On this Feast of Pentecost, as we pray and reflect about the mission God entrusts to us, and about all the different gifts and talents we bring to it, I would like to discuss with you a matter of very great importance. As many of you know, the Catholic Bishops of the United States are involved in a process of inquiry, discernment and discussion about the American economy.
This investigation has been going on for almost four years now, and this coming November, at the annual Bishops’ meeting in Washington, D.C., a committee chaired by Archbishop Weakland, O.S.B., of Milwaukee will make public a first-draft version of a major pastoral statement on the economy.
That first draft will, in fact, be an invitation to all of you. It is meant to engage all Catholics in this same process of reflection and discussion, which the Bishops, in turn, will then try to assimilate in their further drafts and final message.
This procedure, like the process that led up to our Pastoral Letter last year, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, represents something new and very important in the Church in our country, something based on a deepening understanding of the Church, which we owe to the profound renewal of Catholicism inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council. “The model adopted by the United States Bishops’ Conference believes,” in Archbishop Weakland’s words, “that the Holy Spirit resides in all members of the Church and that the hierarchy must listen to what the Spirit is saying to the whole Church.”
This is a new way of doing theological reflection, and a new way of exercising episcopal authority. It works its way out in public meetings, committee arguments, special conferences, dozens of scholarly articles and reflections in the
Catholic press, local meetings of pastoral workers and Catholic teachers, family discussions and personal prayer, careful listening and careful formulation. The point of all this is to open up new channels of communication in the church, so we are all listening and speaking more clearly, sharing our gifts with each other, learning from each other, and discerning the work of God’s Spirit in our midst, in our own shared histories. “Discernment,” as Archbishop Weakland points out, “becomes a part of the teaching process.”
Indeed, some of this wider discussion has already begun. The Bishops’ committee has consulted theologians, economists, business people, labor leaders, Church people who daily confront issues of poverty, and public policy makers. The media has already started to speculate on the outcome of the Bishops’ work. Some Catholics, fearing the criticism of our economic system that the Bishops may voice, have already started to construct counter-statements.
The Bishops know that any serious examination of our economy will be controversial. But they do not want a controversy that becomes merely an exercise in political partisanship or economic ideology. They are making every effort to avoid that, and we must follow this lead. Obviously, it is none too soon to start preparing our minds and hearts for the challenge the Bishops are offering us. This is what I am proposing to you today.
In one sense, it is surprising that the coming Pastoral Letter should be seen as so challenging. There is nothing new about the Church, the Bishops or Catholic agencies addressing specific problems like poverty, unemployment, farm life, regional underdevelopment, or the needs of poor nations. Catholic teaching has always touched on the moral and religious dimensions of economics, and on the relationships between economics and politics, and between economics and culture.
Furthermore, concern about the economy now looms large in our consciousness. Economic news is on the front page of newspapers every day. The pronouncements of public officials are thick with economic analyses and proposals. Politicians argue fiercely about economic policies and strategies. Academic experts write columns in popular magazines. There is a great upsurge of interest in the economy, in trying to understand and control it, in trying to evaluate it and improve it one way or another.
In addition, some of our brothers and sisters here and in other nations, especially in the underdeveloped part of the world, have severely criticized our system of capitalism as the main reason for their poverty. We owe them a serious examination of our national economic conscience.
N o one doubts that the outcome of these debates will intimately affect the way we live — our self-esteem, the stability of our families, the strength of our communities, the spirit of the nation, the way we are able to practice our Faith. How could the Church, especially the Church, be silent? We must be attentive to this, thoughtful about it, articulate and truthful. And yet, when we are faced with the prospect of matching not just this or that economic failure but our economic system as a whole to the demands of our religious Faith and heritage, then we hesitate.
WHY DO WE HESITATE?
There are, of course, many complex reasons why we might hesitate to reflect seriously about capitalism from a moral and religious point of view. We may hesitate because it makes us nervous to think about the fact that things could be entirely different than they are, that we might have been born in a different class or ethnic group, that there might be some terrible irrationality and moral laziness built into the presuppositions of our daily lives and employments.
We may hesitate because we have been conditioned to think such things are better left in the hands of experts, technical specialists who will manage these problems without any recourse to moral wisdom or religious inspiration, but somehow just on the basis of “hard facts” and calculations. We may hesitate because we think that economic matters and religious matters should be kept in separate, air-tight containers.
We may especially hesitate because we feel that our whole pattern of life is being challenged, a way of life that unquestionably provides a high standard of living to a great number of people. Many of us, after all, have come, in this century or the last, from situations of want and oppression, and after years of work and, struggle, we found here in the United States both well-being and freedom. We can never forget — as new immigrant communities constantly remind us — that the United States continues to be seen beyond our own borders as a land of hope and opportunity. Are we being ungrateful, then, even to raise questions about this economic system?
Are these questions, in addition, somehow dangerous? It is often said that our political and cultural freedoms depend on our economic system, that democracy rests upon capitalism or free enterprise or private property. Consequently, thoroughgoing criticism of our economy may endanger our system of self-government and our individual liberties. Efforts to regulate or restructure private economic power are viewed by some as only adding to the power of the state.
