What History Can Teach About Financial Crisis

Author: Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

What History Can Teach About Financial Crisis

Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver

Character and circumstance: Recognizing religion's role in financial strategy

The following text is taken from a lecture given by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver on 24 February [2009] to a gathering of 100 Catholic business leaders and public officials in St. Paul's Basilica, Toronto, Canada. Archbishop Chaput recently authored the New York Times Best Seller "Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in. Political Life".

"History is a record of the encounter between character and circumstance".

These words remind us that people make history; not the other way around. We often cannot control our circumstances. But we can usually control our own actions, and our actions have real consequences for ourselves and others — now and into the future.

History is to a nation or people what memory is to individual persons: it roots us in reality. It gives us a context for the present. And it teaches us some of the lessons we need to build a better future.

Here is an example of what I mean, and I will use four facts that do not seem related at all.

1. Religious Muslims do not use interest as a financial tool.

2. For many years Catholics saw the interest charged on money as a sin.

3. In general, Protestant countries have outperformed Catholic nations economically.

4. Despite the huge holes in his ideas, Karl  Marx inspired millions of people, and a century of revolutionary action.

Obviously these, facts are oversimplified. They are separated by time and culture. However a single thread unites them: the power of money.

Church leaders originally condemned interest because it allowed the rich to take even greater advantage of the poor, and it reduced the bonds of family, fealty and friendship to impersonal transactions (cf. Ex 22:25-27; Lv 25:36-37; and Dt 23:19-20). Devout Muslims still hold this view.

Protestant individualism led to economic initiative. Catholic distrust of the new economy tended toward heavy economic controls and conservatism. If we compare the traditional economic assumptions of countries like the United States with those that were dominant in Latin America until very recently, the differences are rather clear. And I think Marx rightly saw that the pursuit of capital without a moral compass tends to erode traditions and traditional relationships, beginning with the family.

People also often misread Scripture to claim that money is the root of all evil. But that is not what Scripture says. It says that "the love of money is the root of all evils" (1 Tm 6:10).

We must love people, not things. People are the subjects of history. Things are the objects and tools of history. When we treat things with the attention and reverence due to people, people suffer.

In some of his early writings Adam Smith alluded to the importance of religious faith and moral principles in guiding the very powerful machine we call the market. The reason is because at its root, the market is basically a "service-for-compensation" or "product-for-compensation" transaction. And the better we become at transacting, the more we risk losing sight of the larger moral environment of our culture. The need for profit and today's specialization of skills and interests narrows our horizon, not just in the work environment, but in the way we relate to the world and perceive others.

In all the great religions, but especially in Christianity, the world and its resources exist for the use of all people. And therefore, the market exists for the benefit of all.

People have a right to enjoy the results of their success. There is a wonderful dignity in financial success rightly earned. But we never lose responsibility for the people around us. And when we do lose sight of that responsibility, when we reduce people to statistics or impersonal social problems, when we ignore the moral implications of money, when we let greed, dishonesty and financial voodoo take over our economic life, then the bonds that hold a nation together begin to unravel.

C.S. Lewis once said that each human life, no matter how disabled, poor or infirm, is more valuable than every great empire in history. What he meant is this. Every human person is a child of God designed from conception to live forever. But every nation and every culture will sooner or later die and be forgotten. This is why the dignity of the human person — including his or her economic well-being — is at the heart of Catholic social teaching. Catholic or not, any sensible businessperson can understand the logic of the Golden Rule. We reap what, we sow. If we act like pirates, that is what we become. If we act ethically, we create an ethical world, even if its borders only reach as far as our family, business colleagues and friends.

More importantly, we cannot really be free until we live, in some sense, for others. That is why the Saints are the freest people in history. Freedom never comes from things. It never comes from avarice or envy or any other addiction. Real freedom comes from self-mastery.

The deal God puts on the table is very simple: we must give to receive. And that makes sense, because God is love, his essence is charity. He is the author of all our talents; and the "ecology" of our lives, to be in balance, requires that we help others if we hope to help ourselves. In the long run, there is no way to be a "successful" person in business, in politics or anywhere else by wanting and taking more than we are willing to give. The habit of giving creates abundance while the habit of taking steals from everybody, beginning with ourselves and our own integrity.

Where does God belong in the marketplace? He belongs in the hearts and the actions of the people who make the market succeed. "History is a record of the encounter between character and circumstance". Each of us becomes "powerful" by becoming free, and we become free by mastering ourselves and living for others.

What we do, what we create, reveals who we are. And that is as true in the marketplace as it is in the painter's studio. We need good leaders to light the marketplace with habits of generosity, justice, and honesty.

The philosopher Hugo Grotius once said: "A man cannot govern a nation if he cannot govern a city; he cannot govern a city if he cannot govern a family; he cannot govern a family unless he can govern himself; and he cannot govern himself unless his passions are subject to reason". I would add just one more thing: A man's reason cannot truly serve himself — or anyone else until he roots it in moral integrity.

John Adams was one of the great founders and leaders of my country, and Americans owe him for much of the freedom we enjoy today. But Adams also found a way to perfectly combine his professorial life, moral character and religious faith. Adams always argued against slavery, and he did so because he felt that it violated human dignity, ignored the Gospel, and was unworthy of a Christian people.

I think the most revealing fact about John Adams was his relationship with his wife Abigail. Adams loved his wife and his children with a tenderness and fidelity that spanned a lifetime.

St. Augustine once said, "to be faithful in little things is a big thing". Adams never allowed the big demands of his public life to eclipse the seemingly "little" things that were really the important things — a devotion to his wife, his children, his friends and his God.

Devotion to family sounds like a simple thing, and it is. Gratitude, honesty, humility, faithfulness — these all are simple things. They are also very difficult. It is easy to talk about fixing the problems of society with big national programs and policies, because their failure can always be blamed on somebody else.

Personal change, personal moral integrity, personal fidelity to people and principles is much harder work, because we are stuck with the clay of who we are, and there is no one to blame but ourselves if we fail.

Our lives matter. One life, lived well, will not change the world, but it is a start. That is where revolutions start; with one life. So lead well, with honesty, generosity and vision; with moral character and unselfishness. Lead well, not only with what you say, but with what you do, for your example is where the renewal of your nation's public life will begin.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
11 March 2009, page 14

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