The Irish Church is Back!

The Irish Church has been devastated by the abuse crisis. It’s reputation and moral standing has never been lower. Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The Irish bishops are regaining their moral voice, and it is a loud, prophetic, voice. A week before the election, they have issued a document on the  economy, combining the grace and wisdom of Benedict XVI with the strident and urgent tone taken by Pius XI to denounce the financial sector during the Great Depression. It is quite possibly the best piece written by the Church on the global financial crisis to date (in English at least – my German is not good enough to be able to read Cardinal Marx’s book). It is a strong denunciation of the modern capitalist ethos. Americans in particular need to read it.

As a backdrop, it is worth understanding what happened in Ireland. It is eerily similar to the American story, albeit in a far smaller pond with far smaller players. Irish policymakers became intoxicated by the culture of deregulation, low taxes, and the virtues of the free market. The result was the much-heralded “Celtic tiger” economy, but this was a house built on sand. As the economy expanded, so did poverty and inequality. Much of the growth came from construction and financial services, fueled by a nexus of greed between bankers, property developers, and politicians. And then it all came crashing down. Michael Lewis has a great write-up of the Irish debacle in Vanity Fair. Just like in the United States, the results were crippling unemployment, skyrocketing public debt, and a legacy of bankruptcy. (There is one difference – the Irish bankers who caused the crisis are in hiding, while in the United States they are being toasted, hired by Washington, and once again influencing policy).

The bishops get right to the heart of the problem – a “radical individualism” that manifested in a  “bonus culture”, which in turn gave rise to “inequality and damage to social cohesion”. This bonus culture is “regrettably still a feature of banks and financial institutions”. They lay out the problem as follows:

“In common with many countries in the so-called developed world, which are increasingly shaped by the cultural mindset of advanced capitalism, we can forget that not everything is earned and that not all actions are motivated by self-interest, albeit enlightened self-interest. For example, one’s health, personality, physical and intellectual endowments, not to speak of the love which one received as a child, one’s early schooling environment and those friendships that shape the quality of our adult lives, are all received as gift…Combine confidence in the self-sufficiency of the individual – the conviction that everything that one receives is earned/merited – with a complimentary set of beliefs which hold that one can measure the worth of one’s endeavour by the size of the monetary reward. In this mix, one has a set of conditions which are ideal for the creation of what has been described as a bonus culture and extremely difficult for the promotion of the civic virtues of active citizenship and public service that are the life-blood of a functioning participatory democracy. It is our firm conviction that the neglect of this gift dimension of personal and societal living lies at the root of what has gone wrong in Irish society. If this proves to be the case, there is a need to critique exaggerated claims of independence/self sufficiency which give rise to and sustain a ‘bonus culture’”

The result is an “increase of social inequality, which is an inevitable consequence of this bonus culture and the accompanying institutional failure”. This “brings with it the serious risk of causing a breakdown in social cohesion – the bedrock of a properly functioning democracy and an orderly economy” (see Caritas in Veritate, 32).

The root of the problem lies with liberal individualism:

“The current crisis in Ireland can, at least in part, be explained by reference to the perception of increasing societal acceptance – if admittedly from a very low base in comparison with other European countries – of what has been described as a radical or expressive individualism. To the extent that this perceived cultural trend is borne out in practice, it will almost inevitably be followed by a loss of the proper balance in our self understanding as individuals and as members of society – a loosening of the bonds of solidarity.”

The bishops note that it has become increasingly difficult to challenge this “dominant individualist/ consumerist societal ethos”. This was not the case in the past, when regulation and the welfare state were put in the service of the common good:

“There are historical precedents which offer some hope that the excesses of advanced capitalism can be checked – the emergence of a robust regulatory environment and a concern for the welfare state in the decades after the 1929 Wall Street crash and the Second World War being a case in point. Alongside the successes of the Labour movement in the post-war years, one can also highlight the remarkable achievements of Christian Democracy which emerged from the ruins of Germany at the end of World War II, motivated by a desire to keep in balance the core principles of freedom, enterprise and social responsibility. In the decades that followed, up until the early 1980s, both the Social and Christian Democrats provided an important counterbalance to the excesses of consumerism/capitalism.”

