Tag Archives: Dr. Samuel Gregg

Catholics and the morality of debt

Sam Gregg writes that with debt and deficits on everyone’s mind, the absence of sustained contemporary Catholic reflection on financial questions is puzzling. However, Pope Benedict XVI points to a deeper moral disorder associated with running up high levels of debt: The willingness of many to live “at the expense of future generations” . . .

Dr. Sam Gregg

Debt and deficits seem to be on everyone’s minds these days. Whether it be worries about the American government’s fiscal woes, the prospect of Greece defaulting, Europe’s fragile banking system or the debt-as-a-way-of-life culture that disfigures so many lives around the world, many people are seeking guidance on how to extricate themselves from this mess with their souls intact.

In this regard, Catholics instinctively turn to the Church’s social teaching for direction. Unfortunately modern social encyclicals have relatively little to say about strictly financial questions. Even the 2004 Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine confines itself to very broad statements about finance and foreign debt, and never really addresses the moral dimension of private and public debt.

This absence of sustained contemporary Catholic reflection on financial questions is puzzling. Because once we get past the Dark Ages propaganda that distorts so many people’s vision of the Middle Ages and Catholicism more generally, we discover most of the practices of finance and banking took form in a medieval Christian world — one shaped and nourished by the Catholic Church.

Indeed, for many centuries, Catholic bishops and theologians invested considerable energy in understanding the world of money because of the usury question. Catholic thinkers were consequently among the first to identify money’s primary functions, illustrate how money in the conditions of economic freedom could assume the form of capital, demonstrate the moral legitimacy of charging interest on money-ascapital, and assess the moral status of different debts in different contexts.

Here it’s worth noting that early-modern Catholic theologians assailed governments that tried to escape their debts by measures such as inflating the currency or borrowing more money to pay for interest payments on existing public debt — or who spent large portions of the taxes they raised on servicing debt or on activities that were either morally evil or simply did not fall within the core functions of constitutionally limited governments.

Sound familiar?

Today one looks in vain for Catholic thinkers studying our debt and deficit problems from standpoints equally well-informed by economics and sound Catholic moral reflection. We don’t, for instance, hear many Catholic voices speaking publicly about the moral virtues essential for the management of finances such as prudent risk-taking, thrift, promise-keeping, and assuming responsibility for our debts — private or public.

Instead one finds broad admonitions such as “put the interests of the poor first” in an age of budget-cutting. The desire to watch out for the poor’s well-being in an environment of fiscal restraint is laudable. But that’s not a reason to remain silent about the often morally questionable choices and policies that helped create our personal and public debt-dilemmas in the first place.

One Catholic who has engaged these issues is none other than Pope Benedict XVI. In his 2010 interview-book Light of the World, he pointed to a deeper moral disorder associated with running up high levels of debt. The willingness on the part of many people and governments to do so means “we are living at the expense of future generations.”

In other words, someone has to pay for all this debt. And clearly many older Americans and Western Europeans seem quite happy for their children to pick up the bill. That’s a rather flagrant violation of intergenerational solidarity.

But Benedict then sharpens the argument. This willingness on the part of governments, communities and individuals to live off debt means that people are “living in untruth.” He writes: “We live on the basis of appearances, and the huge debts are meanwhile treated as something that we are simply entitled to.”

In fact, it’s possible to go further and argue that such attitudes reflect a mindset of practical atheism: living and acting as if God does not exist, as if the only life is this life, as if the future doesn’t matter. Only people who have no hope — no hope in God, no hope in redemption, no hope for the future — will think and act this way.

The economist John Maynard Keynes once famously wrote, “In the long run, we are all dead.” To be fair to Keynes, he was making a specific point about monetary theory. But his words are evocative of a mindset that should trouble Catholics and other Christians. If we choose to live our lives according to a perspective dominated by immediate gratification or pursue economic policies forever focused on the short-term (which is, more-or-less, the Achilles heel of neo-Keynesian economics and policies), then living off debt is entirely rational. But what does that say about our priorities and conception of human flourishing?

Taking on debt is not in itself intrinsically evil. In many circumstances, it’s an entirely reasonable decision. Most entrepreneurs who undertake a new endeavor or established businesses seeking to expand their activities need debt-instruments to do so. Many young people make a responsible choice to take on some debt so as to increase their human capital (and thus job prospects) in the marketplace.

