Power and Wealth Matter, But So Does Human Flourishing

Photo by Cody Pulliam on Unsplash

Political power matters. Economic security matters. Any worldview totally divorced from material reality is one bound to perpetuate injustice, needless suffering, and further division. Humans do not live by bread alone, but we also need bread.

In a true, genuine democracy with authentic freedom, political participation cannot be reserved for the few. Government of, by, and for the rich is plutocracy, not democracy. Government designed to perpetuate white supremacy or racial hierarchies cannot be reconciled with democracy or freedom. Those working to establish free democracy and liberate people from hunger and desperate poverty must pay close attention to material conditions and the distribution of power.

But we run the risk of dehumanizing—or, more precisely, depersonalizing—others when we view them exclusively through the prism of how much power or money they have. When we think of ourselves this way, we can easily slip into a radical individualism that ignores the plight of the vulnerable and the common good. When we think of society through this lens, we can easily fall prey to collectivist ideologies that treat individual persons as cogs in a machine rather than as unique persons with innate worth and dignity. In many ways, collectivism and extreme individualism are two sides of the same coin.

Power and material security matter for human flourishing, but they certainly are not the only things that matter. Human worth is not based on how much money a person has or how much they contribute to society through their work or how many consumer goods they purchase. It is innate and immeasurable. And it is rooted in our nature as not just physical, but also emotional, intellectual, and spiritual beings.

When we understand the nature and worth of the person, it transforms how we view ourselves and others. Acts of generosity are not a foolish waste of our hard-earned money but expressions of love for those we value. People who run into burning buildings to save people they have never met are not throwing their lives away, but may very well be pressing the limits of human potential with their courage and selflessness. The Black Christians who forgave the Charleston church shooter who massacred their loved ones were not afraid of demanding justice and equality, but were instead motivated by a sense of integrity and living out the radical faith, hope, and love that they believe endures all things and can transform all things. The parent who turns down a promotion at work that would involve far more travel in order to spend more time with their children is perhaps not sacrificing their potential but fully realizing it.

The reality is that we only truly flourish in community with others. The pandemic has made this vividly clear. Even introverts (like me) that do not mind a great deal of solitude understood that something important was missing during these lockdowns and quarantines. We need community. We are drawn toward communion. To resist this in order to maximize our individual or collective power or wealth is to betray our true nature.

In communities where relationships are rightly ordered, we do not become means to an end. We are not reduced to one of our characteristics. We do not discard those who seemingly lack utility. We are recognized as whole persons—and as entirely unique and irreplaceable.

How unique? Think of a child cradled in the warmth of a parent’s embrace. How irreplaceable is that child to the parent—and the parent to the child? Think of your dearest friend. What makes them so dear to you? Is it their style or your shared interests—or who they are at their absolute core? It is easy to understand the infinite worth of each person when we consider how irreplaceable they are to those who love them most.

If we start from a belief in the worth and dignity of each person and a commitment to creating a society where each person can truly flourish and reach their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual potential—a vision shared by personalists from Emmanuel Mounier to Martin Luther King Jr. to Pope Francis—the struggle for justice will neither ignore power dynamics and material conditions nor stop there.

We can fight against systemic racism—and for universal brotherhood and sisterhood. We can work to build a more equitable, sustainable economy that benefits all, rather than simply giving more people the resources to pursue happiness down the false path of consumerism, where the next thing you buy is always supposed to fill the hole in your heart or eliminate the insecurities gnawing at you. To build a just society, we must tackle unjust inequities and tyrannies, but we must also construct a future that allows true, integral flourishing—for all.

Why Joe Biden is a Strong Favorite to Win

Who do you think will win the 2020 presidential election? It is a question I have been asked countless times. And my answer has remained the same for months: anything is possible, but Biden is a strong favorite, assuming the election is free and fair (sadly a big assumption).

The case for Biden as a strong favorite is pretty straight forward.  Hillary Clinton’s campaign made a number of costly mistakes, she had certain flaws as a candidate (as admittedly all candidates do), and she also had a series of tough breaks outside of her control. Despite all of this, she only lost by about 70,000 or 80,000 votes across 3 states. So Biden’s starting point was pretty good.

Now if we examine the laundry list of things that were likely important enough to have swung such a close election, Biden looks to be in significantly better shape at the moment. Despite Trump’s efforts to link him to corruption and go after his son Hunter Biden, there has thus far been nothing like the Comey letter (which tightened the race at the very end) or the email scandal, in general—or even the assistance Trump got from Wikileaks. In terms of Russian assistance, proponents of American democracy can only hope that it will be less important in 2020 than it was in 2016, but that remains to be seen. Trump is trying to use the same playbook he did in 2016, but the plays are not working as well this time around. Many outside his base are more skeptical now.

