True Economic Headway Ennobles the Human Spirit

Published April 1, 2021


We’ve been through a year of lockdowns, job loss, racial conflict, COVID anxiety, and political turmoil. As Archbishop Charles Chaput often said — his latest book, Things Worth Dying For, is well worth reading — we live in difficult times. But that’s never an excuse for despair, and with his permission, I’ll revisit some of his thoughts here.

One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Vladimir Lenin: “Worse is better.” The words have a curious kind of wisdom. The worse things get, the more painful they become. The more painful they become, the more urgently we ask why. And when we know the reason “why” behind our troubles, we can start to fix them.

There are two problems with the Lenin quote. First, Lenin never actually said those words. Second, even if he had, they’re not true.

Murders in Chicago have been getting worse for years. They’re now so common that the rest of the country sees them as routine. This is not good. Worse is not better. One of the tasks of the Church, each of us as individual believers, and especially those in leadership positions, is to live and work in a way that helps make the world, and especially our own nation, a better place.

The United States is the world’s most powerful market economy. Since World War II, American democratic capitalism has reshaped much of the world; in effect, it’s created a new world of political and economic relationships by lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. Religious leaders do a disservice when they undervalue this fact. We need to voice real gratitude for the human ingenuity it expresses. Otherwise, we rob ourselves of the credibility to criticize the damage that market economies can also do.

Seventy years ago, economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote The Great Transformation. It’s a dense but important work. Polanyi showed how the industrial revolution disrupted and reorganized the entire fabric of English life. It revolutionized the structure of the British economy. In doing so, it also reshaped every other aspect of the nation’s culture — from family relations, to politics and education, to the use of time, to patterns of thought and behavior.

Something similar is happening in our own country. For all of its remarkable benefits, a consumer market economy tends to commodify everything and recast all relationships as transactional. In practice, it can easily depersonalize a culture by commercializing many of our routine human interactions. It can also breed a practical atheism by revolving our lives around the desire and consumption of new things.

In our own American case, the triggers of change have been the transistor, the microchip, and everything useful that come from them – the internet, robotics and artificial intelligence, Amazon, Zoom, Google, and a thousand other new tools. The point is, we use our tools, but our tools also use us. They reframe our assumptions, imaginations, and appetites. They rewire our relationships with each other and the world around us. And in the process, every major new technology also creates a new class of winners and a new class of losers. Ask your local blacksmith.

Archbishop Chaput would note that there’s a simple lesson in all of this, and it’s worth remembering in the years ahead. Innovation is part of the special American genius. In a biblical sense, it also expresses humanity’s God-given mandate to steward and enrich the earth. But real progress is never merely material; unless it also ennobles the human spirit, it isn’t “progress” at all. The task of Catholic business leaders is to ensure that their faith helps to shape an economy that advances that nobility.

Francis X. Maier a senior fellow in Catholic studies with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior research associate in Constitutional studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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