Public Service and Responsibility

According to today’s headlines, the most important recommendation in the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards’ report is that bankers should be jailed for recklessness when their actions cause their institutions to fail. Quite apart from the fact that I suspect lawyers would have an ‘interesting’ time establishing criminal negligence when the decisions that lead to failure are, in most cases, group decisions of the Board or management team or whatever, I do wonder whether the media have simply seized on something that resonates with public anger rather than on something more substantive, that might actually eradicate the causes of failure as distinct from dealing with the consequences.

At the same time as we are reading about bankers comes news that the Guides are to drop references to God and country in their promises in an effort to be more ‘inclusive’. Am I alone in thinking that there may be a connection between the two, and that it has to do with the concept of public service and responsibility? The language we use to define our loyalties and to express our relationships is critically important. Our private morality, using that word in the widest sense, inevitably affects our public morality and the way we see our obligations to others. If we acknowledge no good to be served other than self, we shrink our world and our values. I have sometimes asked myself whether the decline in public standards reflects this private shift in values. As a Benedictine, my vows are publicly professed and commit me to the observance of certain standards in both public and private life. Maybe both bankers and Guides could usefully ask themselves what standards they intend to live by, too.


Frost and the U.S. Election

A fine sharp frost this morning, crackling under foot and glittering in the early sunshine. It is the privilege of country-dwellers like us to observe the changing seasons at first-hand; so when we sing in the Canticle of Daniel, ‘frost and snow, bless the Lord!’ we have only to look out of the window to see the frost doing precisely that. The pastoral imagery of the psalms also comes alive when one lives at close quarters with sheep and cattle, field and farrow. But life in the country is not all roses and rapture, any more than the psalms are all praise and thanksgiving. There is a darker side. The stagnant water lying on top of the heavier soils is a poignant reminder of just how difficult this summer has been for many farmers. The psalmist, too, knows terror, grief and despair as well as joy and fulfilment. No wonder, then, that politics has its highs and lows, its moments of triumph and moments of failure. No life, no nation, can escape difficulty or danger.

Today all eyes are on the United States of America. ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ is a well-known phrase in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. It sums up the idealism of those early years, and whether we take the source to be Locke or Cumberland or some other thinker, it is difficult not to be moved. There is something optimistic and sun-shiney about them that no amount of frost, in the form of war or economic failure, can quite overpower. They represent what the world, rightly or wrongly, expects of the people of the United States. Today as we watch U.S. citizens elect their President we know that whoever is chosen will have in his hands the well-being not only of his fellow citizens but of much of the rest of the world as well. Let us pray for him, for without prayer his task will be an impossible one; and if you have no words with which to pray, take one of the psalms, e.g 70 (71), and substitute ‘president’ for ‘king’. It might transform your understanding of the psalms as well as of American politics.


How We Do Business

Once upon a time, if memory serves me right, there was an offence called conspiracy to obtain pecuniary advantage by deception, (Theft Act 1968: section 16). I mention this because in my former existence it was an offence other people committed against banks rather than bankers themselves. Of course there were bad eggs among the bankers, but they were, I think, the exception. Banking was boring because it was honest. Fraudsters were rare and looked upon as letting the side down. If found out, they faced ostracism and worse. Not so nowadays, it seems.

Obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception used to be a criminal offence and carried with it a sentence of up to five years (I’m not sure how the law stands now). Today we read that Bob Diamond has been ‘shamed’ into forfeiting his bonus from Barclays, but he has neither resigned nor been sacked. It may be that a criminal prosecution will follow, but for the moment we are faced with the unpleasant spectacle of corruption and dishonesty at Barclays being brazened out on the grounds that Mr Diamond ‘didn’t know’ what was happening. It may be that he didn’t know, and I certainly don’t want to accuse him of being dishonest himself, but what sort of management is it that disclaims responsibility for ANYTHING that happens in the company for which it is responsible?

Benedict was quite clear about the responsibility of the abbot: it was all-encompassing and extended to the next world as well as this. No one is suggesting that bankers should model themselves on Benedict’s abbot (though there might be a vast improvement if some of them did), but the question of managerial responsibility is a grave one. Too often we find senior mangers shrugging off responsibility when things go wrong, though they are quick enough to claim credit when things go right. What the situation at Barclays has highlighted goes beyond rate-fixing. It touches the very nature of how we do business and the standards by which we live our professional lives.


