A merry dance of Catholic social doctrine, permaculture, distributism, and other odd answers to pressing questions

Vol. I, No. 2

Our Peculiar Light

2007 Dec 26, 12:00 Wed tags:


From the Editor

  • Feature Article: Our Peculiar Light
  • Distributist News
  • Action: Keep the Twelve Days of Christmas!
  • Resources: Ideas abound on keeping the Twelve Days.
  • Selection: Pius XI - Justice won't work without love
  • Bonus Christmas Selection: GKC - "The God in the Cave"
  • Backmatter


Merry Christmas! The day after Christmas, and already you might be back to work. If you've already found a burst of post-Christmas back-in-the-world energy, you might enjoy my article on how Penny Justice will be helping you seize our "peculiar" opportunities for social justice.

But maybe you don't feel post-Christmas yet. Which is good, because it's still Christmas for seven more days! Not to mention the Christmas season. The suggested ACTION this issue is simple: keep the twelve days of Christmas. If you need ideas, the RESOURCES offer links to plenty.

In fact, if you're really keeping Christmas, you might want to skip down to the Resources and the Bonus Christmas Selection and save the rest for another day altogether. That's great! I think of Penny Justice as a zine; you certainly don't read a whole magazine in one sitting, front to back. I hope you find it just as easy to enjoy Penny Justice as you like.

Merry Christmas!

Bill Powell, Editor

[T]he economic prosperity of a nation is not so much its total assets in terms of wealth and property, as the equitable division and distribution of this wealth.

John XIII, Mater et Magistra, 74. (1961)


Our Peculiar Light

by Bill Powell

Welcome! In our last issue, I talked about serving justice by changing the structure of our normal lives. It's easy to think of "social justice" as a whole series of extra works: a shift at the soup kitchen, a visit to the nursing home. Sure, these are essential; fortunately, there's already a whole world of groups out there to help us do those works of mercy.

What there isn't (as much) is a general drive to make our everyday lives serve justice. We spend a whole day running a fundraiser for poor single mothers, then go buy a stack of outfits sewn by poor starving mothers. It's easy. It's ridiculously easy; that's one peculiar darkness of our time, that we can combine such tremendous social awareness with such tremendous unintentional exploitation.

But we have a peculiar light: our tremendous power of choice. When Elizabethan England began to import sugar and rum from the new tropical plantations, did everyone know these new products were made by slaves? Perhaps. But normal people had pretty much one option: don't buy them. They couldn't hop on the Internet and order from a worker-owned sugar co-op. Nor could they research a mountain of medical evidence and find out on their own that the new corporate products happened to be refined to the point of poison anyhow.

We can. You can. On this very screen you're staring at.

It's amazing.

And overwhelming. Which is why I hope Penny Justice can help. I have several goals:

  • To serve Catholic social doctrine, in digestible portions
  • To present a just economic paradigm: Distributism
  • To understand and critique our present system
  • To explore concrete solutions that are working today
  • To provide a forum for you to join this discussion

As promised, let's take a closer look.

To serve Catholic social doctrine, in digestible portions

Not only is the pursuit of justice difficult, it's complicated. Does a minimum wage help lift people out of poverty, or does it only drive prices up and make it harder for the poor to survive?

Catholicism certainly isn't the only faith with clear teachings on social justice, but, being Catholic myself, it's the tradition with which I'm familiar, and to which I fully assent. I suspect that social justice is the area where various faiths are most likely to find common ideas, but the Catholic social doctrine of modern times has a penchant for delving fearlessly into the nitty-gritty economic details.

Unlike, say, the Incarnation or the Eucharist, the official Catholic teachings on social justice are easily understandable and agreeable to people of all persuasions. So it's ironic that they're so little known. Pretty much anyone can tell you what the Pope thinks about abortion or contraception, and that's a good thing, but you can have a room full of Catholic doctorates arguing over the minimum wage, and no one even brings this up:

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.

-- Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 45.

