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Contemporary Catholic Belief and Action


The mission of ARCC is to bring about substantive structural change within the Catholic Church by seeking to institutionalize a collegial understanding of church where decision making is shared and accountability is realized among Catholics of every kind and conditio n.
Once people start to believe change is possible, 
the drive to achieve it accelerates. 
                                          -   Patrick Sullivan, ARCC President
Imago Dei or Imago Oeconomici

Teaching the Catholic Tradition in Our Late Capitalist Context

Axel Takacs
Axel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at 
Seton Hall University 
and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Interreligious Studies. 
Axel is also an active member of the ARCC Board of Directors. 
There are many reasons why I remain a follower of Jesus Christ and a Christian theologian through the tradition of the Catholic Church, despite its many shortcomings. Principle among these reasons is the complex and, honestly, quite radical body of thought known as Catholic Social Teaching (CST). While I am not in agreement with every social doctrine outlined in CST, its consistent approach to the common good, the universal destination of all goods, and the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable provide sharp critique to our modern neoliberal world shaping the minds, souls, and embodied actions of nearly everyone in our late capitalist context. In my experience teaching undergraduate students at a Catholic institution, I have found that many enter the classroom already formed according to expectations, norms, values, and goals of neoliberalism. A major challenge I have thus encountered is how to teach students to imagine a world different from our late capitalist context. 
First off, what is neoliberalism? From a social and political perspective, Wendy Brown offers the best introduction to neoliberalism in Undoing The Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (2017). (A religious and intellectual history is found in Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, 2019.) Neoliberalism began as a set of economic policies: free trade, deregulation of markets, privatization of public goods, dismantling of the welfare state, lower personal and corporate taxes, etc. However, Brown elucidates the manner in which neoliberalism is no mere collection of economic policies or a political theory, but rather a “normative order of reason…[a] deeply disseminated governing rationality, [that] transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic.” [Brown, Undoing the Demos, 9-10]
This rationality pervades all conduct, all spheres of existence, which are subsequently “framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized.” [Brown, Undoing the Demos, 10] In this ideology, this worldview, we are no longer homo sapiens, but always and everywhere homo oeconomicus, a new creature who “extend[s] the economic model of supply and demand and of investment-costs-profit so as to make it a model of social relations and of existence itself, a form of relationship of the individual to himself, time, those around him, the group, and the family.” [Foucault, M. (2008). The birth of biopolitics. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 242. (Original lectures given in 1978-79.)]
Indeed, it is likely that for most of us, a few moments of reflection reveals that many if not most of our decisions involve analyzing them through this model and not through the radical teachings of CST: from where to live, work, and play, to what house to buy or not to buy, to what to study in college and what career to pursue, and even whom to marry and whether to have children, and so on and so forth: we are restricted by this worldview.
A theological way to put it: we rarely view ourselves and others first as an imago Dei—an image of God—but rather as an imago oeconomici—an image of the economy. The innate dignity humans possess as images of God is often superseded by the image of the economy: we view ourselves and others as human capital (how much profit can I extract from others), sites of investment (money, time, effort, etc.), rates of return (what salary will I make with this career relative to others), competitors in the marketplace, and so on. We may not do this consciously or explicitly, but certainly capitalist logic unconsciously and implicitly shape our behavior. This has infiltrated Catholic institutions of higher education, too. Conor M. Kelly, in “A Crisis of Mistaken Identity: The Ethical Insufficiency of the Corporate University Model,” has detailed how Catholic universities are conceptualizing and structurally organizing themselves according to the “corporate model that defines the university as a business embedded in an industry that must serve market forces just like every other enterprise that sells a good or service to its customers.” This model renders fulfilling the mission of Catholic higher education as expressed in Ex corde ecclesiae very difficult and arguably runs directly counter to the principles of CST. This is the subject of Gerald J. Beyer’s recent book, Just Universities: Catholic Social Teaching Corporatized Higher Education (2021), in which he demonstrates how the neoliberalization of university structure according to the capitalist model hinders “the ability of Catholic institutions to create an environment imbued with bedrock values and principles of Catholic Social Teaching such as respect for human rights, solidarity, and justice.” Massimo Faggioli has also detailed this identity crisis in a Commonweal article in which he argues that the “capitalist culture of today’s university model puts the business school in a central place and outsources moral responsibility to business-ethics programs. But even liberal-progressive Catholic institutions tend to make Catholic identity a matter of marketing and public relations.” Pope Francis himself has made critiquing neoliberal capitalism a cornerstone of his pontificate, as evidenced in the last two encyclicals, Laudato si’ and Fratelli tutti.
I do not teach courses in theological ethics or Catholic social teaching. Rather, as a scholar of interreligious studies, comparative theology, and the Islamic traditions, I am tasked with teaching “Religions of the World.” The fact that this class exists is itself a product of the corporate university model, a point I convey to my students within the first week of classes. I view part of my task as an educator at a Catholic institution to awaken students to the injustices and inequities produced by our neoliberal, late capitalist world. Liberation theologians, contextual theologians, scholars of Africana Studies, Native American scholars, and more, have been reminding us that this capitalist world is specifically neocolonial and racial capitalist. The short time I spend on Christian, Native American, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish, and Islamic traditions move from a general overview to how each tradition offers critiques of our modern neoliberal, neocolonial, and racial capitalist world. Students start to see patterns and recognize the totalizing logic of our economic system. I do this in particular because many of my students are majoring in International Relations or Business/Finance.
I reserve the final unit for “Modern Ideologies that Function as Religions” in which I cover both American Civil Religion and Neoliberalism. Consistently, students respond most passionately to the neoliberalism section. This is because they begin to recognize how this economic system, while particularly oppressive to vulnerable populations, renders even their own middle-class lives especially precarious and restrictive. This is because it connects with their own lives: why are they talking six classes, volunteering in multiple organizations, working a side job, studying nonstop, going in 10s if not 100s of thousands of dollars in debt, taking only STEM classes, and choosing this particular career?  Why are they perpetually anxious? Why don’t they have time for their mental and emotional health? How free were they in their decisions choosing which university to attend, major to study, and classes to take? Students’ reactions in their written work are noteworthy: "I didn't know there was a word or concept for why I feel the way I do." Or, in common parlance, "I have never felt so seen.” One student wrote, “It angers me that I have to choose a career path where I have to put myself into probably half a million dollars in debt...I have to choose between my sanity or being able to live comfortably.” Another student, after carefully detailing all the ways her life was structured by neoliberalism, made this astute conclusion: “Every decision [I make] is carefully weighed to be, not a moral member of society (although I also think about that), but an economical member as I am being taught not to be a good person but to be a good worker.”
As Catholic educators, we have a moral obligation not only to give students the conceptual language to understand how social or structural sin insidiously weaves its way into every sphere of our existence and restricts nearly all of our social behaviors, but also the tools to subvert and challenge it. The tools are found not only in CST, but in the liberating theories and practices of many religious traditions. The goal should be to instill in students the capacity to imagine another world, to imagine what many deem the impossible. Pope Francis, in Fratelli tutti, wrote that the teachings and principles of fraternity and social friendship call “for an alternative way of thinking. Without an attempt to enter into that way of thinking, what I am saying here will sound wildly unrealistic” (127). Ironically, the main impediment to this pedagogical task is often the Catholic university structure itself, which, as the aforementioned cited articles have rightfully demonstrated, has become captive to the corporate capitalist model and neoliberalism so heavily critiqued by Pope Francis and CST.
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