The National Catholic Review
Daniel J. Morrissey
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What a difference a few months make. Early last summer, knowledgeable observers were saying that we live in a new gilded age. The compensation of top business leaders had reached astronomical levels, with C.E.O.s being paid on average almost 400 times what the typical worker earns. And that did not even count what some business officials had been stealing from their shareholders in a string of scandals. Even the Enron-scale corruption of the post-bubble period was being eclipsed by the latest trend in corporate kleptomania, options back-dating.

Officers of more than 150 public companies have been under investigation for manipulating the prices of their stock so that they could grab illegally even more of their firms gains. Meanwhile, private equity kingpins have been buying and chopping up companies. The annual compensation of three hedge fund managers reportedly topped $1 billion; one of them boasted of eating $400 worth of crabs for lunch. All this took place while the middle class was being restructured into oblivion and retirees were watching their pensions vanish.

Now, however, it has become apparent how perilous all this newfound wealth is. An inflated housing market has come crashing down, along with the fortunes of all kinds of investors who were hooked into its unstable values. Hedge fund investors have discovered that some of their holdings were backed by subprime mortgages, and the ensuing insecurity has depressed the once-booming stock market. The credit markets have suddenly become unpredictable, causing corporate shake-ups to be put on hold. Anxious investors look to the Federal Reserve and find temporary reassurance.

Any reassessment, though, of the wobbly and uneven prosperity of recent times must take into account its political underpinnings. The masters of the universe in the new golden age of greed were aided and abetted by the only tangible achievements of the Bush administration: its tax reductions and deregulatory schemes. Every profile of contemporary American Catholics must come to grips with the uncomfortable fact that a majority of the Catholics who attend church every week voted for George W. Bush in 2004.

Maybe pragmatic considerations were uppermost in their minds at the time. American Catholics have been doing fairly well in the recent economy, at least according to a study by Lisa Keister, a professor at Duke University, who was cited in a New York Times column on May 25 by David Brooks. Their forebears may have been digging canals and working in domestic service in the late 19th century when the tycoons of that gilded era were amassing their fortunes. Now, however, most descendants of such Catholic immigrants have an education to add to a work ethic they inherited from their grandparents. According to Brooks, they have become full partners in Americas prosperity.

But have Catholics really been cashing in? Lawrence H. Summers, a former president of Harvard University, famously noted that Catholics are still underrepresented in the most lucrative profession of the new economic era: investment banking. With a touch of irony, one might say that for all their financial success, members of the faith are still not fully participating in the social injustices of our time. Perhaps such inhibited behavior results from a fear of achieving more than their tradition would consider acceptable. But maybe such scruples are also owing to something more significant: a recollection of the seemingly quaint notion that gaining the world can sometimes cost you your soul.

Yet a larger question remains for American Catholics who are serious about the social implications of their faith: Can they be a positive force to confront the gross economic inequities of our time? For a while, things did not look good, but that trend appears to have stalled; in general Catholics voted for more politically progressive candidates in last years congressional elections.

There are other hopeful signs that U.S. Catholics are ready to take a more active role against income inequality. Pope Benedict XVI, no radical on many matters, has spoken of capitalism as an ideological promise that has proven false. Catholics, after all, are the heirs of both the Hebrew prophets who railed against economic oppression and the early followers of Jesus, who held all things in common.

Perhaps no saint better encapsulated the message of equality and human dignity at the heart of the Gospels than did Vincent de Paul, who said we must ask forgiveness from the poor for the charity we give them. If our country is ready to enact social policies to curb the shameful excesses of our new gilded age and better distribute the abundant wealth of our society, Catholics ought to be front and center in that movement.

Daniel J. Morrissey is a professor and former dean at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Wash.

