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In his Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II submits "the affluent society" to critique. He argues that it "seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a freemarket society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than Communism, while equally excluding spiritual values."1 In doing so, the affluent society "totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs".2 It seems to some that the two ‘selves’, material and spiritual must be in opposition, but in fact they are complementary. Material entrepreneurship in fact serves our spiritual self-interest, since, on the one hand, sufficient material prosperity permits the cultivation of spiritual well-being. On the other hand, without the Spirit, the most fabulous wealth turns to ashes in our hands, while the presence of the Spirit transforms even dust-motes and smoke into thousands of myriads of jewelled webs of light. All too often economic freedom corrupts self-interest to the point of contempt for God and neighbour. One then forgets that prosperity belongs to the whole human race and cannot be enjoyed in a proper and lasting way if it is achieved by excluding others from the sources of well-being.3
Nonetheless, the Pontiff supports the free market for its ability to produce material prosperity. Economic freedom is essential, since it is the autonomous subject of moral decision whose decisions build the social order. Entrepreneurs are the "angels" of the free market. We know what an entrepreneur is: someone who sees a need and uses his or her free initiative to fill the need. Ordinarily, this is done for the sake of making an economic profit. But there is another possibility, one that may perhaps serve to balance the equation weighted down by the single-minded pursuit of material gain. Perhaps what is needed is a reinterpretation of the dedication of energies to what might be called spiritual entrepreneurship. Spiritual entrepreneurship is committed to spiritual well-being, that is, to justice and the common good. Anyone at any time can be a spiritual entrepreneur. Anyone with good will who, like his or her market counterpart, sees an economic need and seeks to fill it becomes a spiritual entrepreneur by injecting a "free gift of self"4 into the dark and dismal places of poverty and want, into the places where the materialistically oriented "angels of the market" fear to tread. One is a spiritual entrepreneur when hears not only his or her own material demands, but hearkens to the universal existential demand of the human heart for goodness, truth, and life.
The spiritual entrepreneur is as necessary to the spiritual wealth of society as the economic entrepreneur is to its material wealth. The notion of development "must not be understood solely in economic terms, but in a way that is fully human."5 Economic life is, after all, uncertain. It has ups and downs. The advantages of the market, i.e., its non-transparency and hence its ultimate incorruptibility, have an inevitable down-side: unpredictability, which unleashes economic storms that have disastrous consequences for the innocent victims of the market’s necessary changes and adjustments. When, for example, electricity, that mysterious power of heat and of light, ceased to flow through large portions of eastern Canada and the U.S. in the winter of 1998, many thousands of people were without power for many weeks after the storm. Such natural events contain valuable lessons concerning the levelling effect of disasters. Each of us meets the lack of heat, electricity, and hot water with an irredeemable and fundamental equality. Whether rich or poor, well- or poorly-housed, -clothed, and -fed beforehand, such events render each of us equally destitute. Many find themselves living in shelters. Stripped of belongings and even beloved pets by a "random" event, with little or nothing they could do about it--temporarily perhaps, but in such times does anyone really know?--they can but wonder when and indeed if they would return home.
Bank accounts and credit cards provide only fragile insulation against the cold that comes with a total loss of income and social status. We are interdependently linked through cash flow as well as through electrical flow. Those who believe themselves well-insulated cannot afford to forget that their cash flow is inextricably linked to the flow that passes through the hands of others. As the prophet, Isaiah, wrote (Is 32:10-12):You who are now at ease, be anxious;
tremble, you who have no cares.
Strip yourselves bare;
put a cloth around your waists
and beat your breasts
for the pleasant fields and fruitful vines.
Victims of the 1998 ice storms had a first-hand introduction to the condition of homelessness--of isolation from the economic and social networks upon which we all depend. The loss of electrical flow can be compared to the loss of cash flow in the lives of those devastated by economic and social disasters. What is money after all but the flow? Like electricity, the power of money lies in its circulation. The economic health of both individuals and corporations is as dependent upon the uninterrupted flow of cash through sufficient numbers as it is upon the uninterrupted and sufficient flow of electricity. Hence, it is equally important to the economic health of our society to assist those whose lives are disrupted by man-made (i.e., economic) storms as it is to assist in the wake of natural disasters. We tend to empathize with victims of natural disasters while we tend to blame those whose lives are disrupted and sometimes destroyed by equally unpredictable and uncontrollable economic and social events. We don’t see that the loss of cash flow, like the loss of electrical flow, is similarly unpredictable and could just as readily happen to us.
Those who have no resources to fall back upon in such situations depend upon the assistance of others. In the twentieth century, this sort of assistance has come to be regarded as the function of the State. In emergencies, however, people’s spiritual entrepreneurship spontaneously springs into action and quickly finds ingenious ways to help those in distress. Unfortunately, the prolonged pursuit of such unselfish interest is ordinarily devalued--and thereby effectively suppressed--in our materialistic society. Spiritual entrepreneurship has been replaced by a burdensome bureaucratic social welfare system, which, like all bureaucracies, believes it knows what is good for everyone and hence has the right to impose its vision using any means including intimidation and deceit in order to bring its vision into being. What is needed to overcome this condition is a revaluation of the value of spiritual entrepreneurship, in what Pope John Paul II calls "an authentic theology of integral human liberation".6 For, when actions are spontaneously and voluntarily directed to the care and concern for others, they renew our hope that what Pope Paul VI called the "civilization of love" can indeed become a living reality.
Centesimus Annus: online, plain text file
Papal Encyclicals Online