Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Beyond Economic Decline: The Hope of St. Benedict

“…the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.”

-Arnold Toynbee

There may be hope for the United States. In 1948 Bishop Fulton Sheen said, “It is characteristic of any decaying civilization that the great masses of the people are unconscious of the tragedy.” However, this doesn’t seem to be the case with many Americans today. Many are talking about the decline of America on cable television, the radio and on the blogosphere. This growing awareness is a good thing. However, as the historian Arnold Toynbee said, “…the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.” The ultimate economic, political and cultural fix does not lie in economics, politics or the culture. The solution is the above and beyond these disciplines or areas, so to speak.

Take for instance your average economist. He is likely to propose economic solutions because he specializes in economic problems. To be sure, the economic problems are for real and alarming. For instance, 24 Signs of Economic Decline In America was an article that was published by The Economic Collapse Blog in May of 2011. Below are just seven of those signs that America just may be suffering from an economic decline:

• 59 percent of all Americans now receive money from the federal government in one form or another.
• U.S. households are now receiving more income from the U.S. government than they are paying to the government in taxes.
• Approximately one out of every four dollars that the U.S. government borrows goes to pay the interest on the national debt.
• Total home mortgage debt in the United States is now about 5 times larger than it was just 20 years ago.
• Total credit card debt in the United States is now more than 8 times larger than it was just 30 years ago.
• Average household debt in the United States has now reached a level of 136% of average household income. In China, average household debt is only 17% of average household income.
• According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average length of unemployment in the U.S. is now an all-time record 39 weeks.

Yet, as useful as these statistics are- and they are informative –they are mere symptoms of a deeper problem in society. And that problem is the crisis of faith and morals; two domains which are fundamental to the human spirit. I am well aware that most people are not used to reading issues touching upon economic distress with religious or theological content.

Indeed, the road to recovery for a nation or any institution is often paved with ironies. Sources of renewal come from expected places. For instance, Jesus said to lose one’s life, for his sake, is to save it. The most productive and creative men and women to ever have walked the planet are those who sought out, as their personal goal, to glorify God and become Saints. From this spiritual ambition issued forth great undertakings and enterprises which served humanity.

The invention of capitalism, for instance, takes its origin from fifth century to nineth century monasticism. Later capitalism was practiced on a wider scale during Renaissance Italy. Rodney Stark, author of The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, said that capitalism was developed by "Catholic monks who, despite having put aside worldly things, were seeking to ensure the economic security of their monastic estates..." With that said, economic advancement was just one fruitfull offshoot of this great spiritual quest.

One monk who spearheaded the long prolific heritage of monasticism was St. Benedict. Every July 11th the Catholic Church celebrates the memory of this great man and the historic contribution to, not only the Church, but to Western Civilization.

In 1947, seeing that Western Civilization was weighed down by a long and exhausting world war, Pope Pius XII penned a wonderful encyclical on St. Benedict. Contained within this letter to the Church are shafts of light that have the potential, if we just lay hold of it, to illuminate the moral and spiritual darkness which envelopes our public institutions. Using St. Benedict's as an example, he recounts what it means to forsake all for Christ only to "receive a hundred times more now in this present age." (Mark 10:30)

What was accomplished in the fifth century can be revived and brought to bear upon the trying circumstances which challenge America's future. "St. Benedict," as Pius XII reminds us, "reclaimed the uncultured tribes from their wild life to civic and Christian culture; directing them to the practice of virtue, industry and the peaceful arts and literature, he united them in the bonds of fraternal affection and charity." And the Church herself, always needing an infusion of Christ's eternal youth, also benefited from St. Benedict's sanctity and teachings.

Pope Pius XII continues: "[W]hen the fateful barque of Peter is tossed about more violently and when everything seems to be tottering with no hope of human support, it is then that Christ is present, bondsman, comforter, source of supernatural power, and raises up fresh champions to protect Catholicism, to restore it to its former vigor, and give it even greater increase under the inspiration and help of heavenly grace."

Next blog: Summary on Pius XII's encyclical