Happiness, Freedom, and Spiritual Formation: A Response to Reichert and Maier

Market economies are not inherently hostile to Christian spiritual formation. And expanding the scope of Church authority into the temporal realm is no substitute for traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and fasting.

In the June/July issue of First Things, economist Timothy Reichert and Francis X. Maier, senior advisor and special assistant to the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, contend in their article “Origami of the Soul” that liberal societies, and specifically market economies, inherently counteract the spiritual formation necessary for human happiness.  

I, too, believe that spiritual formation is essential to true happiness, but I also believe that liberal societies and market economies can be and have been used for great good. They are not inherently good—they can be used for evil as well—but we ought to commend their potential use for noble ends, such as the alleviation of poverty and the advancement of human rights. We should promote the conditions necessary (the rule of law, property rights, a virtuous citizenry, etc.) for their direction to those ends. And we should remember their great historic successes in advancing those ends. 

Reichert and Maier call on the Church to overstep the scope of its authority and become consumed with temporal affairs. But I believe that a better understanding of human happiness and Christian spirituality should lead the Church to remain true to its primarily spiritual vocation, which makes possible the conditions necessary for both free and flourishing economies. 

Unfolding the “Origami of the Soul” 

I wish I could say that the problems with Reichert and Maier’s essay were only a matter of political or economic error. That, however, is not the case. Their critique of classical liberal statecraft and market economies primarily rests upon a disappointingly shallow grasp of the Christian tradition of spiritual formation. They assume that the shaping of souls is only the product of external forces, hierarchical institutions in particular. They use the metaphor of origami as the folding of the soul into its proper shape, and argue that “this folding process can take place only in hierarchy; markets cannot direct it.” 

Because of this, they write, “Young people must deal with the stress of trying to advance in a society that is uninformative and entropic.” Certainly, the preponderance of choices can be overwhelming for the ungrounded. But that does not make free markets—or, for that matter, “society”—inherently antithetical to traditional, hierarchical institutions. We may note, furthermore, that the stress of the poor lies in their lack of choices in life and that expanding economic freedom has historically been the best means of alleviating it. 

In Reichert and Maier’s defense, they rest all this on a specific definition of happiness as “complementarity among persons,” generally appealing to Aristotle and Aquinas (though never quoting them). Yet while human persons are by nature social, each one of us is also a free and unique reflection of the divine image. We will be judged one day for our own works, not those of others. We will be judged for how well we love our neighbors, even our enemies, with whom we by definition lack “complementarity.” And we should hold those who suffer for righteousness to be the happiest of all. Individual agency is essential to Christian theological anthropology, but—apart from two passing mentions—it is conspicuously missing in Reichert and Maier’s account of spiritual formation. 

Consequently—and bizarrely—their account defines spiritual formation by reference to one’s submission to hierarchical authority in traditional social institutions, explicitly excluding the sphere of commerce despite its own ancient pedigree. The word “authority” can be found on nearly every page, but the word “asceticism” never occurs; nor do they mention prayer, fasting, almsgiving, watchfulness, solitude, chastity, or any other traditional spiritual discipline understood by ancient Christians to be the fundamental practices for shaping one’s soul to better embody the love of Jesus Christ, in which lies true happiness. Christ himself is only mentioned once, in passing. Salvation, too, is only mentioned once. Sin is not mentioned at all. Neither is grace. 

The Scandal of Christian Spirituality 

Of course, there is no quota for how many times one must mention certain words to properly outline Christian spirituality, and I doubt the authors would deny the importance of any of these things. Still, their absence is telling. Reichert and Maier’s understanding bears little resemblance to anything Ss. Antony or Augustine or John Cassian would recognize. Indeed, while of course traditional institutions like the family and the Church are essential for flourishing and virtuous societies, ancient Christians scandalously did not believe them to be essential for every Christian. Cassian even warns young monks to flee from women and bishops, i.e., from family and Church authority 

Regarding the former, St. Paul (in)famously recommended celibacy for the single, making the concession of marriage only for those who “cannot control themselves” (1 Corinthians 7:8). In our age, this Apostolic injunction is one of the least popular and most needed—not because there is anything bad about marriage or family, but precisely because there is also nothing bad, and indeed much that is good, about chastity. In a culture obsessed with sex, romance, marriage, and happily-ever-after endings, the person who can be content without these things testifies to a happiness that transcends even the most beautiful things of this world. As St. Severinus Boethius put it when he was alone in a jail cell unjustly awaiting his execution, “true happiness is situated in . . . Divinity,” and, more bluntly: “God is absolute happiness.” 

Similarly, many stories have survived to our time of monastics fleeing their altars after being ordained, and some—like Cassian—being ordained only against their will. Some reluctantly accepted this and flourished, but others are still venerated as saints despite abandoning their sacramental duties and defying the authority of the bishops who ordained them.  

