The National Catholic Review
Thomas J. Massaro
What is the proper moral response to these hard times?

The best homiletic advice I ever received was to remember always that I am a fellow pilgrim sharing the path of discovery with a congregation. As a new regular voice at this magazine, I will do my best to bring this call to intellectual humility to my columns. Fellow travelers are more likeable than self-appointed gurus, after all.

Keeping my pledge to avoid “know-it-all-dom” will come easily enough in this initial column, because I will share some tentative thoughts on a pressing topic on which nobody can speak with final authority: how to respond to the current economic downturn in a way that is true to the Gospel and Christian ethics.

To employ a medical metaphor, one could say that economists by now generally agree on a basic diagnosis of what went wrong to precipitate this crisis, and they can discern a reasonably clear prescription to foster recovery (bailouts, stimulus packages and new regulatory oversight). They might even come up with a reliable prognosis and timeline for crawling out of this, the sharpest recession in decades.

But a distinct set of challenges arises when we turn our attention to the personal level. How should we think about what is happening “at street level,” to actual people and the budgets of their hard-pressed families? Some of the challenges I have in mind regard how best to describe the effects of the recession, while others pertain to the shape of the proper moral response to these hard times.

Poverty—there is a word we have heard too seldom since the financial dominoes started tumbling last fall. Financial crises and the recessions that follow cause poverty rates to soar. Jobs are lost, incomes decline, investments shrink, savings are tapped out, health care coverage expires, foreclosures strike, and retirement plans are scuttled. No household is completely immune from the threat of insecurity. Correlated with declining income are a host of personal hardships, from marital strain to drug use to declining health, even suicide. These spreading ripples, worthy of deep concern, often originate in the stubborn reality of material deprivation.

Downward mobility—another stark term that demands our attention. For some it means a modest scaling back of expenses and expectations, for others the alarming prospect of an increasingly desperate struggle for survival. As maddeningly imprecise as this term is, it always involves the “bite” of dashed aspirations and the loss of social status. Families confronted with involuntary downward mobility are generally not different from their neighbors; they simply find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Pope John Paul II challenged the world to grow in the virtue of social solidarity. What does it mean to be in solidarity with those affected most acutely by this recession? The answer to this question turns out to be quite individual, with no one-size-fits-all response. At the very least, it entails avoiding those “Marie Antoinette moments” that reveal ignorance of the less fortunate and insensitivity toward them. While some point to the New York Yankees’ recent spending spree on free agents and new stadium amenities as an unconscionable display of callousness, we all need to reassess our priorities.

Notice that phrase just above: “the less fortunate.” The lessons available from observing the roller coaster of recent business cycles must include an appreciation for the limits of self-reliance amid unstable modern economies. “There but for the grace of God (or the burst of the bubble) go I!”

For those who persist in a blanket policy of blaming the poor for their poverty, John Paul offered this challenge in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991): “But it will be necessary above all to abandon a mentality in which the poor—as individuals and as peoples—are considered a burden, irksome intruders trying to consume what others have produced.”

If any good comes of this recession, it may just consist in a more honest and nuanced view of the true causes of poverty and greater fellow-feeling with those suffering its effects. While hard times do not automatically settle disagreements on policy issues, like the proper extent of social safety nets, the recession does present a privileged opportunity to reassess certain moral dimensions of our economy and to discern our own “option for the poor.”

Thomas Massaro, S.J. teaches social ethics at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Comments

JOHN ARCHER | 1/24/2009 - 3:20pm
Fr Massaro’s article “Blessed are the Poor’ discussing the moral requirements of the current economic downturn is a wonderful addition to the pages of America especially in these challenging times. Many of us feel bad about our own losses from these events and forget “the other” in our community. National, state and local budgets will be stretched to the breaking point over the next few years. We have already seen that those most vulnerable, those without a voice will be the first to be impacted, for those cuts are too easy to make. Giving a voice to those in need and to reaching out to help is our baptismal call. Keep speaking out, to challenge, encourage and support the rest of us to work on behalf of all those “less fortunate”.
BRUCE SNOWDEN | 1/16/2009 - 9:03am
"Blessed Are The Poor" by Thomas Massaro, S.J., wonders "how to respond to the current economic downturn in a way that is in tune with the Gospel." That's easy if Christianity is willing to spell the word "easy" S-A-C-R-I-F-I-C-E, using Matthew's "I was hungry and you gave me to eat" text as guide. Or as he might write today, "I was facing foreclosure or had been foreclosed, or was experiencing other hard times and you helped me!" But to make this work, we Christians (the Church) must be willing to do a lot more to replace a cream puff type of Christianity with some of the idealism of Francis of Assisi, or the practicality of Ignatius of Loyola. Francis actually saw Christ in the poor and Ignatius counciled a "sleeves rolled-up" Gospel mentality in solving problems, as if "everything" depended on ourselves! We Christians have to make our primary business helping the poor, especially in our times, the many being strangled in the economic downturn. And while helping, we Christians must shout loudly that, to be poor is no disgrace! Indeed, Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." There are many ways to be "poor in spirit." One has to do with Paul's assertion that he knew how to be content with much and he knew how to be content with little. Those of us who have "much" have to be ready to be content with having "little" while working to more adequately improve the deficit. And those who have "little" must know how to be content with their nobel poverty, seeking however to improve their needs, while accepting their humble estate with detachment, practically enfleshed through help from fellow Christians and the Church, exactly as Christ expects In short, response to the current economic downturn in a way that is in tune with the Gospel, in other words, to be a red-blooded Christian transfued with the reality of Calvary's poverty, enhanced by the richness of Eucharistic assimilation, requires full acceptance of the Lord's assertion, "When you did it to the least, you did it to me!" No excuses accepted! Thanks Father Massaro for a great article!
LAWRENCE DONOHUE MD | 1/13/2009 - 7:00pm
Re: Blessed are the Poor The economic shock to “the street”, engendered in many ways by the culture of greed of some on “wall street”, gives us the opportunity to reflect on our situation compared to our three billion brothers and sisters surviving on less than two dollars a day. The Worldwatch Institute reminds us that: • “The United States, with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas. • As of 2003, the U.S. had more private cars than licensed drivers, and gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles were among the best-selling vehicles. • New houses in the U.S. were 38 % bigger in 2002 than in 1975, despite having fewer people per household on average. • An estimated 65 % of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, leading to an annual loss of 300,000 lives and at least $117 billion in health care costs in 1999. • In 2002, 61 % of U.S. credit card users carried a monthly balance, averaging $12,000 at 16 % interest. This amounts to about $1,900 a year in finance charges—more than the average per capita income in at least 35 countries (in purchasing power parity). • More than one billion people lack reasonable access to safe drinking water. • The U.N. reports that 825 million people are still undernourished” If we take Jesus’s message seriously, “whatever you do for the least of my brethren, you do for me”, should we not take this opportunity to foster solidarity with the less fortunate of the world? Do we have a right to our conspicuous consumption? The world's poor might rather have clean water and adequate nutrition rather than just being “Blessed”.

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