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The Economic Crisis of 2008-2009: The Logic of the Market is Unacceptable

This article appeared in a “symposium in print” in the National Catholic Register in November 2008.

God brought Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin together to form the Catholic Worker movement at a time when the world was facing an economic crash similar to today’s. They critiqued robber barons, banks, the financial system, and the free market ideology known in their time as laissez-faire capitalism. They did not look to socialism as a solution, but were able to develop an alternative based on the Gospel, Catholic social teaching, and the lives of the saints.

There is a disconnect for Catholics between the Word of the Gospel and the economic culture. Speaking at the recent Synod, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that the Word of God is the true reality, that the disappearance of hope along with the money was the result of building our lives on sand.

Jesus said his Gospel is not about building bigger barns (or bigger banks). It is about giving rather than receiving.

The economy that is collapsing has been based on “barn-building” and on individual and corporate self-interest. Its marks have included a scandalous divide between salaries of CEO’s and workers in their companies around the world and deregulation and privatization have left the market to wolves. Banks have pursued reckless policies that benefit only themselves. People are owned by their credit cards, by debt at exorbitant interest rates. Environmental concerns have been sacrificed. The media, which might inform the citizenry, are a part of the conglomerates.

We oppose abortion. Our culture, however, countenances every form of self-indulgence and then we expect average people to practice heroic virtue in carrying a child through a difficult pregnancy.

Some have sadly been patriots-in-arms in promoting the machinations of the worst of the marketeers, attempting to equate Catholic ethics with no-limits capitalism. But a few days ago the Vatican spoke, in the person of Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace: “The logic of the market up to now has been that of maximum earnings, of making investments to obtain the greatest possible profit. And this, according to the social teaching of the Church, is immoral.”

Less publicized than bank and business failures is the human suffering that has come from turning everything into a for-profit business, from medicine to privatized prisons. Measuring everything by an ambiguous figure called the GDP and “growth” is not a human measure at all.

International trade agreements which benefit the United States have increased poverty in countries to the South and pushed people to migrate. Attacks in recent years blaming immigrants for our economic problems not only were untrue, but outright calumny. The raids on businesses, the imprisonment of immigrants, and the cruel, hurtful laws against them passed in many states are destroying lives and families, not helping the economy.

The government’s response to the crisis has been to enrich the very people and institutions who caused the problem in the first place and to continue the same approach: “What is needed is more of the same, more free market, more free trade, more credit for lending at interest.” It is hard to believe that, even today, politicians can get away with denigrating any reference to a better approach by crying, “Socialism! Communism!”

Dorothy Day criticized the appeal to acquisitiveness that dominates advertisement in our culture: “There have been many sins against the poor which cry out to high heaven for vengeance. The one listed as one of the seven deadly sins is depriving the laborer of his share. There is another one, that is, instilling in him the paltry desires to satisfy that for which he must sell his liberty and his honor … newspapers, radios, television, and battalions of advertising people (woe to that generation) deliberately stimulate his desires….”

For believers, our economics has been upside down. More of the same is not the answer. We would do better with the logic of the Gospel, Catholic social teaching, and the lives of the saints.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, January-February 2009.