And since America’s chief adversary on the world scene is currently the Soviet Union, a nation in which the state wields dictatorial control over its citizens’ lives under the banner of “socialism,” any proposals for economic reform in our nation swiftly encounter the charge of being “socialistic” in the Soviet sense. In leading the Church to reexamine the economy, then, are the Bishops not only being ungrateful but possibly unpatriotic or un-American?
It is good to look these fears in the face. They remind us that an evaluation of our economic system is not to be undertaken lightly. The economic achievements of our past must be taken into account. The political dangers — and economic shortcomings too — of concentrating power in one, central government must be recognized. Indeed, the Catholic Church has consistently warned against the dangers of “statism.”
But we cannot allow these fears to paralyze our sense of inquiry and moral judgment. If our economic system has successfully spread material prosperity to large numbers of people, this has been, in large part, because courageous individuals — politicians, thinkers, social activists, labor leaders, clergy, and business leaders — were willing in the past to examine and challenge the status quo. They, too, were warned that their criticism and new ideas would be ruinous. They, too, were often accused of being ungrateful, unpatriotic, un-American and even “socialistic.”
In fact, there is hardly a major reform that now constitutes an accepted part of the American way of life which was not at one time tarred as “socialistic” — from free schooling for everyone to child labor laws, from the eight hour working day to Social Security, from women’s suffrage to the right to organize labor unions and engage in collective bargaining. In daring to examine and, where necessary, criticize our economic system, we are not betraying the American past, we are being faithful to it.
We are also being faithful to the American political system. We would show little confidence in our democracy if we believed it so fragile that it could not survive an appraisal, even a critical appraisal, of something so important as our own economic institutions. What would self-government be for, after all, if its maintenance required us to put out of our minds some of the most fundamental questions about society?
Furthermore, we know that our economic institutions and our political freedoms have not, in fact, always been mutually supportive. Frequently in our past, economic power has threatened to undermine genuine democracy. Sometimes economic hardship has excluded large numbers of citizens from effectively exercising their citizenship, In recent years, our political processes have been greatly affected — many would say distorted — by the impact of national media, of sophisticated advertising techniques, and of political campaign funding from economic interests.
Energy needs, environmental limitations, and international competition have all provoked discussion of new kinds of relationships between economic institutions and government. Will such changes preserve or increase our liberty and self-rule? Or will they take more decisions out of the reach of ordinary people? Far from showing any lack of appreciation for our political heritage, the Bishops’ close look at the American economy expresses a real affirmation of our democratic institutions and ideals.
Faithfulness to our past, dedication to democracy — if these are finally reasons for undertaking such an examination of the economy, there is yet a reason even more fundamental for us Christians. That is the Gospel’s injunction to reevaluate every aspect of our lives in the light of Jesus’ life and teachings, and in the light of His crucifixion and resurrection. Of course, we should not search the Gospels for a tax code, employment strategy, or new “industrial policy.” But what we find there is even more basic — and no less relevant to our economic existence than to the rest of our lives.
In His parables, in His actions, in His death and resurrection, Jesus teaches us that the wisdom of the world is not necessarily the wisdom of God’s way, the way things are in God’s kingdom. In the vision of Jesus, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first; workers hired at the end of the day receive as much as those who toiled since morning; prodigal sons are welcomed home with lavish parties; the oppressed are set free and the rich are sent away empty. The world of God’s kingdom that Jesus proclaims is, in many ways, a very topsy-turvy world, a world turned upside down. It is a Kingdom which is really, Cardinal John Henry Newman’s term, a “counter-kingdom.”
This too is frightening. “Do not be afraid,” said the angel to those who came to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning and found it empty. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said to His disciples when He appeared to them in resurrected life. These words convey more than simply an effort to calm momentary surprise. They are meant to reassure Jesus’ followers in the face of news so good as to be devastating: that they could no longer live within the limits of all the world’s conventional expectations, that God’s life had escaped our local standards of the believable and the unbelievable.
How fitting that our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, should have repeated the same words when he spoke of the economic responsibilities of the United States to the world’s poor in his homily at Yankee Stadium in 1979. Pope John Paul reminded us of Jesus’ powerful parable about the rich man condemned to eternal torment because he had ignored the needs of the beggar, Lazarus, lying at his gate. This parable, said our Holy Father, “must always be present in our memory; it must form our conscience.” And then, with words he had used in the beginning of his Pontificate — “Do not be afraid,” he said. “Open wide the doors for Christ. To His saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows what is in human beings. He alone knows it.”
Let us cast off the trepidation, then, that might make us hesitate to join the Bishops in their work. Let us not be paralyzed by suggestions that economic matters fall outside the Gospel’s purview, or that they are too complicated for Bishops or ordinary Christians to penetrate. Let us open the boundaries of our economic system to Christ’s saving power and to the wonderful working of His Spirit.
We will not be afraid.
THINKING ABOUT OUR ECONOMY
None of this means that the task the Bishops have undertaken — and with us, the entire Catholic Church in the United States — will be an easy one.
