Ruled by economics

Background image by HealthWyze from Pixabay

Ever since “it’s the economy, stupid,” this has been how every issue is approached, both personal and societal. Who am I kidding? If the Vatican II bishops were talking about this, clearly it’s been this way since before the 1990s. But it’s impossible to escape the message these days. No matter what crisis is happening (coronavirus is one, but there have been plenty of other instances), the go-to response is always “how is it going to impact the economy?” As if that were the only–or even the most–important factor.

As a Catholic striving to put my faith above all else–far, far above money, which is supposed to be how we survive and do good in the world, not the defining factor of existence–I find this fixation problematic. We say we want to be a Christian nation, but that only holds as long as the topic is some moral issue that costs me nothing, because it doesn’t impact me personally. As soon as it’s a Gospel directive that affects *my* pocketbook, it’s a whole different story.

God vs. mammon, indeed.

To Live With Abundance

How many times have I read this Scripture passage and never noticed before? I always stopped with learning how to live in humble circumstances. Why on earth would there be anything to learn about living with abundance?

But there is. When you live with abundance, there’s more temptation: temptation to hoard; temptation to resent the imposition when the call of the Gospel means you have to let others have more of “your” wealth; temptation to get priorities out of whack and give too much importance to wealth and its trappings; temptation for preservation of wealth to become the deciding factor in every discernment.

It’s a huge temptation on a personal level that simply doesn’t exist if you have nothing. When you have nothing, there’s little moral dilemma surrounding money.

This also really resonates at the policy level. In America, there’s a lot of “temptation for preservation of wealth to become the deciding factor.” Virtually everything in American politics is a money-first discussion. It doesn’t matter if it’s right; it only matters if one side or the other sees an initiative as a an economic boon or difficulty. We renegotiate trade deals in our favor, even if the only way they can possibly be honored is for us to get more and someone else to get less. We decide environmental policy by cheapness and the perception of preserving status-quo jobs rather than by the damage to the earth and the ripple effect that will have on future generations. The foundation of discussions of health care is not the fact that it’s a basic need of human existence, but instead how much it’s going to cost, as if cost, rather than need, is the primary question.

We have abundance in America, but we haven’t figured out how to live with it. Not well, at least.

Scrupulousness

A few years ago, I’d never heard the term “scrupulousness.” My mother introduced me to it when I wrote a series on my personal blog about my struggles with anxiety. Now I think of it all the time–though simply recognizing it is a big step toward battling it.

I tend to view it as a sin, although a web search this morning seems to indicate that it’s more a cross to be borne. But I think Catholics in general are particularly susceptible. I would argue that scrupulousness is a big part of “Catholic guilt.”

Once I was sensitized to this tendency in myself, I saw it cropping up all over the place. It may not be a sin, but the inevitable fallout of scrupulousness is a rush to judge anyone who doesn’t share whatever I think is the right way to look at the world, and to place rigid expectations on others that constitute a heavy burden on people prone to scrupulousness–which, as I said, I think is many of us.

I would argue that scrupulousness plays a big part in a lot of the no-compromise fights we have within the Church–the political ones, yes, but also the liturgical ones (and many others). Most recently it’s struck me in the arguments about texts of liturgical songs–an assumption that because I read a particular text fragment in a certain way, a song is inarguably heretical, even though thousands of other people may find great spiritual benefit in it, and great potential for growth in holiness, because they don’t interpret that text fragment the same way I do.

For a long time, because I myself was very conservative and all my scrupulousness was about doing the right things (which were always conservative values), I thought scrupulousness was only a problem conservatives have. As I got better at combating my own scrupulousness, I began to move to the center, and that seemed to confirm my assumption.

But I was wrong. These days I am more likely to suffer from scrupulousness about environmental issues. It’s never enough. And I am VERY judgy about other people’s lack of environmental stewardship.

But the example that sparked this post was this: In the midst of my great world view shift, a quote kept cropping up over the course of months–I can’t find it anymore, but it was something like, “Your money doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the poor.” It was attributed to a pope. No arguing with that!

The obvious conclusion to draw from this quote is: anything I do to save money is a sin. I have no right to enjoy the things of the world as long as poverty exists. I should never go out to a nice dinner, I should never take a trip to see the wonder of the world, I should never own jewelry–because as long as people are suffering, “my” money doesn’t belong to me. Also, I pointed it at conservatives who don’t like taxes.

