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Lives and Livelihoods

Michael Pakaluk recently argued on this site that the dichotomy between life and money is false.  The Holy Father in his Easter Monday homily, however, set up just that conflict, stating, “in finding solutions to this pandemic, the choice will be between life, the resurrection of the people, and the god of money.” Pope Francis developed this view further along the same line, “If you choose money, you choose the way of hunger, slavery, wars, arms factories, uneducated children. . . . help us to choose the good of the people, without ever falling into the tomb of mammon.”

This is troubling talk even if it is meant sincerely to be pastoral guidance. But Pope Francis’s good intentions here may require further reflection.

I am not an economist or a moral theologian. So, I speak now from Catholic common sense in responding to this.  Certainly, we live in a materialistic culture in which we witness unbridled greed and lust for money, which comes at great cost to authentic human life.  It is right and proper to call people from the false pursuit of happiness through money to the truth of our existence as sons and daughters of God, recipients and caretakers of our Father’s bounty.

To establish, as a general rule, a conflict between the making of money and the respect for life, however, is both false and dangerous.  Extremes exist and sinful pursuits of money are easily found.  But God has established it as part of our human condition that work, even work undertaken for the sake of making money and providing for one’s own needs and those of others, is intimately connected with life and happiness.

Even a cursory knowledge of Catholic teaching on the dignity of work shows that while the economy must serve human life, it also allows human life to be dignified.  As Pope Francis himself stated in Laudato Si, “Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.”

To suggest, then, that governments, in considering whether and when to re-open economies, are choosing between life and money, as if they are necessarily opposed to each other, severs the connection between the two – a connection that is not by nature evil. It may be good or bad depending on whether the good of human life remains the central focus of the economic endeavor.

The decision is extremely complicated: our government leaders must weigh the harm that is being done and will be done based on their decisions.  Restarting the economy has consequences for human life – so, too, does not restarting the economy.  The choice does not reduce simply to financial matters.

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Catholic moral teaching has a term called the “principle of double effect,” which may help us in our current thinking on the coronavirus and our government leaders’ decisions.  The principle states that in a difficult decision, if two effects may result, one bad and one good, the decision is morally permissible if four conditions are met:

1) the act itself must be morally good or neutral;

2) the harmful side effect is not the primary aim of the action to bring about good;

3) the primary good effect must directly come from the act; and

4) there must be a sufficiently serious reason for permitting the evil that also will result.

Our government suspended most of our civil and religious liberties for the good of preserving life through slowing the spread of a highly infectious coronavirus.  Yet now our leaders must make the decision of when to allow people to leave their homes, to travel, to pray together in our respective houses of worship, and to work.

Currently, we are intentionally doing harm to all out of a fear that death may come to some.  In restarting the economy, more lives may well be at risk from coronavirus and more people may die from this one disease.  And yet, the human cost will also be great in continuing to suppress our economic life.

Consider for example the effects of loss of livelihood on individuals and families; increased child and spousal abuse; increased rates of suicide and substance abuse; lack of treatment and facilities for mental health; postponement of surgeries for cancer, heart disease, joint replacements, et. al.

The list is long and people who study such problems estimate that there are thousands of deaths per year for every 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate. That rate has grown roughly 15 percent since the shutdown – which gives us a rough sense of what it would mean not to begin opening up commerce again.

So the magnitude of this decision is very great and ought not be reduced to a simplistic formula of life versus money.  The political decision is difficult enough and our Catholic leadership, among other voices, exacerbates the problem by making it an either/or moral dynamic.

Far from taking the lead in expressing clearly the Church’s long understanding of the central importance of economic life, the Catholic hierarchy has not even responded very forcefully to the state-designated role of religious worship as non-essential. One hopes the American bishops will not embarrass themselves and the faithful further by adopting this false dichotomy between life and livelihood.

 

*Image: Instruments of Power [from America Today], 1930–31 [The MET, New York]. Below is a partial view of America Today, which originally decorated the boardroom of the New School for Social Research.

Helen Freeh

Dr. Helen Freeh received her B.A. and M. A. from the University of Dallas and her Ph.D. from Baylor University. She has taught at Hillsdale College, where she met her husband, John. She is now in temporary early retirement, raising and homeschooling their children in Lincoln, Nebraska.