To begin with, it is difficult really to think about, and especially to evaluate critically, the social structures we inhabit. Of course, we are daily aware of economic realities, but at a deeper level we do not usually think hard about the nature of the economy. For most of us, most of the time, our economic institutions are ingrained in our lives. We take them for granted. We can hardly imagine them being otherwise.
We get our paychecks, the banks cash them, the supermarket has the meat, milk, vegetables our families need. If we are producers, we manage to obtain the supplies or labor power we require; perhaps with a little shopping around, at the right time and in the right amounts. When we are young or new to economic life, we are introduced to “the way things are” or “how the world works.” And the system is an effective teaching device: it materially rewards those who absorb its principles, and penalizes those who challenge them.
Indeed, admirers of our market economy often complain that we do not even notice, let alone marvel at, the ways that “market mechanisms” tailor behavior to meet economic needs without relying on a central bureaucracy. It is sometimes only when we observe an economy that tries to perform these functions by bureaucratic fiat, almost inevitably becoming bogged down in thousands of minute decisions with goods oversupplied or undersupplied or in the wrong place at the wrong time, that we recognize the advantages of a market system.
Obviously, when an economy does not work well, we become more sensitive to its particular characteristics. Sometimes we even become aware of our economic institutions with a shock — when they cease to work for us. We lose a job, we begin to grow anxious about feeding our families and keeping a roof over our heads. We dread the possibility that a child or parent might take ill and need hospitalization.
But even when we suffer economic dislocation — or have a relative, friend or neighbor who does — we often assume it is a matter of personal responsibility. As many social science researchers have shown, people tend to blame themselves for a loss of a job, to feel ashamed that they cannot sustain their usual standard of living, to feel embarrassed that they or their children come to look shabby.
If we stood back and looked at this situation, we might ask ourselves: how is it that even the richest country in the world does not adequately shelter and feed so many of its own citizens? How is it that so many, able and willing to work, do not find work that will pay a living wage? Or even more troubling, why so many who do work are even then unable to provide the basic necessities for their families? And why so many who are able to provide for their families find their work dispiriting and meaningless?
Historians are well aware that the emergence of capitalism and modern industry on our world involved deep changes in the way people thought and behaved in attitudes toward time, toward money, toward nature, toward kinship, toward the future, toward God and religion. Historically, these changes were often painful and involved bitter political struggles.
Those struggles were over questions like the rights and duties of ownership, the role of workers’ organizations, the separation of political rights from family titles or financial power, society’s obligation to provide for those unable to care for themselves. In different lands, those struggles had somewhat different outcomes. This historical perspective reminds us that economic institutions were not always what they are today, that even today they vary considerably from country to country, that they can change significantly in the future — and that all this represents the sum of many choices, often expressed in the political realm.
Where we work, whether and how we work, what we prefer to do with the income we earn, how we divide up tasks in the family, how we think about education or leisure or the future, where we live and how we relate to one another, the way we understand the world through the entertainment we enjoy and the news we hear — all this is far more directly related to our economic system than we often realize.
All of us at least vaguely know this. We know that in passing from earlier economies to today’s, we have both lost. and gained some things,. We know that even now there is considerable variation among Western nations in the roles played by government, employers and unions, in the extent of economic planning, in the amount of social benefits provided for hardship. We see further change taking place before our eyes.
Certain industries and regions are in decline. New technologies change the nature of our work and the skills we need and the ease with which capital and jobs can be shifted from one place to another. Our economy is tied to other parts of the globe as never before. Interdependence and environmental limits suggest that economic growth will not be as easily won as in our recent past.
All this has meant considerable economic dislocation in recent years, some of it terribly destructive. Many Americans are growing aware that our economic institutions are not just facts of life to be taken for granted. They are human creations. We build them, we gain or lose by them, we can repair or improve them. We must shape them because they shape us.
As one widely recognized conservative observer, George Will, wrote, “Choosing an economic system, or choosing substantially to revise significant economic policies, is a political, which means moral, undertaking. It is the authoritative assignment of values, the encouragement of some behavior and values and the discouragement of others.”
Economic institutions are not like mountains, created by forces of nature. They are like houses and cities, created by our own choices. That is why they are our responsibility.
BY WHAT STANDARDS?
If the particular shape an economy takes is our own doing and our own responsibility, we must have a way to evaluate our efforts. How? By what standards? Here, capitalism itself offers only limited help. Capitalist theory justifies the open market on the grounds that it best serves “efficiency.” But asked to define that efficiency, the theory answers that efficiency is whatever survives on the open market. Behind this apparently circular reasoning is the hidden assumption that the market truly reflects people’s needs.
This assumption overlooks two facts. First, wealth is very unequally distributed so that the imagined “need” of the very rich far outweighs in market power even the obvious, desperate need of the poor. Secondly, the choices people make as isolated decision-makers in the marketplace are not necessarily the choices they would prefer if they could deliberate and reach a joint decision with others.
This does not mean that capitalism is not efficient, but only that the particular kind of “economic efficiency” it claims to serve must be measured in turn by some wider standard than market success alone. Economic science does offer some further standards — accepted measures of economic growth, unemployment, inflation, productivity, poverty, and so on. These terms are important tools for our discussion. Without them, we might have to rely on everyone’s personal impressions, without any way of testing whether someone’s experience of prosperity or hardship was at all representative.