Envy, Jealousy and the Morality of Money

Envy is wanting what another has and being resentful one doesn’t possess whatever it is oneself; jealousy is wanting what another has and not wanting anyone else to possess it if it cannot be one’s own. That simple definition would never pass muster with a dictionary-maker, but I think it highlights an important distinction between the two: envy is not very nice; jealousy is plain nasty.

Politicians are adept at appealing to our envious tendencies. David Cameron’s latest pronouncement on tax avoidance may well backfire, but for the moment it is grabbing headlines. Jimmy Carr is richer than most of us will ever be. Stoking up public opinion against him (or more correctly, his accountant and tax lawyer, surely) is easy. Suggest a little moral outrage into the bargain, and once again you have a potential vote-winner on your hands.

The trouble is, life is not so simple. Mr Cameron is taking a calculated risk. What if envy becomes jealousy? Next in the firing-line may be political donors (again), millionaire members of the Cabinet (again), even perhaps M.P.s expenses (again). We are particularly sensitive to the ‘morality of money’. Bankers’ bonuses, chief executives’ pay and benefits, they are all under the spotlight of public examination at the moment, and, as you might expect, those who have less are not convinced that others need more, or at any rate, not so much more. One reason the doctors’ day of action hasn’t gained much popular support is that doctors’ salaries and pension schemes look very generous by most people’s standards.

Is there a knee-jerk quality to all this? Are we really thinking through the bases on which we make decisions about pay and salaries? In a monastery goods are apportioned according to need, which it is for the abbot to determine. Those who need less are not to grumble or be downcast; those who need more are not to become puffed up at the mercy shown them. That wouldn’t work in secular society, for we could never agree who should decide, still less agree the degree of need. There is one idea we could take from Benedict, however, and apply to our discussion of salaries and rewards: accepting responsibility for our own actions and the effect they have on others.

We cannot change how other people regard money; we cannot make others honest; but we can be honest ourselves; we can be generous ourselves. We sometimes lose sight of what we actually do with what we earn. The man or woman earning millions may be spending it all on self-indulgence, or they may be giving their wealth away in order to help others. Envy can easily become jealousy, almost without our being aware of it, and when it does, we lose the good along with the bad. Is that a risk worth taking?


Other Kinds of Debts

The word ‘debt’ has become synonymous with ‘Eurozone crisis’, ‘Greece’, ‘recession’ and ‘default’. It conjures up visions of grey suits and number-crunching, police in riot gear, austerity and anxiety. There are other kinds of debts, however, and it can be good to remember them. Here is a random list of some of mine which you can compare with your own:

I am indebted to my ancestors, not just my parents, for pretty well everything attributable to nature and nurture, from my awkwardness of person to love of country, language and Faith; to my first teachers, for opening up the mysteries of reading, writing and arithmetic, so making possible the intellectual discoveries of later years; to friends, for rubbing a few rough edges off me and enriching life with their kindness and giftedness; to my employers, for convincing me that I was not cut out to be a banker for ever; to my community, for accepting me and showing me the possibility of holiness; to those I meet online or off, who challenge or comfort, as occasion demands.

These are debts that cannot be measured in pounds and pence but which shape our lives as much, if not more than, economic circumstances; and the interesting thing is that they are debts we can acknowledge gratefully, even gladly. Each one of us is capable of repaying them, if we are willing to make the effort. That is part of the glory of being human.


A Different Way of Acting

Yesterday’s post looked at some aspects of the cellarer’s duties and the personal qualities needed to perform them well. The second half of RB 31 goes into greater detail about how the cellarer should behave in various demanding situations.

Benedict has already reminded us that everyone and everything is, potentially at least, holy — imprinted with the divine image and to be treated with the utmost respect. Now he says that the cellarer should ‘above all’ possess humility and answer kindly if he is unable to meet a request (RB 31.13, 14). There is real psychological insight here. When someone is responsible for the welfare of others, not being able to provide what is necessary can be hard to bear. A crotchety manner, a rough answer, apparent indifference, they are all ways of masking the inadequacy and failure that the person feels. Benedict will have none of it. The cellarer must have an interior freedom about his service which will enable him to answer mildly and with patience. Moreover, just because he has the power of giving or withholding goods, the cellarer mustn’t think he can behave in a superior manner, as though he were conferring a benefit on others. There must be no arrogance or delay in giving the brethren their food, for example (RB 31. 16).

