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In these troubled confused times, I’d like to start off with a prayer relating to our subject matter: Two Thomases and Our Times. One of these Thomases is one of the Church's most preeminent theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas.
The other is the Thomas Register, or Thomasnet.com as it’s known on the internet. Many of those seeking a way out of our current troubles would be wise to keep these two in mind somehow. The prayer itself follows:
Dear Lord, Help us all to resist the siren songs coming from those who speak of a false security and a peace that does not come from You. In these troubled times it is all too easy to see the common good as something we can achieve without You, yet time and time again in history this has proven to be a tragically mistaken notion. Now more than ever, help us all to see that Your will must be done in all things, not that of some supposed committee of experts who ignore you and wish to make themselves Gods, but are merely fallible corruptible human beings. Amen.
Getting back to the Thomases: I mentioned Aquinas because of his voluminous writings on our fallen nature; and on how much our Creator offers us ways to share His justice, peace, and love.
Aquinas’ monumental work the Summa Theologica covers quite thoroughly, in some 3000 articles spanning 5 volumes, what author Kevin Vost refers to as “faith, morals, the nature of God, and the nature of human experience” with insights to help us best reflect God’s grace. I’d like to recommend here Mr. Vost’s book The One Minute Aquinas, for a wonderfully accessible overview of St. Thomas’ teachings.
While our Lord doesn’t offer us heaven on this earth, He has given us a way to achieve a more harmonious existence through prayer, His commandments and His church with its sacraments.
He seeks to strengthen us in our good intentions through prayer and communion and to help us with our sinful proclivities in confession and examining our consciences regularly; and by bringing out in us true humility and respect for others.
And while we see Catholicism weakened from scandal and theological tepidity these days, Christ did promise us that the gates of Hell would not prevail against his church! (Matt 16:18)
Thomas' Register is a different kind of voluminous work. Years ago, I would search its many pages when looking for products for my business. As mentioned earlier it is now available on the internet and still contains listings for many industrial companies and suppliers.
The fundamental point, and linkage between these two, is that we need to have a free market, not one that is somehow state controlled, for businesses to flourish that can address peoples' needs for goods and services; and to give them the means to use their own God-given talents and abilities in serving others as well. Yet the marketplace needs people who have a Godly moral foundation to work properly and fairly.
Speaking of suppliers, Leonard Reed, in a 1958 essay called “I Pencil”, lauded by the famous economist Milton Friedman, showed the impressive network of interdependent businesses and people with their different types of expertise that go into making that little writing implement we all use.
And that very interdependence is what God the Father told the 14th century mystic St. Catherine of Siena, that He desired from us and why He gave people different levels of talents and skills in different areas.
As he expressed it in private revelations he gave her recorded in a book still in print called The Dialogue:
I could easily have created men possessed of all that they should need both for body and soul, but I wish that one should have need of the other, [emphasis added] and that they should be My ministers to administer the graces and the gifts that they have received from Me.
Keeping in mind God the Father’s words, when so many of our elites favor a concentration of economic as well as political power, what Central planning board could bring together so many people of diverse skills and backgrounds to make not just our pencils, but just about everything we use? How could any such entity possibly foresee all human ingenuity and potential?
Yet many people today are thinking only of tearing down the supposedly oppressive order we're under now so that somehow utopia will emerge like the Phoenix bird rising from the ashes!
Too many of our intelligentsia and various cultural elites, bored, perhaps understandably, by the many arcane details involved in the production of goods and services think much like Vladimir Lenin, that everything just gets done somehow.
When he launched the tragic Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917, he envisioned a state that would become “one office and one factory, with equal work and equal pay” as he wrote that year.
Yet in such a state that controls the means of production loyalty to the ruling party winds up trumping actual expertise. Considerations of supply and demand for what is actually needed are shunted aside in favor of pre-planned quotas decided upon by some central committee or other such planning board.
As a result people wind up experiencing shortages not just of what might be considered luxuries but necessities as well! (This doesn’t apply to those running the show, of course! They get the very special privileges often railed against by propagandists everywhere.)