At the same time, such statistical measurements have serious shortcomings. Sometimes they can only be approximations. Unemployment rates do not include those people so discouraged that they have ceased looking for jobs altogether. Changes in productivity may be easy to measure in industries like steel or autos, but are notoriously hard to pin down in areas like teaching, health care, or government services.
More important, these figures do not tell us of the human reality behind them. Economic growth — if it is fairly distributed — can mean new hope for those on the lower rungs of social well-being, or it can mean a secure retirement for the elderly. Unemployment, on the other hand, often brings more than a reduced income. It produces frustration and demoralization, and in turn, there comes a higher incidence of broken marriages, child abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. Poverty, too, is not just a statistic. It is a way of life that, for all but the strongest, saps the spirit even more than it breaks the body.
Furthermore, economists themselves warn us that these statistical measurements can be deceptive. An increase in Gross National Product (hereafter GNP) may record gains in ordinary production but ignore the undesirable side-effects — like pollution of our air or water — that are also “products” of this growth. Indeed, if that pollution requires new anti-pollution or medical expenditures, those would be counted as positive gains in the GNP! When social breakdown creates such a fear of crime that homeowners feel compelled to spend an estimated $1.7 billion on alarm systems this year, common sense tells us that those figures reflect a loss, not a gain, in our well-being. Yet they will be considered a positive addition to our GNP.
Thus we can and should use these figures for some general idea of trends. But we must always, especially as religious people, keep in mind the human realities that they only roughly represent. Economics, like the other social sciences that have arisen over the last two centuries, gives us important new lenses to see our social “structures” and “systems.” It helps us become conscious of patterns that previously escaped us, and in this way it enlarges our freedom and extends our responsibility — to either maintain or modify these patterns.
At the same time, these new insights are won at the cost of a degree of abstraction, a certain simplification and cool distance from the complicated, confusing, concrete immediacy of our real lives. A special expertise in economics gives us only one point of view on the concrete realities we experience together, even as regards our wanting and needing, working and earning, buying and selling, owning and giving. It does not help us understand the misery caused by unemployment, the seduction of youthful desires and aspirations by mass media images and corporate merchandising, the anxiety of mothers who cannot adequately feed their children, the moral discontent of farmers who find they must restrict their crop size while much of the world goes hungry, the resigned cynicism of executives who recognize that their businesses are run by standards other than those they honor in their private lives.
Nor, on the other hand, does economic expertise necessarily register the importance of satisfaction in a good day’s labor, the pride taken in a family enterprise, the inventiveness that leads an entrepreneur to satisfy the unmet need, the spirit of teamwork and friendship that can infuse even routine work with human meaning.
When we conduct this new conversation about our economic institutions, we are, in truth, talking about our own lives. And our lives — even our economic lives — are richer, more mysterious, and ultimately more important than the language of economics allows. So we must speak in a fuller range of language about what it is we want from life, what we see around us, what we value most, what we have “set our hearts upon.”
We must talk to each other about what we think “the good life” really is for human beings. We must examine our attitudes toward our work, our communities, our natural environment, our families and friends, the symbols of esteem in our lives, and our political responsibilities. In these ways, our language will always keep returning to the concrete, resituating us in the everyday joys and troubles of life.
In the Church’s social teaching, to which I have already referred, we find spelled out many of the guidelines by which we should evaluate the human reality of our economies, as well as their abstract performance. Developed over a long period of time, these guidelines are not entirely consistent. There have been shifts in emphasis, and the task of reinterpreting this teaching for each generation and for different parts of the globe continues.
It is now, in fact, our responsibility to make a contribution as American Catholics. But though this teaching of the Church may be incomplete, it sets forth essential principles which the Bishops, in their first draft, will no doubt outline.
For the time being, I would like to recall this teaching only through the eyes of Pope John Paul II in that sermon he preached at Yankee Stadium in New York. There he proposed certain “urgent priorities” which our ministry to humanity should concentrate on, at the present time. I believe that it is with these priorities in mind that we must examine and evaluate our economic life. Let us consider some of these priorities here.
The first of these priorities is the most important. “Social thinking and social justice inspired by the Gospel,” in Pope John Paul’s words, “must always be marked by a special sensitivity towards those who are most in distress, those who are extremely poor, those suffering from all the physical, mental and moral ills that afflict humanity, including hunger, neglect, unemployment and despair.”
We cannot evaluate our economy primarily by the extraordinary opportunities it offers a few, or even simply by the average treatment it metes out. We must give a large place in our consideration to the support the economy provides to “the least” of our brothers and sisters.
“Make an effort,” our Holy Father said, “to ensure that this form of aid keeps its irreplaceable character as a fraternal and personal encounter with those who are in distress…Let this sort of aid be respectful of the freedom and dignity of those being helped, and let it be a means of forming the conscience of the givers.”
The Pope urged this standard in reference to our private and public works of charity and our agencies of welfare in the broadest sense. But it applies as well to the spirit of service that should rule in the workplace and marketplace. Again, economic institutions cannot be viewed simply in terms of the material benefits they provide, but of the human relations they foster. They must be designed to increase our sensitivity toward others, not deaden it, to encourage us to respect and serve the human dignity of our fellows and not view or manipulate people simply as customers, consumers, and competitors.