But today? Some problems can be traced to the decline of socialism and the “victory” of the capitalist model:

“For well over a hundred years, various strands of socialism were united in challenging the priority which capitalism accords to economic efficiency and individual liberty over social justice and a concern for societal cohesion. With the diminishing influence of socialism on the political landscape over the past thirty years there is some evidence to suggest that we are witnessing for the first time the emergence of a more radical individualism which has little sensitivity to the nature and significance of belonging to a society.”

They tease out some problems with the capitalist model:

“The recent economic crisis offers evidence to suggest that, with the increasing cultural dominance of the consumerist ethos of advanced capitalism, we have lost the correct balance between the four essential elements of a just and sustainable economic model: freedom, efficiency, solidarity and the protection of the environment. Instead of the historically normal patterns of subordinating the economy to society, capitalism effectively operates under a political system whereby self-regulating markets subordinate society to the logic of the market…There is always the danger that the goal of economic effectiveness will crowd-out vital ethical considerations and core values, such as solidarity and the common good…In such a consumerist milieu, efficiency will always be perceived to be more important than fairness, and the economic need to down-size will take precedence over concern for the welfare of employees.”

What does this all mean going forward? It means policy grounded in the common good. Banks and financial institutions “must be at the service of society and contribute to the common good”. The common good also calls for “the centrality of justice and equity…and the need for those in power to pay special attention to the more vulnerable members of society”. The bishops question the minimum wage cuts, especially since they mostly affect migrants “who are not represented by unions and have no power”, and when others continue to enjoy six-figure salaries. While equality of opportunity is essential, it is not enough – “a more equal society will never be truly fostered in the absence of concern for equality of outcomes”. Incomes policy must be based on solidarity, and incomes gaps are unacceptably large. Quite provocatively, they note that Irish taxes are too low to pay for European standards of public services. And of course, the earth’s resources must be used responsibly.

Let’s turn now to the United States. Everything in this document applies also to the United States – many times over. The United States embodies a radical individualism on steroids. Not only is the culture more infected by this malaise, but too many Catholics are out defending it. You see Catholic Vote and Inside Catholic applauding the principles of the tea party, the very embodiment of this flawed cultural capitalism, predicated on individualism. There are plenty of right-wing Catholic groups in Ireland and elsewhere, that are every bit as strident on abortion and other cultural issues as their American counterparts (google ‘Youth Defense”). But it would be exceedingly rare to find a Catholic group in these places extolling the virtues of the individualist mindset in this fashion. America has a problem. Catholics have assimilated a little too well.

But where are the bishops? Why can they not write a document like this? Why do they appear so timid? Is it because they are afraid of ruffling the feathers of those who have bought into this flawed cultural mindset of advanced capitalism? Look back after the last few years. As the greatest crisis since the Great Depression unfolded in 2008, the US bishops instead unleashed their energy to tackle things like FOCA – an important issue for fund-raising, but not for the policy agenda. They complained about Obama talking at Notre Dame while the economy was collapsing all around them. To this day, we have not seen a coherent and comprehensive statement on the philosophical and cultural problems that led to the crisis, despite the leadership shown by Pope Benedict. It’s been a quarter century since their last major document on the economy. As with the abuse crisis, the American bishops should follow the lead of their Irish brethren. They should start standing up to the angry voices of the American right, who are trying to twist Catholic social teaching into something very ugly indeed.

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  • Kurt

    MM,

    I applaud everything the Irish bishops have said above. (including crediting the European welfare state to Christian Democracy, something rarely heard here). I agree with them and MM that the policies they denounce lead from or lead to a radical individualism at odds with Christianity. There is a pastoral issue here as well as a policy issue.

