Thursday, March 6, 2008

Some thoughts while awaiting the Easter encyclical

As we eagerly await the Holy Father's Easter encyclical on social justice, which he began writing last year, the fortieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI's landmark encyclical, Populorum Progresso and, given that this is an election year here in the U.S., during which a lot of attention will be paid to economic matters, making permanent the Republican tax cuts of the Bush years, health insurance, predatory lending practices, free trade agreements, etc., it seems a good time to revisit somes themes, explored in a post from last Fall, and to do so in a manner not very familiar to Christians in these United States. I want to begin by posting a passage that appears in the introduction to the book Marxism and Christianity, which is quoted by Hauerwas in Matthew, by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who also authored the seminal work After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, in which he writes this of capitalism:

"Christianity has to view any social and economic order that treats being or becoming rich as highly desirable as doing wrong to those who must not only accept its goals, but succeed in achieving them. Riches are, from a biblical point of view, an affliction, an almost insuperable obstacle to entering the kingdom of heaven. Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them, something that many preachers and theologians have failed to recognize. And those Christians who have recognized it have often enough been at odds with ecclesiastical as well as economic and political authorities" (xiv).

This brings to mind, once again, something uttered by Archbishop Helder Camara, an unswerving champion of the poor, who paid both the political and ecclesiastical price for so being: "When I feed the poor, they call me a Saint. When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist". This, in turn, brings us to the question posed by Papa Montini in his great encyclical: how does the love of God abide in the person "who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him" (par. 23)? "Everyone knows," he continues, "that the Fathers of the Church laid down the duty of the rich toward the poor in no uncertain terms" (par. 23). Pope Paul goes on to quote St. Ambrose of Milan, who, speaking to the rich, said: "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich" (De Nabute c. 12, n. 53). It is on this basis that Pope Paul concludes that "No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life." In short, "the right of private property may never be exercised to the detriment of the common good" (par. 23). When people lack life’s necessities it is not, properly speaking, an act of charity to give her what she needs to live, but an act of justice. I agree with Fr. Timothy Radcliffe who, basing his observations on the writing of fellow Dominican Herbert McCabe, sees the absolutization of private property to the detriment of the common good as something that must be overcome. One of Jesus' parables, found in Luke 12,15-21, which a parallel passage to part of Matthew chapter six, is a good illustration of the Gospel basis of this way of approaching the goods of this world.

As Stanley Hauerwas observes, reflecting on the part of the Lord's prayer in which we pray, "give us this day our daily bread"": "Just as God supplied Israel daily with bread in the wilderness, so followers of Jesus have been given all they need in order to learn to depend on one another on a daily basis. Without the community that Jesus has called into existence, we are tempted to hoard, to store up resources, in a vain effort to insure safety and security. Of course our effort to live without risk not only results in injustice, but also makes our own lives anxious, fearing that we never have enough (Matt. 16:19-21). In truth, we can never have enough if what we want is the bread that the devil offered Jesus" (Matthew 78).

Writing of things a bit out of the mainstream, Ms. Alice Bag posts a great pic with commentary over on her blog, Diary of a Bad Housewife.

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