Looking back from the Holy Father’s focus at Yankee Stadium on the poor to the Catholic teaching. from which he was drawing, I think it is valid to see in these first two points a concept of fundamental economic dignity. Here I refer to something beyond the avoidance of suffering and the meeting of material needs. I refer to something like the political dignity we enjoy in a democracy. To be sure, special interest groups may wield more political power than we do as individual citizens, but the equality of the vote is still a basic minimum which cannot be denied us.
Likewise, economic dignity requires that we have a minimum of resources under our control so that we can stand tall and be respected. I have in mind things like a decent job for those who can work; and welfare without stigma for those who cannot. Dare we be persuaded by those who say that these minimums are not feasible? Should we have listened to those in our nation’s past who said the political system would not work if the “vote” was given to the propertyless, Blacks, and women?
After speaking of providing networks of assistance, Pope John Paul says: “But this is not enough.” And we too must say: But this is not enough. We must also “seek out structural reasons which foster or cause the different forms of poverty in the world and in [our] own country, so that [we] can apply the proper remedies.” We must not recoil “before the reforms — even the profound ones — of attitudes and structures that may prove necessary,” as the Pope puts it, “in order to recreate, over and over again, the conditions needed by the disadvantaged if they are to have a fresh chance in the hard struggle of life.”
Pope John Paul stresses the transformation of social structures in order to relieve poverty and disadvantage first of all in their brutal, material sense But he also speaks of “different forms” of poverty — and thereby reminds us of the poverty that can coexist with physical comfort: the poverty of routine or trivial work, the poverty of misdirected or wasted talents, the poverty of ruthless competition or relentless acquisitiveness. We must not hesitate to reform whatever attitudes or structures foster these kinds of poverty as well.
“The life-style of many of the members of our rich and permissive societies is easy,” the Pope tells us. And yet, he says, we should be “in the vanguard” of those searching for new ways of living, ways of living that break decisively with the “frenzy of consumerism, exhausting and joyless.”
We all know that there are many sayings about wealth and poverty in the Gospel stories. The gist of these is that wealth is actually dangerous because it deadens us to truth and to love; and that poverty is, mysteriously, some kind of blessing viewed in the light of Jesus’ preaching. It is redundant — but still important — to point out that these warnings about the moral dangers of wealth have always been hard for wealthy Christians to hear with open hearts and to take seriously.
Yet the whole mission of Jesus involves proclaiming Good News to the poor. The New Age which is dawning in the ministry of Jesus cannot be entered by those who are preoccupied with money. Therefore, this is how Jesus chooses to speak about money: “No one can be the servant of two masters. You will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn. You cannot be the servant both of God and of money.” (Matthew 6:24)
This puts the discussion of money immediately in the context of religious questions — true and false worship, a question of idolatry. And it reminds us that in our everyday lives, in our homes, our work, our neighborhood, our Church, and our country, we are always in the service of something or other. Whatever we are doing, we are living our lives “in the service of something. But what is it that we spend our hours and days serving?
Finally, it is critical for us Catholics to live with a sense of unbroken communion with all our brothers and sisters throughout all the nations of the world today. We are one Church with all these people: in Brazil or Poland or El Salvador or Italy or the Philippines. We break one bread with them. On Pentecost we rejoice in one and the same Spirit.
“For it is not right,” as our Holy Father reminded us, “that the standard of living of the rich countries should seek to maintain itself by draining off a great part of the reserves of energy and raw materials that are meant to serve the whole of humanity.” It is very urgent for all of us, now, to learn how to think about justice and peace in terms of the planet as a whole — this one earth, where we human beings are called to be one family.
Let us allow these themes, suggested by Pope John Paul II, be the subjects of our prayers, our critical reflection, and our guides in our new conversation about the American economy.
THE QUALITY OF THE CONVERSATION
Suppose that we can reach a common understanding of the priorities our economy should reflect. Our minds and hearts will still be tested by the new conversation to which the Bishops are inviting us. There are some obvious tensions between our economic system and Catholic teaching. We speak of communities of faith while the secular culture advocates individual pursuits. Our faith urges us to share while our economy prompts us to acquire. The one preaches fellowship, sacrifice, and bearing one another’s burdens; the other insists on the pursuit of self-interest.
People in our economy like to think of themselves as economically self-sufficient and deserving of their rewards. Our faith tells us that all things come ultimately from God’s graciousness. Our economy, is present-minded; it gives little thought to the fact that we live off the investment, acquired skills, and social inventory of generations past; that we hold the earth is stewardship for the future. The Christian emphasis on remembrance, tradition, and hope in the Lord’s coming ties past, present and future together.
Christians should not be surprised at these tensions. We should recognize that tensions would exist with a different economic system as well. Nonetheless, it is easy for tension to express itself in anger, rancor, and division. Our conversation could break down into sweeping condemnations, self-satisfied claims of superior virtue or expert knowledge, and bitterness toward others, both within and outside the Church, who hold different views.
