Clerics for the Poor

Christ of Maryknoll by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Christ of Maryknoll by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

The recent accession of Pope Francis reminds me of the South American bishops and priests who fought for the rights of those in deep penury in the 1960s and 70s. These were the days of the “slum bishop” Helder Camara, the late archbishop of Recife, Brazil. Camara lived among the poor, dressed very humbly, and refused to live in the bishop’s house or even drive a car. A true ascetic, he lived in the slums themselves, founding, among many other things, a bank for the poor. The dictatorship hired an assassin to murder the him. The assassin, on seeing the bishop’s humble abode in the slums, refused to kill him, and in fact, asked for for a confession! He was one of the many brave priests and nuns who were hated by parties ranging from brutal military dictatorships to conservative sects within Catholicism that, against their very faith, defended the wealthy well before the poor.

During those days, a contemporary of Camera, a theologian and Dominican priest named Frei Betto was arrested by the dictatorship and tortured. As he recounted in his memoir, during the torture sessions, they asked him, “How can a Christian collaborate with a communist?”

He replied, “For me, men are not divided into believers and atheists, but between oppressors and oppressed, between those who want to keep this unjust society and those who want to struggle for justice.”

They responded, “Have you forgotten that Marx considered religion to be the opium of the people?”

He responded, “It is the bourgeoisie which has turned religion into an opium of the people by preaching a God, lord of the heavens only, while taking possession of the earth for itself.”

Pope Francis certainly isn’t as radical as Betto. It’s obvious, though, that this deep concern for the poor is part of this priest’s very nature. Such concern is further indicated by his contributions to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on the Global Economy, where the Vatican makes it quite clear, especially through a recent publication that went nearly unreported, that libertarian teachings on the economy (also known as the “Austrian School”) are anathema to Catholicism. Indeed the document calls for a global regulating economic body to tame the more destructive elements of capitalism that cause great harm especially to those living in poverty.

Note: The document decries European “liberalism.” In Europe, the term “liberal” is synonymous with the American term “libertarian”. An American “liberal” is certainly not a European “liberal” by any means. The document is diplomatic but direct on the harm that libertarianism poses to society.

An excellent article on the release of the above document by the Rev Tom Reese, S.J.:


How Much Longer Can The Radical Right Ignore Positive Liberty?

Isaiah Berlin

Von Mises even went so far to insist that true democracy was via money spent and not votes. He effectively argued that “one dollar, one vote” was more effective and preferable than “one man (sic) one vote”. To sort of quote Mises: “a society in which every penny represents a ballot is a capitalist society”.

Think of the implications of that philosophy. That *is* what is believed by many powerful people in government today, from Scalia to Clarence Thomas to Paul Ryan to Alan Greenspan- that money *is* democracy.

It’s no wonder that they are in love with the Citizen’s United decision. It fulfills such a world view of what most people outside of their bubble would call a twisted idea of democracy. One where the more money one has, the more “freedom” one has to express oneself.

Yeah, I know…that’s nuts. But that’s what they believe.

These gentlemen of the Austrian school also argued that work is only useful if it produces goods that consumers wish to purchase. They despise the progressive principle that work is necessary for human dignity and that it can be a means of self-realization.

In fact, all of them – Friedman, Von Mises, Hayek, including today’s Alan Greenspan and his crop of libertarians, insisted and insist on recognizing only one kind of freedom – what Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty”- the freedom to act without constraints.

The folks who adhere to this school of economic philosophy – of economic ideology, really,- insist that there is no such thing as another kind of liberty. The only liberty that exists to them is the one that means that they can act free from constraints. Or, to use GOP vernacular, “free from regulation”.

This *other* kind of freedom was recognized, effectively, by Aristotle, and for that matter, in the writings of Moses and expressed in ancient Judaic law. It was recognized and taught by greats such as Augustine and Aquinas. Yes, even the Catholic Church’s social teachings since the 1890s have recognized this liberty in its modern sense. FDR preached it, too, even reading aloud Catholic social justice tracts verbatim. The Protestant Social Gospel movements of the early 20th century recognized this non-negative freedom as well.

Isaiah Berlin termed it “positive liberty”.

It’s the freedom towards self realization that often comes from selflessly serving one another and society at large. Such self-realization requires available employment. It requires opportunity through affordable education. It requires health care for all so that people can work towards their personal goals.

It’s the freedom to work with a living wage- that is, to work a work week and be able to feed one’s family.

It’s the freedom to breath clean air and drink clean water.

These, and many others, are freedoms -liberties- too.

They’re positive liberties. And we must protect and cherish them. Guard them with all of our beings, if necessary.

