The idols of finance capital are starting to topple. As Christians, we are in a unique position to advocate the transition from a profit-centered system of worship to one centered on the primacy of human development.
What is the beast within that Christians so constantly and often futilely struggle with? It is well-described by Paul in the first letter to Timothy:
“Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains. But you, man of God, avoid all this. Instead, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.” (1 Tim 6: 9 -11)
While it is easy enough to rail against “greed” as the root of the current crisis, do we not, as Christians, possess a more far reaching critique of the goals of the current economic system? What does the love of money consist of? It is an idolatry in which one worships an object of human invention in place of the creator who made both the worshipper and the thing worshipped. But the critique of Paul against the Money God goes much deeper than simply idolatry.
Trust in God means more than verbal profession or mental act. It means that something changes in the way we operate in the world. With respect to the community of the world, there is a hidden unity created by God which we call the common good. Pride separates us from this community and makes solidarity with the people of God impossible. “Pride means the breakup of this bodily unity and its bodily expression is money. Money is the body of the antigod, just as the liberated body for Paul is the body of Christ. This is why one cannot trust in God without really doing away with hoarded wealth. This must occur in an external and not merely an internal fashion.” Franz J. Hinkelammert, “The Ideological Weapons of Death”, p. 141.
When we worship money, we lose the “solid capital” (1 Tim:6:18) of life in the Spirit to the false liberation promised by money. The love of money is not simply a moral deficiency, it is a loss of faith in God. The world organized around the love of money is the world of death, it is the system in which the Antichrist flourishes.
The current economic crisis is irreversible because it is part of the inherent nature of capitalism. The basic drive of capitalism is toward constant expansion. Without the constant development of new sources of profit, it cannot survive. It must devote enormous human and material resources to conjure new, artificial needs. Consumerism is not the unfortunate result of abuse that can be cured through moral exhortation, but part of the dynamic that keeps the system working. The deep human satisfaction that comes from serving others or contemplating the glory of God is the true fulfillment we long for. The artificial needs necessary to keep the capitalist engine roaring are incapable of meeting our real needs, but feed a constant grasping for more commodities in order to keep us in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. This economic system cannot endure without selling us more and more of what cannot satisfy.
While most American Catholics have been carefully shielded from this teaching of the Church, John Paul II denounced the system of consumerism so severely that he compared it to Nazism, a system he suffered in his own flesh: “Before our eyes we have the results of ideologies such as Marxism, Nazism and Fascism, and also of myths like racial superiority, nationalism and ethnic exclusivism. No less pernicious, though not always as obvious, are the effects of materialistic consumerism, in which the exaltation of the individual and the selfish satisfaction of personal aspirations become the ultimate goal of life. In this outlook, the negative effects on others are considered completely irrelevant.” – John Paul II, World Day of Peace Message, Jan. 1, 1999.
Consumerism destroys the soul of those who succumb to it along with the victims in the poorer countries whose lives must be sacrificed to maintain it. Unfortunately, while the Church continues to denounce “consumerism”, it is treated as personal moral deficiency that can be corrected through voluntary behavior changes, rather than a central pillar of our current economic system without which it would collapse. Until now, the Church has been unable to see the systemic roots of this moral chaos.
When Catholic social teaching approaches crises such as the present financial meltdown, the categories it uses are most often taken from prevalent economic theories rather than basic Christian principles. We hear much about the need for high growth rates to guarantee jobs, but little or nothing about the universal destination of goods which is supposedly the fundamental Christian economic principle. This principle has been well described in the Catechism in the chapter on the seventh commandment, a commentary that is intensely relevant to the current crisis: “In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race.” Catechism of the Catholic Church p. 2402.
“The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race.” That is the principle on which all Christian economics must be founded. Gaudium et Spes illuminates the principle in this way, “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner. Whatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others.” – Gaudium et Spes, 69.
Therefore, Christian economics are not based on the metrics of contemporary economic theory, but on the principle that all people have a right to the goods of the earth. The clear implication is that the attempt to monopolize those goods is a grave sin against this fundamental human right.
St. Thomas Aquinas describes the right of ownership in this way, “The temporal goods which God grants us, are ours as to the ownership, but as to the use of them, they belong not to us alone but also to such others as we are able to succor out of what we have over and above our needs. Hence Basil says [Hom. super Luc. xii, 18: ‘If you acknowledge them,’ viz. your temporal goods, ‘as coming from God, is He unjust because He apportions them unequally? Why are you rich while another is poor, unless it be that you may have the merit of a good stewardship, and he the reward of patience? It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you have stored away, the shoe of the barefoot that you have left to rot, the money of the needy that you have buried underground: and so you injure as many as you might help.’” St. Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II, q. 32, a. 5, ad. 2
Capitalism must be judged in the light of this principle. If it is truly the system that promotes the right to a decent life for the billions of our fellow humans, then and only then can we accept it as God’s will for our economic practice. Notice that I am not, for the moment, asking what are the practical alternatives which the current situation affords us. I am asking what the guiding principle of Christian economic practice, whose moral rule is love of neighbor, teaches us in evaluating economic systems including the current one.
The history of the last two hundred years have plainly revealed the effects of the triumph of global capitalism. In a world where two billion people live on less than a dollar a day and a tiny minority in the developed countries own a huge percentage of the wealth, it is clear that this is not a system friendly to the universal destination of goods. The growth of wealth and technology promoted by capitalism has not led to the end of hunger, universal health care, or a decent living for all, which the productive forces unleashed have made possible. Nor will it ever – for the simple reason that these are not the goals of our economic system. Its goal is to maximize profits for a relatively small ownership class. Goals which conflict with this goal will be swept aside. Neoliberal economists can present their ideology as one that promotes the universal good through the selfishness of each, but the results which stare back at us on the evening news are hard to argue with.