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Luke Stocking: Do not pass ‘Go,’ do not collect your share

  • October 31, 2020

The pandemic has led to a resurgence in the tradition of family board games, including one called Pandemic. My own family has favoured a word association game called Codenames. There is another game on our shelf though that I find myself thinking about these days — Monopoly. 

There are many different versions of Monopoly — over 1,000 according to one source. There is even a “Catholic-oply.” It was an unofficial version with very limited distribution. The aim was to “spread the Word of the Lord” by building churches and cathedrals and instead of going directly to jail you go directly to confession. Cute. I wonder, though, what a serious Catholic version of the game would look like, one that applied principles of Catholic social teaching on economics as opposed to the monopolistic ambitions of capitalism.

In my work with high school students, I have often used the game of Monopoly to illustrate our mission at Development & Peace. That mission is to address the root causes of poverty and injustice in the world by applying the principles of Catholic social teaching. I start by asking them what their winning strategy is for the game. Despite the variations in their answers, they all admit that it is impossible to win the game if you only own the cheapest property set.

Then I ask students to raise their hand if they have ever given another player in a losing position money so they could continue to play the game. There are always hands raised. When I inquire as to the motivation for doing so, usually their responses speak to feelings of compassion or wanting the game to continue.

Their compassion usually only goes so far though. Very few students are ever interested in giving others some of their property sets instead of cash when I suggest that as an alternative solution. “But sir, I don’t want them to win!”

That is fair enough when you are playing a game. But we are trying to be Catholics in a world where such things are not a game. The analogy helps me to explain to students an important difference between two types of charitable giving.

One type — giving a player money so they can pay the rent when they land on someone’s property — allows people to simply survive in a socio-economic system that is designed to prevent their success. The other type of giving — giving a player property deeds — requires a sacrifice from those who benefit most from that system by sharing their source of power in a more equitable way.

Monopoly was originally called The Landlord’s Game and was patented in 1904 by a woman named Elizabeth Magie to show people how the collecting of rents impoverishes tenants and enriches property owners. So, the game is one whose origins are not without some irony.

The reason the game has been on my mind recently is because the United States Justice Department recently filed a lawsuit that accuses Google of maintaining an illegal monopoly over search and search advertising. The New York Times quoted the agency as calling it “the most significant legal challenge to a tech company’s market power in a generation.” It is part of a growing concern in the United States over the concentration of corporate power.

According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the balance of power between small and big business has significantly shifted since the 1990s. Companies employing more than 1,000 people account for more than 40 per cent of all U.S. employment while those with fewer than 100 employees account for about 35 per cent. Studies show that the rise in concentration of corporate power in the U.S. has also slowed or stopped gains for every economic class except the very rich.

Canadians are often fond of comparing ourselves favourably to our neighbours to the south — a habit I can happily contribute to. According to Statistics Canada, by comparison, small businesses account for 69.7 per cent of the private labour force versus 10.4 per cent for large businesses.

God did not create the gifts of the Earth as prizes in a competitive board game of winners and losers. We were not created with the object to see who among us can own everything to the point that other people can no longer play the game. Catholic social teaching calls for limits on the accumulation of wealth in so much as that accumulation prevents the promotion of the common good.

As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church teaches us, “Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable: On the contrary it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right of common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.”

A Catholic version of Monopoly would be one that never ends because it would not be premised on economic domination that results in only one winner. Instead, its rules would ensure an equitable ownership of its properties that never allows any one player to force others out.

As a competitive board game, it would likely not be a best seller. As a lesson in how to promote the common good through an equitable distribution of ownership though, it would be most instructive for us Catholics.

(Stocking is Deputy Director of Public Awareness & Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions, for Development and Peace.)

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