A fellow parishioner invited me to have dinner with him a week back. I knew he was chair of the Economics Department at a major university and, as a historian, I had some questions I wanted to discuss with him about a project that I am working on concerning banking in 14th century Siena and the creation of government debt. My host however had invited two friends of his to dinner as well—all three had grown up in Cuba and came to the United States as boys. They had been high-school friends and had each gone on to a career in academia. One was a professor of Philosophy at a large Catholic University, the other a professor of Sociology at a University in Florida. The conversation was intense—I told my friend later that I felt like I was sitting for my comprehensive exams all over again. But the question that I brought to the table was: What are the roots of the divisions and polarization that we are experiencing in contemporary America?
Professor X, (the economist) believes that the tension in our society is resultant on the sense of powerlessness that people experience as they find themselves slowly sliding down the economic ladder rather than, as had their parents, climbing up into greater prosperity. As one person recently put it to me, “I have never made so much money and had so little.” As parents are anxious not only for their own personal security but for the economic welfare of their children and grandchildren, there is a sense that economically at least, our glory days are behind us and our country is “going to hell.”
Professor Y (the sociologist) gave the opinion that carried the conversation. He believes that the increased ferocity of the “culture wars” is related to the collapse of such foundational institutions such as the family, the Church, the public school system, and the neighborhood—to name only a few. We really didn’t explore the economic issue sufficiently and hopefully we will in a future conversation because I think the increased economic disparity of our society should not be underestimated, but the sociological issue has perhaps more implications germane to the mission of the Church as it represents the collapse of community.
When the Puritans coming to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony were still aboard ship in 1630, their leader, John Winthrop, addressed them with the following sermon. It is still something, perhaps today with the fracturing of our society, even more something, to consider.
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly; to love mercy; to walk humbly with our God. For this end we must be knit together in this work a one man: we must entertain each other in brotherly affection; we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities; we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality; we must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together; always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body, so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness, and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations: The Lord make it like that of New England. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we shall be made a story and a byword through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God’s sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going. And to shut up this discourse with that exhortation of Modes that faithful servant of the Lord in his last farewell to Israel (Deut. 30): Beloved there is now set before us life and good, death and evil in that we are commanded this day to love our God and to love one another to walk in his ways and to keep his commandments and his ordinance and his laws and the Articles of our Covenant with him that we may live and be multiplied and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey but shall be seduced and worship other gods, our pleasures, and profits, and serve them it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.
Therefore let us choose life
That we and our seed
May live by obeying his
Voice and cleaving to him
For he is our life and
Actually, when you read Winthrop’s sermon you can see the connection between the economic issues and the collapse of our cultural foundations. We have lost the vision that we are mutually invested in one another and abandoned the principles of community for an individualism that permits the few to rise to towering heights of power and wealth while leaving the many to sense that their future is slipping through their hands.
More than ever we need the voice of the Church to give the call to turn back to our commitment to a society in which all are mutually inter-dependent. The economic philosophy of Pope John Paul II called for this sort of solidarity in which the interdependence of all was the foundation for society’s economy. Only when we realize and take ownership of the idea that God intends for his gifts to be shared out among all his children in ways that provide for the welfare of each can we begin to build that sort of a world to which John Paul and John Winthrop and the Fathers of the Church and the Hebrew Prophets have called us—or rather made us aware that God is calling us.