Nevertheless a situation of inexorably increasing debt and a failure to confront its moral and economic causes can slowly erode our personal sense of responsibility for our freely undertaken obligations and severely tempt us to live in a world of moral and fiscal unreality. Such attitudes don’t just weaken economies. They immeasurably damage our personal moral well-being, not to mention entire societies’ moral ecology.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including “On Ordered Liberty,” his prize-winning “The Commercial Society,” and “Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.”

Catholics, politics and the challenge of voting

With the 2008 election just around the corner, it’s time for Catholics to start thinking seriously about the candidates they may intend to vote for as president and in Congress. As usual, both political parties are busy appealing to the “Catholic vote.”

Frankly, I’m not sure there is such a thing. Such talk tends to conflate practicing Catholics with those Catholics who attend Mass only for baptisms, first communions and funerals, not to mention those Catholics who have effectively left the Church.

Given the extent to which “identity politics” permeates and disfigures the American political landscape, we probably have to resign ourselves to the fact that American politicians from both main parties will try to spin their message in ways they think will attract Catholic citizens to their various causes.

This means it’s all the more important for faithful Catholics to be clear about the principles of the Catholic faith that ought to inform our Catholic conscience when it comes to voting choices.

The good news is that, with the exception of a relatively small number of issues, Catholics enjoy enormous room for prudential judgment when it comes to their political positions on most questions.

Let’s take economic questions. Some Catholics respectfully maintain that private enterprise and free markets promote the economic dimension of the common good and help the poor better than government programs. Other Catholics disagree. The point is that on almost all economic issues, Catholics are free to advocate different positions precisely because they reflect empirical and prudential judgments reasonably in dispute among well-informed people.

Unfortunately you won’t hear this from a good number of Catholic social justice activists. When pressed, however, they will usually — albeit reluctantly — admit that almost all economic questions, ranging from taxation levels to wages rates, fall squarely into the prudential judgment realm.

In other words, Catholics — including bishops and clergy — are free to disagree among themselves about these matters. What we can’t do is claim that our different positions on, say, the size of the welfare state is the Catholic position.

There are, however, a small number of questions that are non-negotiable for Catholics. No one put it better than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — in a 2004 letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C.:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

So what’s the bottom line? It’s this: Catholics cannot in good conscience — except in rare circumstances — vote for a politician of any party who consistently works and/or votes for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws.

I say “except in rare circumstances.” Perhaps the candidate who stands for life is a well-known and unrepentant wife-beater who should not be elected local dog-catcher, let alone to Congress. Maybe every candidate on the ballot favors permissive anti-life practices.

What does the faithful Catholic do in these difficult conditions? One option might be to abstain. Another may be to decide that there is what the Church calls a proportionate reason for vote for one of these candidates.

By “proportionate reason,” the Church does not mean employing the proportionalist method of moral reasoning (pioneered by dissenting theologians in the 1970s) of attempting to “weigh” competing goods and evils on an imaginary scale.

The great Pope John Paul II condemned such “reasoning” in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) as incompatible with the Catholic faith (i.e., heretical).

A very sound American archbishop explained “proportionate reason” in the following vivid, powerful and direct way. It means that after you die, you think you can look aborted children in the eye when we are judged by God and explain to them — and God — why we voted for politicians who promoted laws allowing innocent human beings to be killed.

I don’t claim to be able to judge the state of any person’s soul. Only the Lord Jesus can do that. But somehow I don’t think pleading that you thought raising the minimum hourly wage from $7 to $8 was more important than protecting innocent human life is going to cut it.

As Catholics, we believe that we are saved through God’s grace, the sacrifice of Christ’s death and the triumph of his Resurrection. But we also believe we can embrace the opposite. Through our actions — including our voting choices — we can freely reject God’s love and enter the eternal separation from God that we call Hell.

That’s not fear-mongering. As St. Thomas More reminds us, the possibility of Hell reflects the fact that God has given us the capacity to deny him and his love. Let’s keep these realities in mind when we vote in 2008.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute and author, most recently, of “The Commercial Society” which was awarded a 2007 Templeton Enterprise Award for outstanding writing on the culture of enterprise.