There is a popular expression. “Think globally, act locally”. While we hear the first part constantly these days, the second part, acting locally, is now more important than ever.
Globalists often talk a good game of the interdependence of nations in acknowledging the need for all of us to work together in combating the world’s ills. But the question becomes how much authority are we giving, and to whom, to solve these problems?
There is a Catholic principle known as subsidiarity, that can reinforce this interdependence God the Father spoke of, in a good way. This fancy term means, according to Catholic Answers, that “matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized competent authority rather than by a higher and more distant one, whenever possible”.
In other words, smaller is better in many situations. Those closest to a particular need are often more able to fulfill it properly and advance human dignity in the process.
Or as author Trent Horn put it, in a great new book entitled Can a Catholic Be a Socialist? (his answer is no, by the way): “[Subsidiarity] is the belief that a central, more central authority should subside or ‘sit back’ and intervene only when lower, local authorities cannot address a problem.”
Horn quotes from the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno from Pope Pius XI in 1931 where the Holy Father wrote
As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations. Still ... just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them. (This is taken from Paragraph 79 of that encyclical.)
And as Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate:
In order not to produce a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature, the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together. Globalization certainly requires authority, insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued. This authority, however, must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified way, if it is not to infringe upon freedom. (This is taken from Paragraph 57 of that encyclical.)
It is worth noting here that Lenin, like the Communist regime he set up saw God and religion itself as grave impediments to the true justice that only a Marxist minded militantly atheistic state could bring about, one in which any notion of subsidiarity was hardly considered, if it was considered at all!
Yet when the State replaces God as the focus of worship there is great dysfunction at best and much misery and loss of life at worst, as we can see from looking at Russia, China, and Cuba, for more prominent examples from the last century.
However the big caveat here, as mentioned above is that the free market, what many refer to simply as capitalism, needs a moral society to work properly, dare I say one governed by traditional Catholic morality! It is not enough just to rail against socialism for its many failures and assaults on our God-given free will.
As a reminder, as St. Thomas would gladly attest, turning to God for his help, guidance, and grace is essential for all involved no matter how small or large the task at hand might be!
He wrote in the Summa Theologica of what he called the "five effects of grace in us: of these, the first is, to heal the soul; the second, [for us] to desire good; the third, to carry into effect the good proposed; the fourth, to persevere in good; the fifth, to reach glory [with God]." (ST I-II. Q.111. article 3)
Many of our supposed elites now strive to set up a one world government ostensibly to create a better more just world with God taking a back seat if He is thought of at all. Yet, we must remember as Catholics and Christians what Jesus said: “I am the vine and you are the branches, and without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
And then there's this inspiring directive found in Psalm 127 as well: “Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it. Unless the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain that keepeth it.” (Psalm 127:1)
Remember as well that the more we empower some corporate/socialist technocratic mixture of Big corporations, Big technology and a resulting Big bureaucracy, particularly in this pandemic age, supposedly on our behalf, the less power we’ll wind up actually having.
And such entities often wind up increasing poverty overall rather than alleviating it, although they might provide some needed short term relief for the many needy among us for a time.
This also ties in with a deceptively alluring notion that mankind can bring about a truly just and peaceful world, a veritable heaven on earth, without any help from God!
Needless to say, efforts in this regard have been more hellish, starting way back with the French Revolution which was supposed to somehow exalt “reason” over religion in the name of a utopian sounding “brotherhood" of man but ended up creating much chaos and bloodshed instead. And it has been estimated that over 100 million people perished under Communism in the last century.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano summed up both the problem and the solution in an interview with Life Site News when he said “There cannot be brotherhood among men, if it excludes the common Fatherhood of the One True God, One and Triune.”
Going back to my focus on subsidiarity, I do not mean to say that all big companies or other such entities are necessarily bad. But particularly in socialist societies or those run by state or crony capitalism they are less willing and able to actually respond and fill people’s needs.
And however democratic a socialist system may start out being, it can easily become more and more authoritarian, and even totalitarian, as those running it become increasingly involved in maintaining and even expanding their power.