Beyond all this, Biden isn’t burdened by past ties to Wall Street, people questioning his authenticity, all the baggage from the Clinton years and President Clinton’s personal life, or an inability to project a populist image, which was really not something Hillary could pull off, but comes naturally to a warm, empathic everyman like Biden. When Trump tried to attack Biden over his son’s struggles with substance abuse, Biden responded by affirming his love and pride for his boy. Trump’s callousness and Biden’s empathy were on full display, and that could be a key moment from this campaign, as there are unfortunately far too many people who are struggling with addiction or in recovery—and many of their loved ones likely want a President who understands them and their love for their children, rather than one who treats them like failures.

Overall, Joe Biden just connects with regular folks better than Hillary did. And I do not think she would deny her general weakness as a campaigner compared to her understanding of policy, for instance. Hillary also had to deal with sexism. It is hard to disentangle some of the discomfort with Hillary’s personality or her “likability” issues with the different standards that exist for some voters when it comes to men and women. And it is clear that some voters are just more comfortable voting for men.

Biden has also learned from some of Hillary’s big mistakes. Hillary’s approach to faith outreach was quite flawed. Biden conversely seems to be running an effective faith outreach campaign that is smart, targeted, and inclusive. Plus, Hillary struggled to talk about her faith, which is actually a big part of who she is, while Biden is extremely comfortable doing so and has seamlessly integrated it into his campaign.

Now what about abortion? It seems clear to me that her extreme position and the party’s extreme position on abortion (and taxpayer-funded abortion) cost her the election. I can’t tell you how many times I heard people bring up her response to the abortion question in the final debate or the head of NARAL talking about how much she benefited from having an abortion at the Democratic National Convention while Democrats in the arena clapped. Trump won because of a wave in the Rust Belt, and this is precisely where her rhetoric and position on abortion, rather than one that recognized abortion as tragic (which is how she had described it in the past) or a safe, legal, and rare position, cost her the most and handed the presidency to Donald Trump.

Now the party’s position on abortion has remained extreme and disconnected from the views of the public, which favors a number of restrictions. Special interest groups have only grown stronger in the last four years. And Joe Biden even flipped on the Hyde amendment at the beginning of his primary campaign, the most cynical move of his campaign. But until Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, he was almost entirely silent on the issue—and even now, he is not putting it front and center like some pro-choice activists would certainly favor. Considering his strategy and all that is going on in the world, it is therefore no surprise that abortion does not seem to be as high on many voters’ priority lists as it has been in the past.

Given the novel coronavirus and the President’s disastrous incompetence in response to the pandemic; the struggling economy; his failure to deliver for working class people in the Rust Belt on jobs and more, in favor of an economic agenda designed to serve the rich; the threat he poses to American democracy with his love of dictators and refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power; his impeachment for misusing his office; the growing commitment of white Americans to racial justice;  and so much more going on in this country, it is not surprising that abortion is not the priority it normally is. In addition, some single-issue voters probably know that if the next Supreme Court with Amy Coney Barrett and the rest of the conservative majority will not overturn Roe, it’s perhaps never going to get overturned.

Biden’s decision to flip on Hyde and his refusal to move toward the center on abortion may therefore be a mistake and one that hurts him, but the margin for error is much bigger now than it was in 2016. Barring a big surprise at the last minute or an election that is not free and fair, Joe Biden is in very good position to become the next President of the United States.

Will the Coronavirus Deepen Our Extreme Individualism or Foster Solidarity?

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At a time when many Americans remain in their homes, only venturing out for essential needs, other Americans were going to packed bars to drink the night away. As some are separated from their loved ones who are desperately sick, perhaps on the brink of death, other Americans have been flying to Florida to party at the beach.

The response of the Trump administration to the coronavirus pandemic has been similarly reckless. Early action to prepare for the crisis, get testing capacity ready, ensure an adequate supply of needed medical goods, and encourage the social distancing necessary to contain the spread of the virus was absent. Instead, US President Donald Trump downplayed the threat and dismissed concerns about it as a “hoax” designed to undermine his presidency.

As the gravity of the crisis became more apparent to all and the potential for economic catastrophe loomed, Trump finally shifted away from such rhetoric, but it not clear that the administration has the desire or ability to respond swiftly and adequately to the crisis.

