A headline from Zenit, a news service from Rome, caught my eye: Cardinal Says Healthy Economy Not Top Priority.
The item went on to tell us that: Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone has warned against elevating the economy as an absolute good, adding that an economic model that supports human development is needed … He warned that making the economy an absolute will end up "subverting the order between ends and means", making it into something "omnipotent", as a result "the earthly end is confused with the transcendent".
Now, I realise you’ve probably gone to some lengths to be here today, organised your day around getting to Mass, dodged a bit of traffic, and most likely you have quite a few other things on your mind. The last thing you need is for some smart-alec priest go quoting obscure statements from obscure cardinals in Rome.
Well, let me simplify.
Firstly this word good. Usually it’s an adjective describing something else like a good day, a good outcome, a good decision or, if you’re a fisherman, a good catch. But it can also be a noun – a good. Health is a good. Beauty is a good. Intelligence is a good. Wealth is a good. Most people have lots of these goods.
Naturally enough not all goods are of equal importance. A singing talent is a good but not as important as health. I would rather lose my singing voice than lose my health.
So there is a hierarchy of goods, they are ranked by their importance. Immediately the next question presents itself: Is there an absolute good; a good worth having above every other good?
For a believer the answer here is rather more simple than for an atheist. For a believer the ultimate good is eternal life or, if you prefer, heaven. The atheist will have to examine what for him is the ultimate good and, in fact, for many it would probably be a healthy, rich, happy life here on this earth.
Cardinal Bertone’s first point is that the economy is not an absolute good. It is undoubtedly a good, and an enormous good, but not an absolute good.
It’s not that he measures a good economy against the absolute good of happiness in heaven because against that good nothing can measure up, everything is inferior. No, he measures a good economy against human development. He quotes Pope Benedict who says that the economy must ‘foster the common good of the human family.’
The economy must be a servant, not a master. A vibrant, powerful, stable, growing economy is only good to the extent that it truly serves the development of the human family and, I would add, although I think it is implied in the Pope’s words, towards the ultimate good.
What good is a strong, stable economy if it leads people away from developing as human persons? What if it only caused people to become a collection of ego-centred hedonists? In many so-called underdeveloped countries the happy family life and the community-mindedness of its citizens stand in stark contrast to their poverty. They are poor but essentially happy.
Over the last few years, ever since we first started hearing about the value of the Australian dollar and the state of the money markets on the evening news services there has been an almost obsessive preoccupation with how the economy is faring. We don’t seem to be as much concerned with how our society is going though - with all sorts of problems of marital breakdown, delinquency, unemployment, many types of crimes, pornography, abortion, and so on.
A good economy is, as the Cardinal says, a means not an end. If we confuse the two and make the economy an end instead of a means, then we risk confusing the earthly with the transcendent. When this happens people begin living as though there were no God and no eternal destiny for humankind. Then this world becomes the absolute end instead of heaven, and this time, as distinct from tomorrow or the next day, becomes another absolute at the expense of the future of humanity.
Nothing has importance anymore except that people have money, and I don’t mean you, I mean me.
This is the kind of man the Gospel is speaking of. His riches are his riches, and he possesses them without any reference to anyone except himself. Listen again to the parable with particular care to man’s response to his new wealth: There was once a rich man who, having had a good harvest from his land, thought to himself, "What am I to do? I have not enough room to store my crops." Then he said, "This is what I will do: I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and store all my grain and my goods in them, and I will say to my soul: My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time".
In this man’s world there are no poor people; there is just himself. He thought to himself, he spoke to himself, he acted for himself. This is what happens when ‘the economy’ is made into an absolute good.
And what would he do with his wealth? - take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time - just like my sister's cat.
The Cardinal warns us not to make an absolute out of the earthly at the expense of the heavenly. Jesus does the same: Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?
When the earthly meets the heavenly we want to be ready. Only eternal life is absolute and this is the tragedy which happens when a man stores up treasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.
There is a line from Matthew 6:33 which is screaming out to be quoted by way of conclusion and I hope we all take it to heart: Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well.