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Nice Words

November 1, 2018 (1,699 words)

Christendom College is a small Catholic institution of higher learning located on the outskirts of a sleepy little Shenandoah Valley town by the name of Front Royal, Virginia. It prides itself on being faithful to the Church’s Magisterium, and maintains this fidelity by steering clear of any federal funding. No small feat, in today’s world of high-cost education.

The college recently completed a two-year fund-raising campaign, which had the familiar objectives of all such campaigns: erecting new buildings – in this case a much larger chapel on campus – increasing the school’s endowment, and adding to its operating budget to handle the steady uptick in enrollment being experienced.

In announcing the successful completion of the campaign, Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, the school’s President since 1992, had this to say:

“We can respond by boldly proclaiming that Christ is King, and we want to affirm that He is King, that His mother is Queen, and that He will have a place where he will rule, where he will be honored, and the great Eucharistic sacrifice will be offered daily here, on Christendom’s campus, with fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium, and with devotion, love, and passion.”

… inspirational talk coming from presidential mouths

You won’t hear this sort of inspirational language coming from presidential mouths at any of our country’s well-known, high-enrollment Catholic universities (e.g., Fordham, Georgetown, Notre Dame, et al), for one very simple reason. Their Catholic mission has been severely compromised by federal money. The worm turned back in 1967, when the infamous Land O’Lakes statement about “academic freedom” opened the door to a king’s ransom in government funding. Christendom College was founded a decade later by historian Warren H. Carroll as an antidote to such fundamental corruption.

That it has been able to not only maintain its educational integrity all these years, but indeed prosper in a less-than-favorable environment, is a supreme tribute to the commitment and dedication of the administration and faculty, starting with Dr. O’Donnell. And it is also due in no small measure to the fund-raising prowess Dr. O’Donnell has been able to develop and demonstrate over the years.

Would that there were more places like Christendom that we could send our children and grandchildren to be educated at the college level. It is truly a beacon in the darkness, and may it continue to find favor with families who know a good thing when they see it.

… Christ is King everywhere, not just on Christendom’s campus

At the risk of sounding a sour note amidst the jubilation, allow me to point out that Christ is supposed to be King not just on the campus of Christendom College, but across our great nation, and throughout the entire world.

Christendom does a fine job training its charges to bring a reliably Catholic perspective to bear on cultural matters. But that is only half the battle. Stepping off the hallowed ground of Christendom’s campus one enters a world where Profit is King. And Christendom’s curriculum as it is presently constituted, for all its other praiseworthy attributes, does not address this underlying disconnect.

The political science department there still teaches that our present iteration of free-market capitalism is unabashedly congruent with Christian principles in general, and with Catholic social teaching as articulated via papal teaching since 1891, in particular.

This is a most unfortunate oversight, and amounts to an Achilles heel. What is preventing Christendom from tackling the last piece of the Magisterium’s puzzle? I can’t say for sure, since I’m not there. But from the outside it would seem its administration and faculty are hamstrung by what is a very common misreading of the economic landscape on the part of those who consider themselves to be religiously orthodox.

… a common misreading of the economic landscape

As the 20th century chugged along one of its most disconcerting developments was how religious orthodoxy became inextricably entwined with political conservatism. Because such conservatism has always been aligned with an every-man-for-himself “free market,” which simply cannot be reconciled with Christian principles.

Stated plainly, when it comes to the economic question, conservatives do not conduct themselves as Christians. The liberty and the freedom at the heart of our Founding – which conservatives take such pride in and are forever crowing about – give the clever and advantaged license to run roughshod over those lesser mortals ill-equipped to duke it out in a survival-of-the-fittest competition.

Of course liberty and freedom are synonyms for “individual emancipation,” and it is the absolute emancipation of the individual that the ideology known as classical liberalism has bequeathed to us. It is this “emancipation” from any objective, moral restraint that inspired the idea of a liberal democracy in the first place.

The United States set out to be the perfect embodiment of what a liberal democracy could be. It was never intended to be an expression of Christianity, as many hopefuls continue to insist, despite some reassuring words uttered by a few of the more upright Founders.

