Charles K. Wilber
What Catholic social teaching offers a nation of consumers
Image

As we look ahead to recovery from the present financial and economic crisis, we must ask ourselves: Do we return to business as usual? Or is this a moment when a re-envisioning of the economy is both possible and necessary? Some would argue that President Obama is already trying to change the social compact from an emphasis on opportunity to an emphasis on fairness. Others, however, look at the economic team the president has gathered and conclude that it includes the same Wall Street professionals who got us into this mess. Still others, myself included, think that the world will never be the same. The consumer-led growth of the past is not viable in a world where every country wants to have the same consumer society, because the demand on natural resources and the environmental strain would be too great. There is no single Catholic response to all of these issues, but Catholic social thought provides guidance for distinctive Catholic responses.

Beyond Consumption

Catholic social thought is rooted in a commitment to certain fundamental values—the right to human dignity, the need for human freedom and participation, the importance of community and the nature of the common good. These values are drawn from a belief that each person is called to be a co-creator with God, participating in the redemption of the world and the furthering of God’s kingdom. From these values emerge two central principles: a special concern for the poor and powerless, which leads to a criticism of political and economic structures that oppress them; and a concern for certain human rights against the collectivist tendencies of the state and the neglect of the free market.

Among the reasons to be concerned about consumption-driven growth are three prominent points in Catholic social thought. First, excessive consumption by some individuals and nations while other individuals and nations suffer from want is morally unacceptable. A passage from Pope Paul VI illustrates the point: “...the superfluous wealth of rich countries should be placed at the service of poor nations.... Otherwise their continued greed will certainly call down upon them the judgment of God and the wrath of the poor....” (Populorum Progressio, No. 49).

Second, excessive consumption threatens the earth’s environment, which is also morally unacceptable. Pope John Paul II has written: “Equally worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and distorted way” (Centesimus Annus, No. 37).

Third, treating material consumption as the primary goal of life—that is, focusing on having instead of being—is seen as detrimental to human dignity. Pope John Paul II has written that “all of us experience firsthand the sad effects of this blind submission to pure consumerism: in the first place a crass materialism, and at the same time a radical dissatisfaction because one quickly learns...that the more one possesses the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, No. 28).

Seven Policy Suggestions

If we stop here, we have sound philosophical principles and general guidelines for policy, but any re-envisioning of the economy remains vague and fuzzy. What is needed are specific policies that flow from the Catholic principles. Below I outline seven such policies.

1. Re-regulation. The main thrust of public policy since the Reagan administration has been to free up markets by deregulation, tax cuts and the reduction or elimination of social programs. The result has been frequent federal deficits, a dramatic increase in inequality of income and wealth, periodic financial scandals, decay of public services and infrastructure, and the current collapse of the financial services sector. Today, the role of government needs to be rethought. Catholic social teaching insists that “government has a moral function: protecting human rights and securing basic justice for all members of the commonwealth” (Pacem in Terris, Nos. 60-62). At a minimum this means government must restructure and regulate the financial sector, protect the rights of workers and find ways of using intermediate institutions like churches to deliver social services.

2. Economic decision-making at all levels of government. The U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter Economic Justice for All (1986) argues in its very first paragraph (No. 1) that every perspective on economic life that is truly human, moral and Christian must be shaped by three questions: What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it? These questions should be asked at each and every level of government before any economic policy is enacted or undertaken, paying special attention to the economy’s impact on the poor and powerless (No. 24). Weighting costs and benefits with monetary values alone means that the access road will always be put through the poor neighborhood, not the well-off one. Cost-benefit analysis studies need to be restructured in order to answer these questions.

3. Full employment. In a market economy, employment—and access to wealth—is necessary to one’s identity as a human being. We do not ask someone, “Who are you?” but rather “What do you do?” I am a professor or a carpenter. I work for General Motors or the University of Notre Dame. Therefore, whether through a public employment program or job tax credits to the private sector, a top policy priority must be to guarantee a job to everyone willing and able to work. We should also provide adjustment-assistance to those who lose their jobs because of changes in competitive position, and we should make every effort to keep open plants that can be operated efficiently. A host of other policies are also possible: targeted jobs programs, education and training programs to equip workers with the skills needed for the future, daycare centers for employed parents, and so on.

4. Universal health care. Human dignity demands that basic health care be available to all. How we do this is less important than that we do it. My personal preference is to detach health care insurance from jobs, because it is a burden individual businesses should not have to bear. The best way to organize a universal system is debatable; but the Kaiser Permanente system, which has almost nine million patients, might provide important lessons. Their high performance as an H.M.O. has been attributed to three practices. First, they place a strong emphasis on preventative care, which reduces costs later on. Second, their doctors are salaried instead of paid by fee for service, which removes the incentive to perform unnecessary procedures. Finally, they strive to minimize the time patients spend in high-cost hospitals by advance planning and by providing for care in clinics. This results in cost savings and greater physician attention to patients. And any restructuring of medicine needs to shift the focus from high-tech medicine for the few to basic medicine for all.

