Saturday, November 20, 2010

On Catholic Social Teaching and the Common Good: Whither the U.S. Catholic Bishops?

In a posting yesterday, I linked to a recent Alternet article by David Korten summarizing the introduction to a revised edition of his book Agenda for a New Economy.  As my comments yesterday noted, Korten stresses the need for a new vision of economic life, as the perilous shortcomings of the imperfect vision now dominating our socio-economic imaginations become apparent in our current economic crisis.  I also noted that Korten thinks that a more humane, inclusive, and viable vision for the economic reorganization of our society is far more likely to come from "common" people and those on the margins than from the top of our society.  Because one of the most salient facts we have learned all over again about our political institutions during the Obama presidency is that D.C. and the beltway media that insulate and protect our central governing institutions are owned lock, stock, and barrel by Wall Street.

As Korten sketches the guiding principles of his vision for a more humane and inclusive way of organizing our economic life than the one we have now, I'm struck by his initial observation asking,  

Why should society allow such concentration of power in institutions that benefit only the already rich and powerful while placing the well-being of the larger society at grave risk?

As he notes, one of the reasons we've failed to see the extreme threat to our democratic institutions posed by the growing concentration of wealth at the top of our society and by the increasing flow of the meager resources of the underprivileged and middle classes to the hands of those at the top is this: both Keynesian and Chicago School economics assume a "market fundamentalism" that "takes institutions as a given rather than a policy choice, makes no distinction between phantom wealth and real wealth, and has nothing to say about environmental limits and the nature and distribution of ownership."

Though Keynesians differ from Chicago School economists in the amount of government intervention in the market the former will permit, both assume that the market itself is some kind of sacred cow that, left as unfettered as possible, will provide abundant milk for everyone.  More milk for the rich, who stimulate the market by channeling money into it (and creating jobs and building more producing units), means more milk for the rest of us.  Inevitably.  Magically, mystically.  Since milk does have that way of tricking down from high places to low places.

Both approaches to economic life tend to obscure (to mystify, is not too strong) the fact that economic institutions are human institutions conceived and developed to meet human needs.  They don't drop down out of heaven.  They don't incorporate a divine hidden hand that serves everyone's needs when the rich are well-served.  They don't have (or deserve) quasi-divine status.

They're human institutions built by human beings that can and should be changed by human beings when they fail to serve human ends.  One of the measures of how far American political and cultural thinking has moved away from a humane vision of social and economic life is the extent to which many of us now--but most of all, those in our governing sector, who presumably have education and information enough to know better--imagine that the market is sacrosanct.  That it and the institutions propping it up can't be touched.  Because it just is, and any meddling with its operations is dangerous interference with a mystical process that magically enriches all of us by enriching a tiny minority of us.

And here's what strikes me as I think about Korten's call for a new vision of economic life that transcends the obvious (and tragic) limitations of this way of thinking about economic life: it's not at all far from what Catholic social teaching has been talking about for over a century now, when it stresses that 1) economic life must serve the common good, 2) to be morally acceptable, it must always think first and foremost about those most excluded from economic participation, and must find ways to draw them in, 3) the rich have a strong, overriding, and constant obligation to use their wealth to serve the common good, and 4) social and economic institutions should be under the control of those these institutions serve, who have the right to shape and re-shape these institutions to more humane (that is, more inclusive) ends.

Judged from the standpoint of Catholic social teaching, neither Keynesian nor Chicago School philosophy--which is to say, the two dominant economic philosophies of the governing sector of the U.S.--is anywhere near the mark.  Both tend to overlook completely the need for economic life to serve the common good.  And both overlook the way in which all social and economic institutions have been placed in human hands to be shaped to humane ends.

This is not to say that the current leadership cadre of American Catholicism has done anywhere near an adequate job of communicating and defending these core Catholic values.  To the contrary, the majority of American Catholic bishops have, in recent years, done everything possible to bury these core principles and insights of Catholic social teaching, as they consolidate their alliance with an evangelical religious right that is actively hostile to such insights, and as they try to realign the Catholic church in the U.S. with the Republican party and the corporate leaders that party serves overtly.

And so we have the U.S. Catholic bishops in the past year opposing health care reform that promised to make it at least somewhat easier for Americans at the bottom of the economic pyramid to obtain access to basic health care, while the pope himself reiterates that access to minimal health care is a fundamental human right and that humane societies always respect that right.  We have the U.S. Catholic bishops moving in precisely the opposite direction than that charted by core principles of Catholic social teaching, for dishonorable political reasons.  And I doubt seriously that the election of Timothy Dolan and Joseph Kurtz as president and vice-president of the U.S. bishops' conference is going to change this tendency.

Meanwhile, I take heart in this development: a group of economically affluent Americans who do care about the common good of our nation and about its future have banded together to ask that the Bush tax cuts not be removed.  That they and others in their income bracket be taxed, for the good of everyone.  

This is the kind of economic analysis and behavior that the U.S. Catholic bishops should be praising and promoting.  Not the analysis and behavior of folks like culture warriors Newt Gingrich, Deal Hudson, Erik Prince, and so on.  Meanwhile, I don't look for a break anytime soon, under Timothy Dolan, in the intent, obsessive focus on abortion and same-sex marriage, and the shocking amnesia about core principles of Catholic socio-economic teaching, even as our democracy totters on the brink of collapse due to the selfishness of those who own and control the vast majority of our resources.

The graphic is artist Fritz Eichenberg's depiction of the Last Supper.

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