Father, Son, and Holy Customer

I’m not naturally a fan of looking at life through the lens of business and management. I’m inclined to do the opposite and see business in the light of other things, like faith and values. I’m not enthused by arguments that government should run like a business, that strong families are like corporate teams, or that students are the “customers” of colleges and universities. Something vital gets lost in the translations.

On the other hand, if St. Ignatius Loyola was right—that God and truth can be found “in all things“—then that has to include business. And I’ve taken a growing interest in management thinking on some valuable questions such as how we change and where ideas come from. (That’s aside from the journalistic fun of turning dissimilar phrases on each other, although one has to be careful when milking sacred cash cows.)

In that spirit, I offer here a piece that ran on Tuesday in Forbes online, “What a CEO Can Teach a Pope,” coauthored by Andy Boynton, a friend and dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, and me. The item was this month’s installment of Boynton’s monthly Forbes blog, “Leading with Ideas” (on which I collaborate).

In the days leading up to the election of Pope Francis, Thomas J. Reese, a noted Jesuit priest and scholar at Georgetown University, was widely quoted as saying that the next successor to Saint Peter needs to be “Jesus Christ with an M.B.A.” That’s a colorful way of putting it, and probably not many Roman Catholics would want a Vicar of Christ to talk like a VP of Strategy. It would be more than curious to hear a papal address about the church’s “core competency” or its need to “ideate” and achieve “synergy.”

Still, Reese’s point is well taken. For one thing, many observers say Francis will have to manage the seemingly unmanageable Roman curia, the Catholic Church’s governing body that has served up such media sideshows recently as the case of “the pope’s butler,” who leaked secret Vatican documents, and a corruption scandal at the Vatican bank. But that’s only for starters.

Let’s look at this for a moment the way a CEO would.

These days the marketplace of belief and unbelief is highly competitive. Religious sects, including Pentecostals and indigenous faiths, are proliferating in places like Africa and Latin America. Other movements—notably, the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon—are also gaining traction, especially among young adults, including many nominal Catholics. There are growing numbers of “nones,” people who check off “none of the above” when polled on religious affiliation. A pope, one could say, has to come up with ways of bolstering the church’s share of this dynamic market.

Any multinational organization, let alone one with more than a billion customers, has to figure out how to adapt and innovate. But that’s not what the Catholic Church and many other big institutions are good at. The church does many things well—teaching and reaching out to the poor, to name a couple. Timely innovation is not one of them.

Borrowing a page from an illustrious manager, Catholic leaders might do well to consider that ideas for improving the church are everywhere—not just at meetings of bishops or other likely places. Such was the spirit that Jack Welch brought to American business, particularly to General Electric, in the 1980s. Until then, corporate America shared an animus against any idea or product “not invented here,” placing an exclusive priority on the creation of novel ideas within the boundaries of an organization. People were rewarded with bonuses to the extent that they conjured up such notions.

Welch arrived on the scene and set out a new vision. He originally called it “integrated diversity,” but the approach came to be known, more felicitously, as “boundarylessness.” One result was that GE went looking for ideas in the wide corporate world—”Someone, somewhere has a better idea,” he said—and happily adapted these ideas to its specific needs. As Welch once commented in a documentary, “It’s a badge of honor to have found from Motorola a quality program, from HP a product development program, from Toyota an asset management system.”

Likewise, a Catholic bishop might consider it a badge of honor to get an idea about religious education from the North American Jewish Day School Conference, or an insight into the broader culture from a novel written by an atheist. The Catholic Church has always absorbed such influences to some degree, which is how it has transplanted itself into so many cultural contexts over the past two millennia. But keen observers also note that when it comes to making important decisions, the church, like many other organizations, succumbs to the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. Ideas come mainly from within, from top management, and that’s not good.

