The heart, the hearth, and economic renewal

For most of us, thinking about the economy is a challenge. The headlines report on economic events that appear too large and too far outside the control of the average citizen to invite reasoned individual engagement. Billions of dollars shoot this way and that, seemingly directed according to the slightest flick of the financial baton by society's maestros of accumulation.

We read and hear about the collective bargaining transactions of mega-unions, the grand and opportunistic profit designs of huge corporations, and the sweeping policy shifts of public officials who have taken on the chore of moving other people's money in sums so large that when these amounts are described in print, they wear out the "zero" and "comma" buttons on the keyboard. These global arrangements and immense transfers of capital, we might lament, impose limits on what we can do as individuals or families to influence the economy.

Thus the scope of our individual culpability seems directly proportional to the size of our economic footprint. To whom little is given, is little expected? When evaluating one's own moral obligations with respect to economic justice, does it matter to the equation that the single citizen or family is just a blip on everyone's financial chart or power grid?

An economic downturn such as the one we now are experiencing deepens the dilemma of personal responsibility in the face of epic economic occurrences. The more severe the plunge, the more likely it is that our region, our town, our neighbor across the street, our own household, will feel the drop. To change the metaphor, the proximity of pain transforms the scene from abstract art to hyperrealism. Yet as macro-economic realities impose themselves in micro-economic dimensions, meeting us negatively where we live, we might feel even less capable of healing the economy and thus less subject to any command to improve the common good.

In reply to this "smaller dominion, smaller duty" calculus, the Catholic Church poses a surprising and even shocking rebuttal. Relying on a combination of natural law reasoning and spiritual reflection, the Church's social teaching puts the individual and the family at the center of the economic drama. The human heart and the familial hearth hold the keys to economic renewal. On the shoulders of the smallest economic units rests the heaviest moral responsibility.

How can this be? The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church notes in a remarkable short section entitled "Wealth exists to be shared" (nos. 328-29) that "[t]he Fathers of the Church insist more on the need for the conversion and transformation of the consciences of believers than on the need to change the social and political structures of their day." This is not to downgrade the necessary contributions of all the other political and economic players including governments, businesses, and private agencies. But the strength and fairness of any economy will depend on the effective reception in each heart and in each home of some very basic truths.

As summarized in the Compendium, these truths include the following: "God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone;" "Each person must have access to the level of well-being necessary for his full development;" "Riches fulfill their function of service to man when they are destined to produce benefits for others and for society;" "Wealth is a good that comes from God and is to be used by its owner and made to circulate so that even the needy may enjoy it;" "Evil is seen in the immoderate attachment to riches and the desire to hoard."

It is here that Church teaching and the research and thinking of a Gloucester economist and political scientist, Dr. Carmine Gorga, coincide. Dr. Gorga identifies hoarding as the central problem of economics. He defines hoarding as the complete removal of money, property, and other financial resources from economic circulation, where the owner puts his or her possessions into a deep-freeze of unproductive non-use.

Hoarding might be the result of pure stinginess, but it also may be the natural response to financial instability, intended to serve as a buffer against insecurity and uncertainty. Yet according to Dr. Gorga's economic model, hoarding is self-defeating because it ultimately leads to all kinds of financial dysfunction that further destabilizes the economy. Dr. Gorga admits that his focus on hoarding counters mainstream economic thinking, which ignores the impact of hoarding altogether.

In their recent statement on the economy, the Massachusetts bishops acknowledged the temptation to withhold giving and spending in the face of economic turmoil, but pleaded for both individuals and the government to resist the temptation, especially with respect to meeting the needs of the poor. In dealing with the aftermath of the Great Recession, the bishops urged, society's long-term interests will be best served by preserving its basic social safety net for the most vulnerable.

The bishops ended their statement by recalling our country's remarkable historical record of recovering from multiple kinds of setbacks and difficulties. This record proves that the potential is there, in the hearts of our citizens and in the caring of our families, for rising yet again to a great social challenge.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.