It was a big struggle. I told myself that religious figures exaggerate to shock their listeners into doing something for the poor. But that didn’t help, because of who we hold up as the ideal of Christianity: Francis of Assisi and Katherine Drexel, rich people who did give away everything they had; Mother Teresa, who lived in abject poverty for decades; the fact that to this day, a lot of religious orders take a vow of poverty. A papal quote + the body of evidence of what the Church holds up for honor made it hard to draw any other conclusion than the Church intends us to be poor rather than rich.

Even Robert Barron used that quote once.

I tried for a long time to find the exact verbiage, but couldn’t find it anywhere. Then one day, someone attributed it to Rerum Novarum #22. Finally! I went to look it up.

Guess what? Rerum Novarum 22 does NOT say I am obligated to give every single penny I don’t absolutely need for my bare survival to the poor. Here’s what it actually says:

True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”(13) But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.” (14)

Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891

(Note the date: eighteen ninety-one. This is not some uber-modern corruption of the Gospel. Note 2: the footnotes refer to the Summa theologiae and to Luke 11:14.)

Now, it’s important to recognize that this quote doesn’t give us a free pass to hoard money or to try to avoid paying taxes; it does NOT give us a free pass to store up wealth for our own pleasure, or for passing it on to kids, or whatever. The actual quote–like virtually everything the Church puts in writing–is nuanced to recognize the complexity of competing needs and factors. What this quote requires of us is that we discern honestly, prayerfully, what it means for us to “keep up becomingly” our condition in life.

It’s also worth noting that St. Basil the Great is a little more blunt on the topic of our responsibility to the poor:

(Note: I have not checked that quote, for what it’s worth.)

In the end, we all have to wrestle, to try to find a balance between enjoying with gratitude the good things of the earth (which are, after all, made by God), and hoarding the wealth that allows us to do so, thereby sinning by not helping those who suffer.

When Memes Are Unworthy of Christ

I always come down hard on memes and other click bait shares, but I hesitate to get down in the weeds. I worry that readers will get distracted by the specifics of a particular issue and miss the bigger picture. But the other day when I was praying about whether to respond to something I saw online, it came into my mind that I should blog about it instead. It’s easy to miss the ways in which the things we share conflict with Gospel values. Maybe a concrete example is in order.

Today’s example:

Those of us brought up on the idea of raising ourselves up by our bootstraps are conditioned to leap to our feet and applaud sentiments like this, but it’s not a Christlike reaction.

Problem One: The Question of Living Wage Has Big Implications

The assumption here is that minimum wage is actually just fine where it is, that the problem is with the person’s motivation. But it’s been well documented that minimum wage is below a living wage in many parts of the country. (That link comes from investopedia, which is rated “least biased.”)

Why on earth would a follower of Jesus Christ champion a belief that there are, in fact, workers who do not deserve to earn a living wage? That would be like suggesting that there are, in fact, people who do not deserve to be born. I know a lot of people will protest the analogy, but human dignity is human dignity. Either we’re all made in God’s image, with the same basic dignity and the same basic needs, or we’re not. People who believe in the dignity of the unborn should be more, not less, protective of the dignity of human beings who are between womb and tomb.

There’s another abortion connection here. According to the above article, fast food workers tend to be low-income women, and this Market Watch article shows 75% of abortions are obtained by low-income women. (Market Watch is labeled “slight right bias,” so this is no liberal conspiracy.) If we want to help mothers choose life, the Christlike thing to do is advocate for higher wages, not belittle workers in low-paid industries, as this meme does.

Photo by Pictures of Money , via Flickr

Problem Two: Who Deserves a Living Wage?

The underlying assumption of this entire post is: the work done by people in fast food industry is, of and by its very nature, not deserving of earning a living wage. What makes a roofer or a surveyor so much more valuable than a person who prepares and serves your food?

Those who commented on that post kept saying fast food jobs are for high schoolers. But high schoolers are in, y’know, high school. Who’s supposed to work the breakfast and lunch shifts?

The reality is, as long as we, the American public, insist upon the convenience of fast food, fast food will always need adult workers. We want fast food to be cheap, and one of the easiest ways companies achieve that is by paying low wages. As long as we support that system by visiting the golden arches or the bell, we’re a big part of the reason it exists.

Side note: I’m really struggling with Amazon for the same reason. But that’s a whole different post. The point is that blaming the workers for being victims of a system we willingly and eagerly participate in is not Christlike behavior.

Photo by 401(K) 2012 , via Flickr

Problem Three: The Big Picture

Christians should have another problem with this post: the assumption that people are only in these jobs because they’re lazy. “Get a better job, if you don’t like your wage!”

