When I was 10 years old and preparing for the sacrament of reconciliation at the small Catholic parish in Minnesota where I was raised, I vividly remember sitting alone in a church pew, earnestly trying to concentrate on examining my conscience. At the time, the examen was pretty straightforward. I asked myself, “Was I holding any grudges? Was I participating in gossip at school? Was I honoring my parents and being honest with my friends?”
Throughout the rest of my years in Catholic schools, I practiced the sacrament of reconciliation and the examen of conscience regularly. As I became an adult, the questions and depth of reflection have also necessarily evolved.
According to one definition, “A good examination of conscience considers all areas of our lives — our thoughts and words, what we have done, and what we have failed to do.” I believe that, as adults, this examination ought to also include a consideration of our collective conscience. As a society, what are we doing and where are we falling short? How are the systems we participate in daily entangling us in sin? And how might we begin to repent, collectively?
As I sit with these questions personally, I see one social sin so fundamental (even foundational) to our culture that it seems to be, consequently, nearly inseparable from most Catholic communities: capitalism.
In 2015, in a speech given in Bolivia, Pope Francis said, “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment.”
These words from Pope Francis about capitalism could not be more clear. But I fear that collectively disentangling ourselves from the sins of capitalism is a lot less simple. And for those of you reading this and already encountering discomfort, I get it: it is uncomfortable to examen our conscience and maybe even more so when looking at social sins. We feel powerless to change.
Thomas Merton once wisely wrote, “When I criticize a system, they think I am criticizing them — and that is of course, because they fully accept the system and identify themselves with it.”
I wonder now if this might be a place to start: can our Catholic communities consciously stop identifying with an economic system founded on exploitation, dehumanization, social stratification and greed?
As Carlos A. Rodriguez so succinctly put it, “You cannot love your neighbor while supporting or accepting systems that crush, exploit and dehumanize them. You cannot love your neighbor while accepting less for them and their family than you do for you and your own.”
Again, the message is clear: being a Christian is incongruent with capitalism.
As an intellectual exercise, it isn’t too difficult to denounce the hypocrisy of defending capitalism as a Catholic.
But what about confronting the day-to-day conveniences afforded to us by capitalism? The Amazon Prime shipping, the new iPhone, the cheap, fresh fruit from another continent available to us even in the dead of winter.
What if we started to consider the cost of these conveniences? The cost of human dignity, the cost of labor rights and just working conditions, the cost of our natural environment and the very limited resources our Earth has to sustain us.
What if we decided that the cost of these conveniences is too high for our conscience? Might we then courageously and concretely work to take capitalism out of being Catholic?
I believe that our responses to these questions would require collective, radical transformation, meaning transformation that starts at the very root of who we are and how we live in this society. As we navigate this transformation, I pray that we turn first to our communities for support and remember that no individual solution alone will solve this societal sin. We need one another to turn the tide together. May we find consolation in the collective in order to turn towards, not away, from our conscience.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Annemarie Barrett grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of Indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.