On Self-Interest
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"If each one thinks only of his or her own interests, the world can only go to ruin."

 

Pope Benedict XVI

January 2009

 

 

 

Economics and Catholic Social Teaching

January-February 2009

 

Pope Benedict XVI: Self-Interest Will Destroy the World

by Mark and Louise Zwick
 

Pope Benedict XVI contradicted the reigning philosophies of self-interest, warning listeners gathered to hear his Angelus reflection on the Feast of Christ the King: "If each one thinks only of his or her own interests, the world can only go to ruin."

Contrasting the message of Jesus with the idea of basing our lives and economics on self-interest and rugged individualism, the Holy Father reflected on our favorite Scripture passage, "the stupendous parable of the Last Judgment," chapter 25:31ff. of Matthew's Gospel. "The images are simple, the language is popular," he said, "but the message is extremely important: It is the truth about our ultimate destiny and about the criterion by which we will be evaluated: 'I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. .. ' (Mt 25: 35)."

This passage from Matthew 25 is at the heart of the Catholic Worker movement. It is the mission statement of Casa Juan Diego. We rejoiced to see Pope Benedict put our whole lives in the world in this perspective, showing the disastrous results which will occur if everything is based on looking out for oneself:

"Who does not know this passage?" the Pope asked. "It is part of our civilization. It has marked the history of the peoples of Christian culture: the hierarchy of values, the institu-tions, the multiple charitable and social organizations. In fact, the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but it brings to fulfilment all the good that, thank God, exists in man and in history. If we put love for our neighbor into practice in accordance with the Gospel message, we make room for God's dominion and his Kingdom is actualized among us. If, instead, each one thinks only of his or her own interests, the world can only go to ruin."

On several occasions in the last two months, Pope Benedict XVI repeated his message that self-interest will ruin the world. On January 1 he asked us to find new economic models: "The current financial crisis should be seen as a challenge to find new economic models that promote honesty, development, and concern for the environment. The solution," he said, "must be based on adopting a moderate lifestyle and making a commitment to living in solidarity with those whose dignity is threatened by poverty and by war."

There are alternatives to the extremes of basing everything on one's own interests (often bringing down companies and exploiting workers in the process) and complete govern-ment control. Brutal capitalism and socialism are not the only possibilities.

Culture Saturated by Ideas of Self-Interest

Adam Smith famously proposed the idea that an individual pursuing his own self-interest would automatically promote the good of his community as a whole through the principle that he called “the invisible hand.”

We were surprised when we shared the Holy Father's words that self-interest will bring the world to ruin with a young person (not particularly inter-ested or knowledgeable in economics). She responded, "I think I disagree with the Pope! I thought that if everyone followed their own interest without setting out to harm anyone, everything would be fine." This generous person who lived with and helped the poor, had been reading Ayn Rand., belligerent atheist and advocate of selfishness.

As he faced the economic situation at the close of 2008, Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006 who guided the U. S. economy for many years, admitted in a congressional hearing that his ideology the invisible hand of markets based on self-interest without regulation had been wrong, seeming bewildered as he apologized. Greenspan was a disciple of and collaborator with Ayn Rand, who wrote a book called T he Virtue of Selfishness and regarded selflessness as immorality.

Writing in the New York Times , Peter Goodman noted that Mr. Greenspan had preached the "transcendent, wealth-creating powers of the market." We admire Greenspan for admitting that he was wrong, although an apology cannot undo the harm. We hope that writers who have promoted the same economics with a Catholic gloss will do the same.

Jesus' Words in Matthew 25 Challenge Structural Sin

Those who recommend self-interest in economics (some even successfully lobby to teach this in workshops in seminaries across this country and in other countries) are often the same people who deny that such a thing as structural sin exists. They insist that only individuals sin and have the idea that structures cannot be immoral. If one prays and is "spiritual" perhaps it does not matter what harmful things one does in the market, how many people here and around the world are affected by decisions based on self-interest. In his encyclicals, however, Pope John Paul II made it clear that structural sin does exist and can do immeasurable harm.

We should add here that since the corporation has been defined by U. S. law as a 'persons,' and accorded the rights of persons, the possibilities of structural sin have vastly increased. These corporate 'persons' have extraordinary wealth and power and can last forever (considered immortal by the law?).

Dorothy Day, who like Pope Benedict XVI believed that Matthew 25 was central to Catholic Christian life, dramati-cally applied the second part of that Judgment scene from the Gospel of St. Matthew to those who create and carry out the structures of sin that harm the poor :

"We are the rich man of the world, and the poor man is at the gate, and we are afraid the day is coming when God will say, “Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you polluted the earth with your mines and your bombs and wars which starved the poor; I was thirsty, and you contaminated even the ocean and the waters of the earth with your hydrogen bombs; I was a stranger, and you made agreements with former allies who now are enemies, to keep me in displaced persons' camps to this day, and daily you make more homeless; naked, and you make weapons and profits for the rich and the poor have not the clothes to cover them; I was sick and in prison, and my numbers ever increased.”

We Have a Loftier Destination

Already in his 2007 Ash Wednesday Audience, where he Pope Benedict cautioned against basing one's life on seeking self-fulfillment: "God himself antici-pates our desire with his grace and accompanies our efforts for conversion. What does 'to be converted' actually mean? It means seeking God, moving with God, docilely following the teachings of his son, Jesus Christ; to be converted is not a work for self-fulfillment because the human being is not the architect of his own eternal destiny. We did not make ourselves.

"Therefore, self-fulfillment is a contradiction and is also too little for us. We have a loftier destination."

Can These Ideas Help Us To Live in Different Ways?

When we were graduating from high school and studying in college, this concept of destiny or vocation made us both ask serious questions. What is the meaning of life? What can I do with my life to do the most good? How can I best use the skills I have to help others?—so different from many of the graduates today who may be guided to ask only, where can I make the most money? The questions about meaning and destiny were the ones that ultimately led us to found the Houston Catholic Worker, Casa Juan Diego.

Whether one loved or hated Jack Kennedy , it would seem that it was not a coincidence that the first Catholic president was the one who said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!"

Pope Benedict Says It Again

In his Urbi et Orbi message at Christmas 2008, the Holy Father repeated his incisive words against living on self-interest, contrasting it with the beauty of the Christian vision.

"Wherever the dignity and rights of the human person are trampled upon; wherever the selfishness of individuals and groups prevails over the common good; wherever fratri-cidal hatred and the exploitation of man by man risk being taken for granted; wherever interne-cine conflicts divide ethnic and social groups and disrupt peaceful coexistence; wherever terrorism continues to strike; wherever the basics needed for survival are lacking; wherever an increasingly uncertain future is regarded with apprehension, even in affluent nations: in each of these places may the Light of Christmas shine forth and encourage all people to do their part in a spirit of authentic solidarity. If people look only to their own interests, our world will certainly fall apart."

 

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, January-February 2009.