Though we are in the midst of an economic crisis, this need not imply disaster. In the original Greek, the word "crisis" means to judge or choose. A crisis is an opportunity to honestly judge where we have gone wrong, and wisely choose a new and morally better direction.
In many ways, the economic crisis could be a great blessing ready to unfold — if we choose creatively to build an economic system based on social justice and love for all.
But if we primarily put our efforts into simply repairing a sick economic system, we will end up with a very similar market economy plagued with inefficiency, greed and injustice.
In his powerful encyclical on economic justice titled Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote that "there are many human needs which find no place on the market. It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish. …
"There exists something which is due to man because he is a man, by reason of his lofty dignity."
But an honest assessment of our so called free — and often unfair — market economy reveals an economic system that in many ways devalues human dignity. As long as the "almighty dollar" is the bottom line, people will simply be cogs in the corporate wheel, often abused and easily expendable when their profit-generating usefulness is deemed inadequate.
Charles Kernaghan is executive director of the National Labor Committee (www.nlcnet.org), an outstanding human and workers’ rights organization. He told me that "the vast majority of corporations will always exploit misery." He said companies lobby hard to acquire legal protection for their trademarks, logos and intellectual property, yet they fiercely oppose legal protection for workers’ rights.
The corporate world is in "a race to the bottom," said Kernaghan. For example, Mattel’s Barbie doll has rights — copyrights. This means that if the doll is significantly copied, the copier is sued. Yet the people in Mexico or China who make the dolls have no rights. These workers, like countless others in poor countries who make products for American corporations, are paid pennies an hour, have no benefits, labor in substandard conditions and work at least 14 hours a day, six to seven days a week.
Kernaghan said that the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act, if passed by Congress, would force corporations to uphold the minimal labor laws of each country they are doing business in. It also would bind companies to honor such internationally recognized labor standards as decent working conditions, no child or forced labor, and the right of workers to organize.
You can make a real difference here in helping to lift poor workers out of misery. Please call (Capitol switchboard: 202-224-3121) and e-mail your U.S. senators and congressperson, urging them to introduce or cosponsor the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act. And ask your pastor to help promote this effort.
During a pastoral visit to Canada in 1984, Pope John Paul II prophetically declared: "The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximization of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion; production to meet social needs over production for military purposes."
If we take these principles of our late great pope seriously and strive to find ways to put them into practice, we will finally build an economic system worthy for humanity!
Tony Magliano is a columnist for Catholic News Service.