Most libertarians hate even the concept of positive liberty, as after all, Ayn Rand wrote a book called “The Virtue of Selfishness”. Some libertarians do recognize it, but only as an inferior to their interpretation of negative liberty. It is assuredly *not* an inferior in any sense.

Positive liberty is the freedom towards self-realization that can only come from a healthy society. FDR, for example, described positive liberty in terms of “freedom from fear and freedom from hunger”

College students recognize it when they marched on Wall Street. They recognized that the greed of Wall Street is damaging their rights towards self realization. That the imbalances created by greed are badly infringing their positive liberties in the forms of self realization and opportunity.

Do the college kids use my words? No- but I bet they wouldn’t disagree with me.

It’s’ becoming more and more obvious that Wall Street’s grasping for more and more and more negative liberty is crowding out everyone else’s right for positive liberty.

As far as I’m concerned, another way to define “positive liberty” is, well, to use an old fashioned phrase, “the American Dream”. People can define that dream however they want- as an education, or as owning a house, or perhaps a successful business.

To me, though, all of those concrete desires come down to the positive concept of liberty, that is, the freedom of opportunity and of self realization.

That is why so many people perceive the “American Dream” as being in trouble. To use my words, they perceive that our positive liberties are endangered.

And they are quite correct in their perception.

“And Yet, It Moves”

GalileiMany extreme GOPers are so emotionally attached to the notion that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Pell Grants, etc. can’t work that they refuse to accept that they do work, and work better than privatizing them.

Imagine if, similarly, these same people were emotionally attached to the belief that airplanes can’t fly. They’d propound as gospel the old mathematical proof that airplanes can’t fly.

Even if someone like Galileo proved to them that they DO fly by pointing at them flying above their very heads and said to them, “Eppur si muove” (“And yet it moves”).

I don’t like Mondays


Brenda Spencer- long ago

Remember the teen girl in the 1970s named Brenda Spencer that murdered those schoolchildren and inspired the song, “I Don’t Like Mondays“?

I came across some fine observations by Laura L. Lovett is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst on this past rampage and how it relates to Newtown today.  Lovett is a founding co-editor of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth.

To quote her CNN blog entry:

“Comparing Spencer’s and Lanza’s attacks on small children and school staff members, we begin to see that these terrible episodes are more than an expression of a male-dominated culture of violence.

Much more salient are the facts that Spencer and Lanza both came from homes with ready access to guns and massive amounts of ammunition. Both had parents that celebrated gun use, and both appear to have been psychologically troubled.”

Access the full entry by Lovett here:

An Especially Weird Obssession

What IS it with the Right’s Obama obsession? They seem to perceive him as THE center of the progressive universe. Everything and anything is personalized to “Obama”. They seem to view anyone any everyone who is a progressive as a fanatical “Obama follower”. It’s soooo bizarre, and I sense that even the president himself thinks it peculiar.

The Difference

Yes another draft with some semantic, grammar and stylistic flaws I’ll address!

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the French challenge between “personal freedom and government oversight”. I prefer stating it as a balance between negative liberty and positive liberty, where negative liberty is viewed as a lack of constraints and positive liberty as the requirements society must facilitate towards self-realization.

This isn’t to say that the descriptor “negative” in liberty translates to this freedom being “bad”. It isn’t. It’s a necessity in the overall constellation of liberties. However, negative freedom, taken to an extreme, infringes on other, positive freedoms.

Strong proponents of negative liberty, (think libertarians, especially) almost always either disagree that there is such a definition of positive freedom, or at best, strive to make positive liberty subservient to negative liberty. They have a fear of positive liberty taken to an extreme, which they define as a paternalistic state that infringes on their negative liberties. They fear, and are fueled by the teachings of Hegal, Von Mises, and others, that a state empowered to guard negative liberties can turn into tyranny, citing the totalitarian states of the 20th century as examples of states supporting positive liberties gone awry.

Proponents of positive liberty-the concept of which which, by nature, is a much more complex subject, cite the absolute requirement that our society strive to facilitate its citizens towards self-realization, and to do so, work to ensure that its citizens have access to the core requirements of life so as to enable that quest. These requirements translate to health care for all, unemployment assistance as a compensation for society not making jobs available, and a whole plethora of enablers, ranging from a living wage standard to ensuring quality educational opportunities are available to all classes, regardless of income. This is where concepts such as solidarity become essential.

