A New Vision: What Catholic social teaching offers a nation of consumers
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.
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.
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.