11 October, 2004

How to live with the Church's Social Teaching?

Sandro Magister writes in www.chiesa about a Catholic banker who argues that not only is Catholicism not intrinsically opposed to capitalism: it was Italian Catholics who first wrote about it in the 13th century, in the person of several unnamed Franciscan theologians. The banker speaks of a capitalism inspired by a Christian vision of human transcendence, not by the reductionist vision of a mere animal, thereby taking a swipe at English Protestantism whose capitalism exploits. (Unlike, say, Italian Catholicism in southern Italy, whose capitalism exploits... differently?) I'd like to read more about it, if only I had the time. This past weekend, for example, I was too busy either researching or establishing an enlightened empire in Europe. (I read some Les Misérables, too.)

Meanwhile, back at the parish, an insert in this week's bulletin encouraged parishioners to join YASAC: Yet Another Social Action Committee. Rather than just call it that (the only honest thing to do) they've insisted on calling it R.O.A.R.: Raleigh Organizing for Action and Results. As befits the exciting acronym, they printed it on red-colored paper, and surrounded the name with lines that made it look explosive.

Are you excited yet?

I have no particular objections to the group, except that we already have God-knows-how-many of them that were supposed to be doing exactly the same thing. I think the difference between most of them and R.O.A.R. is that the former are parish or diocesan, while the latter is an ecumenical network. Personally, I can't see myself as part of an organization whose name forms a ridiculous acronym.

Actually, I have too much to do as it is. I'm quite happy to see people working excitedly on making the world a better place, and the insert claims that our church's group is the largest participating in the organization, with more than a hundred parishioners involved at some point. That is quite impressive. I looked at their list of "goals/accomplishments", and it also looked impressive, but I wondered how many were goals, and how many were accomplishments. They were talking about things like "improved public transportation," "lower housing costs," &c.

To give you an idea of what's meant by meeting a goal in "improved public transportation": in the past couple of years, the local bus company has begin a process that will lead to changes in the system to improve the service. They posted signs on all the buses inviting public comment at a series of public meetings. I know this, because I ride the bus nearly daily.

R.O.A.R. either didn't know this, or didn't care: they put their own people on the buses and asked regular riders whether the buses were going where needed (probably not in all cases) and running on time (that would be a first). You'd think that a bus company had already done this before planning service improvements, but then again maybe not. Regardless, I have observed no changes: the routes are the same, and the buses are still 5-20 minutes late (pick a number) except when they're 5 minutes early.

Here's a link to an article from the local independent newspaper on this, and other things they've done. As you can see, some of it really is good, and the city council seems pretty happy with a "positive" citizens' action group, although I wonder if R.O.A.R. has done any follow-up on those vacant lots and those obscure street signs, or whether they thought that nodding city council members' heads meant Something Would Indeed Be Done.

I can summarize most of the "accomplishments" of social action groups with one word: "meetings". Endless meetings talking about things they'd like to do, but never actually doing anything. If something needs to be done, that's someone else's job. If an actual sacrifice has to be made, activists evaporate faster than a fog under the morning sun — unless they're calling on others to make the sacrifice (read: higher taxes, from which these people often take refuge in loopholes and tax shelters).

Lower their business' profit margins? Drive a more fuel-efficient car? Live more simply and set aside more money for the poor? Sacrifice a few hours of the weekend visiting old, lonely people in the nursing home? Perish the thought — but pass laws so that the government forces others to do that.

R.O.A.R. doesn't yet appear to fit in that model; they do however seem to consider "success" in improving public transportation to be "no perceptible change at all". I find that troubling. I guess the solution to cynicism is to get on board: I should at least pray for them.

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