The crisis has revealed the emptiness of ‘America First’ isolationism. Populist nationalism offers no solution to many of the most critical global challenges we face, from climate change to global pandemics. And the costs of this head-in-the-sand approach are now plain for all to see—at least, all of those who are following the facts rather than dismissing factual reality as fake news.

The moral bankruptcy and recklessness of American libertarianism is also clear. The United States still lacks a system of universal healthcare—something that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, but is acutely problematic at a time like this. As businesses are forced to shut their doors, American workers are wondering how they will survive without an adequate social safety net. While some with libertarian inclinations have said that now is the time for robust government action, others continue to grasp tightly to a destructive ideology that is far too popular in the US.

These mentalities contribute to what Pope Francis has described as a ‘throwaway culture’. Everything is judged by its immediate utility. Human beings are treated as objects to be discarded when they are no longer of use to those pursuing their naked self-interest. Autonomy and choice trump human dignity and social justice.

Hyperindividualism has taken root in the United States. It drives this throwaway culture. And it is present on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum. In a country that has long prized individual initiative, it has reached new heights, threatening not only the vulnerable, but also the very foundations of our republican institutions—and that was before the present crisis.

This extreme individualism and the throwaway culture it generates offer the allure of freedom, but have instead delivered misery for countless Americans. There is a loneliness epidemic in the United States with a growing number of people experiencing chronic loneliness, lacking meaningful connections, and having fewer intimate friendships. Deaths of despair—from suicide to drug and alcohol poisoning and abuse—have exploded in the last two decades. As civil society has receded, isolation and despair have advanced.

One might think that the coronavirus crisis will only make things worse. But maybe not.

Perhaps forced isolation will allow Americans to see that we need meaningful connections in our lives—even those that bind us in some way.

Perhaps more Americans will come to realize that no person is an island. Everything we accomplish in life is dependent on others. And our actions—for better or worse—inevitably affect others. As we sacrifice our freedom of action to ‘flatten the curve’, we might come to see that sacrifices we make for the common good can save lives and protect human dignity. We might recognize that real freedom requires responsibility—that it is more than license.

The threat of coronavirus may open American eyes to the fragility of life and universal vulnerability of human existence. Illusions of control and absolute autonomy are being shattered. It is clear that our flourishing depends on the behavior of others. The comfortable individual existence many have focused intently on constructing is being exposed as a house of cards.

A firmer foundation for human flourishing is solidarity. It has the potential to foster the community that we crave as social beings. Instead of grasping for comfort in imagined invincibility, it can offer real support in shared sacrifices and vulnerability.

If solidarity grows stronger, it can help us respond not only to the crisis at hand, but the economic insecurity, senseless violence, bigotry, and environmental degradation that preceded it. It can inspire us to turn from plutocracy, isolationism, and xenophobia toward a greater commitment to social justice, the protection of human life and dignity, and ending the throwaway culture. And it can help to restore and revitalize democratic institutions and norms.

Perhaps by living apart, Americans will learn how to live together.

20th Century Critiques of Populist Nationalism Remain True

Pope Francis recently cautioned the world about the rise of populism and nationalism, comparing this development to the interwar period. We see it in the xenophobic backlash to the refugee crisis, as well as rising antisemitism, anti-Muslim discrimination, and other forms of bigotry. We see it in the rise of far right parties (often with neo-fascist roots) and Donald Trump, whose former chief strategist Steve Bannon (an alt-Catholic admirer of the integralist Charles Maurras) is working to undermine Catholic social teaching and the great achievements of the 20th century that were (mostly) achieved through the leadership of the Christian Democratic leaders the pope has repeatedly praised. None of these reactionary ideas are new. Thus, old critiques of populist nationalism remain just as true today as they were in the 20th century.

In The Fate of Man in the Modern World, Nicolas Berdyaev offers one such critique:

Nationalism turns nationality into a supreme and absolute value to which all life is subordinated. This is idolatry. The nation replaces God. Thus Nationalism cannot but come into conflict with Christian universalism, with the Christian revelation that there is neither Greek nor Jew, and that every man has absolute value.

He adds:

Nationalism preaches either seclusion, isolation, blindness to other nations and culture, self-satisfaction and particularism, or else expansion at the expense of others, conquest, subjection, imperialism. And in both cases it denies Christian conscience, contraverts the principle and the habits of the brotherhood of man. Nationalism is in complete contradiction to a personal ethic; it denies the supreme value of human personality.

The Christian response to a globalization that is excessively materialistic, individualistic, and libertarian is not supporting the return of nationalism but embracing a globalism shaped by solidarity, the recognition of both rights and responsibilities, respect for the dignity and worth of every person on the planet, social justice and authentic freedom, and a commitment to the global common good.

