The United States was founded as a covenant society – a society held together by a covenant with God and between citizens. This notion was uppermost in the minds of the Founding Fathers. Social institutions were to be inspired and directed by the concept of covenant.
Recent social commentators have lamented the break-down of this conception of society and the general social malaise it has wrought.
One of the most problematic trends that kills the notion of covenant is the industrialization and commercialization of social institutions. By this I mean that everything is viewed in commercial terms and evaluated by its worth in the marketplace.
If we pay attention to the growing use of the word “industry,” we will see how all-pervasive this trend is. We speak today of the health care industry, the funeral industry, the arts industry, the farming industry, the music industry, the entertainment industry. The list is endless.
The problematic results of commercialization and industrialization have become evident in the reorganization of the legal and medical professions according to industrial models.
Parishes today increasingly employ “business managers” – a troublesome capitulation to industrial culture. The Church is not a business; the word “treasurer” would be better. A national liturgical music organization sponsored a panel some years ago on the “liturgical music industry.” (I’m not making this up!)
In the parish in which I serve, there are 27 nursing and retirement homes. All of them are run for profit. The well run are expensive and available only to a minority. In the rest, every attempt is made to cut corners. The results are scandalous conditions of overcrowding and general neglect.
What all this underlines is a growing view of human society as a marketplace, where everything becomes a commodity to be bought or sold, and every service and talent turned into a profit-making venture.
To question this trend is not to suggest that we should try to return to the simpler world where the country doctor and the storekeeper were not overly concerned about money, and where the economic exchange system was more familial and neighborly.
It is to suggest that the demise of the covenant community concept of society is the demise of civilized living. Life becomes a rat race, and business is conducted without mercy.
In a covenant society, workers and professionals see their careers primarily in vocational terms. Society is viewed as an extended family. Goods and commodities are traded and sold, and realistic business does go on, but always in a manner that makes economics answerable to the concerns of social justice and charity.
One of the main challenges for the contemporary church, not least in regard to its hospitals and health care systems, is that of witnessing effectively to the possibility of living together as a covenanted people, a community of care, trust and solidarity.
Safeguarding the covenant community view of human coexistence is one of the fundamental issues that has constantly engaged the American bishops. Pope Francis’ magnificent stances against the greedy commercial society have given this concern an enormous boost. For him, as for Pope John Paul II, the dignity of the human person, realized in community with others, is the criterion against which all economic life must be measured.
The commercialization and industrialization of society represents a very beguiling trend. It has much that is attractive about it, but it is finally idolatrous. Its ultimate achievement can only be to reduce the quality of life that it so deceivingly espouses.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.