This is all the more possible since tensions may exist even among the several priorities we are agreed upon. Assuring well-being for the poor and a basic economic dignity for all requires attention to production as well as distribution, and practical conflicts may arise between these two latter concerns — as well as between serving the least advantaged at home and the poor in other lands, between fulfilling material needs and maintaining the personal quality of our economic lives, between the needs of the present and those of the future.
All this reminds us that finding the best means to our desired goals is never easy. It is crucial, therefore, that we give careful heed to the “quality” of our new conversation about the economy. Slogans like “get the government off our backs” or “produce for people, not profits” usually contain a kernel of truth and express some genuine complaint against the abuses of government or corporations. But they always limit our vision to only one part of a very complex question. Two centuries of economic thought has taught us that economic systems often work in less than obvious ways.
We must recognize the fact that even people who agree about the goals for our economy may disagree about the best means for reaching them. At the same time, we know that goals and means cannot be neatly separated. The means we choose will, eventually, help determine the goals we pursue — for the means will shape our very selves.
What then, practically speaking, should we conclude from the fact of this complexity? First, we should keep open minds. We should not let labels like “conservative” or “liberal,” “capitalist” or “socialist” keep us from looking at alternative approaches to the problems we face. We should be aware of the experiences of other nations,
Above all, we should recall what the Bishops wrote in the Pastoral Letter on peace: “On some complex social questions, the Church expects a certain diversity of views even though all hold the same universal moral principles….We urge mutual respect among different groups in the Church….Not only conviction and commitment are needed in the Church, but also civility and charity.”
Secondly, we should not couch our conversation in terms of some simple affirmation or condemnation of American capitalism or of any alternative system. Demands for such across-the-board acceptance or rejection are largely rhetorical. In its size and complexity, the American economy defies simple judgments. History gives little support, in any case, to those who hope — or those who fear — that such an economy might be transformed overnight.
Insofar, then, as the Church wants to give practical moral guidance, it will be working within much of the present economic framework, and therefore implicitly giving it at least a conditional acceptance. We would do well to recognize that reality clearly, and to direct our judgments not at the economy in general but, as precisely as possible, at specific aspects of it, directions it may take, and the concrete choices that could make a difference in both the near term and the long run.
This does not mean we should rule out of order those who express profound discontent with the present economy or those who would propose radically different alternatives. Those who fear that such questioning attitudes will suddenly sweep to dominance uncriticized or unchecked greatly underestimate how rooted and powerful is the economic status quo. A thorough-going realism admits the need for caution in social change but it also admits that little social change has ever occurred without the pressure of criticism or utopian visions.
Thirdly, while we should always strive to base our conclusions about economic alternatives on the best evidence available, we should also realize that all evidence — indeed even the way that economic problems are defined — is inevitably influenced by our varying perspectives. Things look differently to the poor than to the well-off. The social costs of an economic policy are apt to be weighed differently by the academic expert, the corporate leader, and the union member. We must listen to all voices, but in cases of uncertainty the Christian’s bias is with those who are poor or burdened.
Fourthly, even when the search for plausible means to our desired economic goals seems unavailing, we should not give up hope. We should not give up the vision of what God wants for us. We should not, above all, give up seeing the problems. It is true that there are moments when almost all economic solutions seem tentative, when we see no decisive cure for our ills and must inch forward uncertainly. The temptation at periods like that is to sweep discomforting realities under the rug, to minimize the seriousness of the suffering that would otherwise haunt us, to define problems out of existence.
But no amount of discouragement should allow us to turn away, to spare ourselves the sights and sounds of suffering, to pass off these distressing realities as so much politics or maybe even the victims’ own responsibility. But this challenge of maintaining the quality of our conversation is very difficult.
SPIRITUALITY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
If we are really going to take a fresh look at our economic system, read about it, think about it, pray about it, talk to one another about it, and attempt to evaluate it, as disciples of Jesus and according to Catholic principles, then we ourselves are going to have to go through something that could be painful and disorienting, and something we are likely to resist — a conversion of our hearts.
Frankly, Catholic teaching is demanding. It requires us to be dissatisfied with misery and injustice. It insists, in fact, that human life could be full, free, and abounding with significance. It insists that every human person is a mystery and a wonder, deserving of our respect and reverence. It says that we are all made for freedom and mutual love and support. It insists we all have a right to work, and that work be more than merely making money, but also provide a meaningful form of service to the community and a significant kind of participation in society.
It teaches us that we are all called to be agents of change in society, embodying, in Pope Paul VI’s words, “the concrete demands of the Christian faith for a just, and consequently necessary, transformation of society.” It calls us to be brothers and sisters with all the peoples of the world — to understand the common good, now, in global terms which would ensure more justice, more freedom for more people, more truth and dignity, and more peace.
So we have to ask ourselves: what must happen inside of us that we could become this kind of presence in American society? What kind of spirituality is required of us now?
In some ways, of course, Christian spirituality is always the same: it is a practical way of remaining faithful to love, of allowing Christ to change us thoroughly through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a practice aimed at purity of heart — a condition in which our hearts are whole and free and full — and this will always be the meaning of Christian spirituality, because it will always be a response to one and the same Spirit.
