.
Well, yes, we humans are pitiful. But I believe the Church’s aggressive voice for the poor and disfranchised – and its enormous global charity enterprises – is as valid as, and no less flawed than, the United States of America’s voice for liberty. It took a catastrophic civil war, you recall, to rid ourselves of an addiction to slavery, from which we’re still suffering the DTs. The point is, we can respect and be thankful for people and institutions that serve as the flag-bearers of higher ideals to keep nudging the human race along.
Whatever your religious faith or lack thereof, it’s hard not to squirm when the Pope – or any courageous modern day prophet – expresses concern about “the scandal of glaring inequities” produced over the past several decades of wealth building. I.e., the rich getting richer (and executives getting rewarded for job destruction on a mass scale) while working wages fall further and further behind.
Here’s a lacerating piece of relevant sarcasm from the farmer, poet and essayist Wendell Berry of Kentucky, from his book, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community:
“The free market sees to it that everything ends up in the right place – that is, it makes sure that only the worthy get rich. All millionaires and billionaires have worked hard for their money, and they deserve the rewards of their work. They need all the help they can get from the government and the universities. Having money stimulates the rich to further economic activity that ultimately benefits the rest of us. Needing money further stimulates the rest of us to further economic activity that benefits the rich. The cardinal principle of the free market is unrestrained competition, which is a kind of tournament that will decide which is the world’s champion corporation. Ultimately, thanks to this principle, there will be only one corporation, which will be wonderfully simplifying. After that, we will rest in peace.”
The Pope and the Church, for all their exasperating human shortcomings, have gotten this encyclical on morality and the economy exactly right. So all you Gordon Gekkos out there in a fighting mood, keep your powder dry for another day, when the issue is, say, birth control.
Here’s how Thomas J. Reese summarized the pope’s message for Newsweek and The Washington Post online: Benedict disappointedly acknowledges that “the world’s wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase …
“The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.”
The goal should be decent employment for everyone, which “means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labor; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.”
The pope disagrees with those who believe that the economy should be free of government regulation. “The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way,” he writes. “In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise.”
“Charity demands justice: recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples,” he says. “Justice must be applied to every phase of economic activity, because this is always concerned with man and his needs,” Benedict writes.
Alas, “as society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers.” True “development of peoples depends, above all, on a recognition that the human race is a single family working together in true communion, not simply a group of subjects who happen to live side by side.” The goal of such development is “rescuing peoples, first and foremost, from hunger, deprivation, endemic diseases and illiteracy.”
The encyclical is the most authoritative document a pope can issue. On July 7, 2009, the pope’s message included this summary statement:
“Today’s international economic scene, marked by grave deviations and failures, requires a profoundly new way of understanding human enterprise. Without doubt, one of the greatest risks for business is that they are almost exclusively answerable to their investors, thereby limited in their social value.”
And all the people said, “Amen.”