October 3, 2008


Economic crisis is a failure of responsible stewardship

The U.S. bishops’ 1992 pastoral letter, “Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response,” admonishes Catholic organizations that the practice of good stewardship requires that we “observe the most stringent ethical, legal and fiscal standards.”

Good intentions are not enough—in the Church or in society. Responsible stewardship requires discipline, sound judgment and standards of care that are designed to take care of and share all God’s gifts.

Today’s financial crisis is the result of poor stewardship—by banks and other financial institutions, by regulatory agencies, and by governmental officials charged with the responsibility to serve and protect our nation and its institutions.

Greed, partisan politics and media hype do not promote good citizenship or good stewardship.

When financial institutions and regulatory agencies fail to be responsible stewards of the public trust, government must intervene—to protect the common good.

Massive bailouts should not be required. Sound principles, good judgment and responsible stewardship should be enough to protect what we invest. That’s what good citizens and responsible stewards have a right to expect.

But when government fails to do its duty—to develop and oversee standards of care that are prudent, effective and just, then it’s time to return to basics (Stewardship 101) on Wall Street, in Washington, D.C., and here at home.

Where do we begin? The standard dictionary definition of a steward is “one who manages property that belongs to another.”

A good steward manages another’s property well. She grows it, prudently and responsibly, and ensures that the owner receives a good return on her investment.

A poor steward takes foolish or unnecessary risks with the owner/investor’s property. At its most basic level, today’s financial crisis is the result of irresponsible stewards taking bad risks with other people’s money.

Basic principles of Christian stewardship call us to gratitude, accountability, generosity and the willingness to give back with increase. We are called to grow God’s gifts—not recklessly, irresponsibly or selfishly, but carefully and prudently.

The good steward invests and saves. He does not bury his gifts. He puts them to work in responsible and productive investments. But that requires trustworthy financial institutions and the prudent oversight of agencies that accept their responsibility to guard and protect the public interest.

People of faith acknowledge God as the giver, and true owner, of all creation. Everything that we have, and all that we are as human persons, comes to us from God as free and unmerited gifts.

We don’t own what we have in an absolute sense. We are but trusted stewards of the gifts that God has given us—including the gift of life, our families and friends, our personal skills and talents, and all our material possessions.

All of these spiritual and material gifts come from God. What God asks us to do with his gifts is to care for them (nurture and grow them) and to share them generously with others (as God has been generous to us).

Greed is an insult to God’s generosity. Whether born of a selfish desire for more and more possessions, or whether grounded in the fear that we won’t have enough, greed refuses to accept that God will provide everything that we need. In our desire to acquire more and more, we cast aside our responsibility to be good stewards, to share with others.

Instead, we seek to accumulate wealth at the expense of others and to regard our own interests as the No. 1 priority. But greed always leads to misery in the end—for individuals and for institutions.

And, so, the Lord challenges each of us: What does it profit you if you gain the whole world, but lose your soul in the process?

Let’s pray that the current crisis is resolved fairly, equitably and in a nonpartisan concern for the common good. Let’s also pray that this financial crisis serves as a “wake-up call” that returns us, as individuals and as a nation, to fundamental principles of stewardship and to an observance of “the most stringent ethical, legal and fiscal standards” in our personal lives and in our communities.

—Daniel Conway

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