2,000 Years of Steady Growth

Needless to say, corporations can also learn from the Catholic Church and religious orders such as the Jesuits—about mission, values, and global perspective. But the church does need fresh ideas, and if it’s looking high and low for them, it might as well listen to what concerned people in business management, or recently out of that world, are saying. One of them is Father Tom Doyle, who, in his preordained life, was a consultant with Deloitte & Touche.

To start with, Doyle points out that the church hasn’t exactly been a slow grower, when you take the long view. It began with 12 members—Jesus’ apostles—and now has 1.2 billion adherents around the world. “That’s almost 2,000 years of an annual growth rate of 1 percent,” he told Caitlin Kenney of NPR’s All Things Considered recently, on a light note. “That’s pretty long and pretty incredible growth.”

At the same time, Doyle and others believe the church needs to begin thinking more strategically about its brand, which has suffered in recent years, at least partly because of the sexual abuse scandals. The solution they’re recommending is greater transparency on the part of the institution that emerged last week from the secret conclave.

“This was a huge frustration for all our consultants: a lack of transparency can hurt your brand,” Kenney reported, speaking of Catholic managers and consultants interviewed for her March 6 report. “It can drive away your customers. And as the Catholic Church has recently discovered, this lack of transparency could have much darker implications.” Pointing to the scandals and an erosion of confidence in the church, Kenney added, “People stop trusting that the Catholic Church would tell them the truth.”

For his part, Doyle said he gives the same advice to the church as he would to any company in crisis. “How do you get trust back? You earn it.  You have to earn it, right? And so we’re going to have to err on the side of being more transparent about things than we have in the past.”

Most of all, the church and every big institution would do well to put on its listening ears. Listening to various stakeholders—customers, people all levels of the organization, and others—has become a critical part of strategies for designing products and processes in many (though not enough) companies. And the innovation would go a long way in the Catholic Church as well. In its March 18 issue, the Jesuit magazine America editorialized that the church needs to do a better job listening specifically to five groups: the poor, victims of sexual abuse, women, gays and lesbians, and theologians (with whom the hierarchy has an often-frosty relationship).

Listening—in a large and complex organization—is a lot harder than people think. The church may need to get some help with that, perhaps from sympathetic consultants who could facilitate the conversations with different stakeholders. But the good news is that you probably don’t have to be “Jesus Christ with an M.B.A.” to start the ball rolling. …read more

Sequestering the Moral Questions

On the eve of sequestration—the indiscriminate federal budget cuts—various interests are aiming to capture the moral high ground of the debate over government spending. Which raises the question: What exactly is the moral argument for slashing deficits and balancing budgets?

I’m very familiar with moral and religious appeals against budget cuts, particularly those affecting the poor. This week, for example, nearly 100 religious leaders issued a public appeal for Congress and the president to leave anti-poverty programs off the chopping block, declaring—“God calls for protection of poor and vulnerable people.”

Less clear is the moral case in favor of the meat ax. Yes, deficit hawks will deploy the language of moral responsibility, especially with regard to future generations that are allegedly endangered by government spending today. But these appeals are seldom grounded in moral and biblical principles such as solidarity, human dignity, and our collective obligations to “the least of these.” It’s mainly liberals (of a spiritual sort) who trade in such precepts.

On the right, perhaps the most identifiable moral claim is the generational one—that we are saddling our children and their children with a crushing debt burden. There’s room for debate about how unreasonable that burden will be, and whether fiscal austerity right now, in the midst of a still-undernourished economy, is a smart way to deal with the problem.

But there are larger questions about the generational argument. For example: Do our obligations to the future extend only to the national debt? Do our children also need good schools to get them started on their paths? Are we going to hand them a public infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) that isn’t crumbling all around them? And what about environmental protection—one of our most profound obligations to generations yet unborn?

All of that requires public investment now, and has to be balanced with the goal of easing the debt burden.