…liberal democracy is the antithesis of “Christ is King”

Religious freedom, or religious pluralism (the antithesis of “Christ is King”), is the cultural touchstone of a liberal democracy, with economic freedom (aka free-market capitalism) being its economic touchstone.

What Christendom College does not quite seem to understand, at least to my way of thinking, is how the very thing they are arrayed against in the cultural arena, they continue to embrace in the economic arena.

But maybe I shouldn’t hold this against my favorite college too much, since to date no one else operating anywhere in academia has been able to untangle this thorny issue, either.

Perhaps it is up to those of us who operate out here in the land where Profit is King to show the way for our ivory tower friends. So to all those wealthy benefactors who helped Christendom exceed its recent fund-raising goals, I have a few questions…

How do you make your money? Does the firm you work for or represent “make available to the public quality goods and services at fair prices”? Or to put it a slightly different way, does your firm “meet the needs of the world with goods that are truly good and truly serve.”

The first guideline is from the Business Roundtable, circa 1981. The second guideline is from the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, circa 2012.

…objective guidelines for morally licit business behavior

Do you run your own show? If you are a successful business owner with a payroll, implementing Catholic social teaching begins with seeing to it that employees receive a just distribution of the profit being generated by the business, according to their proportional contribution.

To do this, the entrepreneurial owner must forcibly set aside the rugged, trailblazer mindset that “I took all the risks, and put in all those outrageously long hours, so I deserve the rewards.” This attitude comes to us courtesy of classical liberalism, the Protestant Reformation, and the Enlightenment, and has absolutely nothing to do with a traditional Catholic understanding.

As a breed entrepreneurs are typically bright, industrious, and natural-born problem solvers. These special talents are bestowed on the entrepreneurial spirit by the Creator. In the right order of things, such an individual would seek to use their talents for the benefit of the common or greater good. Doing so contributes to the material well-being and yes, even to the spiritual well-being of society as a whole.

Therefore, the first fruit of the entrepreneurial gift should be gainful and justly-compensated employment for others, rather than merely the building up of one’s own pile of loot.

Promoting altruistic concepts in the workplace such as the common good and individual dignity is nothing but a simple acknowledgment that every employee who is conscientious and hard-working deserves a living wage that allows full participation in the economic and social realms of human existence.

…applying “love thy neighbor” to your employees

It boils down to applying that old chestnut “love thy neighbor as thyself” to one’s employees, not just to the guy who lives next door.

What of Christendom College’s wealthy benefactors who are products of huge corporate conglomerates, who have made their money by being good company men and women? While I have less inside experience with that world, my instincts tell me the more money you are being paid by said large firm, the more likely you are to be doing something you might not be so proud of.

Look, we all have to make a living and support our family, and a lone individual will not be able to change the course of a major corporation in any meaningful way. But perhaps one can maintain one’s integrity in smaller increments. Such as not accepting every last promotion that pushes you further up the org chart, thereby making you that much more complicit in activity that falls outside the Business Roundtable’s and the Pontifical Council’s definition of morally licit business behavior.

As a general rule, the more money we find ourselves with, the more questionable some of our behavior has probably been. For those of us who are clever or advantaged, for whom unfettered capitalism is working quite well, thank you very much, implementing Catholic social teaching on the economic question will more than likely mean we end up having less money.

Writing a big, health check to a worthy cause is all well and good. But our tax deduction philanthropy will not balance the books when it comes time to face the four last things. Better to try and tame the raging Profit is King mentality in whatever modest way we are able to initiate. No matter if that effort results in our having less spare cash to throw at worthy causes.

Forcing our self-centered capitalist system to function more fairly will eventually yield tangible results for those earnest, salt-of-the-earth Christendom College students we are so eager to help educate. These highly motivated young adults are among the last people on earth who graduate, get married, and start big families. Only to then find themselves struggling within an economic framework that cares not a whit for their well-being.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
November 1, 2018

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