Last Sunday, a preacher in Detroit caught the nation’s (and maybe even God’s) attention when he led a worship service featuring three gleaming gas-electric hybrids on the altar. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we need prayer,” Bishop Charles Ellis told members of Greater Grace Temple. “When it’s all said and done, we’re all in this thing together.”
Suddenly, buying a new car is more than a personal economic decision. It’s starting to feel like an act of faith.
But while congregations in Detroit have been praying for government intervention to save the American auto industry from the sins of its corporate leaders, I keep waiting to hear the church call for accountability as well as mercy and charity.
Charity begins at home, they say. They also say confession is good for the soul.
In his Dec. 7 Pastoral Letter on the Economy, Detroit’s Cardinal Adam Maida wrote that the economy is about people, not money. “When I make decisions about economic matters for myself and my family and my co-workers, in what ways do I take into account the larger common good?”
So what is the larger common good in this case? If we buy a new American car, are we helping or enabling? If we bail out U.S. automakers, are we saving jobs and helping families and communities or are we letting greedy, selfish CEOs, board members and stockholders off the hook?
The Big Three bosses in Detroit — like their counterparts on Wall Street — are asking for absolution in the form of billions of taxpayer dollars. But as every Catholic school kid knows, absolution is the last step in the reconciliation process. Before absolution comes contrition, confession and penance.
General Motors issued a fairly contrite confession earlier this week in a full-page ad in Automotive News: “At times we violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs become lackluster. We have proliferated our brands and dealer network to the point where we lost adequate focus on our core U.S. market. We also biased our product mix toward pick-up trucks and SUVs. And, we made commitments to compensation plans that have proven to be unsustainable in today’s globally competitive industry.”
It would have sounded more genuine if it had included at least one reference to greed, but it’s a start. Let’s hope others will come, and that any confessions will be followed by sincere and sacrificial acts of penance on the part of the executives who “violated your trust.” Penance isn’t punishment, it’s restitution.
“Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much,” it says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “(Penance) must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices . . .”
Service. Sacrifice. Voluntary self-denial. Not as flashy as three new SUVs, but much more satisfying.