Benedict is aware, however, that the cellarer himself must be treated with consideration or nothing will get done as it should. The proper times for asking for things must be adhered to, and there should be assistants if the community is comparatively large (RB 31.17, 18). What Benedict aims at is, above all, peace and harmony in community.

I have myself been cellarer in a large and comparatively rich community as well as in a smaller and poorer one. I’m not sure which presents the bigger challenge. Mediocrity has always been the bane of Benedictine life. Monks and nuns in richer houses become too comfortable, forgetting the fervour and zeal with which they began. What was once enough becomes in time not quite sufficient, so that yesterday’s luxury becomes today’s necessity. In poorer houses, the need to economize and make do becomes in time a kind of institutionalized miserliness. It is not too much to say that the cellarer bears a great responsibility for steering a middle course, ensuring that legitimate needs are met but no luxury or excess creeps in, not even in inverted form.

There is only one way of ensuring that the cellarer is equal to his responsibilities: fidelity to prayer and constant watchfulness over his own behaviour. To some, what Benedict has to say may sound naive. All right for monks and nuns, perhaps, but not for people in the ‘real world’. It depends what you think is real, I suppose. Benedict’s recommended way of acting is different from that of some of our corporate mega-stars, but I have a hunch that it makes for greater happiness in this world and the next. It certainly makes for greater fairness. What do you think?


Admin as a way to Heaven

I am much later blogging today for the simple reason that I have been up to my eyes in admin. Most people find admin a necessary evil: something that has to be done, but not the kind of task to make one leap out of bed, full of eager-beaver enthusiasm. It can be dull and difficult, something one begrudges as encroaching on what ‘really’ matters.

Benedict didn’t see it like that. He devotes a very thoughtful chapter (RB 31) to the cellarer or business manager of the monastery. He starts out by defining the qualities such a person ought to have, and they make impressive reading: the cellarer should be wise, of mature character, abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, not a trouble-maker, nor offensive nor lazy nor wasteful, someone who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community (RB 31. 1, 2). It gets worse (for the cellarer). He is to be meticulous in his care for everyone and everything, especially those who are in some sense powerless: the sick, the young, guests and the poor (RB31.3,9).

The cellarer’s brief is all-encompassing: ‘take care of everything’, but do nothing without the abbot’s authorization, and always in accordance with his instructions (RB 31.3). So far, so corporate, but what about these

He should not upset the brethren. Should any brother chance to make an unreasonable request, he is not to upset him by snubbing him. Instead he should refuse the unreasonable request in the proper way, with humility (RB 31.6,7).

All the monastery’s utensils and goods he should regard as if sacred altar vessels (RB31.10)

Clearly, Benedict’s cellarer is no mere bean counter, working at a thankless task. He is an administrator, with a charism given him by the Lord for the building up of the church, whether domestic, local or international. I think I rather like the idea of admin as a way to heaven. We’ll look at the second half of the chapter tomorrow, God willing.


Thinking about Money

Last year’s post on St Thomas Aquinas concentrated on the humanity of the man but with all the talk about bankers’ bonuses, the not-so-brilliantly-timed withdrawal of charity credit cards and the gloom that fills the media whenever the subject of money comes up, I’m tempted to roll out a few of his pronouncements on money and social justice.

The trouble is, medieval economics worked differently from ours and Thomas’s concept of usury (lending in hope of gain) is also different from ours. Thus, when he condemns usury as a violation of the natural moral law, he is applying an Aristotelian understanding of ends and means to money laid out for gain. Money is not an end in itself but a means of buying goods and services. Therefore lending money in order to gain more money is unnatural and can be described as evil. Although his view of the matter came to dominate much Church thinking on the subject, there were other views (e.g. Gregory IX was more nuanced than Thomas and brought into play consideration of risk) which existed alongside and have contributed to our modern understanding of social justice. If I may be allowed a sweeping generalisation, I’d say that on the whole the Church has always been a bit suspicious of banking and financial speculation although it was creative about insurance, assignability and negotiability, concepts which were developed in the Church courts.

The best way of honouring St Thomas’s thought about money and social justice is to read what the Church says about it today. A good place to start is with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos 2419 to 2463. You can find an online version in English here. There is a useful concordance to help with searching.