By Ted Schmidt
April 2001

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As Christians celebrate Easter, many Canadians are feeling a certain skittishness, an unease about the times in which we are living. Global restructuring has not brought benefits to most people:

  • the gap between the poorest 20 percent of the world has increased from the ratio of 30:1 in 1960 to 78:1 in 1999;
  • globally, 1.3 billion people struggle to survive on $1.00 per day;
  • one in five do not expect to live beyond 40 years;
  • three out of four in the poorest countries will not see their 50th year (all United Nations statistics). In the developed world a landmark survey of the International Labour Organization reported "record levels of stress in the workforce...burnout and depression spiraling out of control." (Guardian, October 12, 2000)

There can be little doubt that in the two-thirds world generally south of the Equator, massive global restructuring and the Structural Adjustment Programs of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have wreaked havoc with the overall health and education futures there. Obsessed with debt repayment to first world banks (for debts in which the principal has already been paid), the IMF's policies result in drastic cutbacks to poor countries' health and education budgets. The basic health, education, nutrition and family needs of Africa could be met at around $9 billion a year. In 1996, sub-Saharan Africa paid the developing world $13.4 billion in debt payments. This quite plainly is a massive injustice.

This first Easter of the millennium finds much of the world like the vulnerable Christ of the Gospel: still in poverty, outside the vast benefits of a globalized economy that privileges a small minority. In the time of Jesus all wealth flowed to the centre... Rome. Provinces like Palestine were bled dry to feed the imperial hunger for more.

Today, war on the Christ (who represents the world's vulnerable) is still advancing. This time it is not Rome who is making war on Jesus, it is financial institutions and transnational corporations answerable not to the common good of the human family but to shareholders demanding maximum profit.

In the 60s there was a time of hope for the global village when awareness was percolating that we were one human family as the Creator envisioned. This was intensified at the end of that decade when we all saw the Earth from the Apollo space ship. We saw the big, blue marble floating out there with no borderlines visible. We were becoming one people.

The Canadian social contract accepted that the state provide for its citizen's basic health and welfare. Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, Old Age Pension were the result. This contract was an attempt to insure the common good of all citizens. It was recognition that each person has dignity and that civilized society would redistribute some of its wealth to ensure this. Thus was born the framework of our Canadian narrative, an inclusive story forged by faith-filled Christians like Tommy Douglas, J.S. Woodsworth and Moses Coady.

There was huge hope that Catholics and Christians in general would advance the cause of God's Reign on Earth. And in many ways this has happened. Countless young Catholics accepted the Vatican II challenge that, "the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of those of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ" (Gaudium et Spes, #1); that "the whole People of God gathered together by Christ were in solidarity with the entire human family" (#3). We were convinced "that the benefits of culture ought to be extended to everyone" (#9).

In 1971 and on the 80th anniversary of Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, Pope Paul VI reminded us that we needed to be about "the transformation of society." At the synod of bishops that year the Church proclaimed that justice was no frilly option for the Catholic Christian but "transformation of the world was a constitutive dimension of the Gospel."

John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Exercens written at the end of 1981, insisted that since humans are made in the image of God, then labour has priority over capital. The violation of this principle was obvious both in Eastern collectivism and Western capitalism.

In the West the Pope took aim at "rigid capitalism" which recognized few social obligations. Catholic social teaching has always insisted that capital must serve the common good and all private property has a social mortgage. Western capitalism now began to refuse to recognize that an economy must be infused with spiritual values. Hence the Pope's second major claim: the primacy of persons over things and the primacy of the spiritual over the material.

In 1983, as globalization began to heat up, the Canadian bishops building on Church social teaching called for public social policies which realize:

  1. the needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich;
  2. the rights of workers are more important than the maximization of profits;
  3. the participation of marginalized groups takes precedence over the preservation of a system that excludes them.

While the 80s and 90s saw an intensification of global unemployment and unvarnished greed, the teaching Church was keeping pace with very good warnings and encyclical letters. In 1996 the Canadian bishops rejected "the reigning ideology of this century...profitability before dignity;" they called on Catholic Christians "to follow in the footsteps of the prophets and of Jesus...and denounce social sin."

As we gather to celebrate Easter in a country where Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the population, we must admit that for many reasons we have not accompanied Jesus to Calvary. As Catholics we have moved in huge numbers to positions of power and affluence. In 1971 Pope Paul's question in his second encyclical Octogesima Adveniens is ours: "How could technocratic capitalism solve the great human problems of living together in justice and equality? How in fact could it escape the materialism, egoism or constraint which goes with it?"

This then is our problem as middle class Catholics. We have forgotten Fr. Metz's warning: "It is dangerous to be close to Jesus...The discipleship stories of the Gospel are not entertaining stories...Rather they are stories in the face of danger, dangerous stories. They do not invite one to ponder but to follow..."

Catholicism is not just another commodity in our lives, not just an entertaining story on Sunday. It is basically, as Bonhoeffer said, an invitation to come and die for the Reign. This is what we do in Jesus' memory. We break our lives and shed our blood if need be, in solidarity with the victims. Inevitably, this is dangerous work.

We have not prayerfully analyzed how the market values of McWorld have invaded our lives; how the economic individualism so rampant in the free market onslaught have created religious individualism and broken our solidarity with the poor. In large numbers Catholics in the privacy of the ballot box have voted for a culture of contentment far from the dangerous life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us. As we arrive at the beginning of the millennium, Catholics have come of age economically and politically but have been largely defanged as a vital Gospel force.

As a community, John Paul II asked us to prepare ourselves for the new millennium, to take stock of ourselves. This is healthy. As we look back, we must regret and acknowledge that we are indeed sinners, yet always reclaimed by grace. The Church as John XXIII insisted is "semper reformanda," always in the process of purifying herself. Collectively we continue to work out our redemption.

The McWorld we live in and are influenced by relentlessly erodes the power of memory. We sometimes forget to whom we belong. We see great signs of hope, that this world is indeed threatened with resurrection: the end of communism, the end of apartheid, and people on all continents demanding globalization with a human face. As the alternative people's forum of January 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, proclaimed: "Another world is possible." The Holy Spirit once again this Easter summons us in solidarity to realize these possibilities.

Community theologian Ted Schmidt is a columnist and member of the editorial collective of the Catholic New Times, an independent Catholic newspaper.

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