Editorial note from Jana Bennett: Our third roundtable discussion features David Cloutier’s essay on economic inequality – surely a question to consider in these days. This roundtable discussion will run through the month of June. Here is Christina McRorie’s response. Christina is Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Creighton University.

We didn’t really need the news that we’re officially in an economic recession to know that we are living in economically troubled times. In May unemployment in the US may have been as high as 20%, small businesses are failing left and right, global supply chains have been thrown into disarray. It almost feels as if we’re in an economic free-fall, together. If ever there were a time to think about inequality, this is it!

Especially since, truth be told, we are not in this free-fall together. Some of us are already bearing the burdens of this crisis more heavily than others, and will continue to do so. While I am heartened by hopeful reflections on how we might come out the other side of this with a stronger sense of solidarity, I am also aware that economic crises place some powerful actors in a position to take advantage of new opportunities while destabilizing many who were operating on thin margins to begin with, and thus all too often merely widen the gap between the very rich and the very poor.

Which brings us to the point of this roundtable: a discussion of David Cloutier’s account of what justice demands (and why) with regard to three different types of inequality, and the factors contributing to them. How can Cloutier’s careful mapping work help us sort our moment?

The first thing to be said is that we are clearly in the midst of an overdue national conversation on his first form of inequality: exclusion. Cloutier’s taxonomy moves past this category fairly quickly, noting that the US does not have the overt forms of exclusion found in some less developed nations where poverty is correlated with a lack of political rights. It seems clear, however, that we are in a moment of reckoning with how excluded Black (and other minority) communities really are from public goods in the US, including but certainly not limited to public safety and justice before the law. While this inequality is more visibly racial than economic, it has important economic roots and repercussions alike.

In fact, the problem is so big and multifaceted that it can seem overwhelming. Black Lives Matter protests have been prompted by the specific injustice of police brutality rooted in racism, but also express impatience with the many ways minorities remain excluded from the common good. The sources of this are complex, and range from what is done with leftover military technology to the politics of cultural representation in popular media, and from how campaigns are financed to how social media enables and even encourages us to live in information silos (trends which are all, it is worth noting, as much financial as they are political, cultural, or legal). In the face of such an intransigent mess, I am sometimes tempted to throw up my hands in despair.

Admitting this temptation brings me to the second thing that jumps out when reading Cloutier’s essay in this particular moment: the useful way that it consistently pushes back against any desire to abdicate responsibility for inequality by adverting to its complexity. Indeed, it forbids us to throw up our hands, or look aside. This is a strength of this particular essay, and of CST more generally: its relentless practicality, and insistence that we must think about moral problems and their resolutions from all angles at once, and at all levels of action, no matter how large or how small. We need to be reminded of this, with inequality and a culture of racism alike. Complexity is no reason to despair of finding ways forward, even if it is true that we must set aside facile expectations of easy or permanent “solutions.”

Since Cloutier helpfully identifies a number of these practical ways forward, as does Matthew Shadle in his response last week, instead of adding to these I’d like to linger a moment on the emotional experience of encountering such practical moral judgments within CST. It strikes me that in our current moment in particular, Cloutier’s reflections remind us that we must balance our deep-seated desire for moral clarity with careful attention to ambiguity and complexity, and that we cannot let attention to injustice perpetrated by powerful actors distract us from the conversion to which we are each called (or vice versa, for that matter).

This “both-and” approach is built into Cloutier’s choice to analyze inequality as having at least three faces. No single account of the problem can fully explain its provenance, precise moral nature, or resolution; it is only in holding them together that a clearer picture of our shared responsibilities emerges.

Consider the allure of focusing only on two forms of inequality, exclusion and theft. These terms imply specific parties or structures that are actively excluding or thieving. This specificity makes these analyses feel satisfyingly clear, and points toward obvious next steps: we must oppose or reform those parties or structures. At the moment, we might use this approach to assess whether government relief is being fairly disbursed (or was equitably designed in the first place), the inequities resulting from hastily designed lockdown policies, or how essential service providers are treating their frontline and lowest paid employees, who are disproportionately women, people of color, and immigrants. (Yes, yes, I said I would not provide further specific judgments—see how alluring these approaches are! Everyone loves identifying a bad guy.)

These theological registers are useful, and necessary. Indeed, in moments where we are tempted to go along to get along, we must not be afraid to use the resource of CST to identify and indict the moral failures of sinful structures and leaders. Fortunately, ours is not a moment where we seem in danger of pretending all is well[JMB1]  and averting our eyes from wrongdoing in high places, either as a guild or as a society (at least with regard to systemic racism; we may not yet have reached this kind of shared clarity with regard to economic decisions made amid the COVID-19 pandemic).

If we took only this top-down approach, however, those of us who are not CEOs, governors, or police chiefs might be left feeling a lack of agency after the initial gratification of assigning responsibilities. Sometimes those who wield political and economic power respond to prophetic and popular outcry, sometimes they do not. What can we do in the face of continuing injustices perpetrated by those that we cannot realistically call to account? And, as Cloutier notes, a related but distinct moral danger is that of letting an “obsession” with the 1% lull us into thinking that our responsibility is fulfilled once we have denounced notoriously corrupt and selfish actions. This would not be just. Indeed, it would skip over the fact that Catholic social thought is now increasingly about “Catholic social living,” and as much about the “transformation of persons” as it is about principles and human rights.[1]

Enter Cloutier’s other form of inequality, fragmentation. In contrast to theft and exclusion, this can seem a rather more passive and diffuse affair. The temptation here is to assume that because fragmentation speaks to wider sociological trends, it has little to do with us as individuals. Indeed, the term fragmentation itself almost calls up an image of tectonic plates helplessly drifting away from each other in some slow motion natural tragedy. But unlike tectonic plates, we are participants in this fracture, and have the ability to halt its progress in small, local ways. With this in mind Cloutier invites us to scrutinize a range of behaviors, from where we live to whether we consume “positional goods.” For years now, scholars inside and outside the church have urged a similar reckoning with how we each participate in a culture of anti-blackness, from what businesses we patronize to whose experiences and stories populate the media we consume (and, in the case of moral theology professors, whose perspectives feature on our syllabi). While individual actions alone cannot solve problems as vast as inequality and systemic racism, they do matter—and to fail to consider when and how to make them would be to evade an important part of what it means to be the people of God.

As with judgments generated by a top-down focus, how we experience these bottom-up practical suggestions and judgments may vary from moment to moment. In the face of realizing we need to reconsider so much of how we think and live, will we sometimes feel overwhelmed, and wish to return to the galvanizing certainty of condemning fat cats and overt racists? Sure. Hopefully, however, at least as often we will find it empowering to be reminded that we too have agency, middle class and ordinary though we may be. Regardless of the state in which Cloutier’s essay (and CST more generally) finds us, though, it always calls us to consider more—more disciplines we need to engage in order to see the world rightly, more voices we must listen to in our attempts to judge the signs of the times, and more ways we can act, both individually and together, to pursue the justice of God’s coming kingdom in the here and now.

[1] Bernard Brady, ”From Catholic Social Thought to Catholic Social Living: A Narrative of the Tradition,” Journal of Catholic Social Thought 15.2: 318.