Photo by Ishant Mishra on Unsplash

Glen Argan: Economics must have an ethical foundation

By 
  • September 24, 2020

Next week, Pope Francis will issue a new encyclical which will add to a train of teaching that can be traced back to the Second Vatican Council or, if you can imagine it, to the eighth century BC.

For that long, the Church, Church fathers and Old Testament prophets have been saying actions are needed which “realize that the needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich; that the rights of workers are more important than the maximization of profits; that the participation of marginalized groups has precedence over the preservation of a system which excludes them.”

The quote comes from the Canadian bishops’ 1983 statement, Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis, Canada’s grandest contribution to Church social teaching. For those old enough to remember, it recalls a period when the Church’s voice had credibility in the wider community.

Pope Francis’ encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All), will call for “fraternity and social friendship” as the way for the world to move forward in the time after COVID-19 pandemic. It is beyond unfortunate that in quoting St. Francis of Assisi addressing his male religious community, the Vatican chose to use language in the title which excludes women. Some things in the Church, it seems, never change.

It is good that Pope Francis will begin his reflection by focusing on the responsibility of each of us as individuals and groups to build a more egalitarian society. Starting the discussion with a call for more just economic and social policies could polarize people on political lines. We will not move forward unless we move together.

The Church’s contribution to the wider world is an ethical one. That should play out both in our own actions and in the collective actions of society. The critics of the Canadian bishops’ “ethical reflections” never seemed to get the point that economics requires an ethical foundation. For far too many, both then and now, economics is a “value-free” scientific discipline which is concerned with models, not people.

Every dimension of our lives should have an ethical orientation. Kindness, mercy, justice and generosity are the threads which should unite all aspects of our lives. Feeding the hungry, providing water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, comforting the sick, visiting the imprisoned and burying the dead are works of mercy that are essential elements of a Christian lifestyle.

The prophet Amos said God’s judgment of ruin on Israel was the result of “they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the Earth and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:7). In the time of Amos, the rich had “houses of ivory” but were indifferent to the poor.

Such “trampling” and indifference are equally apparent today. They are evident in the attitudes of all too many who reject people of different races, genders and income levels. Their self-interested attitudes are played out in government policies and played upon by political demagogues. The personal and the political go together.

For Amos, sacrifices, worship and “the noise of your songs” (5:23) were not enough to earn God’s favour. Indeed, he saw worship as part of a sinful way of life. Religious rituals legitimized an unjust status quo. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” the prophet commanded.

In Canada, we have wasted our time of prosperity, using the proceeds from the sale of our labour and exploitation of natural resources to fund luxurious lifestyles today. Short shrift is given to the needs of the poor and marginalized, and little is left for future generations. It all goes for our own material satisfaction.

Now we are in the midst of a pandemic and the immediate needs of the people far outstrip the financial capacity of our governments. Don’t expect our political leaders to give us that message. They will say that we can continue to borrow against the future and that no day of reckoning will come.

But it is never too late if we turn our hearts toward the God of mercy and justice. That God will lead us to greater personal sharing of time and resources with those in need. God will also encourage us to make a greater commitment to use government to form a community where the needs of all are met. Meeting the needs of our sisters and brothers is the responsibility of both individuals and governments.

(Argan lives in Edmonton.)

 

Next week, Pope Francis will issue a new encyclical which will add to a train of teaching that can be traced back to the Second Vatican Council or, if you can imagine it, to the eighth century BC.

For that long, the Church, Church fathers and Old Testament prophets have been saying actions are needed which “realize that the needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich; that the rights of workers are more important than the maximization of profits; that the participation of marginalized groups has precedence over the preservation of a system which excludes them.”

The quote comes from the Canadian bishops’ 1983 statement, Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis, Canada’s grandest contribution to Church social teaching. For those old enough to remember, it recalls a period when the Church’s voice had credibility in the wider community.

Pope Francis’ encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All), will call for “fraternity and social friendship” as the way for the world to move forward in the time after COVID-19 pandemic. It is beyond unfortunate that in quoting St. Francis of Assisi addressing his male religious community, the Vatican chose to use language in the title which excludes women. Some things in the Church, it seems, never change.

It is good that Pope Francis will begin his reflection by focusing on the responsibility of each of us as individuals and groups to build a more egalitarian society. Starting the discussion with a call for more just economic and social policies could polarize people on political lines. We will not move forward unless we move together.

The Church’s contribution to the wider world is an ethical one. That should play out both in our own actions and in the collective actions of society. The critics of the Canadian bishops’ “ethical reflections” never seemed to get the point that economics requires an ethical foundation. For far too many, both then and now, economics is a “value-free” scientific discipline which is concerned with models, not people.

Every dimension of our lives should have an ethical orientation. Kindness, mercy, justice and generosity are the threads which should unite all aspects of our lives. Feeding the hungry, providing water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, comforting the sick, visiting the imprisoned and burying the dead are works of mercy that are essential elements of a Christian lifestyle.

The prophet Amos said God’s judgment of ruin on Israel was the result of “they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the Earth and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:7). In the time of Amos, the rich had “houses of ivory” but were indifferent to the poor.

Such “trampling” and indifference are equally apparent today. They are evident in the attitudes of all too many who reject people of different races, genders and income levels. Their self-interested attitudes are played out in government policies and played upon by political demagogues. The personal and the political go together.

For Amos, sacrifices, worship and “the noise of your songs” (5:23) were not enough to earn God’s favour. Indeed, he saw worship as part of a sinful way of life. Religious rituals legitimized an unjust status quo. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” the prophet commanded.

In Canada, we have wasted our time of prosperity, using the proceeds from the sale of our labour and exploitation of natural resources to fund luxurious lifestyles today. Short shrift is given to the needs of the poor and marginalized, and little is left for future generations. It all goes for our own material satisfaction.

Now we are in the midst of a pandemic and the immediate needs of the people far outstrip the financial capacity of our governments. Don’t expect our political leaders to give us that message. They will say that we can continue to borrow against the future and that no day of reckoning will come.

But it is never too late if we turn our hearts toward the God of mercy and justice. That God will lead us to greater personal sharing of time and resources with those in need. God will also encourage us to make a greater commitment to use government to form a community where the needs of all are met. Meeting the needs of our sisters and brothers is the responsibility of both individuals and governments.

(Argan lives in Edmonton.)

Comments (0)

There are no comments posted here yet

Leave your comments

  1. Posting comment as a guest. Sign up or login to your account.
Attachments (0 / 3)
Share Your Location

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible, which has become acutely important amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.