Over the last weeks there have been numerous protests on the streets of New York and around the world about corporate greed. Participants in these protests are trying to draw attention to how greed has damaged the economy and contributed to the loss of many jobs.
It is true that businesses always have a tendency to put profit over ethics. There are many cases in which business leaders have shown a gross disregard for the right or wrong of their actions and have destroyed the livelihood of innocent people.
The protesters are especially concerned about how Wall Street greed contributed to the present recession.
Let’s take a very brief look at the recession.
Over the last twenty years the government has encouraged banks to lend money to people with limited resources so these people could buy their own homes. The reasoning was that everyone needs a place to live, a home, and the strong US economy could sustain a certain amount of high-risk loans. These people would live better lives and would eventually be able to pay the money back.
The banks and other Wall Street institutions took advantage of this opportunity to create a giant bubble of high-risk loans to poor people. Many banks and other Wall Street businesses made a huge amount of money on these loans.
But the bubble burst just before the 2008 elections, and forced the economy into a recession. Thousands of people have lost their homes and their jobs.
The election of President Obama was seen as a source of hope for so many people. Mr. Obama promised decisive intervention in order to turn the economy around.
Mr. Obama and the 2009 Congress approved massive injections of money into the US economy in order to save jobs and stimulate recovery.
But the recovery has not happened.
The protesters believe that corporate greed has continued to stifle the efforts of the government to encourage that recovery. They point out how corporate executives continue to receive astronomical salaries even when the businesses they operate are laying off thousands of people.
Many protesters and politicians believe this is simply unjust. Some people make millions of dollars while many, many others have nothing.
What does the Catholic Church have to say about this? Well, quite a lot. But the Catholic Church understands that it is walking into murky (unclear) territory when it talks about economy and politics. These areas are extremely complicated, and it is not easy to come up with one-size-fits-all solutions.
So the Catholic Church usually sticks to pretty generic pronouncements when talking about economy and politics.
But it does make pronouncements. It reminds business leaders and politicians of a large number of principals they should take into consideration in their decisions and actions.
These pronouncements are usually referred to as part of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. It is a fascinating area of study, but students of this subject need to keep in mind that the Church is not taking sides in these debates about politics and economy. All sides can find elements here that will reinforce their side. That’s because it is about principals, not concrete decisions.
But, as Catholics, this could be a good opportunity to look at a couple of these principals. The following is not an exhaustive list, but might add fuel for thought and discussion. Here are two principals to consider in the present situation. There are many more principals to consider, but this might help get us started.
- Individual freedom
- The universal destination of goods
- Individual freedom.
Oftentimes, when dealing with the problem of human greed, the tendency is to try to create a society where everyone has to do the exact same thing and even has to make the exact same amount of money. This is called collectivization. It sounds good as a way to avoid people taking advantage of each other, but it produces another kind of injustice, which is just as anti-human as the problem it is trying to solve: trampling on the right of every human being to make his or her own decisions.
God made man in his image. Man must care for his fellow man, but he also has a right to make his own decisions. Man cannot of course make his own decisions about what is about what is right or wrong, but he can and should be able to make his own decisions about how he can make a living, etc. (Note: The basics of right and wrong are in each man’s heart if he does not let greed or selfishness take over. They are also contained in the Ten Commandments.)
Because of man’s tendency to greed, which is very real, there is always a tendency to over-regulate man’s activity, destroying his or her capacities for creativity and for creating wealth.
People who believe in enacting laws where everyone receives the same amount of money are very well intentioned. They are concerned about the poor. That is very important.
But they may not realize that such a society actually encourages poverty. It does not encourage personal initiative, personal responsibility, and creation of wealth.
People need jobs. Those who help to create jobs by running businesses do a service to people.
Yes, these job creators or business leaders can also be extremely selfish.
But if they run their businesses with integrity and concern for their workers they do a great service to society.
It is a bigger service than just handing out money for free.
They help people live their dignity as human beings, because we actually become better human beings by using our talents. As creatures made in God’s image we have a capacity to create. Dignified work (that is well compensated) helps us to employ that capacity to create and to serve.
2. The universal destination of goods
Ownership and private property is part of God’s plan for man. Each human being has a right to have his or her property respected and not taken away.
But in man’s activity there is another principal that needs to be respected. The balance between the two is often difficult. The second principal is the universal destination of goods. God has created the world for everyone. Man’s activity should also help other human beings. Man has a responsibility to help his fellow man. I should share God’s blessing with those in need.
So, the inherent right to ownership and private property is not an isolated right. It has to be combined with our responsibility to help our brothers and sisters. That is where things get tricky. How much can I help without hurting myself and my own family? The answers are not always easy, but the more I help my fellow human being live a dignified life the more he or she can also become a contributing member to the economic cycle and help me to live a better life as well. Easier said than done, but that is the principle.
But is wealth only for those who are really smart and productive? What about the sick and underprivileged? There are definitely many situations where people are sick or hurt or handicapped or haven’t had an opportunity at a good education. They cannot be as productive as others, and many times it is not their fault at all. These people also have the same dignity as those who are healthier, more productive, etc. We should all contribute in some way or other to help everyone live a dignified life. This is easier to do in a smaller setting, such as a family. It gets very complicated on the bigger scale. Do I have a personal responsibility for every sick and poor person on the planet? The answer is not easy or simple.
Yes, the answer is not easy or simple, but perhaps this brief article can serve as an introduction to the Social Doctrine of the Church.
There is much more involved in the present problem than we have time to discuss at this moment.
The author would encourage young people to begin reading the part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that talks about economic activity. This is found especially in numbers 2401 to 2463 of the Catechism. There are also other parts of the Catechism that deal with this issue, but those numbers can be a good start.
Also, Youcat, the youth question-and-answer catechism that was published by the Church this past year (March 2010) has a very good introduction these themes on pages 180 to 185.
If you want to read more, I would encourage you to read John Paul II’s social encyclicals: Centesimus Annus (On the Hundreth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, 1991), Sollictudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern, 1987), and Laborem Excercens (On the Dignity of Human Labor, 1981).
Pope Benedict XVI has also published an excellent encyclical on these issues. It is called Charity in Truth. It was published in June, 2009.
(Personal note: One of my master’s thesis was on one area of the Social Doctrine of the Church. I studied the problem of Mexico’s international debt as it stood in the late 1980’s. It was fascinating problem to study, and I found many people of good will from around the world very involved in looking for a solution. I even had the privilege of working closely with some theologians and economists who were helping John Paul II write some of his social encyclicals. Really cool. The mater’s thesis was published in 1991, but I published it in Spanish. Sorry to the English readers….)