    But I have to agree with some thoughtful and prayerful Catholics (that would not include Catholic Vote) that statements on policy issues is not going to bring back the faith.

    The Catholic faith in Ireland, the USA and much of the western world is in deep trouble. Millions of souls are being lost. And a proper understanding of Catholic social teachings is not going to turn it around.

  • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

    Not surprisingly to anyone who reads my posts, I agree with this post wholeheartedly, MM.

    The great irony is that unrestrained capitalism always ends up being too top-heavy to support prosperity – when a few millionaires have all the money, no one else can afford to buy their products – and ends in tears for everyone, including the (few) prosperous. This is a structural problem, and the Rand-heads seem immune to evidence when this awkward fact is brought up. Unrestrained capitalism ends up bankrupting *everyone*, including (eventually) the capitalists themselves.

  • http://reverend.gisher@gmail.com gisher

    We had this sort of attitude about Corps when the country was first established. The founders thought of the East India company as if it were some sort of giant malevolent loaded diaper.

    To start a private corp then you had to build some public works project first (road, bridge, etc.) then you usually only had the corp available for one year then it was disbanded.

    With the line drawn up through the Citizens United ruling, the people are now basically slaves to be exploited. Most of the major Corps do not even pay taxes these days.

    I do hope the Vatican takes a cue from Ireland, or we will most likely have to repeat the foolishness of the good old Lord and serf days.

  • Chris Sullivan

    Thanks for a great post, Morning’s Minion (what an apt moniker for this post!).

    Keep up the good work.

    God Bless

  • Maureen O’Brien

    FYI: An interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times

    U.S.   | February 22, 2011
    Billionaire Brothers’ Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Dispute
    By ERIC LIPTON
    Charles G. and David H. Koch are financial supporters of the Wisconsin governor’s efforts to reduce the power of unions.

    • http://reverend.gisher@gmail.com gisher

      Psst…Maureen…click on my name. I had it a few days before the NY times broke it although, somewhat in an unorthodox way.

  • http://catholicdefender2000.blogspot.com Catholic Defender

    Congratulations to the Church in Ireland for standing up amidst the crisis. The prayer of the entire Church around the world for healing in Ireland is gradual but surely the Spirit of the Lord is healing this land.

    God bless the Bishops, priests, religious and the Catholic faithful in the great country.

  • http://the-american-catholic.com DarwinCatholic

    On the meta topic, I guess I’m a bit confused as to the train of thought you present here. You say that the Irish bishops had had their credibility damaged by the abuse crisis, which certainly seems believable. But now you seem to say that this credibility is best restored by speaking out loudly about banking and finance. Now, maybe I’m being overly simplistic here, but it seems like these two are not very well connected. If credibility was somehow lost over how they responded to the abuse crisis, you would think that it would be best restored by:

    a) assuring that they significantly improve the way they respond to child abuse by clergy in the future (which from what I understand they have done) and

    b) redoubling their efforts to bring home to their flock the basic message of Christ and the sacraments of His Church, while trying to avoid the excesses of clericalism and focus on stature within the world which might lead people to think that covering up a scandal was better than dealing with it.

    Now, from what I know, they have worked hard on both of these, and so I would tend to think it would be these which would restore their credibility (had they lost it) not coming out with a document on economic issues, which would seem, from most points of view, to be something of a side issue. Certainly, Christ didn’t take a very wonkish approach to the economy in His time on earth. He told people to sell all that they had and give it to the poor, he didn’t discuss the relative virtue of different economic “systems” or the ideal income spread.

    That said, I guess I’m also a bit confused by the question of this “bonus culture” an dhow it violates solidarity.

