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Justice and the Little Guy

It’s been called our “best-kept secret” and stands in blessed contrast to so much bad news the Church has generated during recent months. It’s Catholic social teaching. Revisiting it becomes urgent among the latest revelations of corruption in some corporate back rooms.

Some might say, How dare we Catholics talk about corruption in business? Our own house has problems of its own. A minority of sick priests has indeed hidden in a system designed to uphold the priesthood for service to the People of God. Correcting this problem, though, as long as it takes, cannot put aside our Church’s prophetic responsibility in society.

We can thank media-star-home-stylist Martha Stewart for bringing the corporate mess to our recent attention in an imaginative way, but she is in no way alone. We had already heard enough about Enron executives’ misdeeds to make anyone sick. Then, after we were updated daily about Stewart’s trial and conviction for obstruction of justice, the Tyco International executives’ trial took center stage. (Two former executives are accused of looting $600 million.) A juror received threats, the judge declared a mistrial and the whole show is starting again.

Whether or not the men are found guilty, their actions—and those of Enron executives and celebrity Stewart—call into question the whole of corporate behavior. Do we really think these could be isolated incidents? Or is it more likely that our corporate conscience slipped a bit during the prosperous 1990s?

We must ask, Do companies exist for profits to their top executives and richest investors only? Or is there a broader purpose for capitalist enterprise, one that benefits the entire community? Whatever happened to business ethics?

Catholic Social Teaching

The Catholic Church is no stranger to these social questions. Over 100 years ago our society underwent massive change that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Child labor was prevalent, once-strong family and parish units were weakening as people moved from country to city to seize opportunity for a better livelihood. Pope Leo XIII wrote the landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum (“On the Condition of the Working Classes”) that spoke about rights and values Catholics, indeed all people of good will, should protect as society moves forward.

We continue to hear his words. On every significant anniversary of that document our hierarchy has repeated Leo’s call. In 1999, our own U.S. bishops’ office of Social Development and World Peace issued a summary statement, “Seven Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching,” that serves as a good reminder for all of us.

The Social Gospel Today

That summary briefly presents how our dignity as God’s children must be respected as we live and work together. The “Seven Key Themes” document reminds us first that each person’s life and dignity must be respected. Second, each person is not only sacred, but also social, note the bishops: We are called to family, community and participation.

Each of us also enjoys fundamental rights to decency and has responsibilities to help others enjoy their rights. The Church—each of us—is especially called to help ease the plight of the poor and vulnerable.

Human work is a gift from God, and is meant to help each of us live in dignity, we are reminded. Workers have fundamental rights, including the right to organize, which must be honored. We are called to other forms of solidarity as well, to live as brothers and sisters together.

Finally, we are called to care for God’s creation, as a matter of human morality.

Another Take

A recent book published by Orbis gives a good summary of Catholic social teaching. Catholics, Politics and Public Policy, by Clarke E. Cochran and David Carroll Cochran, is a fine, up-to-date overview of the Church’s consistent, and evolving, teaching.

The authors remind us that “The Gospels record Jesus speaking about money more than most other topics....Catholic teaching about material goods, their production and use, is central to the Church’s mission.” They flesh out the case for the Catholic position: “...that the purpose of economic life is human flourishing, not economic growth.” That is not to say that growth is not necessary, but that the quality of human life comes first.

It is only fair to note that our fascination with Martha Stewart has more to do with her celebrity as the middle class’s role model than with the extent of her crimes. And what some might call her snobbery made some observers relish her demise all the more. But more than one columnist pointed out, at the time of her trial, that Stewart’s misdeeds are child’s play compared to the millions of dollars others have stolen from those of us who never step foot in corporate boardrooms.

We Catholics, approaching the season of political choices, have a duty to use our political voices to ensure justice to the greatest degree possible. We are correct to be offended by corporate misdeeds and the back-room politics that allows them to happen. It is our prophetic duty to speak out and to work for better—J.B.F.

The bishops’ 100 Years of Social Teaching is available, condensed, from Catholic Update on this Web site. The bishops’ documents, including “Seven Key Themes” and its larger source, can be found or ordered at usccb.org.


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