But in each age, and among different groups and peoples, there are new and specific tasks for the human spirit, and in every crisis in the history of the Church, the project of spirituality has had to be mapped out anew. In our own time, there is a sense widely shared among Catholics that a new form of discipleship and spirituality is needed, one that grows out of our new understanding (especially since the Second Vatican Council) of how the Church is related to the world around us.
There is also, I believe, a sense widely shared among Catholics that we are still groping in this area, and that we are still burdened by habits of mind that separate spirituality from social and political responsibility. As we prepare ourselves for this coming discussion about capitalism, and the meaning of economic justice, let us be mindful of this spiritual dimension. For the conversation will only make sense if we bring to it hearts made new by the Spirit of Christ.
How do we picture ourselves in this situation? Who are we who undertake this conversation? Who gives shape to our sense of identity? What stories and images reveal to us who we really are? And what in the culture around us do we identify with? These are the kinds of questions that lead us to this new spirituality. I believe the first element in this emergent spirituality will be a reawakening of our sense of religious identity — that the real basis of our identities is that we are followers of Jesus and through His grace, the sons and daughters of the living God.
The whole story of spirituality is a story of how we come to realize this truth, and how we come to risk our lives wholeheartedly upon it. As Pope John Paul II told us: “We must see first and foremost Christ saying to each member of the community: Follow me.”
And so it is not merely as husbands and wives, teachers and farm workers, parents and children, clergy and laity, rich and poor, that we must come to this conversation; but primarily as a community of disciples desiring to be faithful to our calling and our mission.
This points to a second feature of this new spirituality: it will involve us in a new opposition to “the world,” and the prevailing powers and mindsets of the world. This rejection is not really a rejection of the world as such, but of each and every aspect of society in which the full possibilities of freedom and justice and mutual love are not yet realized.
Every spirituality is a kind of “world-rejection”: not a rejection of reality, but of the established versions of it and habitual readings of it. By awakening a deeper, unknown life within us, the Gospel sets us free from the world, empowers us to break out of the established order and its power to define what is real and possible and important.
The Gospel is always in conflict with our ordinary ways of imagining the truth of the situation we are in, and it always makes room for new images of all those other truths that our ordinary sense of reality excludes.
In our Pastoral Letter on peace last year, we put it this way: “We readily recognize that we live in a world that is becoming increasingly estranged from Christian values. In order to remain a Christian, one must take a resolute stand against many commonly accepted axioms of the world.”
A third feature flows out of this: many of our ordinary worldly pursuits, in which we invest so much heart and energy, may come to seem futile and empty to us, something like worshipping idols. This is why Jesus says: “You cannot be the servant both of God and of money.” There is idolatry involved when the desire for money takes over our lives, cuts off our affection, for each other, or excites our wish to dominate each other. By making money — or fame or power — the controlling force in our lives, we take it as our god.
According to Biblical tradition, when we live our lives in the service of idols we become like dead things ourselves.
Like graven images, we see nothing with our eyes, hear nothing with our ears, feel nothing in our hearts. We become “servants of death.” It is with something like this image in mind that Jesus says, “Pay attention, and be vigilant against any kind of greed, for your life is not made secure by what you own, even if you own more than you need.” What good does it do to sink our trust in earthly treasures, which thieves can steal and moths destroy? But if we release our hold, our emphasis on owning and controlling, we may find something unexpected and mysterious — “treasure in heaven,” Jesus tells us — and where our treasure is, there surely our hearts will be.
It is, above all else, a question of where our hearts will be. It is a question for each Catholic in our country. What are we serving with our lives? What are we striving for? What do we judge to be important? What are we doing with our love and our yearning for love? What images do we use in order to understand our own desires?
The image that Jesus gives us is that of the “kingdom of God.” It is this coming kingdom of the Father that we are told to set our hearts on. And setting our hearts on this kingdom means devoting our lives to transforming human relationships here on earth, in accordance with our way of praying: “…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This doing of God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven involves us in new ways of living together: in a sharing and welcoming spirit, in hospitality, forgiveness, kindness, taking care of one another.
Jesus did not have a naive or fanciful view of poverty. On the contrary, His concern was that everyone should have, now, what he or she needs. It was for this reason that He set His face against every kind of possessiveness, and longed for a new kind of community where there would no longer be divisions into rich and poor, or powerful and helpless. As long as any human society is structured in such a way that some must suffer because of their poverty, while others have more than they need, or where some uncaringly impose their wills on other people, there “the kingdom of Satan” and the rule of sin hold sway.
We believe that Jesus sets us free from sin and isolation, from our captivity to idols. He sets us free from our fears and our anxieties, our scrambling to insure our self-esteem, our efforts to be our own sources of salvation. He saves us from our need for lies and evasions and numbness to what is happening around us
He calls us to return to ourselves, to return to oneness with God and to solidarity with one another. He goes before us showing us a way of unbounded compassion, unbroken communion, with all men and women. It is this extraordinary love that determines His attitude toward material possessions.
