Economists and politicians are increasingly concerned that the U.S. economy is slipping into a recession. Stock markets around the world are in disarray and some of America's largest and most influential banks and lending institutions are writing off staggering losses.
Eager to show that they are doing something in an election year, politicians are competing with each other to see who can rush a stimulus plan into law faster. It may be the one issue this year that can be assured bipartisan support, although critics question whether even a plan worth hundreds of billions can have much of an impact on an economy measured in trillions.
Whatever solution the politicians settle on, chances are there will be little reflection on some of the assumptions that drive our modern economy and -- because of our wealth and influence -- the world's economy.
The U.S. economy has become so dependent on consumers, and by extension consumer debt, that Americans are being encouraged to spend what they don't have and borrow against tomorrow for the sake of the economy.
While the national debt grows ever greater, and the government is amassing huge annual deficits (particularly when the cost of the wars is added in), the only response -- on the micro and macro levels -- is more debt. Always postponed is the day of reckoning.
Skeptics warn that, sooner or later, this mountain of personal and public debt must be addressed if it is not to crush us. Skeptics also predicted the same about the subprime mortgage industry, but the rush to profit from extending loans to higher risk clients drowned out the voices of caution, and greed trumped common sense.
The result has been an economic meltdown that is impacting a wide swath of American families.
At times like these, one certainty is that no one really wants advice from the Church. Catholic teaching on economic issues has never been very popular in this country because in many ways it challenges some of our economic assumptions. While some Protestant evangelists hawk a prosperity gospel that promises material rewards from God as a sign of his favor, the Church has emphasized the importance of the common good, the duties of modern citizens (including paying taxes), the need to support the less fortunate and the dangers of a consumerist materialism that anesthetizes the hunger for God.
Most citizens can have little impact on the severity or duration of a recession, and this impotence can fuel both healthy and unhealthy responses. Economic populism is on the rise, and the search for scapegoats leads some to vilify immigrants, the wealthy or other nations.
Catholics must see this current crisis as an opportunity, asking themselves what they can do for those most impacted by the current crisis. Catholics are called to be responsible with their debt and good stewards of their resources. They can impact social values by passing on sound economic and spiritual values to their children, being mindful that a person's worth is not dependent on possessions. Gratitude, not greed, is the Christian response to blessings received, and blessings are meant to be shared.
It is in some ways appropriate that Lent begins this week. Lent invites Christians to control their desires, discipline their hungers and remind themselves of the centrality of God in their lives.
Like every crisis, a recession is an opportunity. Rediscovering what the Church teaches in the area of economics would be to seize that opportunity.
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