I’ll keep watch for moral content in the arguments for balancing the government’s books, and speak with some thoughtful fiscal conservatives on that score. I’ll report on those sightings and conversations before the next partisan crisis—which is due in late March, when the government runs out of money. …read more

Liberty, Justice, and Fr. Sirico

Fr. Robert Sirico on EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network)

I first met Father Robert A. Sirico at a conference in western Connecticut 13 years ago. Sirico is a big man who bears a family resemblance to the character Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos—his older brother, actor Tony Sirico, played the part—and his commentaries have frequented the Wall Street Journal and other high-profile media outlets. His writing sparkles, but the talent is marshaled in the service of basically one thing—promoting pure, unbridled capitalism.

At that conference in the summer of 1999, I interviewed Sirico and asked a question that alluded to his “conversion”—the priest had related that as a young man in the 1970s, he led a dissolute, confused (and left-leaning) life, before committing himself ultimately to the Catholic faith of his childhood in Brooklyn. I was thrown off a little when he replied, “Which conversion?” Sirico had also told me about his turn toward free-market thinking (in his twenties), but I hadn’t realized that he saw this change of political perspective in such a religious light.

There were two conversions: to the Lord, and to Lord Acton’s classical liberalism (which came first, chronologically). John Acton was the 19th century English Catholic historian who stressed above all other human values the liberty to “do our duty unhindered by the state [and] by society.” In 1990, Sirico founded the influential and amply funded Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with offices in Rome. The think tank, which he still leads, concerns itself specifically with economic liberty and wealth creation.

What brings this pastor of plenty to my attention again is a superb series last week by Michael Sean Winters in his Distinctly Catholic blog at NCR Today, the valuable daily online offering of the National Catholic Reporter. Winters debated Sirico on January 28 at the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought in Boulder, Colorado, and in his blog, he responded in three parts to Sirico’s 2012 book, stalwartly titled, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy (Regnery Publishing).

Not So Neutral

Sparse reporting on the debate indicates that one of Sirico’s prime contentions was that the market is “morally neutral”—that “the human actors in the market must bring good morals to it.” What’s needed, he said, is individual virtue and “moral transformation,” not government regulation.

This is a refrain often heard from the free-market choir. The logicians in that loft argue that any problems associated with unregulated capitalism must be caused not by the system itself (being morally neutral), but by individuals who lack good values. All too often, the problematic individuals are identified as those who don’t succeed in the marketplace because of alleged moral failings including a dim work ethic. These are, of course, the 47 percent.

Here’s (partly) how Winters countered the notion of morally neutral markets in his second installment:

Let us look at the behavior the market requires. What values does it celebrate? Who are its heroes? The market celebrates the self-made man, not the man who evidences solidarity. The market, drenched in Calvinistic roots, celebrates frugality and thrift, not gratuitousness and generosity. The market requires self-assertiveness, not self-surrender. The market is all about activity and not at all about contemplation. The market evidences competition not cooperation. The morals of the market leave out fully half of the Christian moral framework!

Put that way, the market doesn’t sound very neutral at all.

You’d expect to see a lively critique of Sirico in the liberal National Catholic Reporter. You might not expect the same from a review in First Things, but that’s what Edward Skidelsky has delivered in the January 2013 edition of that unmistakably conservative religious journal. Skidelsky is a young British Anglican (“Anglo-Catholic,” he specifies) moral philosopher who draws significantly on Roman Catholic social teaching. Here’s his final verdict:

Defending the Free Market is, if I may be permitted to speak as a European, a very American book. Only in America has Christianity reached so complete an accord with market imperatives. “The free economy is a dream worthy of our spiritual imaginations,” writes Sirico in his introduction. Perhaps, but it was not the dream of St. Benedict or St. Francis, nor even of Luther and Calvin.

Only in America! (Note the conflicting asides on Calvin in the Winters and Skidelski pieces—I have to agree with the Anglican on that point; see my “Calvinism 2.0”).

Who Laughs Last?