5. Energy conservation. The most dangerous conflict and the one most difficult to resolve is that between traditional patterns of economic growth and environmental systems. Because we are stewards of the earth, any program for future economic improvement must be based on a wiser use of natural resources and more attention to the impact on environmental systems. At this point particular attention must be paid to reducing fossil fuel burning and to safer disposal of toxic waste. Increased taxation of gasoline and carbon is likely necessary to force conservation. And the additional revenue might also provide new opportunities for combating the federal budget deficit and aid subsidies to public transport that could make it cheaper than private transport. This would bring further energy savings.

6. Globalization. Catholic social teaching calls us to recognize that all the peoples of the world are our brothers and sisters. As a result we cannot pursue “beggar thy neighbor” policies in international trade and aid while constructing domestic economic solutions. In addition, Pope John Paul II has argued for social intervention on the international level “to promote development, an effort which also involves sacrificing the positions of income and power enjoyed by the more developed countries” (CA, No. 52). To carry out this effort, “it is not enough to draw on the surplus goods which in fact our world abundantly produces: it requires above all a change of life-styles, of models of production and consumption, and of the established structures of power which today govern societies” (No. 58). This strikes at the heart of a consumption-oriented market system.

7. The church and subsidiarity. A principal objective of publicly proclaimed laws and regulations is to stigmatize certain types of behavior and to reward other types, thereby influencing individual values and behavior codes. Aristotle understood this: “Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating habits in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure. It is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one.” While families, peer groups, churches and schools play the most important role in shaping behavior and inculcating values, public laws have a role to play as well. While civil law, for example, cannot make people stop holding racist beliefs, it can stop them from engaging in certain types of racist behavior. Over time that behavior (refusing service in a restaurant, for example) becomes delegitimized in public opinion.

Short-Term Sojourners

At the political level we need to rethink liberal theory, which vests sovereignty in the state limited only by individual rights. A more communitarian view requires that sovereignty be shared with intermediate groups.

Much work must be done at the lower levels, too. The church as an institution must honor its own employees’ rights to organize and to participate. It needs to educate its people in Catholic social thought, including their obligations as persons and as citizens to feed the hungry, house the homeless and so on. The promotion of soup kitchens and Catholic Worker houses and lobbying for social service needs are responsibilities that the laity should be urged to take on to a greater degree. Much is already being done, but more is needed.

All well and good, some would say, but how can we get these policies enacted and bring the church to change its ways? I do not know. It will require us as a people to rethink the type of society we want for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. Resource shortages and environmental limits tell us that consumer-driven growth is no longer viable. Globalization is leading to a multipolar world in which the United States no longer controls events economically or militarily. If this makes it possible for the United States to reduce its policing function around the world, lowered defense spending can help pay for the needed health care reforms and other public investments, such as those for infrastructure.

Finally, we must remember that as Christians we are short-term sojourners in this world. It is a temporary dwelling place, where we reside not as citizens with full rights but as aliens or pilgrims whose true home is in a city to come. The church’s tendency to provide religious legitimation to the debilitating and sometimes lethal workings of the market and/or the state must be resisted. Instead, the members of Christ’s body must mount a critique of the iniquities of both the market and the state, and carry out their obligation to love and serve God and their neighbor.

Charles K. Wilber is professor emeritus of economics and a fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Comments

William R. Watts | 6/30/2009 - 7:25am

Charles Wilber's article, "A New Vision", repeats the current mantra of many of the American bishops that Catholic action consists of political action, ignoring Christ's admonition to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's". He presents seven "policy suggestions" that Catholics can use to guide their work for change in government policy to implement the values of Catholic social thought.

Wilber speaks of "From these values emerge two central principles: a special concern for the poor and powerless, which leads to a criticism of political and economic structures that oppress them; and a concern for certain human rights against the collectivist tendencies of the state and the neglect of the free market". The author's remarks match the tone of the "teaching" of many of the bishops as they exhort the faithful to "contact your Senators and Representative to vote for/against H.R. 1234".

Both Wilber and the bishops see the Catholic laity and clergy as a commodity to be manipulated, rather than a valuable resource to be nurtured. As a result the bishops have forgotten their mandate to "teach as Jesus did", and academics and chancery staff have fallen in line, treating the laity and clergy as a giant political action machine to be used by the lobbyists in the many "Catholic Conference" organizations to influence legislation and government policy.

The Church in America is going in the wrong direction for two reasons. First, the current strategy has not worked. The Church can point to very few significant accomplishments in transforming American culture to agree with Catholic social values. Rather, society is transforming the Church into a divided entity that either believes the election of President Obama represents social progress, or decries his election as a repudiation of Christian values in our country. The Church is fixated on political action as the sole indicator of Catholic social progress.