Love Opens Our Eyes to Beauty

According to Jean Anouilh, “Things are beautiful if you love them.” Love opens our eyes to beauty. In our culture, consumerism, materialism, and superficiality have created an epidemic of insecurity and distorted notions of beauty and attractiveness. And racism is intertwined with these lenses that warp the perceptions of many.

I recently ran across a terrific speech by Lupita Nyong’o in which she spoke about being younger and feeling unbeautiful—being teased about the shade of her skin and praying to God to have lighter skin. Her mom provided her with the wisdom that beauty was not something that she could consume, but something she just had to be. And she came to identify beauty with compassion.

When famous black women like Lupita Nyong’o are held up as symbols of beauty, it can perhaps help to alleviate some of the insecurity that young women with dark skin might experience, but her own story points to the limits of this. And she herself recognizes this, which is why she counseled girls to “get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.” This focus on compassion and character is an important, valuable message.

But even beyond this, there is a need to move past the artificial divide between external and internal beauty. When we love someone and recognize their beauty, we see the whole person. To divide them and focus on their internal or external nature is to depersonalize them, to strip them of their fundamental unity, their integral nature.

The reason Lupita Nyong’o’s mom could recognize her beauty was not because she looked at her internal beauty rather than her external appearance. It was because her mom had the ability to see her as she truly was, as one whole person. Love does not blind us to real beauty; it opens our eyes to it. The people who completely love the way their loved ones look are the ones who are right, not the ones with distorted vision. They become capable of seeing the beauty of this human person who has been made in the image of God—closer to seeing this person the way the God of Love sees each of us.

The way we see our loved ones should teach us about the worth and preciousness and beauty of each person. It should motivate us to dispense with notions of beauty and attractiveness that are inevitably dehumanizing, rooted in prejudice, and deeply harmful to others.

But if love cannot motivate us to do that, perhaps the desire to eradicate racism can. Even if the colorism and racism of aesthetic preferences that so many consciously and unconsciously accept feels uncontrollable or inevitable, it is not. There is a responsibility to dig deep into oneself and root out that bigotry, even if the majority of people casually accept it, and to view people as they are, as unique whole persons who are made in the image of God.

When I see little black girls express shame or disdain for their hair or the darkness of their skin, whether on the playground or in viral videos, this wounds me. I am physically sickened by the racism that generates deep insecurities and self-hatred. And my heart aches, not just because of the hurt experienced by these little girls and the pain their loved ones must experience when a precious child of God is blind to their own beauty, but also because of how casually our culture accepts this.

It’s time to start caring. It’s time to eradicate this bigotry. It is time to treat all human beings as whole persons.

One of the great champions of this type of personalism—of seeing and valuing people as they are—was Fred Rogers, the subject of the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. And in one of his most famous and beloved songs, Mr. Rogers expressed what it’s like to truly see someone and appreciate them:

It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.

But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.

A loving parent knows what it is like to love every part of a person, just as Mr. Rogers describes in the song.  A truly loving spouse does too. Once we see that we are perfectly capable of seeing people as whole persons, we can turn our backs on a culture of objectification. When we recognize that love opens our eyes to beauty, we can set aside those prejudices that we call preferences, and more and more people will feel comfortable recognizing their own worth and beauty.

Evaluating Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh through a Whole Life Prism

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Heidi Schlumpf has a new article that asks if US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is whole life, featuring the responses of a few whole life Catholic commentators. She notes that “Catholics are not monolithic, some will be happy with Kavanaugh, while others have serious concerns.” This is, of course, true. Catholics don’t fit into one box—right now there are mass-attending pro-choice liberals who are fretting about the prospect of Roe and Casey being overturned, while more conservative and libertarian Catholics may be excited by the idea of a right-wing Court that eschews judicial restraint in favor of pro-corporate, small government activism. She then quotes me:

“But for those who pretty consistently embrace the communitarian approach of Catholic social teaching and Pope Francis’ opposition to the throwaway culture, there is most often dissatisfaction with the current state of the Court and the prospect of new justices who will increase its polarization and politicization.”

With these Catholics and others who embrace a whole life approach, there is (and should be) great concern about justices using a supposedly textualist or originalist approach to overturn or undermine voting rights, gun control, environmental regulations, campaign finance reform, labor rights, consumer protections, financial regulation, and access to healthcare. Catholics who genuinely care about the common good don’t want people with preexisting conditions to lose their health insurance because of an overly activist Court that overturns a law that even many conservative judges and legal scholars consider constitutional. They do not want underregulation that could lead to another Great Recession or impenetrable barriers to political reform that stand in the way of redemocratizing our system of government and decreasing the dominance of economic elites.