There may be a bit of American Catholic exceptionalism lurking here as well. I’m not saying Catholic opinion has skewed in any appreciable way toward Sirico’s brand of libertarianism. The U.S. Catholic hierarchy, however, has at times given the impression that the primordial biblical issues of peace and the poor aren’t all that pressing, compared to such matters as the minutiae of HHS regulations on access to artificial contraception through private health insurance plans. In that way, leading bishops have helped nurture a sort of social-justice-teaching vacuum, arguably opening up greater space for market fundamentalism, whose Catholic disciples include Sirico and Congressman Paul Ryan. They and others would find little such opportunity in the European Catholic context.

And then there’s the broader skewing of U.S. public policy toward the wealthy over the last few decades, aided by that American Christian “accord with market imperatives” (although Skidelski might be painting with an overly broad brush on that score). These aren’t rough times for those who bless unfettered markets.

My fellow native Brooklynite Robert Sirico is getting panned left and right by thoughtful commentators. But is he also getting the last laugh?

This item was first posted yesterday at Tikkun Daily.

…read more

Read Thy Enemy

Ross Douth

I flipped through some of the expected commentary about what to read in the New Year, but one column that nudged me was Ross Douthat’s in the Times, “How to Read in 2013.” The conservative pundit issued a moderate challenge: “Consider taking out a subscription to a magazine whose politics you don’t share.” He made a point of using what he referred to as that fusty word, “subscription.” Reading all of a magazine, Douthat explained, is a better way of grappling with its ideas than plucking this or that item from its web site.

So, if you wait for National Review to arrive in your mailbox, or inbox, make sure you also get The Nation or The New Republic, Douthat suggested. Or, if The New Yorker is your blend of tea, think about subscribing also to The Weekly Standard.

“And don’t be afraid to lend an ear to voices that seem monomaniacal or self-marginalizing, offensive or extreme,” he advised. “There are plenty of writers on the Internet who are too naïve or radical or bigoted to entrust with any kind of power, but who nonetheless might offer an insight that you wouldn’t find in the more respectable quarters of the press.”

The December 29 column has led me to take stock of my own reading. Like most members of our species, I am attracted to ideas and information that confirm my positions and worldview. There are names for that in the social sciences literature—“confirmation bias” and “pattern bias” come to mind.

Although I prefer the left-leaning MSNBC, I do go to the conservative channels. But for me, watching The O’Reilly Factor or some other Fox News productions is like eating a vegetable I don’t care much for—without the consolation that it’s good for me. I find more appetizing the (online) offerings of National Review and especially The American Conservative but tend to pick and choose among them. I usually pass up the antigovernment and free-market screeds. More palatable to me are pieces that tap into my culturally conservative sentiments, which I wear less on my sleeve than I used to.

Taking up the Douthat challenge, I’m not sure if I’ll actually take out a new subscription to a politically conservative journal this year (or a liberal one, for that matter). But I’ll add to my New Year’s resolutions an intention to regularly sit down in the periodical room of a Boston College library and read The Weekly Standard or The American Spectator cover to cover.

At the same time, I’ll make an effort to read books and articles outside the political-theological-philosophical complex. I’m already starting to crowd out that resolution, though, with items piling in my Amazon cart. I’m eagerly awaiting the February release of Jeffrey Frank’s Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, about Eisenhower and Nixon.

Douthat’s column has evidently touched a chord with many readers, and I’m glad for that. But is he putting his finger on the most glaring oversight in our politics today? Would that be the failure of liberals to read conservatives and vice versa? Or would it be that too few people in general are listening to the least of these, to the weak and vulnerable?

At one time—prior to Michael Harrington’s 1962 classic The Other America—the poor were invisible. Now they are simply inaudible. They’re seen waiting at bus stops and standing behind fast food counters, but seldom heard in our public debates. And I wouldn’t expect to hear their voices all that clearly in the pages of The Weekly Standard. But maybe I’ll be surprised. …read more

Cliff Deal: An Answer to Whose Prayers?

Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black

While surfing cable channels during the fiscal-cliff clatter of New Year’s Eve afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder about one news ticker in particular: “Senate Chaplain Prays for Fiscal Cliff Deal.” Did the chaplain believe that God has a position on whether there should be a deal before midnight January 1, as distinct from an agreement that would surely materialize some days or weeks after going off the cliff? And if the divine will were to cut so finely, how would he, who is not divine, know?

Then I looked up the story behind the ticker, which did more justice to the prayer offered up by Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black.

A former Navy chaplain and Seventh-Day Adventist minister, Black didn’t exactly go over the theological cliff by invoking God’s endorsement of the Biden-McConnell plan. The chaplain gazed at the edge. He asked God to “lift them”—lawmakers—“from the darkness and hopelessness” of those hours at the fiscal cliff. “May they take the tide that leads to fortune, rather than risk a national voyage bound in shadows and in miseries,” he intoned.

Other than perhaps the good reverend, whose prayers were answered by the deal struck before midnight and approved later by the Senate and House?

It’s in the nature of a political compromise that there’s no simple answer to that question. But among those who might be a bit relieved are the hard-working, low-earning Americans who receive so-called “refundables” at tax time. That’s a word you probably didn’t see in the news tickers.

This particular story goes back to the Bush tax cuts—which were not quite as lopsided as many liberals believe. While these packages delivered the greatest goodies to the rich, they also included expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor and the child tax credit. Both of those are refundable, meaning that the government will cut you a check if you qualify but don’t earn enough to pay federal income taxes. The Obama administration further expanded the refundable credits in 2009.

Set to expire at the start of 2013, the credits were tucked into the final cliff-averting agreement. That’s big, especially if you earn a small income.

The mother of all refundables, the Earned Income Tax Credit, can deliver a few thousand dollars a year to hard-pressed workers and their families. Kathy A. Saile, who handles domestic policy issues for the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops, recently gave me a view of this from down below the middle class. She previously served as a case manager at a homeless shelter in Phoenix, where many of the residents commuted to jobs, in some cases two or three of them. Saile told me in a telephone conversation in November that this credit alone often “made the difference between families staying in the shelter and getting on their feet” and into their own apartments.

Referring also to the refundable per-child credit, she noted: “The Church has always been a strong supporter of these tax credits, because they’re pro-work, and they’re pro-family, and they help get people out of poverty.”

True, but clambering out of poverty will also be a little harder for many people, in another respect. Cliff negotiators choose not to salvage the payroll tax cuts enacted during Obama’s first term, cuts that kept hundreds of dollars in the pockets of struggling workers. And that is one reason why the deal is a mixed blessing for those Americans who are always dangling precariously off the cliff. …read more

Even Less Moral

Niebuhr on Time’s cover, March 8, 1948

In December 1932, a 40-year-old theology professor who had recently left his Michigan pastorate drew nationwide attention with his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Two sentences into the introduction, the author, Reinhold Niebuhr, was already walking back the title, saying the distinction it suggested was too unqualified. Reflecting on his classic work of social ethics three decades later, Niebuhr wrote that a better encapsulation of his thesis would have been, “Not So Moral Man and Even Less Moral Society.” By then he had become one of the principal definers of 20th century American liberalism.

The notion behind the title was that while individuals might be able to muster sympathy “for their kind,” human groups and societies have little such capacity for self-transcendence. It might have been the least emphatic argument of this unsettlingly unsentimental book, which can be as startling today as it was 80 years ago, in the throes of the Great Depression.

Niebuhr wrote Moral Man in a time arguably not unlike our own, when both economic and political power had concentrated in fewer hands. The wealthiest Americans had succeeded in making government “more pliant to their needs,” he argued. But the professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary did not unleash his brash analytical power on plutocrats alone. He aimed squarely at his fellow liberals, who believed in the efficacy of moral suasion and rational argument, and who imagined that “men of power will immediately check their exactions and pretensions in society, as soon as they have been apprised by the social scientists that their actions and attitudes are anti-social.” Niebuhr’s intent was to disabuse them of these illusions.