They become more and more likely as well to censor any information that goes against their particular narrative. Truth is hidden or smothered and mistakes never get corrected nor corruption brought to light!
In this day and age when electronic monitoring is becoming more and more intrusive, such as in the “social credit scores” in China that dictate where one can work, shop, and travel, we face increasingly difficult times both for Catholicism and for society at large! And, of course, for freedom!
We could all find ourselves soon living in a world where much of our God-given dignity and power to run our lives has been taken away in favor of some sort of top-down government.
This state might promise, and even provide, some sort of sustenance, but it will control us and surveill all our activities in a manner the likes of which the KGB and Gestapo could only dream of, especially in our increasingly cashless society!
Run afoul of the authorities? They will soon be able to leave you without food, employment or shelter with a few keystrokes so that some mandatory ID card or, heaven forbid, some implanted chip, no longer works, for example!
While the free market, or capitalism indeed is capable of unjust excesses it provides the best way to meet people's needs and even to fulfill their dreams.
When actively joined with Christianity it can be a force for good allowing people of differing strengths and talents to create and share an increasingly abundant pool of resources for the betterment of society and lifting up more of the world’s poor out of poverty!
Which, again, is not meant to take all private enterprise off the hook by any means. From the Big multinationals to the small slumlords, those running things who are only interested in more and more money and power wind up ruining countless lives, and, not coincidentally, imperiling their own souls.
With no supernatural faith, or just a superficial one at best, they risk winding up like the rich man in our Lord's parable who finds himself condemned to hell for neglecting the needs of a beggar at his gate (Luke 16:19-31). Or the rich fool when God foils his plans to eat, drink and be merry in his love affair with mammon (Luke 12:16-21).
No purely human system can ever work the way our creator wishes it too to advance human dignity. Sooner or later greed and selfishness take over if the people running things think of themselves as Gods rather than God’s children! Corruption and incompetence at meeting people’s needs becomes the order of the day.
The famous 19th century Patron Saint of Parish Priests, the Curé of Ars Jean-Marie Vianney, referred to the larcenous spirit that infects so many of us in various enterprises, both large and small, when he said in a sermon to his mainly agrarian flock in the small town of Ars in France:
My dear brethren...the most common thefts are those committed in the course of buying and selling. Let us examine this more closely so that you may recognise the wrong that you do and, at the same time, see how you can set about correcting it... You will take the precaution of putting the smallest and the poorest specimens [of a crop] in the midst of the bunch. You will possibly say: "But if I didn't do that, I wouldn't sell so much."
To put it another way, if you conducted yourself like a good Christian, you would not rob as you do….You have mixed your wine with another of poorer quality, yet you sell it as a good and unadulterated wine. If people show signs of not believing you, you will swear that it is good, and it is not once but twenty times that you thus give your soul over to the Devil. Ah, my children, there is no need for you to be over anxious to give yourselves to him -- you have been his for a long time now! ..."I do the same as everyone else. So much the worse for anyone who is taken in. I have been cheated; I try to cheat in my own turn; otherwise I would lose too much."
Is it, my children, that if others are damning themselves, then you must needs damn yourselves also? They are going to Hell -- must you then go along with them? You would prefer to have a few extra pennies and go to Hell for all eternity?.."Ah, if you were in our place you would do the very same as we do." Yes, my dear children, without any doubt I would do the very same as you do if, as you do, I wanted to be damned. But since I want to be saved, I would do the exact opposite of what you do.
This is not to be a knock against private property per se. Joseph of Arimathea was able to provide a clean tomb for Jesus’ wonderfully short-lived stay there after all!
It’s all about understanding our appetites and how easily they can make us slaves to sinful impulses if we don’t follow God’s desires for us to use our talents and abilities, whatever they may be, to help each other for our good and His glory.
There is a seductively dangerous notion that somehow if we just nationalize business or otherwise put it firmly under the thumb of government control utopia will somehow emerge. But you cannot nationalize virtue! That has to come from the graces God gives us in prayer and in His sacraments, and it must be tended to and nurtured like a very special plant.
