I want to engage the Occupy Movement critically and challenge it to be more articulate or consistent. It’s because I firmly believe that our economic system is unjust and must be transformed and because I believe in the power of the Occupy Movement to affect positive change that I want to offer criticisms of the theology the movement expresses and challenge it to be authentic — in order to be truly transformative.
First, I believe that the Occupy Movement is right to identify massive injustices in our economic system. I understand why the protesters feel disaffected. Three years of faithful payments have gone since I finished grad school, and the amount I owe on my student loans is still greater than my yearly salary. But I know that my case is hardly the worst of it. Many families are faring far worse. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development offers an excellent resource on the difficult decisions that families at the poverty line face each day. For many families, economic hardship predates the current recession — it’s just a fact of life.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops and the Vatican have not been silent. In their 1986 letter Economic Justice for All, the U.S. Bishops demanded a moral voice that guides for our economic system, one that will safeguard the well being of the poor and uphold the value of human life and dignity. The Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace echoed that sentiment in their October 24th, 2011 statement: “The economic and financial crisis which the world is going through calls everyone, individuals and peoples, to examine in depth the principles and the cultural and moral values at the basis of social coexistence.” The Council maintains that the current economic crisis comes from a failure of moral vision and a failure to place human life at the center or our economic system.
And Catholic Church leaders remind us repeatedly that the increasing wage gap amounts to a structural sin. The chasm that separates the rich from the poor isn’t unfair; it’s sinful. A sinful structure is like a web, a system that keeps us from doing good, that violates the common good systematically, that stifles authentic human development, and is contrary to the will of God.
My friend once made a t-shirt with stick-on letters that read, “You can’t serve God and corporate interest.” That shirt didn’t pull any punches, and it speaks to structural sin. Corporations are legally bound to seek the best interest of their shareholders. Even if they are well-intentioned, the board and management are obliged to steer the company in a direction that will maximize profit, even if the choices they make oppress the poor and violate the common good. This is a structural sin: despite best intentions, we have made it impossible to do good. This sin must be repented of and atoned for. In drawing attention to it, the Occupy Movement is a prophetic voice.