Our Tradition: The American Economy


By “economy” I mean that most intricate and powerful combination of science, technology and business which is perhaps the dominant and most characteristic aspect of the national life. (With business one should join advertising, as the tail to the kite — though it would be hard to know which is tail and which is kite.) In the context of the problematic of Christian humanism, the American economy demands attention perhaps chiefly by its unique historical claim to have abolished the problem of poverty. Not that poverty itself has yet been fully abolished. There are still “depressed areas” and underprivileged groups; and many people whose income lies below the 1958 per capita median ($2,057) know what poverty is. But, the claim of some goes, poverty as a problem has been abolished, in the sense that the means for its solution exist and are known. A general freedom from want is not a politician’s promise but an economic certainty.

This is, if you will, an accomplishment of the material order; but its moral implications are extensive. It means, in the first place, that the American people as a whole possesses, or has within reach, the minimum of material abundance which is necessary for the practice of virtue. Here is a greatly human goal. The shackles of a secular fear that has weighed heavily on mankind throughout its history, have been struck off, or loosened, in one vast quarter of the globe. How far want and the fear of want have been destructive of the human soul, and how far they have been sanctifying, would be a nice, and likewise an impossible, judgment. In any event, judgment on the validity of freedom from want as a human goal must be clear and affirmative. Christian thought does not consider poverty as a good in itself.

This raises the question, what is to be the Christian judgment upon that great res humana, that sprawling pro-duct of human energies, the American economy, which has wrought this human achievement and reached this human goal? In itself it appears as a force for humanism against a force that is in itself dehumanizing. Does one accept this res humana or not? Or, if this disjunction is too violent, what is the Christian attitude? Even if the acceptance is reserved, what is the program of transformation? In the form of the American economy, nature confronts grace. It is in the milieu generated by this thing of nature that grace must work. Must it here work against nature? Or is this thing of nature something that grace can perfect?

In sheer point of fact, the Church in America has accepted this thing which is the American economy. Her life, the life of grace, is tied to it in multiple respects. It is, in fact, the thing that has given peculiarity both to certain institutions of the American Catholic Church and to certain forms of Catholic life. The major instance is the whole system of Catholic education, supported by the voluntary contributions of the faithful, who have found in it a means of professing their faith and expressing their spirit of charity and sacrifice. Catholic education in its present many-storied structure would be impossible apart from the American economy, the wealth it has created, and the wide distribution of this wealth it has operated. Important alterations in the economy (not to speak of changes in the tax structure) could deal a serious blow to the res sacra which is Catholic education. Other institutions of the Church’s apostolate would be similarly affected; the involvement of any large diocese in the .workings of the American economy is fairly deep.

Is there then some manner of “sisterhood” here, to be frankly recognized? Has grace struck an accord with nature? Certainly the Christian and the human are here entangled; but how are they related? And what duties toward the furtherance of this thing of nature, which itself furthers the work of grace, are engendered? The problem, as thus put, is indeed on the institutional level; but thence it goes to the depths of the Church’s conscience.

It might also be noted that here is an aspect of the Church’s alliance with, and to that extent dependence on, the people and their energies, which is a unique characteristic of American Catholicism. In this it stands in contrast to its European ancestor, whose tradition has been one of alliance with, and to that extent dependence on, government and its favors, for the material support which the Church (as an institution that occupies ground in this world) inevitably needs. Again, important alterations in the structure of the economy, in the direction of “state socialism” (using the term only descriptively), could subtly alter the relation of the Christian people to the institutions of the Church. And this change would in turn subtly qualify in new fashion the life of the Church in America — whether desirably or not, that is the question.

From We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, by John Courtney Murray, S.J. Copyright 1960 Sheed and Ward, Inc. Reprinted with permission of Andrews, McMeel and Parker. All rights reserved.

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