Each of our souls needs to be swept clean of the dust and grime of concupiscence and attraction to sin that builds up in them every day. Prayer and the sacramental life can also help tamp down the greedy parts of our nature in reminding us that we are not the sum of our possessions, or that he or she who dies with the most toys does not win!
In fact when looking at our existence as an earthly pilgrimage towards our afterlife, God willing, in heaven, we see from a scriptural perspective alone how much excess wealth can be an impediment to our salvation.
Those greedy Gordon Gekko types, from the movie Wall Street, for whom too much is not enough, and think only of their bank accounts rather than the common good indeed abuse the marketplace and give capitalism a bad name.
They themselves may very well find they have lost their souls someday, winding up like the rich man in hell in the parable mentioned earlier! They clearly lack both temperance and prudence, two of the four Cardinal virtues which are essential components of that other one we all crave, or at least in the case of many virtue signalers nowadays claim to crave, justice!
We've seen time and time again, without God calling the shots, how easily unjust people's idea of justice can be, particularly when it is based soley on the power of those defining it!
Without God’s grace, which St. Thomas rightly called "nothing short of partaking of the Divine nature" those in charge, filled with arrogance, often ignore the people they claim to serve or give them solutions to their problems that don't work as they try to do more than they can properly handle!
This can be especially true in planned or otherwise heavily bureaucratic economies. It is indeed true that planning itself is by no means wrong or evil. In fact many companies have run afoul of the needs of their customers by concentrating only on short term profit at the expense of longer term concerns of what is actually best for the company.
But when fulfilling a plan, like some predetermined quota, becomes paramount over all concerns as to whether it is working or not; or is just meant to serve one person (such as a Mao or Stalin) or a small group of elites, the results can be disastrous.
It is worth noting here that both Mao and Stalin precipitated horrible famines in their countries: Stalin, with the people of Ukraine in the 1930’s when he requisitioned all their food in punishment over policy disputes; and Mao with his “Great Leap Forward”, from 1958-1962 which forced people into supposedly self-sufficient but failing communities that led to mass starvation. Over 4 million people perished in Ukraine and anywhere between 15-45 million in China!
On a less dramatic note, think about how much money local, state, and federal governments ask of us in taxes. How much of that goes down a rabbit hole of waste, fraud, and abuse, bribery, and excessive bureaucracy?
And have you noticed in the midst of so many social programs available supposedly to help lift the poor out of poverty, how many people were still stuck in some kind of subsidized misery even before this Pandemic hit?
And how the problem is always framed, when programs don’t work, not about how to make them more functional, but rather on how they're always short on funds? We've all seen examples as well of municipalities doubling down on what doesn't work, either from lack of ingenuity on the part of those running things or because of too much red tape getting in the way!
Also consider that all the rationing of food, goods, and most tellingly and in some cases tragically, medical care that becomes commonplace in far left states. When everything is free you tend to get what you pay for and you yourself become less and less free and more and more a ward of the state.
I realize that it is important to take into account in this time of great economic uncertainty and massive debt people everywhere are looking to governments for much needed assistance. But as much as we can, bringing in Catholic teaching such as that I’ve been discussing here about subsidiarity and God-given virtue becomes more not less essential as we move, hopefully, into a post-pandemic paradigm.
In summary, the takeaway here, coming back to our two Thomases, is that we need to keep in mind our Lord’s gospel message as reflected in St. Thomas’ wonderful compendia of church teachings; and that true interdependence comes from societies in which people are free to share their time, talents, and labor in a myriad of specialties and interests reflecting their God-given abilities, free from the constraints found in top-down command and control regimes.
St. Thomas reminds us of the importance of genuine virtue and Thomas’ Register, which focuses mainly but not exclusively, on industrial needs, reminds us of the great variety of goods and services that a free market can provide to keep things running smoothly. It can only keep doing so, however, in a society imbued with the proper Christian spirit and a genuine love of God and neighbor!