Comments

CLAIRE BANGASSER MS | 1/15/2008 - 7:38am
Dear Editors, Daniel Morrissey's article "American Catholics in the New Gilded Age" in your January 7, 2008 issue raises for me a conceptual problem. What is this thing called "The American Catholic"? Assuming it speaks English, what kind of English? Does it celebrate feasts like Three Kings, St. Nicolas or Mardi Gras as well as St. Patrick? What about the nine 'Misas de aguinaldo' before Christmas? What color is its skin, its hair? The problem lies, I suspect, in that the author really means more a culture (or more precisely a sub-culture) than either a religion or a nationality. He jumbles together a potpourri of descendants from late 19th and early 20th century American immigrants coming from predominantly Catholic countries, mainly if not exclusively Western European. He then puts up this grab-bag as a sort of counterpart to the WASP subculture. And herein lies the problem. This is a 'nec' concept - "not-elsewhere-classified". It says in effect, "These cases don't fit the a priori conceptual schema, so let's just bunch them all together into 'other' so our numbers will total out." So far so good; but then the "nec" becomes the principle focus of the study, about which conclusions are to be drawn, and gets re-labelled "American Catholic" Wait a minute! That's not scientific! I don't have the numbers at my fingertips, but I wager there are many more US citizens who attend Mass regularly and are outside that 'nec' than within it. A good number live here in Puerto Rico, many others across the Southern and certainly in the Southwestern states. Most American cities will also include significant numbers of people born American of Filipino or Armenian or Druze or Croat or South Asian origins (to name a few). Surely each of these fellow citizens is as American as some one born, say, in Seattle of mixed German and Irish and Scots descent, like me. My experience is that they are also easily as 'Catholic'. Yet I don't think these American catholics were people Prof. Morrissey or Dr. Keister or Mr. Brook had in mind as they held forth about "American Catholics." On the contrary, my sense from reading the article is that these folks, equally as American and as Catholic as I, were pretty much excluded. These two words are supposed to carry meanings that are inclusive and universal. As regards "American", it is supposed to be quite feasible to be both Chinese or Greek or Italian or Irish (or even Puerto Rican!) and still fully American. There is supposed to be no contradiction here. As regards "Catholic", the very word means universal or inclusive. It seems worth noting also that each word also carries the suggestion of an ideal to be pursued, something towards which each of us should strive. So to tack these two specific words together and then use the resulting phrase as the label for one category in an essentially anthropological description of contemporary American ethnicities strikes me as likely to warp perceptions and distort discussion as it is to enlighten public discourse and catalyze collective action. Not good method, my fellow Americans and fellow Catholics!
FRED CLOSE | 1/11/2008 - 11:27pm
One wonders what planet the good professor lives on when he bemoans the fact that the majority of Catholics who attend (Mass) every week voted for GWB in 2004. Doesn't he remember what the alternative was? The "pragmatic" consideration uppermost in this voter's mind was the survival of the next generation; and the somewhat selfish realization that it may not so easily forgive those who said and did nothing to prevent the ongoing holocaust of their brothers and sisters. One tangible achievement of GWB's Presidency has been the appointment of 2 sane Justices to the Supreme Court, and the subsequent upholding of the federal law against third trimester abortions more properly called infanticide. No one thinks there would have been any progress against the Dred Scott decision of our generation if Senator Kerry had been elected.
John McShane | 1/8/2008 - 12:56am
Equality is before God. We are identified by an earthly difference. The poor will always be with us. In the 'Middle Ages' it was Catholic Monks who instigated the idea of a free economy because it gave real value to human endeavor. Flaws and selfishness and greed are human, whether from Catholics or not. The issue is not Capitalism, banking, or steel mills, it is individual morality. That morality, or the lack of it, should be addressed - and morality is not bounded by business. My opinion is the referenced article is popularism in print.
RICHARD TREVORS | 1/7/2008 - 1:27pm
Monday, January 7, 2008 To America: Your article "American Catholics in the New Gilded Age" by Daniel J. Morrissey is a great commentary on the state of the culture in the United States these days. To me it shows how there is an epidemic of lying and dishonesty in the areas of economics and banking and Wall Street and in the mortgage industry to artificially boost housing values so that the investors can make greater profits. Greed and materialism are being exalted to new levels. I see a parallel of the dishonesty in foreign affairs as with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and now Iran. It seems there are new meanings of perverseness in foreign and economic affairs to the saying that "the end justifies the means!" Joe Trevors P.S. - thank you for your article on this eminently important area of morality. It is important for the Church to speak out on this.
CHARLES KINNAIRD | 1/5/2008 - 11:05am
Daniel J. Morrissey’s article is the perfect example of why certain bishops who insist that Catholics never vote for a pro-choice candidate are being dangerously myopic. Here in the South, most anti-abortion politicians are also antagonistic to a Catholic view of social justice. The privilege and duty of casting a vote thus can be a difficult thing. By being one-issue voters can cause us to usher in a government which favors the wealthy elite, ignores the poor and outcast, and crushes the middle class. I, personally, will do my best to vote for social justice when that candidate is available, regardless of his or her Roe v. Wade stance, and I will accept communion in as good a conscience as any sinner trusting in God’s grace and mercy can.
CHARLES KINNAIRD | 1/5/2008 - 11:04am
Daniel J. Morrissey’s article is the perfect example of why certain bishops who insist that Catholics never vote for a pro-choice candidate are being dangerously myopic. Here in the South, most anti-abortion politicians are also antagonistic to a Catholic view of social justice. The privilege and duty of casting a vote thus can be a difficult thing. By being one-issue voters can cause us to usher in a government which favors the wealthy elite, ignores the poor and outcast, and crushes the middle class. I, personally, will do my best to vote for social justice when that candidate is available, regardless of his or her Roe v. Wade stance, and I will accept communion in as good a conscience as any sinner trusting in God’s grace and mercy can.