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Summary: Our history shows the truth of the statement, every economic decision has moral consequences

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January 4 2010

Caritas in Veritate

St Elizabeth Ann Seton

Yes, things are pretty bad today. But they could get worse, and today’s celebration and readings remind us that they have been worse. Jesus knew, with the arrest of John the Baptist, that time was short. He began urgently to preach the kingdom of God, not a kingdom based on arbitrary exercise of tyrannical power, but on love. John the disciple, in the midst of his own persecution, taught belief in Jesus and love for the brethren, two phrases that sum up our duty in this world. Elizabeth Ann Seton faced constant resistance in her life, first from her Anglican family who were horrified at her attraction for the Catholic Church, then from her community when she tried to start a school, lest the children also be attracted by papism. All her supports disappeared–her father-in-law, her father, her husband. She was constantly in economic distress and only divine actions caused her mission to prosper.

Today the Holy Father reminds us that the virtue of justice must inform every phase of economic decision making, because “economic activity is always concerned with man and his needs.” (Art 37) “Every economic decision has moral consequences.” He tells us that social science and contemporary economics point to a certainty: “Perhaps at one time it was conceivable that first the creation of wealth could be entrusted to the economy, and then the task of distributing it could be assigned to politics. Today that would be more difficult, given that economic activity is no longer circumscribed within territorial limits, while the authority of governments continues to be principally local. Hence the canons of justice must be respected from the outset, as the economic process unfolds, and not just afterwards or incidentally.”

Moreover, there must be room in the economy “for economic activity carried out by subjects who freely choose to act according to principles other than those of pure profit, without sacrificing the production of economic value in the process. The many economic entities that draw their origin from religious and lay initiatives demonstrate that this is concretely possible.” I think of the examples of fair trade recently reported on in Today’s Catholic, and the priest back east who has a non-profit business that imports weaves from Central America and turns them into high-end clothing for U.S. customers. The U.S. market model is not the only one that is viable in the world.

The pope goes on: “In the global era, the economy is influenced by competitive models tied to cultures that differ greatly among themselves. The different forms of economic enterprise to which they give rise find their main point of encounter in commutative justice. Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift. The economy in the global era seems to privilege the former logic, that of contractual exchange, but directly or indirectly it also demonstrates its need for the other two: political logic, and the logic of the unconditional gift.” If we allow our economic system to revert to a dog-eat-dog kind of operation, then we will have failed the task of human development. We must pray that in this new year, our politicians, especially when they consider health care and so-called global warming, take note that every economic decision has moral consequences.


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