Second, The Church is wasting the God-given talents of the laity and clergy. The bishops issue simplistic communications calling for support of this bill or that bill, but omitting any teaching of Catholic social values and the reasons for their validity, and Catholic social teaching is reduced to black-white, yes-no lessons on imperfect pieces of legislation that reflect all of the secular political values of our modern legislatures. As a result, the Catholic laity and clergy are reduced to impotence as they lacks the education and leadership to use all of their talents, networks, and influence to advance Catholic social teaching in America.

Let me suggest to Mr. Wilber that what the Church needs in not "A New Vision" embodied in seven policy suggestions. Rather, it needs a return to Christian teaching from bishops who will empower the laity and clergy through their teaching and leadership. The laity need to be reminded that they are Christ's hands, feet, and voice on this Earth, and they need to be grounded in Catholic social teaching to fill that role. They also need to be reminded that they are "in the world, and not of the world", contrary to the example that many of our bishops are setting today. And, finally, they need to be reminded to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's", and that salvation will not be achieved by effective lobbying.

The laity, led and inspired by their bishops and clergy, represent the same spiritual force that Christ unleashed two thousand years ago. The world badly needs that same force today.

Ed | 6/29/2009 - 5:57pm

Let's start the transformation with Wilber himself. The good tenured prof might want to donate a good portion of his substantial UND pension to the poor annd reduce his footprint while adopting a less consumerist lifestyle.  His wish for ' a top policy priority policy to guarantee a job to everyone willing and able to work'  will be acccompanied by a tenured type of guarantee against layoff or termination, of course.

Wilber does his best to restate Church teaching in terms of progessive (socialist?) liberal politics sourced  from Obama and fellow travellers Frank, Dodd, Pelosi et al. Is it a coincidence that Obama is pictured on page 15?

Think for a moment, after the private sector is decimated by Obama and his academic and political supporters, it may happen that there will be but a few who may afford the ND tuition rates. Who will pay Wilber?

 

 

 

Margaret Bitz | 6/19/2009 - 4:47pm
I believe in the basic premise with which Wilber begins. The fostering of consumerism has to go. Marie Dennis, Director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, also has some thoughts on a total change of economics that needs to take place. Her article can be found in the March/April 2009 issue of NETWORK Connection www.networklobby.org She basically says the same thing as Wilber.
Suzie | 6/18/2009 - 9:05pm
Kaiser is not a model for health care. It denies people who have rare diseases the opportunity to find experts who can handle them. They send people to doctors whom they believe are experts, when indeed, they are not.
Christopher Mulcahy | 6/16/2009 - 8:03am
in a previous life Prof Wilbur was no doubt a Jesuit in Brazil in the 1500's, socializing and protecting the natives. There is effectively no Catholic "right to human dignity" apart from the actual workings of dignity-which include the principal sacrament of human dignity-private property. Sovereignty cannot be "shared" nor jobs "guaranteed"-these are pipe dreams. There are no "poor"-only sick, retarded, drug-addled, lazy, handicapped, unclocked etc. who for one reason or another, at least for a time, cannot or will not support themselves. Each needs appropriate Christian help, which, for some, is a paddling. The most important thing to know about the poor, and most observers don't, is that generally they are poor only for a time. They, too, are children of God and, with God's gifts, they sooner or later crack the code. That is, they learn some stuff and get a job and a house. Which brings us to this-anyone who focuses primarily on "the debilitating and sometimes lethal workings of the market" has no business thinking he is working to ameliorate the condition of the "poor."
JOHN WALTON MR | 6/15/2009 - 6:48pm
With proposals such as Wilber's 7, to paraphrase the title of one of his papers "A Christian can be a BAD economist". Let's start from first principles - one (should) recognizes that second in the list of cardinal sins is "gluttony", or call it "conspicuous consumption". Shouldn't we should take as a "given" the proposition that a Christian with a properly formed conscience, or one who at least the aptitude to memorize seven cardinal sins, might know, or have some remote sense of remorse when his or her behavior had traipsed across the boundary of gluttonous behavior? The economic and social school to which Wilber subscribes does not believe that men are capable of such enlightened self-interest on their own, but must be driven by the lovingly applied cudgel of government. One wonders what aspects of the economy Wilber would like to "re-regulate" - perhaps trucking or rail (for which regulation was dispensed in the Carter era), perhaps natural gas (for which prices collapsed after deregulation by Reagan), perhaps financial derivatives (hint for the unintitiated - every time one party loses a penny on a derivative trade, another party makes a penny!). I particularly like "economic decision making at all levels of government" as in the decision to increase postal rates when faced with a technological challenge. Fear not, the rules of price-theory do not apply. There is no innovation in government, there is no incentive to innovate in the absence of fame of profit. The role of government indeed must be rethought - and here are two of mine - get the government out of the housing finance business and the auto industry. To remain engaged in the policies of the recent and more distant past is to squander opportunity and resources, with lower expected economic outcomes for all. Indeed following the schematic outlined by Wilber is, at its core, contrary to the temporal "ends" of Catholic Social Teaching.