    It is our firm conviction that the neglect of this gift dimension of personal and societal living lies at the root of what has gone wrong in Irish society. If this proves to be the case, there is a need to critique exaggerated claims of independence/self sufficiency which give rise to and sustain a ‘bonus culture’

    Now, to take a personal example — a month back or so I got involved in an in depth pricing project and managed to come up with some changes (working on my own) which when we implemented them increased company profits by a monthly amount which will, assuming they stay in place for the rest of the year, result in increased profits of a bit over a million dollars a year. Admittedly, dealing with pricing I am very close to some of the levers of the business, so I have, by virtue of my position, more ability to change some of these things than many other very smart and hard working employees.

    That said, it’s a bit unusual to be able to find a million dollars in profits through a week’s intensive work by one person, and since it was shortly after that which I had to write up my self assessment for the year I called attention to that fact in hopes that it would be taken into account when raises and bonuses were handed out.

    Now, it’s true that given the sort of company I work for there’s not direct connection between my bonus and the extra profits that I produce — I’m certainly not like a hedge fund manager who gets to keep a set percentage of the billions in profits that he makes for his clients. But I don’t really see how wanting to see the amount of benefit which I provided to my company be reflected in my bonus is contrary to an understanding that many of my abilities are the result of education and nurturing I received from others over the years. I am aware of that, and indeed it’s partly in order to help those who provided that nurturing (given that I have a widowed mother, disabled brother, and a larger than average number of children) that I feel motivated to try to distinguish myself in the amount of work that I do in order to reap income which I can use to the benefit of those who have nurtured me and those whom I am tasked to nurture.

    Further, although I sit somewhere around the top 10% line in regards to household income, it’s not as if my desire to keep hold of a percentage of the fruits of my labor is all that different from the desire of a union worker to find some way to get more out of his company in return for his labor, a desire which, from what I understand, neither you nor the bishops would question.

    I suppose we could say that it’s justifiable for people like me or you or Matt or any of another of the set of people we consider “ordinary working people” to want to see a percentage of the fruits of our labor, but that it’s not okay for those who, due to the huge amount of money that passes through their hands, can count those fruits in the billions, to want to see a percentage of the fruits of his labor too. Maybe there’s some sort of justice formula which calculates that you and I are okay in wanting to receive compensation for our work, but people who succeed in producing profits a thousand times greater than the profits we produce are not justified in wanting to make, say, a hundred times what we make. I suppose that’s arguable, though I’m not necessarily sure how it is argued. I would tend to think, rather, that those who do earn a great deal because of that have an obligation to use those greater resources in a way that is of benefit to the common good — just as you and I do, but in keeping with their greater means.

    That, at least, would appear to be the way that the Church has actually behaved through most of its history, during which it had a tacit acceptance of (and indeed embrace of) a feudal culture which resulted in much greater income disparity and immobility than our current world.

    • http://reverend.gisher@gmail.com gisher

      Church doctrine has changed just a tad bit since feudal culture existed and meanwhile the feudal culture seems to be making a roaring comeback, but I would not want to compare the Church or it’s doctrine today if I were you good sir.

      The church does not embrace capitalism, it at best tolerates it, but only because it has no real choice in the matter.

      Your arguments for your for why it is valid for you to receive a larger share of your income are just as valid as any union worker’s would be to receive a larger share of the profits, even though in fairness you sir at 10% are doing massively better than any rank and file union member ever did, or ever will.

      That said, all union workers in this country, (the few remaining anyway) are not all Catholics, and I doubt even 30% of them are, but you sir are a Catholic, and not an impoverished one either.

      There are many impoverished workers in America today, many of them Catholic, mostly found slaving away in service sector jobs, many having to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. They do not have the options their fathers had because most of the union jobs were busted up and sent overseas where American corporations could exploit workers there for sometimes as little as 19 cents a day.

      While your arguments are valid for a good capitalist worker in a good capitalist society, you sir are Catholic and we are not called upon by our church to take any more than we need to survive. No we as Catholics are supposed to keep what we need and give the rest away to those in need which offers you sir a choice.

