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The Catholic Economy and the "Charity" Crutch

BY Matthew Warner

| Posted 1/6/12 at 2:15 PM

 

Why are so many catholic services these days sub-par? Whether it’s an event or a ministry or some kind of media, catholics are quite used to it being less than what they’d otherwise expect. I hesitate to make such generalizations, but this is generally true.

I’m not trying to take away from the things we do well (there are many). But there are many other things we do very poorly. Some blame this on a lack of money. I blame it on a lack of economy.

By economy I mean: The complex of human activities concerned with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. And I’m not talking about our American or world economy here. I’m talking about the economy of the Church.

I suspect that our crutch is our charity - or, rather, an incomplete and short-sighted view of what we feel is charitable. A charity that lacks justice. Allow Pope Benedict to explain:

“If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI’s words, ‘the minimum measure’ of it.” - Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate

Let’s take an example of a ministry that puts on retreats for parishes. Such a ministry usually provides the retreat at a lower fee than such a kind of retreat should really cost to put on. They do this by either providing a sub-par retreat or by underpaying themselves. They do this most often because many parishes can’t afford to pay what it should cost. This seems rather charitable of them - in the short term.

The problem is that it can also undermine the Catholic economy. In charity, we can’t only consider the short-term effect. We need to consider much more. We need to also consider what is charitable in the long-term. And we need to consider what is just…to everyone.

The workers providing the retreat are owed a just wage. And while it’s awful nice of them to try to get by without it, the lack of a just wage is still a lack of justice (a minimal measure of charity). And it has lots of bad consequences for everyone.

The lack of a just or living age for the retreat worker means they’re limited in making a better retreat. It means they have to spend valuable time finding other means of support, whether through second jobs or through often cumbersome fundraising. It means a lower quality retreat. It means an often unsustainable operation that, in the longer term, puts them “out of business” (which means no more retreats).

It’s a vicious cycle plaguing the Catholic Economy. And this applies to everything, not just retreats. Musicians, speakers, gift shops, events, media, catechesis, catholic businesses and other services are all caught in the same cycle.

Now, some of that is because the service or product being provided truly is low quality. But our “charity” crutch, unfortunately, has also enabled such low quality operations to “thrive” (by rewarding it at all) while also creating conditions where high quality services are unmarketable and, therefore, non-existent.

Another problem is something some of the higher quality and well-off services do. Because they have other means (maybe plenty of money from something else they do), they offer their service at less than what it’s worth. They feel charitable because they “don’t need the money.” This is the same thing (although by different motivations) as predatory pricing.

Predatory pricing is when a (usually big) business (who makes plenty of profit somewhere else) drastically drops prices in a particular market, often below costs, in order to gain market share and drive other competitors out of business. Basically, they are able to offer a price so low on a particular product or service that it becomes an unsustainable market for competitors. This is precisely what some Catholic service providers do - albeit they certainly aren’t intending to do this. As I said, they are likely trying to do the right and just thing! But the effects of their “charity” can be destructive to the Catholic economy.

Anywhere we offer something for free or below cost, this is a danger. It may seem like the right and charitable thing to do. But it is often unjust to others and counterproductive in the long term. This isn’t always the case (so please don’t misunderstand me), but it needs to be a bigger consideration than it currently is for us if we want to improve our Catholic economy - and therefore the work of the Church.

Pope Benedict says, “justice must be applied to every phase of economic activity, because this is always concerned with man and his needs. Locating resources, financing, production, consumption and all the other phases in the economic cycle inevitably have moral implications. Thus every economic decision has a moral consequence.”

And, although speaking of global markets here, it certainly applies to communal economies as well when Pope Benedict also warns of the dangers and “temptation of seeking only short-term profit, without regard for the long-term sustainability of the enterprise.”

All of our decisions should in some way regard the long-term sustainability of the enterprise (here, the Catholic economy). We can’t always seek short-term charity at the expense of long-term charity.

It sounds a bit cold-hearted or silly to say that sometimes helping people means not helping them. But I think it’s true. What I mean is that, in many situations, what will help those poorer groups or parishes who can’t afford something most is establishing an economy of service that works and is sustainable. One where each entity involved receives just compensation. Yes, that likely makes a service more expensive. But it also makes it sustainable by accepting a true, fair market value for the service that allows each entity providing the service to participate effectively. It also promotes growth and progress.

If we insist on making something available at a cost that any parish can afford, we’ll end up making it unavailable to everyone because the service will not be able to sustain itself, period. On the other hand, if we at least start by serving those parishes/groups who can afford it right now, not only will those efforts inevitably trickle into the Church in ways we can’t predict and help everyone as a whole, but the operation can eventually get the kind of scale it needs to offer legitimately lower prices to those others still in need.

And if you are a Catholic service provider who “doesn’t need the money,” I would suggest this: Ask for and accept a just payment for your services. It’s much more healthy for the “Catholic economy” and much more just to others for that transaction to take place and for you to make your fair price. Then, if you don’t need it, put it toward a good cause yourself (subsidiarity).

The Catholic economy has huge potential. But we’ve got to get off of our crutches and start to think outside the box a bit. This isn’t a call against charity at all. It’s a call to a more complete charity.