In the last years of the 12 century, while the great Cathedral of Notre Dame was being built in Paris, a debate arose among theologians: Could usurers and prostitutes contribute money towards building the church? The theologians reached the conclusion that usurers had to first make restoration to those they had victimized by their usurious conduct. Prostitutes, on the other hand, who had worked for their money and therefore did not have to return it to their clients, could give funds for the completion of the cathedral although, not wanting to encourage their profession, the bishop declined the working women’s offer of dedicating a special window all their own within the rising gothic masterpiece.
In the course of the rest of the Middle Ages, the Church came to relax its condemnations of usury. The debate was intertwined with, and difficult to separate from, the endemic anti-Semitism that characterized medieval Europe, a bigotry that sometimes led to the expulsion of Jews, other times to the confiscation of their profits, but actions that were, oftentimes, held in check only by the knowledge that an impoverished king or noble might yet have need of the services of a banker. Then, as now, people understood that there was something different about banks, that their profits are actually not derived by the sweat of anyone’s brow, that their ability to control the rest of the economy can become enormous if they are not kept in check. And, then, as now, bankers willing to lend credit were understood to be essential to the functioning of the rest of the economy.
It may seem bizarre to us to think of theologians debating the morality of usury. We live in a culture that celebrates the free market and revel in its excess. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” has spawned a host of spin-offs designed to incite envy. The once great magazine “Architectural Digest” no longer has intelligent articles examining architectural developments; it is now the interior designers’ equivalent of soft-porn. More importantly, is it not astounding that less than four years after the entire economy nearly went over the cliff on account of the reckless behavior of Wall Street speculators, the financial sector has not only restored its profits, but its reputation?
The restoration of those profits by the very companies that brought on the economic crisis, while the unemployment continues to hover just above 8 percent, is remarkable not least for it shows how much power and control the banks still have at their disposal. It is stunning, to me at least, that Governor Mitt Romney is running for the presidency not so much on the strength of his record as chief executive of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but on the strength of his record as the chief executive of Bain Capital. This fact has turned the presidential contest into a debate not only about the relative merits of two candidates, nor about their positions on a variety of issues. The nation is engaged in a debate about the role of capitalism in our society.
In 1946, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published the book “The Age of Jackson,” examining a critical period in American history in which the role of banks and investors, what Jackson and Schlesinger called “the moneyed interest,” figured prominently. This debate was at the center of the earliest political debates in the administration of George Washington. It was central to the candidacies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, and Franklin Roosevelt. Curiously, and sadly, those earlier political debates entailed greater ideological divisions, more fundamental disagreements, than those that characterize our debates today, even though today our nation is experiencing greater political polarization. The Obama administration, which has entrusted such issues primarily to the leadership of Secretary Timothy Geithner, can hardly be accused of colluding with socialism.
The Democrats no less than the Republicans are dependent upon Wall Street contributions to fill their campaign coffers and the Democrats, no less than the Republicans, have failed to question the fundamental premises about the economy that were bequeathed to the nation during the long tenure of Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve. Greenspan, you may recall, had another job all those years he led the Fed: He was for many years the Secretary-Treasurer of the D.C. Chapter of the Ayn Rand Society. His commitment to deregulation of the financial sector put the lazy back into laissez-faire and it put the entire nation’s economy at risk. The nation is still paying the price for those policies and those risks, even though the financial sector has rebounded handsomely since the meltdown of late 2008.
Schlesinger’s book concluded with a chapter entitled “Traditions of Democracy.” He wrote, “The tradition of Jefferson and Jackson might recede, but it could never disappear. It was bound to endure in America so long as liberal capitalistic society endured, for it was the creation of the internal necessities of such a society. American democracy has come to accept the struggle among competing groups for the control of the state as a positive virtue – indeed, as the only foundation for liberty. The business community has ordinarily been the most powerful of these groups, and liberalism in America has been ordinarily the movement on the part of the other sections of society to restrain the power of the business community. This was the tradition of Jefferson and Jackson, and it has been the basic meaning of American liberalism.”
One can wish that Mr. Geithner had read Schlesinger’s opus, and that he had kept a copy of it close at hand. He didn’t. In America today, very few people are willing to point out the obvious: That membership in the middle class no longer confers the benefits it once did. In Schlesinger’s day, a person could work at a company and assume he or she would work at that company until retirement. One could assume that such work would permit a worker to purchase a home, put his or her children through college, and save a bit for retirement. In 1946, the people assumed that their government had a role to play in promoting broad economic growth that created the possibility for upward economic mobility. Today, those assumptions sound almost quaint. But the assumption at the heart of Greenspan’s ideology and Romney’s candidacy – that the titans of finance know best and any attempt to restrain their power is somehow un-American – that assumption has proven itself remarkably resilient, the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
The Magisterium of the Catholic Church has always been allergic to laissez-faire economics, recognizing that it deprives the human person of a proper understanding of his social nature, ignores the claims of the Common Good upon the goods of the world, and is socially disruptive of families and civil society. Congressman Paul Ryan may try and invoke the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church in defending his Rand-inspired approach to economics, but his is a failed project. Governor Romney’s fawning encomiums for Ryan’s budget should alarm anyone who is familiar with the writings of Pope Leo XIII, or Pope Pius XI, or Pope John XXIII, or Pope Paul VI, or Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI. Unfortunately, today’s Democratic Party has made itself incapable of seriously sustaining the traditions of Jefferson and Jackson that Schlesinger detailed, still less of the Social Magisterium of the Catholic Church. But, Catholic voters this November will have their voices and their votes. It is time to speak out and reclaim the tradition of Jefferson and Jackson and Leo and Pius and John and Paul and John Paul and Benedict. It is time to remind Americans of the issues that engaged those medieval theologians in Paris so long ago: We may need financiers, but it is immoral to turn our culture and our politics over to their control.