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Religious Progressives Confront the Sociopathic Economy

By Charles J. Reid, Jr. on June 6, 2014
© Huffington Post

How do we describe a sociopath? It is someone who has no regard for the well-being of others. Someone who looks only to his own needs and treats other people as mere instrumentalities, as means to achieving personal gratification. It is someone who acts with cold calculation. Someone who is entirely lacking in remorse. Someone who can kill and think nothing more of it than the best means of disposing of the evidence.

Compare this understanding of the sociopath with the comments of Oscar Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga at a conference I was privileged to attend at the headquarters of Bread For the World this past June 3rd. I paraphrase the Cardinal's comments: "This economy kills." "The poor are superfluous." "What we are faced with is a phenomenon that is different than marginalization. At least when a person is marginalized, there is a place for that person, on the fringes. This economy excludes. And exclusion brings death." "We are not made for the market. The market is made for us. Thus, the market must become a humane market."

As I indicated, this is a paraphrase, but I think a fairly close one. The Cardinal posed a challenge: How do we make a more humane market? There are many things we might do to begin to reintroduce Christian principles to the marketplace. I might suggest three ideas to start the conversation.

First: Catholics -- and all Christians and persons of good will -- must take the principle of the living wage to be a non-negotiable right. Pope Leo XIII said as much in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, where he taught that all workers were entitled to wages sufficient to support a family.

The great Catholic economist Msgr. John A. Ryan developed this point in his book, "A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects" (1912). A living wage, he persuasively argued, is a natural right. It is absolute. It is a right that arises from the sacredness of the person. Every human being is entitled to be a fully integrated member of society. And this is only possible where people can support themselves, as well as dependents such as children or elderly relatives.

Ryan does not advocate a general leveling of wages. He understood that there will always be wage differentials and that such differences are not in themselves wicked. But where a plutocracy aggregates to itself an ever-increasing share of wealth at the expense of the vast mass of the working poor, then that system is unjust.

At a bare minimum, we must support the campaign to raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. This campaign has already succeeded in some localities.Seattle just days ago raised its minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour, but the phase-in provision (permitting businesses that employee fewer than 500 workers up to seven years to comply) dilutes its effectiveness. Even so, this is an important victory, and Christians should bring this campaign to other cities.

Second: We must re-legitimize trade unions. Catholics especially have a long and honorable history of supporting unions. John McGreevy, the Catholic historian, has documented the depth of this involvement. (See "Catholicism and American Freedom: A History," 2012). According to McGreevy, "priests across the country spent the 1930's encouraging their parishioners to join unions." (p. 163). Archbishop Edward Mooney of Detroit even argued that Catholic laborers had an affirmative duty to organize.

In today's economic environment, we need a revival of trade unionism. A robust trade-union movement must be premised on recognition of the right that all persons have to come together for economic purposes. If the interests of capital have the right and privilege of organizing and pooling resources, then so too do workers.

In truth, unions and corporations ought to share the same set of rights and privileges under the law. Today, all power flows to capital. In the nineteenth century, corporations were strictly limited entities. They were bound by their charters to fulfill certain public purposes and would be punished for failure. Today such language is considered antiquated.

Corporations today exist for the purpose of making money for their shareholders. At the same time, they enjoy limited liability. Shareholders are immunized from virtually all risk of loss. Thanks to a category error committed by the John Roberts Supreme Court (in which the Court mistook the fictitious, limited legal personality of a corporation for a real human being) corporations enjoy political rights that would have been unthinkable a century ago. We may soon learn whether for-profit business corporations even have a right to their own religion.

We need an equal playing field, and unions have proven historically to have been an effective means of achieving this end. Today, there is a nascent trade union movement organizing especially in immigrant communities. Led by forceful personalities like the Catholic protege of Cesar Chavez, Maria Elena Durazo, this movement deserves the support of all Christians and persons of good will.

Third: We must reinvigorate the traditional Catholic conception of the state. The medieval philosophers and canon lawyers well appreciated that the state was a natural extension of human sociability and the means by which we achieved a measure of justice in the temporal sphere. The Second Vatican Council ratified this understanding of the state when it declared that the state is the means by which we effectuate "the common good." It is the instrument by which "individuals, families, and organizations . . . achieve complete and efficacious fulfillment."

This insight returns us to the sociopathic economy. The forces of money and capital are not natural phenomena. They are not the winds and the tides. The sociopathic market has assumed the shape it has because we have allowed the legal system to become skewed in its favor. A reinvigorated state would bring to bear in the regulation of the marketplace a set of humane values. It would rebalance the marketplace so as to fairly serve the interests not of capital alone, but of all employees and all interested human beings.

When I read Timothy Cardinal Dolan's essay in the Wall Street Journal, in which he asserted that "the answer to problems with the free market is not to reject economic liberty in favor of government control" I can only say, with all due respect, that he misunderstands Church teaching on both economics and the role of the state. For millions of American workers, trapped in a world of wage theft and poverty conditions, the economy is not free. And the government is not the problem, as the libertarian right wing would have it, but the instrument Catholics have traditionally relied on to remedy such afflictions.

Paul Raushenbush is right. Religious progressivism is probably the most exciting and most significant religious movement in much of today's world. Certainly, the religious right is a discredited shell of its former self. And the most important task confronting religious progressives is to subdue "the economy that kills."

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