I wanted to follow up on last month’s article WWJD About Sweatshops. I think for many people, just the mere suggestion that you oppose sweatshop economics, arouses suspicion that one is anti-capitalistic, perhaps a socialist. I want to set the record straight by offering up some practical solutions to the dreaded global sweatshop phenomenon. I’m not opposed to a well-regulated economy, but for some people, bringing up government regulations can be a non-starter, and I want to transcend the usual arguments between the statist and the libertarian. I’m in favor of drawing upon the organization of the Catholic Church to form healthy economic relationships between producers, consumers, and the middle-men who connect the dots.
Many moons ago, while still a single man, I had a married friend who was trying to build a nest egg early on in his marriage, but seeing that he was in youth ministry- his options were limited. He and his wife invited me over for dinner and discussion of a “business idea”. The business idea turned out to be joining their Amway distribution team.
I was in no position to get involved but I played along out of pure friendship. I attended a couple of the Amway “pep rallies” which were guaranteed to make any red blooded American salivate with visions of naked greed, tempered by Christian suggestions to use some of the excess loot for charity causes. I recall feelings of strange enthusiasm and sadness over the mixing of too many metaphors, holiness and grabbing the brass ring baby! In any case, I bought a kit from my friends out of pity, with no intent to do any distributing or recruiting. Just not my cup of tea at the time.
Now as far as I understand, Amway is a perfectly legitimate business model and relies on grassroots marketing. I think we can baptize it. With my concerns over the labor and environmental conditions in the background of much of the stuff I (we) buy, it seems to me that creating a “Catholic Amway” might just be part of a larger solution to the negative aspects of consumerism. I don’t think that my proposal falls into the category of trying to hide out in a Catholic ghetto, and say the heck with the rest of the world. I already see positive examples of Catholic entities taking up a position in the free economy. We have monks selling computer products (more about them here at National Catholic Register), monks selling coffee, and monks selling beer.
We also have Catholic Relief Services (CRS) offering some Fair Trade opportunities. I’m thinking we could take these excellent examples and build upon them. We have a Church that historically has stepped up to take on roles in society that were in severe crisis or neglect. After the fall of Rome, during the Barbarian times, the Church became an organizer of political and economic activities. I think there are many parallels to the situation of America and the world in general, right now. The need is for the Church to use all her organizational strengths to encourage alternative streams for producers and consumers, with an eye to building up the well-being of the flock, who desire to act as responsible men and women in response to the realities of sweatshops and environmental damage- just like our attempts to bypass the pro-abortion and pro-contraceptives elements in the corporate world.
I don’t see anything wrong with Catholics building up networks of Catholic producers and consumers, and allowing in everyone who wishes to be part of such a thing. Grace builds upon nature, if we as Catholics offer nothing morally unique or better than what the rest of the world offers in the naturalistic realms, then our appeal to the unconverted will certainly be very much diminished. If we have Popes who offer up nice platitudes about our duty to tackle the problems of global and local poverty and injustice, but we fail to utilize our network of parishes and organizations (such as CRS and the Knights of Columbus) to open up a vein in the economy for more justice and mercy in our consumer habits, then what is the point of the nice sounding words?
The virtue of some kind of a “Catholic Amway” means of distribution of goods is that it seems to fulfill the two big demands of our Catholic social doctrine — for solidarity and subsidiarity. We want to help, not hurt people (laborers) with our money, and we need the person-to-person contact at local levels of society, which just so happens to be the way in which our Church has organized herself along parish and diocesan lines. I can see a way forward that doesn’t rely on the goodness of our current political leaders, who would otherwise be charged with trying to regulate the economy to bring more justice and mercy into the system. Add to this the moral situation of the major global corporate forces, and one can easily see that if relief and rescue is coming- it probably is going to have to be a very Catholic-specific intervention.