I have been reading Russell Shaw’s book, Why We Need Confession, intermittently over the summer. As a Catholic theologian, he is making the argument for a return to confession, which according to him has been broadly abandoned by many in the Catholic church. It could be argued that it has also been abandoned by many in the protestant church as well. However, in this small book, he highlights some concepts about moral truth that may be helpful to recall. He specifically addresses situations when people exercise options that are against moral truth [I would call norms] because they see no other option available (i.e. “I didn’t have a choice”). He states,
First, there is a great deal of moral truth that, at least in principle, we are capable of knowing on our own, without the help of the Church. In general, this body of moral truth corresponds to the content of natural law.
Second, although we can know this body of moral truth on our own, very often we do not. Confusion, lack of time, our sinful inclinations, and other factors account for that failure.
Third, apart from revelation, we cannot expect to know a number of important truths pertaining to morality.
And, finally, the functioning of the Church as a teacher of moral truth is absolutely necessary with regard to the truths we can’t know apart from revelation and likewise necessary as a practical matter with regard to many truths of the natural moral law that we could—but generally don’t—arrive at on our own.
We all have choices even in situations where they seem absent. I believe Shaw makes a great point in reminding us that the church exists to bring clarity to those very situations. The Scriptures repeatedly illustrate the value of wisdom and its location. Proverbs 2:6-13 indicates that wisdom originates with God, that “discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you,” and “wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse” (vss 11-12). Those who are trusting in Christ rest in his wisdom, who is the “wisdom of God.” When we rest in him we are wise (I Corinthians 1:26-30). The church, when acting on Christ’s behalf, can clarify moral choices. We have to be humble enough to inquire.
 Russell B. Shaw, Why We Need Confession, (Huntington, Ind: Our Sunday Visitor Pub. Division, 1986), 60.
Banks provides an easy target to criticize. Perhaps it’s because they have money and we, the common people have little. Maybe it’s because we lump them into the “Wall Street Fat-cats” category that tops the nation’s most hated list. I believe there is another reason: They trigger the “somethings afoot switch” that resides deep inside me. That feeling similar to when one walks on a buy here pay here used car lot like the one in the first Transformers movie. The feeling that the words coming out of the bank representative’s mouth do not match the reality that you will soon face with their services. A recent editorial in the NY Times proposed that one such reality resides in bank fees for account overdrafts. They cite two findings from research groups:
many banks fail to fully explain their overdraft policies and some have bullied customers into opting in, warning that “your debit card may not work the same way anymore.”… [and]… more than half of customers with overdraft “protection” did not believe that they had opted into the coverage.
Now, one could argue that it is the consumer’s responsibility to know what products they are purchasing. However, the bank has a responsibility to bring clarity to purchase. Call it fair product labeling. When there are other options available, and the banks scare people into taking the $35.00 per overdraft protection, it’s a sign of greed on the part of the banks. I would suggest it is greater than greed, it is usury. As blogged in an earlier post, this bank activity is yet another sign that the foundation of capitalism, a shared ethic that places the needs of others above personal gain, has deteriorated into virtual obscurity.
The Christian response to the bank’s actions is not to just live within one’s means and thereby avoid such fees, although that is good advice (e.g.Proverbs 3:9-10) . Nor is the Christian response to pull all funds from the bank and bury the money in the backyard, although some do (Matthew 25:24-27 demonstrates this is not best practice). I believe the Christian response to the bank’s actions can serve as a reminder of the many ways we take advantage of people with our own fees and hidden costs. One such example is time: the amount of time take from other people that is unexpected. For example, how many times have we been in conversation with someone face-to-face and answered an incoming call, making the person in front of us wait until we are done? We might think it rude, if that same scenario happened in person instead of over the phone. However, we do it with our phones often. This is only one example; there are many more. The point is that we should be aware of others needs and place their needs in front of our wants. That avoids usury and greed. It creates in us an awareness that the world is not about serving us, but our serving others (Galatians 5:13, Mark 10:42-45, I Corinthians 4:1-2).
“People suggest that Smith was all about self-interest and, therefore, a wholly unfettered, laissez-faire economy, consisting perhaps of “Rambo” capitalists….This version of Smith originates from his famous “Wealth of Nations,” which was published in 1776, 19 years after his first book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.””
I have been contemplating the notion that capitalism is fatally flawed without an ethical underpinning. Adam Smith presumed that this would always be present in his system outlined in Wealth of Nations. The absence of a moral sentiment [as outlined in The Theory of Moral Sentiments] creates an environment that we see emerging today. Perhaps the Enron scandal should have been “the shot heard round the world” in the world of political philosophy. In this scandal, a divorce between Adam Smith two essays took place. A new post Enron landscape emerged that valued pure capitalism without any ethical restraint. The latest reflection of this economic mutant thinking is the financial meltdown of 2006. The result is the same in both cases. Greed overtook an moral obligation to show restraint even in the face of extra profits. Without a moral compass, the gap between the oppressed and the powerful will continue to grow.