One essay in this volume that seems to especially evoke our situation today is titled, “The Ethical Attitudes of the Privileged Classes.”

The attitudes have largely to do with economic inequalities. The chapter starts with a bow to the truism that such gaps are inevitable and stem partly from different levels of talent and skill. Niebuhr’s clear-eyed view of human nature and destiny could hardly make him suppose that inequality, along with a fair bit of misery, is unnatural. But he quickly adds that personal attributes never explain extraordinary degrees of wealth inequality. These are due chiefly to “disproportions of power,” he says, alluding in part to money’s grip on politics.

For Niebuhr, the task of plutocracy or government by the wealthy is to justify this power and privilege. Plutocrats do so by identifying their special interests with the general good. “Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold,” he observes.

Such thinking requires a certain amount of self-deception, according to Niebuhr. But he says it also involves hypocrisy—in that the privileged often salute one thing (the good of all) and engineer something else (narrow self-interests). He continues:

The most common form of hypocrisy among the privileged classes is to assume that their privileges are the just payments with which society rewards specially useful or meritorious functions. As long as society regards special rewards for important services as ethically just and socially necessary … it is always possible for social privilege to justify itself, at least in its own eyes, in terms of social function, which it renders. If the argument is to be plausible … it must be proved or assumed that the underprivileged classes would not have the capacity for rendering the same service if given the same opportunity. This assumption is invariably made by privileged classes.

As Niebuhr further limns this mind, he points to its understanding that the masses of people are economically unfit not simply because of their lesser intellects or purported lack of opportunity. They are also seen as succumbing to character flaws, namely their inclination toward what the Puritans (his spiritual ancestors in the Calvinist fold) styled as “laziness and improvidence.”

Plutocracy Revisited

Niebuhr’s analysis echoes in current debates. For instance, Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats, notes a tendency among the super rich to “confuse their own self-interests with the common good.” Niebuhr’s plutocrat, though at times a cardboard figure, finds voice in billionaire activists such as Leon Cooperman (quoted in Freeland’s book), who wrote a open letter a year ago to President Obama, enumerating services rendered by his class: “As a group we employ many millions of taxpaying people … fill store shelves at Christmas … and keep the wheels of commerce and progress … moving.”

The “special rewards” today might include Wall Street bailouts, preferential tax rates for capital gains, and the carried-interest loophole that withers tax bills for hedge fund managers like Cooperman. “Specious proofs” abound with the notion, for example, that half of all Americans will never “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” as Mitt Romney declared in his famous behind-closed-doors remarks about the 47 percent.

Yet few commentators would match Niebuhr’s unrelievedly unsentimental view.

Most decent people would hope to see different parties and factions engage in good-faith dialogue about the common good. Niebuhr would say: Don’t count on it. Because he saw reason as largely subservient to self-interests, he felt that relations between groups must always be “predominantly political rather than ethical,” meaning that those who favor greater equality should rely on sheer power and political mobilization, not just cogent arguments and appeals to conscience. The clear message: Expect little from conversations with plutocrats.

Among the many who found little uplift in Niebuhr’s critique was Niebuhr himself. “All this is rather tragic,” he said at the end of the book. He was speaking of unpalatable means toward the goal of greater equality, such as appealing to raw emotion and even resentment.

At times it’s hard to tell if Niebuhr is endorsing such behavior or trying to whip up an air of crisis. He certainly preferred loftier means such as civil discourse—provided they were effective. But a word he used favorably in this context is “coercion,” directed at the powerful, by the people through their government; he also saw an eternal need for power blocs such as labor unions and the pressures they apply. This would be “class warfare” by today’s squeamish standards.

Niebuhr Now

Moral Man and Immoral Society was Niebuhr’s first major work. At the time, many readers and reviewers (including his fellow liberal Protestant clergy) were understandably alarmed by what they saw as his cynicism, and Niebuhr’s response was characteristically defiant. Gradually, however, he gave a little more due to the possibilities of grace and goodness in political life. He also turned a scornful eye to self-righteousness on the left as well as right.

