At any cost, at any price

The recent election as Pope of Francis seems to have revived a certain interest in the relationship between Catholicism and the market. It is a difficult and conflicted relationship, historically marked by distortions and injustices caused by men who have made the pursuit of success "at any cost" their way of life. Institutions are not in themselves subjects of moral acts and are therefore in themselves neither good nor bad - they simply reflect the actions and ways of thinking of the people who work there. The rise and flourishing of numerous structures of sin have had a marked negative effect on the course of the history of capitalism--which is the reason for the distinction made by the German economist Wilhelm Röpke, as well as by the Italians Luigi Einaudi and Luigi Sturzo, between "historical capitalism" and "market economy".

On closer examination, we also find this in a distinction made in Centesimus Annus, when John Paul II, in section 42, distinguishes between two types of capitalism, preferring the term "free economy" to the term "capitalism," due to the fact that "capitalism" is excessively compromised by the historical reality in which it emerged and developed.

There is no doubt that, as the late Fr. Angelo Tosato pointed out, in many parts of the Gospel wealth is presented as an insurmountable obstacle to the Kingdom of God. It is sufficient to read the following passages: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God "(Lk 6:20) and "woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation" (Luke 6:24). In these passages is there not perhaps shown a Christian doctrine strongly opposed to a market economy? If we regard the market as a counterpoint of poverty and wealth as a synonym for exploitation, then the answer is undoubtedly yes. If, on the contrary, and I think more correctly, we consider the hypothesis that the option for the poor also includes renouncing achieving goals "at any cost", offering up the renouncement of this possibility and of this loss for the well-being of oneself and of others, and if you consider personal wealth as a means of helping those who could not get by on their own, then the answer is clearly no. Therefore the question shifts to asking: What is the best way to reduce cases of exploitation and social immobility while at the same time maximizing the multiplication and distribution of wealth?

Tosato invites us to go beyond an "uncritical, ahistorical, unscientific" reading of sacred texts, which would be a cliché interpretation perpetuating the opinion about the evangelical condemnation of wealth and the exhortation to embrace poverty, understood as a counterpart to the market. According to Tosato, this would be a perspective "damaging and unreliable" to both "theoretical" and "practical" sides. The Gospel, therefore, does not condemn wealth as demonic, but denounces the fact that it has fallen into the hands of the devil and his servants. Even less would the Gospel condemn the rich. It would rather exalt their sacred duty to be charitable. Thus, for example, the ultimatum of "You cannot serve two masters," for Tosato, does not indicate a choice between God and wealth, but between the "serving" God and the "serving" wealth, becoming its slave, electing it as one's own Kyrios (Lord).

Only in this second case, according to Tosato, wealth and the Gospel would be incompatible. With reference to the above passage in Luke he says, "it seems entirely arbitrary to read the aphorism in question as a radical condemnation of the pursuit of wealth, as if wealth is inherently demonic. What the saying condemns is that one of the faithful would proceed, himself, to change the nature of wealth, transforming it into anti-God, into a devil, making it demonic". It is exactly this attitude of men, faced with the dynamics of economics--which in our time have become quite an extraordinary force--which worries Pope Francis and which can also be found in his homilies prior to his election as Pope, when he says: "The speculative economy, without ethics, chases the idol of money. For this reason they have no qualms about rending unemployed millions of workers".

The identification of money can turn for some into a contemptible idol, an idol to bow down to and in whose name to sacrifice our choices. This idol presents itself with the ordinary garments of everyday professional success, of "Mors tua vita mea" ("Your death is my life"), of the professional who wants to collect without having sown and one who sows death to his own advantage. It's a captivating idol which is generally tolerated because it represents us all a little, and with respect to which one is usually more indulgent and self-exculpatory. In short, it is an attitude, a predisposition, a behavior that becomes habitual--the very air we breathe--which then goes so far as to intoxicate our consciences and corrupt the institutions of democracy and the market. It's the insane pretext to be absolved even when we put our immediate interests, even "at any cost" and "at any price", before that of those around us, even someone who was not yet born or who lives on the other side of the world.


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