      Either give more of what you do not need now from your superb income or perhaps consider renouncing your faith and selecting say one of the protestant flocks that allows them to accumulate wealth like a pirate.

    • http://reverend.gisher@gmail.com gisher

      I might add also that if you were working for a Catholic run company they should be taking what they do not need to maintain their business and donating it to charitable causes. We have a problem with corporate greed in America that tends to dwarf personal greed at epic levels.

      When you consider that most major U.S. corporations do not pay any taxes at all and ship most of their employment overseas to exploit poor workers the least they could do would be to increase their charitable giving.

      I am not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

    • http://reverend.gisher@gmail.com gisher

      I through the sin of omission did leave out a third choice for your sir and I do apologize profusely for doing so. Let me amend the appropriate lines for you now:

      “Either give more of what you do not need now from your superb income, make constant trips to confessional and ask for absolution or perhaps consider renouncing your faith and selecting say one of the protestant flocks that allows them to accumulate wealth like a pirate.”

      • http://reverend.gisher@gmail.com gisher

        “I am not clear that Catholic doctrine has, in substance, changed since the feudal period. Rather, it has adapted in order to help people understand their moral obligations in a new set of circumstance”

        ———————————-

        “Rather, it has adapted”

        Doctrine was changed would you like me to post it for you sir?

        ————————————

        “On the other hand, I am very clear on how feudalism worked as an economic system, and I can assure you that we are not in any way coming close to it.”

        I was in fact mocking the sheer greed on display currently and was not seriously implying that feudalism has returned in full. it was sarcasm sir but with you from hence forth I will try to remain quite literal.

        —————————————

        “Well, so if my desire to take home more of the benefit I create for my company are essentially the same as the desires of a union worker on the low end or of a hedge fund manager on the high end, I’m a little perplexed as to why one would see the one desire as being acceptable while the others are unacceptable. It may be that the answer this question, but your prose style becomes a little confused in places, and so perhaps I missed it.”

        You are Catholic sir correct? What is more important to you, your Church and it’s doctrine or you personal political ideology and your own accumulation of wealth?

        I think my last question pretty much covers the rest of your comments as well.

        • Darwin

          The rest of your comment is so incoherent that I’m not clear whether I have anything to respond to, but just a hint,since you’re clearly just getting started at this: Constantly calling someone “dear sir” while your prose style drips with disdain, if not outright hatred, does not, as you seem to imagine, make you sound more mature. It just comes off as sarcastic.

          Also, try hard to read the comment you’re responding to and respond strictly to what it says, not to what you imagine to be the personal habits or beliefs of the person you’re talking to. When talking to someone one does not like, one often guesses wrong and comes off looking foolish.

          • http://reverend.gisher@gmail.com gisher

            I responded to your comment adequately and then you refused to answer my questions. Any of them.

            I did however post below a compassion filled response to you that the editor WAS kind even to publish.

            Please read it, and then try and answer the questions I asked you above, but you do not need to answer them publicly. I just hope you answer them privately.

    • http://the-american-catholic.com DarwinCatholic

      Church doctrine has changed just a tad bit since feudal culture existed and meanwhile the feudal culture seems to be making a roaring comeback, but I would not want to compare the Church or it’s doctrine today if I were you good sir.

      I am not clear that Catholic doctrine has, in substance, changed since the feudal period. Rather, it has adapted in order to help people understand their moral obligations in a new set of circumstance.

      On the other hand, I am very clear on how feudalism worked as an economic system, and I can assure you that we are not in any way coming close to it. You might want to read up on it a good deal more before making assertions to this effect. Wealth and income were highly unequal in feudal society, but feudal society was not remotely laissez faire. Indeed, many modern commentators would probably consider its level of economic regulation “socialist” in many respects.

