Profit Should Take a Back Seat to the Common Good, Says Father O'Neill

O'NeillThe debate about the economy is usually carried out in the halls of Congress or on political talk shows, but last week, it came to the Chapel at Saint Mary’s where Father William O'Neill delivered an address called “A Little Common Sense: Catholic Social Teaching on the Economy."


O’Neill, who delivered the annual lecture sponsored by the John F. Henning Institute, teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University. He has worked on development projects in locales ranging from Tanzania and Kenya to West Oakland and has served with Mother Teresa in India.

In his address, O’Neill laid out the church’s vision of how the world -- particularly Catholics -- should respond to economic and social problems, drawing largely on Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” published in 2009, in the depths of the global recession.

Today, the world economy is not much better. About 1.4 million people are living in extreme poverty, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and 9 million children die before their fifth birthday, one-third of them from extreme hunger.

In the face of such overwhelming suffering, O’Neill said, the church calls on its members to take action because, as Benedict writes, “justice is inseparable from charity,” or caritas, which implies love and caring as well as selfless concern for others.

It’s a mandate embedded in the long tradition known as Catholic social teaching. In the words of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ 1986 statement, “Economic Justice for All”: “Society has a moral obligation, including government action, where necessary, to assure opportunity, meet basic human needs and pursue justice in economic life.”

But whereas this belief system has energized human rights movements throughout Latin America and parts of Asia, in the United States, O’Neill commented, “Catholic social teaching is the church’s best kept secret.”

Although the American bishops have been loathe to get involved in political causes or human rights crusades, O’Neill said Benedict’s encyclical provides a framework or “vocabulary” for expressing the church’s views on human rights issues.

It also explicitly extends those issues to include not only political rights, such as equality, but issues affecting the common good: the right to basic necessities, like food, clean water, economic security and even preservation of the environment -- the very air, land and water we need to exist.

In the encyclical, the pope condemned the cult of materialism that led to the global financial meltdown, saying, “The primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person, in his or her integrity,” and he called for a worldwide financial order that values the common good over profit and stock market gains.

O’Neill described the pope as a spiritual pragmatist and said his teachings were not based simply on spiritual principles but on what will work for the world economy in the long run. “The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly,” the pope wrote, “not any ethics, but an ethics which is people-centered."

Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

Photo by Shomari Carter '13

The Henning Institute is inspired by the life and work of John F. Henning, an SMC graduate, former U.S. undersecretary of labor and former executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.

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