At the same time, many who believe in the equal dignity and worth of each person would like to see an end to the liberal overreach, with rulings based on emanations and penumbras, that resulted in the US having one of the most permissive, libertarian approaches to abortion in the world. Some would like to give state legislatures carte blanche in regulating abortion, while others believe that 14th amendment protections should apply to unborn children.  Religious freedom is another key issue in Catholic social teaching that many serious Catholics and other proponents of universal human rights care deeply about, particularly given the threat of anti-Muslim discrimination at the present moment.

Given these priorities and the breadth of Catholic social teaching and the whole life agenda, in contrast to the focus on one or two issues that many special interest groups and voters with very little knowledge of constitutional law embrace, it is not surprising that there is trepidation about our increasingly polarized parties’ efforts to place their fellow ideologues on the Court and concern that this may be happening once again.

Schlumpf quotes other whole lifers, including Stephen Schneck and Kristen Day, who describe the importance of a whole approach in evaluating Kavanaugh and their initial thoughts on how his selection might measure up:

Stephen Schneck, former director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, said he has “a great deal of concern” about Kavanaugh’s record on issues such as health care, union rights, immigration and the environment.

“I hope he reflects on the whole of what’s incumbent on us as Catholics in public life,” Schneck told NCR.

Although he is hopeful that a pro-life justice like Kavanaugh might make some “progress against the problem of abortion in the United States,” Schneck added, “As Catholics, we can’t just look at these things narrowly from the perspective of abortion.”

The pro-life organization Democrats for Life is cautiously optimistic about Kavanaugh’s nomination, given his previous decisions that would seem to support limits, if not a complete overturning, of Roe v. Wade.

“But we’re also pro-life for the whole life,” said Democrats for Life’s executive director, Kristen Day, citing affordable health care, paid maternity leave and opposition to the death penalty as other important issues.

“We want to encourage pro-life legislators to really examine [Kavanaugh’s] record, look at his philosophy and give him a fair and careful look,” Day said.

Why Catholics Care About Economic Justice

In a new Vatican document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development (“Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding Some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System”), which was approved by Pope Francis, one section explains how the Church’s understanding of the social nature of the human person provides the foundation for the Church’s commitment to economic justice.

The document locates a key underlying source of economic injustice: “our contemporary age has shown itself to have a limited vision of the human person, as the person is understood individualistically and predominantly as a consumer” (9).

Catholic teaching rejects this extreme individualism, recognizing that human persons are social by nature:

Every person is born within a familial environment, enjoying a set of pre-existing relationships without which life would be impossible. The human person develops through the stages of life thanks to pre-existing bonds that actualize one’s being in the world as freedom continuously shared. These are the original bonds that define the human person as a relational being who lives in what Christian Revelation calls “communion”. (10)

This personalist understanding of the person and freedom offers a clear alternative to the extreme individualism of our age. It also provides the baseline for the Catholic understanding of human flourishing and ethics:

This original nature of communion, while revealing in every human person a trace of the affinity with God who creates and calls one into a relationship with himself, is also that which naturally orients the person to the life of communion, the fundamental place for one’s fulfillment. One’s own recognition of this character, as an original and constitutive element of our human identity, allows us to look at others not primarily as potential competitors, but rather as possible allies, in the construction of the good that is authentic only if it is concerned about each and every person simultaneously. (10)

The centrality of the quest for communion leads to a communitarian approach in pursuing social and economic justice that aims at fostering the global common good:

Such relational anthropology helps the human person to recognize the validity of economic strategies that aim above all to promote the global quality of life that, before the indiscriminate expansion of profits, leads the way toward the integral well-being of the entire person and of every person. No profit is in fact legitimate when it falls short of the objective of the integral promotion of the human person, the universal destination of goods, and the preferential option for the poor. These are three principles that imply and necessarily point to one another, with a view to the construction of a world that is more equitable and united. (10)

Markets, therefore, do not create morality, but must be properly ordered and utilized to promote higher principles of justice that directly flow from the Christian understanding of the human person:

For this reason, progress within an economic system cannot measured only by quantitative and profit-driven standards, but also on the basis of the well-being that extends a good that is not simply material. Every economic system is legitimate if it thrives not merely through the quantitative development of exchange but rather by its capacity to promote the development of the entire person and of every person. (10)