The goal of Catholic social teaching on the economy is to provide us with a set of principles, a set of tools that each individual and family can use to make concrete, practical decisions. How do we live as fully human persons, created in the image and likeness of God in community with other persons and with creation? The entire Catholic social teaching tradition is designed so that we can all live more fully human lives in peace and justice. This is why John Paul II in his teachings on economic justice emphasized BEING over having – and by extension being over success as defined by contemporary capitalist societies. Or as Mother Teresa summed it up nicely,
I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness.”
Success or failure is determined by WHO WE ARE and WHO WE ARE BECOMING as both individuals and a community. This is why Economic Justice for All begins:
Every perspective on economic life that is human, moral, and Christian must be shaped by three questions: what does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it?” (EJFA 1)
Answering these questions as people of Faith requires asking a lot of questions and rarely lends itself to clear, easy answers. The Christian moral life is one of constant questioning and conscience- forming. And, it is often counter-cultural. How then does one recover the spirituality of empowerment at the heart of Economic Justice for All? I would like to propose four concrete practical reflections which every Catholic young adult needs to understand about the Church’s teaching on economic justice.
1. Markets are NOT morally good.
Contrary to the dominant American culture, expanding markets is not an intrinsic good. Markets are MORALLY NEUTRAL. The term or reality of “market” does not offer enough information – expanding the markets for food, locally produced goods, or access to anti-retro viral drugs are quite different from expanding drug trafficking, human trafficking, or black market organs; and yet, all of these are markets. Like power and wealth, markets can be either good or bad; and for Catholics, markets are evaluated not on legality but justice. Economic Justice for All offers a clear set of criteria: a market is evaluated based upon what it does to people, for people, and how people participate in it. The vision of Catholic social teaching reminds us that markets belong in their proper place; markets are a means and never an end.
2. “Live simply, so that Others May Simply Live” (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton)
Human community and interdependence, while complex, are simple observable realities. The current level of American consumption is not sustainable. It is not sustainable in the global context of poverty, for national economic stability and sustainability, or environmental sustainability. What does that mean practically? Each of us needs to simplify our lives – focus less on stuff and more on solidarity. Simplicity is an essential part of a spirituality of empowerment.
3. Every Human Act is a Moral Action (St. Thomas Aquinas).
Every human action is subject to moral evaluation, no matter how seemingly insignificant. We cannot solve every problem or correct every injustice. But there is always something we can do. We must prioritize the economic decisions we can control and begin by asking questions about workers and production. There is a freedom and empowerment in the realization of both the dignity of human freedom and the grace that comes with placing that freedom within the larger context of community and Kingdom of God. The liberation from frustration and powerlessness comes with the acceptance that working for justice is not judged based on my ability to rid the world of injustice. I cannot solve world poverty – but I can treat every person I meet as Christ. Small actions done with simplicity, faithfulness and love – and remembering that I am never fighting injustice alone– we are always part of the community, the Church, the Body of Christ.
4. “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
The purpose of the Christian life is not to paralyze us with anxiety, frustration or guilt. We are called, each in our own vocation, to live life fully. Catholic Social teaching on economic justice is not a weapon to make us feel guilty for our gifts, our talents, our hobbies or our successes. Guilt has its place and at times is a proper emotion. It can be helpful in recognizing that we are dependent, that we are not the masters of our own fortune, and that we all need forgiveness and reconciliation. Far from being designed as a weapon to inflict guilt, Catholic social teaching is meant to provide a clear beacon. It mandates that we prioritize the needs of the poor and marginalized over the wants of the rich. For it is through participation, human rights, solidarity, worker justice, and the common good – that we have life and live it more abundantly.
Thus, Economic Justice For All concludes:
Holiness is not limited to the sanctuary or to moments of private prayer; it is a call to direct our whole heart and life toward God and according to God’s plan for this world. For the laity holiness is achieved in the midst of the world, in family, in community, in friendships, in leisure, in citizenship.” (332)
Through this – we are freed and empowered to be creative, faithful, just and effective pursuing economic justice for all.