This points to a fourth feature of this emerging spirituality: its emphasis on an active love for human beings. When the spell of idolatry is broken, our love is available to the real men and women around us. Throughout our entire
Catholic tradition, this has remained a crucial aspect of the testimony of the Saints. They remind us that when our treasure is in worldly goods, our hearts are imprisoned and held ransom for their security.
But the extravagance of Christian love cannot be compromised by the claims of calculation and ownership. “On account of the things which each one of us possesses singly,” as St. Augustine puts it, “wars exist, hatreds, discords, strife among human beings, tumults, dissensions, scandals, sins, injustices, and murders.”
All this, too, must find a place in our conversation. The passionate, prophetic love of Jesus — which the Spirit continues to inspire in the Church, in people like Dorothy Day and Archbishop Romero — is the authentic horizon of all our choices and decisions as Christians, and also, therefore, of the attitudes we bring to our reflection about economic institutions.
Finally, there is a question of our attention and how our Christian love is tested in our response to human need. “When we Christians make Jesus Christ the center of our feelings and thoughts,” as our Holy Father said at Yankee Stadium, “we do not turn away from people and their needs.” To follow Jesus means to be “caught up in the movement of the Holy spirit, who visits the poor, calms fevered hearts, binds up wounded hearts, warms cold hearts…”
This love which God pours out in our hearts through the gift of the Spirit compels us to pay attention to the needs of others and moves us to bring them, however we can, the justice and freedom they deserve.
Let us call to mind, one last time, here in our reflection on spirituality, that sermon which Pope John Paul preached at Yankee Stadium. And let us reflect once more on that story which Jesus tells about the rich man and beggar at his gates. In his very first Encyclical Letter, The Redeemer of Mankind [Redemptor Hominis], Pope John Paul refers to the whole preceding century of Papal social teaching as a “gigantic development” of this one parable.
You remember how it goes. “There was a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen” — imported suits or designer clothes, I suppose we would say today — “and feasted magnificently every day. And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with scraps which fell from the rich man’s table.”
This is the scene — an all too familiar scene, we might say. And then, according to the story, both men die and go to judgment. The rich man goes to flames and torment. Lazarus, on the other hand, finds joy and comfort in the bosom of Abraham.
What is this story telling us? What does it say to us not only as individuals, but as families and neighborhoods, as communities and as a nation? We cannot claim we did not know The story! Even in the story the rich man urges, as though on our behalf: “Father, I beg you! Send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that they do not also come to this place of torment.” “They have Moses and the prophets,” Abraham says. “Let them listen to them.” And we too have Moses and the prophets. “Ah no, Father Abraham,” the rich man cries out. “But if someone comes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Then Abraham says to him: “If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.”
Let us listen very carefully to what Pope John Paul chose to say to us about this parable: “Was the rich man condemned because he had riches, because he abounded in earthly possessions, because he dressed in purple and linen and feasted splendidly every day’? No, I would say that it was not for this reason. The rich man was condemned because he did not pay attention to the other man. Because he failed to take notice of Lazarus, the person who sat at his door and who longed to eat scraps from his table.”
So it is a question of always paying attention, of taking notice. It is a question of our preoccupations as well as of the condition of our hearts. “Christ demands openness to our brothers and sisters in need — openness from the rich, the affluent, the economically advanced; openness to the poor, the underdeveloped and the disadvantaged.”
I believe this parable should become more and more a subject for our meditations here in the United States. What does it mean in contemporary terms? In terms of politics, economics, human rights, international trade? What does it mean in terms of our daily conversations, our reading habits, our cultural attitudes, the way we raise our children, how we choose our line of work? “We cannot stand idly by,” Pope John Paul reminds us, “enjoying our own riches and freedom if, in any place, the Lazarus of the twentieth century stands at our doors.”
If some may ask us why we Catholics are getting involved in economics, let these words from our Holy Father be our response: “The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs of the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table.”
The conversion of the human heart is always a refusal of fatalism. It happens in the place of our hidden lives as disciples, the place we go when all our possibilities have collapsed. We may think that nothing more is possible. Our tired hearts may boast as if they were experts in “the possible.” We may decide that nothing more can be done about poverty and injustice. We may send that part of ourselves that really believes in Christ off into hiding. And then something amazing may happen. “Suddenly from up in the sky came a noise like a strong driving wind… And all were filled with the Holy Spirit!” That is the story told on Pentecost, and that is the story we find ourselves in today. This new conversation about the American economy, viewed from a moral and religious standpoint, will make demands on us. It will require an asceticism of communication among us, a disciplined concern with what we are saying and why, and with how we are saying it. We must begin, now, to prepare ourselves for this conversation — to inform ourselves, to think about these things, to pray about them and examine our hearts concerning them.
And the repentance and new consciousness that is required from us, my brothers and sisters of our Diocese of Stockton, is not merely a private, individual, interior process. In the Pentecost story it happens where the community has gathered together. It finds expression in their words of praise and amazement. It happens in such a way that this community is then sent out, entrusted with a mission. And so this conversion of our hearts requires, also, our conversion as a Church. That, too, is the story we find ourselves in today.
“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful. Enkindle in us the fire of your love!”
Most Reverend Roger Mahony
Bishop of Stockton, Calif.
Feast of Pentecost
June 10, 1984