It used to be, say from about 1940 to about 1980, that both sides of the American political aisle paid heed to both positive and negative liberties, the difference being one of emphasis. Think of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”:

1. Freedom of speech (a negative liberty- a lack of constraint on free expression)
2. Freedom of worship (another negative liberty – a lack of constraint on religious expression or lack thereof)
3. Freedom from want (absolutely a positive liberty – health care, enough to eat, a living wage, etc.)
4. Freedom from fear (a positive liberty where the state is responsible for maintaining safety at many levels, including a responsibility by the state itself to not impose fear on its own citizens)

There is nothing there that Eisenhower or Nixon, for example would disagree with. For that matter, as the two most recent popes, for example, stated respectively that universal health care is an “inalienable right”, as are such concepts as a living wage and freedom from hunger, that there is a recognition across the spectrum that positive liberties are essential to true freedom.

But something has changed in America, and really only in the USA, and changed very radically in the last thirty years, accelerating to the radical Right of today, especially as exemplified by the growth of libertarianism and such “Know Nothing” movements as the Tea Party. Such movements are dead set against the establishment of positive liberties with an emotionalism that challenges the very name of “Objectivism” that many of these folks espouse.

In a way, this is no surprise. The political party that most closely espouses the goals of for-profit enterprises promotes negative liberty (lack of constraints), often at the expense of positive liberty, as positive liberties are forced at times to impose constraints to protect other, more precious freedoms. Think of environmental regulations. They impose constraints on corporate “negative liberties” so as to make sure that we have clean water, clean air, and clean food to eat.

These corporations have little to no interest in positive freedom. In fact, generally speaking, they view positive freedoms as getting in the way of their profits. Hence they promote a “negative liberty” worldview that fits nicely with libertarianism. The result? A political party that dispenses with positive liberties.

This dichotomy, I believe, is the very definition of the debate between the American Left and Right today. The Right has fallen into a self-defeating paradigm of recognizing negative liberties only as true liberty, and *can’t* break out of this paradigm because it is so deeply in thrall to forces that reject notions of positive liberty.

The Left has a much more balanced view – that, yes, of course negative liberty is important, but so is positive liberty, and a society that does not safeguard positive liberty in and of itself becomes one of tyranny.

My point is that those proponents of a negative liberty-only world view, in their mad race to break free of every societal constraint possible, are in and of themselves trampling on our ancient, positive freedoms.

And because they trample on those ancient freedoms, they become tyrants themselves, no matter how loudly they shout “Liberty and Freedom!”


Bring Back the Living Wage

The concept of the minimum wage stems directly from the concept of the living wage, which was brought forward about a century ago by Christian groups, namely the Protestant social gospel movements as well as what evolved into what today is called Catholic Social Teaching. The concept of fair wages is also an ancient concept in Judaism.

The living wage concept was that pay for full time work should be enough so that a wage earner can feed, clothe, and have enough to take care of one’s family.

This isn’t a new thought, that fair wages should be enough to care of one’s family. It’s a very, very old one, as old as Western culture.

However, things changed with the industrial revolution. The concept of fair wages was vigorously denied during the Gilded Age. It’s easy to say that people did well without a minimum wage once upon a mythical time when worker bees happily slaved away for the benevolent industrialist. I don’t think, though, that the people who were paid well below wages required to feed, clothe, and house their children would agree with such a sentiment.

This concept of the living wage was therefore a Judeo-Christian reaction, really, to people being paid at wages so low that they and their families didn’t have enough to live in dignity. The fact is that the vast majority of businesses during the Gilded Age of the 18th century simply didn’t care if their workers were well fed, well clothed, and so on. Can anyone deny, in today’s Gilded Age of predatory capitalism, where work is outsourced to the lowest overseas bidder, that anything has changed in this regard?

In fact, when I visited Salem, Massachusetts a few years ago, the town hall presented some stunning facts about fatality rates in 19th century factories. The rates were close to 25% in some cases. Sound familiar to today’s overseas sweatshops that get us our neat ipods and smartphones? (personal note: verify that 25% figure. I’m not sure if that’s exactly correct- but the percentage was HIGH).

So…the living wage…the minimum wage…is an modern application of an ancient Judeo-Christian value to help promote human dignity by ensuring fair wages in a modern, post-industrial age. Keeping in mind that conservatism wishes to *guard* ancient and time-tested values, it’s quite accurate to state that the minimum wage promotes the conservative value of fair wages.

When I hear bubbleheads like Michelle Bachmann blather on about killing the minimum wage,  I well know that what she is saying is:

1) Completely at odds with the religion she wears on her sleeve

2) Converse to her professed conservative values

3) Economically naive, as nations that enforce a dignified minimum wage have far more resilient and dynamic economies and far less issue with inequitable wealth models.

So, like our forebears a century ago, I advocate that the minimum wage be updated with the age-tested concept of the *living wage*.  That it be set to what is required for people to feed, clothe, shelter and care for one’s family.