Friday, January 28, 2011

Integritas Seminar III

Last night our Integritas program had its third seminar of the year on "The Corporal Works of Mercy and Addressing Issues of Justice in Society," led by Prof. Michael Baxter of Notre Dame's Theology Department. The seminar explored questions such as: What do we owe to the poor in society? What do workers owe to their employers, and what do employers owe to their workers? What is the purpose and meaning of work? How should we address poverty and injustice? How does our education prepare us to engage in these issues on behalf of others?, through readings by Dorothy Day (The Long Loneliness and Catholic Worker Positions), Peter Maurin's "Easy Essays," excerpts from the encyclical Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII, and part of the book Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Dr. Paul Farmer's work in Haiti.

Prof. Baxter gave the students the background for Rerum Novarum, describing the ways in which the Industrial Revolution transformed work in a way that compromises human dignity, with laborers forced to work long hours, seven days a week, doing dangerous, mindless, repetitive tasks. He also described situations in which these de-humanizing work conditions still exist in the contemporary world, despite the progress made by labor unions and legislation, such as in sweat shops, meat processing plants, and on farms worked by migrant laborers. This history gave a sense of urgency to the issues addressed by Rerum Novarum and Pope Leo's recommendations, such as ceasing work on Sundays and paying workers a living wage.

One student noticed that Pope Leo was exposing the modern mentality that achieving a certain level of development will fix the world's problems and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for all. Such a mentality fails to take account of original sin and overlooks that fact that so often development comes at the price of justice and human dignity.

The students asked about distributivism, the economic model advocated by Dorothy Day and G.K. Chesterton. Prof. Baxter explained that both unbridled capitalism and socialism violate central principles of Catholic Social Teaching, such as the universal right to private property, subsidiarity, and the right to earn a living through honest work that can support a family. Some people confuse distributivism with communism, but under distributivism, instead of the State stepping in to re-distribute property and eliminating private property in favor of common ownership, everyone gets to own property sufficient to their needs and the means of production are widely distributed rather than centralized. Men should be slaves neither to a company nor to a State. 

Capitalism and Socialism are both predicated on a false anthropology that characterizes men as essentially greedy, possessive, and competitive, and our primary motivation is self-interest. Pope Leo called on Catholics to look at economics in the light of the Good News of the Gospel, and to imagine a way of approaching economics based on a Catholic anthropology that recognizes the inherent dignity of every person, because every person is made in the image and likeness of God. He says, "Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God's providence, for the benefit of others."

Dorothy Day was certainly an individual who realized that the dualism of capitalism and socialism can stifle our imaginations and water down our courage to live in a way that provides a sign of contradiction to a world that has capitulated to unjust economic arrangements. She shared Peter Maurin's vision for a society "in which it is easier for people to be good," and as the students read about her radical commitment to poverty and solidarity with the poor in her houses of hospitality, some asked how they can reconcile their belief that, for example, the college education they are receiving is worthwhile and important, with the concern that the $160,000 their college education costs is an extravagant use of resources and unjustifiable in the face of the surrounding poverty and destitution. 

One person compared it to Dr. Farmer's frustration that when he pilots a program to fight TB in Haiti he is accused of wasting resources creating "non-sustainable" programs while his accusers don't blink an eye at spending $68,000 treating a single TB patient in New York: "If it tales five-hour treks or giving patients milk or nail clippers or raisins, radios, watches, then do it. We can spend sixty-eight thousand dollars per TB patient in New york City, but if you start giving watches or radios to patients here, suddenly the international health community jumps on you for creating non-sustainable projects. If a patient says, I really need a Bible or nail clippers, well, for God's sake!"

The Haitian proverb Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe ("God gives but doesn't share") in Dr. Paul Farmer's story was the question we were struggling with: "God gives us humans everything we need to flourish, but he's not the one who's supposed to divvy up the loot. That charge was laid upon us." What's the most just way to do that, the way that preserves the dignity of every human person and recognizes the dignity of human work? We concluded that the answer must be both personal and systemic: we must answer for our personal choices as consumers, workers, and employers, and we must also work to build structures that are fair and just.

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