Sunday, June 20, 2010

Addendum to a Sunday thought

In line with what I said below, I note that my own Bishop today makes the mistake of reading an economic agenda into Jesus's teachings that just isn't there.
The third saying addressed marketplace issues ("what does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves"). Here we note that the NRSV plural translation, adopted for the sake of inclusiveness, takes some of the edge off challenges Jesus addresses to each person. Jesus contends that there are dimensions of life vital to happiness which cannot be satisfied by possessions or wealth. [Emphasis added.]
Taking the issues I have highlighted one at a time, where does Bishop Prendergast get the notion that Jesus has the marketplace in mind here? I suspect he gets it from one word and that word is "profit". But this is to read a modern usage back into the ancient world. For us, "profit" is a word that applies narrowly to marketplace goods. The world of Jesus saw all goods in the same terms. Good luck and semen were limited goods in the same sense that money and tradeable commodities were for them.

In context, by saying "profit" Jesus simply  means what do they gain.

More importantly, Jesus is not speaking of profit or gain in general here but of a very specific type of gain. He is saying, what good would it do you if you gained "the whole world" only to lose yourself. This is a question that applies more to the politically and socially ambitious than it does to someone making their living in the marketplace. (And, lest we forget, the reason most people go into the marketplace is love; they do it to make enough money to provide shelter, food and clothing for their families.)

Sadly, this focus on an economic issue leads my Bishop (who is an excellent Bishop) to wind up with a point that is trite and trivially obvious in the sentence emphasized in the quoted bit above. Jesus is making the far more profound point that our lives have to aimed at the right thing.


  1. Jules, regarding this and your earlier post, the problem, as I see it, is Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII's landmark encyclical on Social Justice in the late 1800s, which has been affirmed by every Pope since. Leo is unambiguous about the fact that capital must be in the service of the family and not the other way around. He calls for the rights of workers to organize, the right to adequate health care, wages that allow workers to live with dignity, have paid time off to spend with their families, all of the things that are considered part of the liberal agenda today. In addition, it condemns both collectivism and laissez-faire capitalism, but as I read it, offers no real alternative to either. It extrapolates many things from Jesus' call to take care of widows and orphans that are questionable, much like its teaching on Sexuality. Rerum Novarum could only have come out of the Church's position or evolution as a temporal as well as a religious power, and therein lies the rub.

    As a result of having been weaned on this as a Catholic, I too struggle with the notion of redistribution of wealth. There are those who argue that the economic policies of the last 30 or 40 years have redistributed the wealth upwards, most recently during the bank bailouts here in the US where taxpayers' dollars were used to rescue badly managed financial institutions, and finance extravagant junkets and bonuses for bank executives who screwed up. There are others who cite Mother Teresa, who when asked why she didn't use her influence to change the economic policies that created the poor of Calcutta, said that her mission was to help one poor person at a time and not to change the system.

    I don't know what the answer is.

  2. There's also Jesus' statement "of those who have been given more, more is expected." I would think that would be voluntary philanthropy, but the Pope said less than a year ago that philanthropy is not a substitute or a justification for an unjust economic system.

    I guess the larger question is at what point should the Church stay out of public affairs, not only economics but trying to influence legislation regarding abortion, same-sex marriage, or should it?

  3. Jules, I checked on U.S. Catholic and saw that Rerun Novarum specifically mandates that in order to maintain human dignity there should be a just distribution of the wealth. This was reiterated in Pius XI's Quadragessimo Anno 40 years after Rerum Novarum, which also said, in response to the Great Depression, that unfettered capitalism had destroyed itself.

  4. Interesting.

    To give them there due, lots of people made that mistake after the great depression.

    I think the lesson here is that the church needs to be very careful about what it chooses to make declarations about. It would have been better if the church had said nothing at all than to have said something.

    The same is true of many other cases.

  5. I agree. I goes back to my original question, how involved should the Church be in secular affairs? This couldn't have happened if the Church had not evolved into a temporal power starting with Constantine. Jesus said "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, render unto God what is God's." I don't see this changing any time soon, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its Pastoral Letter on the Economy in 1986 based on the teachings of Rerum Novarum, and they have paid lobbyists in Washington DC and all of the state legislatures trying to influence social legislation. Their influence is less than it was 50 years ago, but still.