This is an example of middle class (and probably white) privilege. I worked fast food, and this is precisely what I did. But I worked fast food while I was getting a good education to prepare me to trade up jobs, and while I was safely housed at home by people paying for my food, lodging, clothes, utilities, and everything else.

In other words, I had a lot of help pulling myself up by my bootstraps. For people like me, the “get a better job” argument works just fine.

But it should be eminently clear that in America, opportunity is NOT equal. For example, in education. How often do people pack up their entire lives and move because the school boundaries change and they think they’re about to get sent to the “bad school”? If that isn’t a tacit acknowledgment that educational opportunity is vastly uneven, I don’t know what is.

There are rich schools and poor schools because there are richer and poorer enclaves. Higher socioeconomic classes work very hard to avoid ending up on the wrong side of that equation. We work hard to avoid “bad” neighborhoods and suburbs and the people within them. We won’t live near “them” and we definitely won’t let our kids go to school with “them.” So our schools get the boost in funding that comes with high property values, and “their” schools don’t. Uneven, unequal. Done.

And for a lot of kids growing up in homes where life itself is a struggle, it’s a generational problem. It’s not that a kid can’t break out of that cycle–but they have to work a whole lot harder than you or I do to get half as far. Judging them for their failure is completely contrary to the Christian call.

Problem Four: The Big Picture, Part B

Finally, let’s talk about that theoretical guy who was theoretically challenged to get a theoretical job and theoretically said he wasn’t interested. Maybe this really happened, maybe it didn’t. But even if it did happen, leaping to the conclusion that this guy is just lazy is still unworthy of a follower of Christ.

Let’s say this man is 25 and has a wife and kid. He’s working 30 hours a week at McDonald’s (because jobs like that are rarely offered full-time, because full-time means offering benefits, which would raise costs). According to what I found when I searched “how to become a land surveyor,” the author was wrong; this job does require training–and a license. And is vastly helped by a solid educational foundation. When is this theoretical training? Is he going to have to ask off work for it? What if he has a second job, working 25 hours one place and 25 hours in another, and the training overlaps both? Is the training paid? If not, can he afford to ask off work to take it?

Where is the training? Is it far enough away that he’d have to work out transportation he doesn’t have? What if his wife has a job, too, and they work opposite shifts to avoid the cost of child care? What if both of them have to skip shifts in order to make this work? And if they’re living close to the bone, are they going to be able to survive until the training is done?

Then there’s the roofing example. What if he has foot problems? Equilibrium problems? A debilitating fear of heights? What if he’s not in good enough physical shape? Sure, he should get in shape, but that too requires time and very likely money (gym membership, anyone?). The author is presupposing that this man is exactly like him, and the only thing separating them is the motivation.

The point of this extremely long post is that these glib, judgy things we like to put hearts and thumbs-up on and share are way more complex in reality than they look on social media. As Christians, we should be looking for the total picture of justice, not pointing at the easy target while we are active participants in the systems that make upward mobility so hard on anyone who isn’t already above a certain threshold.

“Judge not, lest you be judged.” (Mt. 7:1)

“Irksome!”

I love this passage so much. It makes me chuckle, because it’s so dead-on, and it’s not couched in airy-fairy language. “Irksome,” indeed! That’s a dead-on assessment of the reaction these concerns usually get. People are irked at having to think about them.

This whole section of Evangelii Gaudium is talking about economic systems and the need to make sure they are truly equitable and provide for the poor. It’s a procession of plain-speaking, conscience-pricking paragraphs: welfare should be considered a temporary solution, the dignity of the human person should shape all economic policy, inequality is the root of social ill, we can’t trust the market to do this work, and on and on. It’s so good. Take time to read it!

“Renounce some of their rights”

Background image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

First of all, let me just say I recognize how challenging this quote is. This idea stands 100% in opposition to our American cultural values.

However, if we are citizens of Heaven first and America second–as should be the case for all who call ourselves Catholic–then we have to accept the challenge in these words.

Interestingly, they are *not* Pope Francis’ words. They are the words of Pope Paul VI (he of Humane Vitae fame) from an apostolic letter called “Octogesima Adveniens,” dating from May 1971. I haven’t read the whole letter, but this is the full paragraph Pope Francis quoted from:

Through the statement of the rights of man and the seeking for international agreements for the application of these rights, progress has been made towards inscribing these two aspirations in deeds and structures (16). Nevertheless various forms of discrimination continually reappear – ethnic cultural, religious, political and so on. In fact, human rights are still too often disregarded, if not scoffed at, or else they receive only formal recognition. In many cases legislation does not keep up with real situations. Legislation is necessary, but it is not sufficient for setting up true relationships of justice and equity. In teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others. If, beyond legal rules, there is really no deeper feeling of respect for and service to others, then even equality before the law can serve as an alibi for flagrant discrimination, continued exploitation and actual contempt. Without a renewed education in solidarity, an overemphasis of equality can give rise to an individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.