At the same time, Niebuhr applied his thoughts about the “brutal character of all human collectives” to an increasingly dangerous world. He inspired many a liberal Cold Warrior—and a latter-day adherent, Barack Obama, who calls Niebuhr his favorite philosopher. In recent decades the Niebuhr brigades have arguably been filled with neoconservatives more than liberals, animated by their interpretation of Niebuhrian realism, the idea that the search for perfect justice is dangerously utopian.

Still, Niebuhr was always a creature of the left. He cofounded the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 and opposed the Vietnam War, which was still raging when he died in 1971. And he remained a sober prognosticator of the human condition. He often said that the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine was Original Sin, which he found more steadily reliable than any belief in human perfectibility.

With his acute sense of tragedy and paradox, Niebuhr would not put full faith in grand designs of economic justice (if those existed today). But he would also doubt there could be even proximate justice, apart from a confrontation with privilege and an unabashed plying of worldly power. …read more

The Shrinking Thanksgiving Basket

In some ideological quarters, it has become popular to assert that government should have scarcely a role in responding to the needs of the poor. The message has been pretty straightforward. Government: bad. Private charity: good. But now a new breed of critic is arguing further that the charities, too—even the worthiest of them—ought to be held in suspicion.

One of the more credible promoters of this view is Robert D. Lupton, author of Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (HarperOne). Lupton is not just a true believer in the anti-government gospel, but also a charitable doer. He is founder and president of FCS Urban Ministries (Focused Community Strategies), an evangelical Christian community development agency in Atlanta’s inner city. His book, originally released a year ago, has now appeared in paperback—just in time for Thanksgiving.

During the holidays, the news cycles turn predictably toward stories about the deserving poor and the good causes that serve them well. Lupton and his publicists want the media to crank out a strikingly different story.

“In the United States, there’s a growing scandal that we both refuse to see and actively perpetuate,” he declares at the start of the book. “What Americans avoid facing is that while we are very generous in charitable giving, much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.”

The author points to such basic examples of charity as soup kitchens, clothing drives, and church-sponsored service trips. These are usually counter-productive, he asserts, because they breed dependency and “destroy personal initiative” as well as family structures.

The argument is familiar enough, when it comes to government social programs. But the follow-up is usually that private charities are the way to go, because they’re more responsive to local needs, or because they don’t use taxpayer money (although they often do). Lupton doesn’t go there.

He does allow that some charitable work is nontoxic and necessary—disaster relief being his chief example. And he speaks up for “community development,” including job placement and affordable housing in cooperation with for-profit developers. This aspect of his argument is reasonable, though not very interesting: Such efforts have become commonplace among private service organizations.

Beyond that, charity encourages “ever-growing handout lines,” Lupton writes. He calls for shuttering food pantries and replacing them with food coops that sell shares to the poor; canceling the clothing drives and setting up thrift stores. In his view, such draconian measures are in order because the poor will just use their Thanksgiving baskets and secondhand socks to bolster what he terms their “lifestyle poverty,” their thriftless, workless ways.

Lupton seems to believe that the American poor are almost unique in this way. For example, he puts in a good word for micro-lending projects in the Third World, but then questions their applicability to the United States. And the reason he gives is that in our country, “the welfare system has fostered generations of dependency and has severely eroded the work ethic.” The American poor “assume that their subsistence is guaranteed” because of public and private largesse, so they don’t exercise personal responsibility.

I’ve ceased being surprised by things people say about the poor and the lower 47 percent of the economy. But part of what strikes me about Lupton’s critique is his lack of any discernible interest in the demographics of poverty—the facts, in other words.

The Poor Are Not One Group

For those pesky details, I called up Candy Hill (whom I quote in the November 18 edition of Our Sunday Visitor). She is senior vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA, a national umbrella organization.

