Tuesday, April 7, 2009

THE VALUES DEFICIT AND THE ECONOMY

Writing shortly after the Second Vatican Council, then Joseph Ratzinger said, “The processes of history take time.” Now as Pope, he is preparing a new encyclical letter dealing with the elements of a just economy, and he is taking time in completing it. Why? Because as he goes deeper and deeper into the subject, with the live laboratory of the current meltdown in front of him, he has come face to face with the acting human person that undergirds all economic activity. There he sees all the competing ideals, emotions and weaknesses that can only make sense when seen through the humanity of Jesus Christ.
It is Christ that has to be found in the vortex of the countless prudential decisions and competing values and virtues that make an economy workable. And if people don’t find him there, they probably won’t be find him at all. And without Christ at the center, there can be no genuine human work, just the ceaseless activity of men chasing each other frantically around an open grave until one by one they have heart attacks and fall in.
In all economic matters the important, but unspoken part of the question is the phrase “to or for whom?” One need only to take the term frequently used in real estate, “highest and best use,” and apply it to some of the more controversial eminent domain cases to see how many values are packed into day to day economic decisions. And since God made the world, not man, theories about what is highest and best should logically take his viewpoint into consideration.
In a book written after the last great period of economic soul searching in the 1930s, the noted Jesuit writer C.C. Martindale commented that compared to his involvement with questions related to work, business and labor relations, dealing with sexual matters in the confessional was child’s play. He tells the story of being in a taxi and saying to the driver that the man with him was an ardent Red. To which the driver responded that in his experience, once people lost their money they were happy to be Communists, and once they had money they were just as happy to be capitalists. One wonders if that man is driving a taxi today in Washington, D.C.
In that great city, in contrast to the care and caution being exhibited by the Pope, Congress runs wild through the street strewing money left and left. And while Rome struggles to be rational, faith-filled, and principled, Washington is so frantic it doesn’t even take time to read the very bills it has written. Mark Twain, that great American theologian, had it figured out long time ago, “To my mind Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature Congressman.” Like the men described by the taxi driver, oscillating between two radical extremes, they have lost both their nerve and their wits. One hopes that through the process of time, with a little help from what the Pope has to say, they will regain both their nerve and their wits.

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