Pope Paul VI, Octegesima Adveniens, #23

There’s so much to unpack in that. “Legislation is necessary, but it is not sufficient for setting up true relationships of justice and equity.” Legislation, in other words, needs to happen, but we have to go beyond it.

And “renouncing rights” means what? Perhaps we could read that as a call to be less tax-averse. Perhaps we could read it as a call to be less inclined to hoard, judging others as unworthy, requiring them to prove they don’t need what we have to offer before we’re willing to give it to them.

“A renewed education in solidarity…” Solidarity is a word a lot of us associate with Lech Walesa, but it’s something we’re all called to–to enter into the pain of others, to make it our own. (Read Shannon Evans’ book Embracing Weakness. She broke open solidarity for me in a way I still haven’t figured out how to incorporate into my real life.)

“individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.” That one explains itself.

A lot to think about here! Because again, we’re recognizing that evangelization is not narrowly defined as walking around talking to anything with a heartbeat about Jesus Christ. Evangelization is something that encompasses all of real life. Because who will listen to us when we talk, if our view is so narrow we can’t see the forest for the trees?

Consumer culture: Is it possible to opt out?

Image by Eduardo Davad from Pixabay

Bear with me, because you may think I’m posting this on the wrong blog.

Friday night, I went to an Asian grocery store to buy boba pearls. Outside stood a group of three young people, chatting in what I presume was Chinese over a grocery cart full of white plastic bags. It was a beautiful night, and I glanced over at them as I walked in. My eye caught on the gorgeous dress one of them was wearing. Red, with white and black trim, fitted without being slinky, worn over black leggings. I thought, “I want to shop where she bought that dress.”

And I had this moment of crystal clarity: I hate American fashion. Every outfit I’ve admired in the past 4-5 years has been from Asia or Africa.

For months, I’ve been searching for a handful of clothing items to serve a particular purpose. I’ve bought nothing, because I can’t find anything I like. Not in the consignment stores where I start and not in the big box stores.

I have a handful of things sitting in my Amazon cart, but you know what? They all ship from China. Which brings me back to the post I wrote a couple weeks ago: how we ignore unpleasant realities about the way our food and goods are produced, because acknowledging those realities would mean admitting that many, maybe even most, of the things we enjoy are made cheap on the backs of people in poor working conditions with extremely low wages.

A friend of mine found this train of thought troubling. If this is true, how do we live faithful life? What if we can’t even survive without participating in some way in a system that harms others? What if the system is so pervasive, we can’t escape it?

To which I add: if we could opt out, wouldn’t we actually increase the misery of the poor, because whatever income they do make is more than they’d make if we stopped buying?

The world is full of good things, and I want to enjoy them: chocolate, a good book, and my backyard patio set all give glory to God, the maker of the raw materials and the giver of the human creativity used to shape raw materials into wonderful things.

But it’s hard not to wonder if I should be diverting every penny I spend on these things to people fighting for little more than survival.

Into this mix dropped the weekend readings:

How long, O LORD? I cry for help
but you do not listen!
I cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not intervene
.

And God’s reply:

The vision still has its time,
presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
if it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late.

Habakkuk’s pain is so familiar. The world is such a mess. We just want God to fix it already.

But how can we yell at God for not acting to alleviate the injustices at work in the world? We’re the ones who enact the injustices, not God. The only way they get un-enacted is “if today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” In other words, learn to recognize injustice and then DO something about it.

But the obstacles to doing something seem insurmountable. I’m a big believer in pebbles and ripples. I throw my pebble in the pond, you throw yours, and the guy down the street throws his, and eventually things change.

But it’s not satisfying. Waiting is hard. Waiting leaves us conscience-stung in that no-man’s land between the good things of the world and the knowledge of who’s actually paying the price for them.

And maybe, in the end, that’s the only takeaway: that while we are in the world, we have to accept that we are never going to have the answers—we’ll always be wrestling with what is versus what could or should be. We’ll always be looking for that balance between enjoying the world God gave us and recognizing the ways in which we are called to act. Even if it requires sacrifices we don’t want to make.