The Working Catholic
by William Droel
Go to the barbershop and get a hold of The Atlantic (June/18). Its cover features a baby in a Yale University outfit. Matthew Stewart contributes a 14-page article that gives fresh perspective to our economic scene. In recent years the class divide has been termed the 99% and the 1%. Years ago it was called bourgeois and proletariat. I’ve also heard it called the upper crust and the working stiffs, or the big shots and the rest of us.
The really rich (You-Can’t Touch-This) are the top, top 1/10%. Amazingly, there are only 160,000 households in this category. They currently hold 22% of U.S. wealth—about the same percentage as they held in the 1930s. Stewart’s story is about the next 9.9%. In dollars, it takes $1.2million net worth to enter the 9.9%. To get midway into that group takes $2.4million and its top echelon has $10million in wealth. If you have over $10million sitting around, you are entering the top, top group.
It is tempting to call this 9.9% group the nouveau riche. Stewart explains, however, that those in the 9.9% do not suddenly come into money. Yet, they are a new aristocracy because they inherit important advantages. Specifically, Stewart with fascinating details says those in the 9.9% inherit a model of stable family life and also inherit enough of what it takes (money, connections and more) to obtain a degree.
Stewart, a Princeton-educated philosopher, goes beyond a straight economic analysis to unpack a difficult dynamic. There is a “difference between a social critique and a personal insult,” he writes. But all of us are prone to reject that difference. We do not possess enough objectivity to leave personalities out of it. And even if we grasp the difference, we feign powerlessness over the social reality. Those in the 9.9% justifiably believe they have done something proper by using the institution of marriage. They see their college degree as evidence of intelligence, persistent study, an encouraging family and more. In other words, the 9.9% (like all of us) make the implicit presumption that blameless (moreover virtuous) actions must add up to a good society. It is hard for all of us to grasp that seemingly innocuous behavior can scatter obstacles around society, causing inequality to harden, mobility to stall and democracy to languish.
This point is all the more difficult to make without getting trapped into identity politics, righteousness, resentful feelings, victim posturing or sloganeering. The trap is disguised within many uttered or unexpressed phrases like, “It is my hard-earned money.” “It is your lazy lifestyle.” “The best people get into the best college.” “Don’t act on your privilege.”
Catholicism has a corresponding concept that recognizes that systems can be unjust, even if individuals are well-meaning and blameless on one level. Catholicism says, for example, that poverty is a social sin or a structural evil. This obviously does not mean that being poor is sinful. Nor does it mean that being rich is sinful. (Catholicism by the way has never had the prosperity gospel notion that being rich is a sign of virtue.) Structural sin means that the original aspirations of an institution or a system have greatly departed from God’s plan. A sinful or unjust institution or system makes it harder for people to be holy—poor people and rich people. By contrast, a healthy institution makes it easier for people to be whole and holy.
Catholicism has no better luck at explaining the “difference between a social critique and a personal insult.” A Catholic homilist, for example, almost never mentions racism or sexism. It would be counterproductive because the congregation immediately goes into default position. Catholicism, which is eager to increase participation in the sacrament of reconciliation, has no ritual for dealing with exclusionary school systems, with an unfair wage structure or with closed housing patterns. Who would confess what to whom? And how do any of us make amends?
It is easy to moralize. It is hard to devise realistic change. Start though with Stewart’s Atlantic article. If a 14-page article is too long for one haircut, ask your barber to loan you the magazine for a couple days.
Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work; INITIATIVES, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629.