As I Was walking in Washington, D.C., during the coldest day in January, a prayer suddenly entered my mind for whomever would be sleeping outside that night. I do not normally worry about strangers. Indeed, I’d just been furiously daydreaming about how to explain to contributors why a capital city research institute could do even better work in, say, Miami. I find that homeless people are far more rare compared with a decade ago. Yet the paper the next day reported that several seemed to have died from exposure.
Perhaps the one-up-manship among the candidates of both parties about what to do with the astonishing wealth that was generated in the 1990s had me thinking about who has been left out during the present boom. Poverty does not get much more concrete than sleeping on a steam grate when temperatures are below zero. Most homeless are former mental patients, drug addicts, and alcoholics whose problems stem more from personal failure than injustice. Any Christian understands how such things happen.
But this spring we stand at a historic moment. The country has achieved the longest economic boom ever (it began at the end of the Bush administration). The previous record was set from 1961 to 1969. What the fabled 60s did with that wealth provides a cautionary tale. Everything seemed possible. Prosperity seemed to require little work, or the old bourgeois virtues: thrift, industriousness, and prudence. The 60s put homeless on the streets. The sequel to that kind of compassion requires no comment here.
Are we going to do any better today? My guess is no—unless we in Christian communities begin discussing a difficult topic: What is wealth for? Despite all appearances, our presidential candidates will not do so. They appeal to constituencies. Some believe we should keep more of what we earn; others, that paying down the national debt or “saving” Social Security are moral imperatives; Bill Bradley would like vast new government programs. Let’s call all this by its proper name: buying votes.
But we need a debate among Christians about what to do with our newfound wealth. C.S. Lewis once remarked that there is no hard rule but that if Christians live just like everyone else in their social class, something is wrong. Have we begun to think as Catholics at the parish, diocesan, and national level about what new private initiatives we should be building and supporting to do what government obviously has failed to do?
Economic growth is desirable in itself: It brings more people into the mainstream and thus produces far more justice, whatever inequalities the market generates, than the alternatives. Europe, for example, provides generous safety nets at the cost of unemployment between 10 and 20 percent. In America, we think a people working to support itself is good not only for the economy but for popular democracy.
That said, however, the questions quickly become more complicated. We need social security, if not necessarily Social Security. For the moment, Social Security is a sacred cow, though not as sacred as ten years ago. Baby boomers and Generation X and Y-ers will weigh in on this before long. Is it time for some creative Catholic thought about private alternatives to the current system for retirees, widows and children, disabled workers, and others?
Similarly, paying down the national debt has its attractions. Times will not always be so good. Just as families do well to get out from under onerous payments, so too our national credit card bills. I leave aside ambitious new federal programs: There have been so many failures of these schemes here and abroad (ask any Canadian or Englishman, for example, about the kind of universal health coverage dear to the hearts of the Clintons) that we need to take a breath and think long before we start down that path again.
But the one thing the politicians cannot tell us is what we—not the government—should be doing with our newfound wealth. Here, Catholics ought to have something to say. If we are serious that, say, Catholic charities should be more Catholic again and less dependent on government largesse, we need an initiative for how to cut taxes in the pay stub and funnel more of our disposable income into the Church’s corporal works. Some managers of Catholic charitable institutions point to the low level of giving by Catholics and claim such a transfer is impossible.
But is it? Certainly, when for a long time government has promised it will do everything for everybody, the average person believes, rightly or wrongly, that it’s someone else’s problem if all the programs don’t work. If, instead, a call went out to people to tailor the work that needs doing in this society to the new conditions of wealth, we might see a real sea change. So far, the big-money guys like Bill Gates seem mostly interested in putting their money into population control and making sure that people are literate enough to become addicted as soon as possible to the Internet.
But we might create other, surprising forms of philanthropy. All of us who have been saying that civil society, not government, should shoulder a larger share of social responsibility need to talk among ourselves, with the pastor, or with the bishop. Are we going to take advantage of the new wealth and make it socially productive? We believe that solidarity and subsidiarity are central Catholic social principles that could strengthen an American social order that has lost its way. We should start thinking big about what we, not big government, are called to do. We’ve got ideas and means. Now’s the time.