      Your arguments for your for why it is valid for you to receive a larger share of your income are just as valid as any union worker’s would be to receive a larger share of the profits, even though in fairness you sir at 10% are doing massively better than any rank and file union member ever did, or ever will.

      Well, so if my desire to take home more of the benefit I create for my company are essentially the same as the desires of a union worker on the low end or of a hedge fund manager on the high end, I’m a little perplexed as to why one would see the one desire as being acceptable while the others are unacceptable. It may be that the answer this question, but your prose style becomes a little confused in places, and so perhaps I missed it.

      (Also, just in case you’re not as familiar with the data in regards to household income as MM and I are, it’s probably worth noting that sitting around the 90th percentile in household income simply means that one’s total household income is around 100k. It’s not a very unusual amount for educated professionals to make, though many of them don’t realize that this puts them in the top 10% of US earners.)

      Either give more of what you do not need now from your superb income or perhaps consider renouncing your faith and selecting say one of the protestant flocks that allows them to accumulate wealth like a pirate.

      I’m not at all sure where I said how much of my income I give away, so I’m not sure why you advise me to increase the amount or else renounce our Holy Mother Church. However, it bears pointing out in relation to people wanting to take home a just portion of the value which they create through their work that the very reason why they wish to do this may be because they wish to use that money to fulfill familial and charitable obligations — whether that be supporting their parish, other Catholic causes, or other friends or relatives who are less fortunate. One of the difficulties of a leveling tendency which insists that no one make more than a certain amount is that it removes the means whereby those people may use their earnings to do good.

      For instance, in the parish I belonged to back in Texas, nearly the entire parish budget was covered by the donations of roughly 50 families out of the 2000+ member families in the parish. Some of those families were far from “rich”, though I believe they all made above the national median income. But without those specific families having the means to do so, the parish would obviously have suffered greatly.

      • http://reverend.gisher@gmail.com gisher

        OOOPS my response to you was posted above, Look on high my friend for my response.

        • Darwin

          Also: Knocking things you don’t like as “feudal” is generally a bad call, as medieval society was one of the most genuinely Catholic that has existed,and much of Catholic Social Teaching involves trying to bring it’s lessons into the modern world. You don’t have to take my word for this, the gents who write here (especially MM and Henry) can convey this at greater length than I.

          • http://reverend.gisher@gmail.com gisher

            I think the Catholic Church is still apologizing for what happened during this period, so going after feudal times might just be appropriate.

      • http://reverend.gisher@gmail.com gisher

        As a friendly gesture to someone who I hope comes back to the flock and respects our doctrine, I will share this with you.

        You have found your way to believing that the battles are between the democrats and the republicans or perhaps between the public sector unions and the taxpayers but step outside the halls of smoke and mirrors for just moment with me.

        The battle is really between the haves and the have nots and you sir are a have not. You just do not know it yet.

        If your job can ever be wormed into the same category that all the factory workers whose jobs are now in China or Mexico were, you sir will be out on the street with the very people who you perceive to be your enemies.

        But to say it is between the haves and the have nots itself is perhaps too simplistic, as this battle is really between greed and compassion and right now greed and is standing on the head of compassion.

        Right now, and for as long as your luck hangs with you, you are comfortably inside the boot standing on compassion’s head.

        Following the path of Jesus is not supposed to be easy, it always comes with pain. But the path of Jesus is like a rose on a stem. Yes there are thorns and no way to avoid them. But at the top of that stem is a rose. It is true joy and true love, not a lie masquerading itself as comfort.

        Come home man, come home.

  • Kurt

    For instance, in the parish I belonged to back in Texas, nearly the entire parish budget was covered by the donations of roughly 50 families out of the 2000+ member families in the parish.

    The reason why I think liberals should be wary of Trusteeship.

    • http://reverend.gisher@gmail.com gisher

      Bingo, and I don’t mean the game. There were obviously families in that parish that could have contributed but had other priorities.

      Political ideology is just one of them. How many sins do we have again?

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