The monastic tradition, though not without its own faults at times, has stood as an important counterbalance to Church authority throughout the ages. There is a long list of popes and patriarchs who were excommunicated for heresy due to its witness, and surely by now we all know that sin can be found on the highest peaks as well as in the lowest valleys of society. Submission to authority is not positively soul-forming when the authorities are corrupt or illegitimate. As the Apostles Peter and John said to the authorities of their day, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge” (Acts 4:19). Deference to religious authority would have defied their consciences’ demand to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ. And that is a line that no one has authority to cross. 

Hierarchy and the Market 

Just like marriage, this is not to say that religious authority is never good. It can be and often is. Indeed, both were created by God. But it shows that what Reichert and Maier consider essential to spiritual formation is only conditionally good at best. To underscore the point, many Byzantine monasteries were originally privately owned, and their founding documents sometimes even contained harsh invectives against anyone who would transfer ownership to the Church or state, so much did they value their independence from outside authority. As one such document stated, “it is my desire that this . . . monastery remain independent until the end of the world, and free and unenslaved by emperors and patriarchs and monasteries and metropolitans and archbishops and bishops, by archimandrites and superiors, in short, by all men.” Thus, they scandalously viewed outside authorities, including the Church hierarchy, as an obstacle to the mission of their monasteries.  

Importantly, both state and Church wished to acquire these monasteries precisely because of the material wealth they amassed through benevolent donations and expansive commerce. To fight the “noonday demon” of acedia, monks in both East and West followed the Benedictine injunction of ora et labora (“pray and work”). As Helen Rhee has noted, “monastic poverty in reality was … patterned after economic self-sufficiency.” The first Egyptian monks shipped goods up and down the Nile. The Templars created international banking. The Cistercians, among others, struggled with what has been called “the embarrassment of riches.” Even today, many monasteries 1) have websites and 2) have online stores on their websites. In practice, few if any monastics—the historic experts in Christian spirituality—ever truly viewed commerce as inherently incompatible with their vocations. Avarice? Of course. But commerce? Not at all. 

This brings to light an additional problem with Reichert and Maier’s essay: they presume that markets are somehow independent of all other institutions of society, and that their expansion must mean the reduction of these other spheres. “[T]he expansion of markets and resultant economic growth increase the ‘opportunity cost’ of non-market (hierarchical) activity,” they claim. “It is harder and harder for mothers to specialize in folding their children’s souls when the market value of their time in lost wages rises higher and higher. It is harder and harder for fathers to restrain their work activity when the returns on their labor rise apace.” Thus, for them, simply having the choice of higher wages has already detracted from the well-being of families. The possibility that higher wages could be turned down or, alternatively, even enable the flourishing of families is not considered. 

Reichert and Maier repeatedly frame economic growth in such zero-sum terms. But history shows the opposite. Medieval monasteries, for example, flourished and grew while markets expanded throughout the world. Indeed, they were often the cause of this expansion. Even today, hierarchical institutions and those who donate to them supply their needs through markets, i.e. through positive-sum, commercial, and non-hierarchical exchanges. And as Ronald Coase pointed out (contra Reichert and Maier’s reading of him), even firms have internal hierarchical structures due to the prohibitive transaction costs of making literally everything an egalitarian exchange. One cannot so easily divide the market from hierarchies like the family or the Church, not to mention the state (as they argue). Markets enable such institutions to exist and flourish. Whether they do flourish depends only on whether they stay true to their vocations. 

The Church’s Vocation 

According to Reichert and Maier, the “interest in human activity” of an institution that could counterbalance the state “would need to be at least as encompassing, and perhaps more so, than the state’s.” They go on to assert that marriage “has become amorphous” because it was “radically redefined by the state in the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision.” So much for natural law, I guess. Thus, having brushed aside the family, they conclude, “That leaves the Christian Church, most notably in its Catholic institutional forms.” They give no reason why Protestant or Orthodox forms should be less preferred. 

To be clear, I have great respect for the Roman Catholic Church and wish for its flourishing. But exchanging its primarily spiritual vocation for the expansion of its temporal power, in order to restrict the freedom of people made in the image of God, all for the sake of an ill-defined concept of happiness, seems imprudent and fantastical at best, and it recalls images of arrangements, like the Papal States, that Rome has long since moved beyond. Rather, better understanding human happiness as communion with God, the Church’s vocation is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, of salvation from sin and death through divine grace, progress in virtue through ascetic struggle, and mercy and love toward all who are created in the image of God, whether friend or foe, regardless of any degree of complementarity with ourselves. It is only in this regard that the Church rightly has great interest in the alleviation of material hardship like poverty. Without it, the Church, even in its “Catholic institutional forms,” is nothing more than an incredibly inefficient NGO with outsized political aspirations.  

The world lying in darkness desperately needs a brighter light than that. 

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