To start with, Hill told me that many who knock on the doors of local Catholic Charities do so for the very first time. And they usually come looking for food. Typically, they have lost a job, suffered an illness, or faced some other crisis. They can put off paying the utility bill or mortgage but cannot go long without eating. “We see them because they’re hungry,” she says, adding that elderly people on fixed incomes are also familiar faces at soup kitchens.

According to Hill, these people form a sizeable swath of charity recipients—the suddenly and temporarily poor. Lending them a hand doesn’t make them dependent. It usually gets them back on their feet.

A second subgroup consists of those with lifelong disabilities and impairments. “We help them reach their full potential,” said Hill, alluding to such efforts as job training for the tasks they’re able to perform, but Catholic Charities does so “with the understanding that they’ll never be totally independent.” They’ll always need help from both government and charities.

The third type of recipient cited by Hill is the chronically poor, in need of continual services. On the surface, they supply Lupton with his dependency thesis, although he draws little distinction between them and others in the fluid ranks of the poor. And they’re a distinct minority: Approximately 25 percent of those in poverty have been poor for three years or longer, according to a plethora of studies cited by Catholic Charities.

For these people, Catholic Charities offers what Hill described as a “continuum of care,” in which case workers evaluate their needs at various stages. Some typical services include job training, parenting classes, rental assistance, and prescription drugs for chronic illnesses.

But she is reluctant to assign even these cases to Lupton’s all-encompassing category of “lifestyle poverty.” She notes, for example, that a growing number of the long-term poor are living in homeless shelters and holding down jobs, sometimes two or three—their wages too low for rent. “They’re some of the hardest working people I know,” said Hill, who previously headed Catholic Charities of Monroe County in Michigan.

Contrary to the impression given by Lupton, charities that work with these people aren’t flush with cash. Contributions have continued to dip throughout the fragile economic recovery. As Hill points out, food pantries nationwide have been cutting back on bread loaves, soup cans, and other items tossed into food bags, even as the need rises with many families trying to scrape together a holiday meal.

Now, Lupton is offering one more reason, and not a particularly good one, to shrink those Thanksgiving baskets even further.

TheoPol will skip Thanksgiving week and return on Thursday November 29.

 

 

A Word About the Weather

As I write, I’m also packing my toothbrush and notebooks for a conference on Catholic social teaching and climate change, beginning tomorrow at Catholic University in Washington. The climate part needs little explanation, especially after the latest climatic disaster known as Hurricane Sandy. The part about Catholicism or religious faith in general is another matter.

Even TheoPol is not quite prepared to say that theological and moral perspectives are especially critical to discussions of climate change. One would think facts and science—the inconvenient truths, as far as we know them—should be uppermost in the public debate. But theology has a way of crashing parties, including the political ones.

For now, I’ll say there’s an important link between theological ethics and at least one aspect of global climate change: relationships between rich and poor nations. In their 2001 pastoral letter, Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good, the U.S. bishops zeroed in on four points about equity in these relationships.

1) Rich and poor nations alike have a responsibility to address the climate threat;

2) Historically the advanced economies have generated the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions known to cause climate disruptions;

3) In addition, wealthy nations have a greater capacity to lessen the threat of climate change, while many impoverished nations “live in degrading and desperate situations” that lead them to adopt ecologically harmful practices;

4) Advanced economies should bear the heaviest responsibilities for solutions to climate change. “Developing countries have a right to economic development that can help lift people out of dire poverty,” the bishops noted. “Wealthier industrialized nations have the resources, know-how, and entrepreneurship to produce more efficient cars and cleaner industries,” and they should “share these emerging technologies with the less-developed countries….”

These too are inconvenient truths. Undergirding them are moral and theological principles, among them solidarity and the biblical “preferential option for the poor.” Of course, all this is tendentious drivel if you think global warming is a hoax. Which brings us back to science—until further word. …read more

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