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President Barack Obama arrives to speak at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Feb. 7, 2011. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Whatever one thinks of President Obama’s speech to the U. S. Chamber of Commerce on February 7, 2011, there is no denying that the presentation included policy (paths to goals) and politics (getting votes). Time will tell which aspect will be more lasting, but Obama’s policy statements deserve attention for the way they resonate with basic Catholic teaching on social justice. Specifically, the president framed economic cooperation between government and business in the moral terms of what we “should do” for the common good. This core of Catholic teaching is admired even by commentators like Michael Gerson who don’t necessarily agree with all of it.
Of course, some in public and political leadership positions adopt a decided opposition to the basic Catholic principles. The sound of the president’s voice had scarcely faded into the rafters when one CEO told ABC radio news that while he welcomed Obama’s intention to simplify regulations, he recoiled against suggesting that economics carried any moral obligations. By reducing religion to a narrow set of inner-directed strictures regulating (mostly) sexual conduct, non-Catholic thinking eliminates moral concern from the secular world of making money.
The church-state wall of separation is erected between profitable business decisions on the one side and on the other, the effect of such decisions on real people. As caricatured by Charles Dickens in his fictional Ebenezer Scrooge, there is no moral obligation to address the poor who go hungry because, as Scrooge asserts, their deaths would help “reduce the surplus population.” This view considers that profits are the only measure of economic efficiency. Moreover it interprets government regulations as unwarranted intrusions on individual freedom. Catholicism, in contrast, judges economic systems on the basis of how they affect real people and makes the common good a more important measure than individual wealth.
At Brooklyn College where I taught when Bernie Madoff-style economics was the rage, the professors in that department instituted a course on ethics, arguing from the scriptures of both Mt. Sinai and Mount Calvary that being moral was “good for business” even from a purely utilitarian point of view. Catholicism goes much further into the concept of moral obligation. Social justice must be the goal even if it reduces corporate profits. In fact, in certain circumstances the common good must override the profit motive. As the U.S. Bishops put it (#17), “People before profits.”
Key to Catholic social justice teaching is the notion of “distributive justice.” It matters to society that the fruits of the earth and the goods of industry are shared by all God’s children. Since the world economy has been so badly distorted by those seeking advantage of one class over the other, Catholic social justice demands a redistribution of wealth. Among the paths to such goals are private charity, collective bargaining by workers’ unions and government policies of taxation. So while it is perfectly OK for Catholics to disagree about how much redistribution should be directed by government or unions or private charities, there can be no disagreement about the need for redistribution of wealth.
The facts bear out this Catholic commitment. Since 1979 real wages adjusted for inflation have not grown for most Americans. Costs of living have increased, however, meaning that the middle-class is slipping into poverty. Meanwhile, the richest have become spectacularly richer. Today, the average CEO makes 242 times the wage of his worker and a third of the national GNP goes into the pockets of 1% of the population. Private charity or business interests have failed miserably to stop this trend that concentrates money into the hands of the few. In light of growing problems of health and hunger, the Catholic position on redistribution of wealth is not only possible, but also necessary.
Incredibly, many in corporation-controlled media mouth the words, “redistribution of wealth” only with total scorn. They not only reject, they also ridicule this concept, often characterizing it as somehow “un-American.” That rant goes too far for Catholic America. Even Catholics who disagree with Obama’s politics need to fight for his policy for redistribution of wealth, because it is ours too.