Or this:

The worker is likewise entitled to a wage that is determined in accordance with the precepts of justice. This needs stressing. The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity.

-- John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 20. (1963)

Or this:

A workman's wages should be sufficient to enable him to support himself, his wife and his children. "If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice".

Would that these words, written at a time when what has been called "unbridled capitalism" was pressing forward, should not have to be repeated today with the same severity.

-- John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 8. (1981)

Why don't people address these statements? Because they disagree? No, because they didn't even know they were there.

Perhaps this ignorance is understandable. Each of these pungent thoughts is buried in a document that's necessarily long. These encyclicals aren't periodically republished to bestseller acclaim, nor are they quoted and misquoted in the national media. So I'll feature short selections to get you started, as well as links to the full documents.

(And why not mention now that all papal encyclicals are available for free in English at: http://www.vatican.va/offices/papal_docs_list.html In the future, I plan to reformat selected encyclicals as attractive free ebooks for you, but I need to make sure the Libreria Editrice Vaticana won't mind.)

When it comes to economics, the Popes are crisp, clear, and sometimes brutal. Prepare to be amazed.

To present a just economic paradigm: Distributism

While the Church is clear on many economic principles, the Church is always careful not to commit to any one particular system. That the worker deserves a just wage is beyond question; the exact dollar amount of that wage, and how to guarantee it, the Church leaves to us. Many have risen to this challenge, and as far as I can tell, the most comprehensive plan out there is a certain economic system known as Distributism.

Distributism has been called "the only practical alternative to the twin evils of Capitalism and Socialism." You can see DISTRIBUTISM DEFINED below for a full definition, but the here's the basic idea: if the average person is politically free, the average person ought to be economically free. In practice, you can't have one without the other.

If you sew shirts for sixteen hours a day and don't make enough to feed your family, you aren't economically free. But even if you make $200,000 a year, if you can be fired at your boss' whim--are you really free? As far as controlling your own livelihood, you're more like a domestic servant.

The Socialist wants to see wealth controlled by the government. The Capitalist wants to see wealth controlled by the wealthy. At least, that's how every historical example of Capitalism has worked out so far.

(And now I should mention that Penny Justice will always welcome feedback, especially data!)

The Distributist wants to see wealth controlled by everybody; that is, each man or woman actually has ownership over the means by which they makes their own living. This might mean running your own consulting business; it might mean joining a worker-owned factory. The joy, and the freedom, is in the details.

While many tenets of Distributism must be carefully distinguished from Catholic social doctrine, it's also the only economic system I know of that's explicitly grounded in those teachings. As we'll see, Distributism offers a cornucopia of practical ideas on how to construct a just economy.

To understand and critique our present system

We need ideas, but we also happen to live right here, right now. "The way things are" can seem unanswerable; sure, it would be nice if we could pay women workers in Bangladesh enough to feed their families, but if we can't afford it, that's just how it is. Right?

Wrong. We'll explore the details of this economy we're all building, coin by coin. We can't change what we don't know. For instance, have you ever heard of government subsidies? In our last issue's RESOURCE, we featured a little-known recipient of millions of tax dollars each year: major corporations. Repeat: major corporations. If our current "free market" is so splendid, why does any corporation need a single dime?

To explore concrete solutions that are working today

But ranting alone doth not a kingdom make. Besides, who wants to spend all day ranting when, under the radar of the major media, hundreds if not thousands of independent groups are already out there, quietly crafting unique solutions? With recurring features like our ACTION and RESOURCE boxes, you'll get concrete suggestions for things you can learn, consider, and do right now. I don't just want to recommend that you buy food grown locally; I want to link you to groups that will help you find it right where you live.

To provide a forum for you to join this discussion

Obviously, I don't have all the answers. I'm sharing what I know, and I hope to learn from you too. I look forward to your comments, criticisms, rants and resources. Send them to editor@pennyjustice.com, and I'll pass along the best in a future issue.

And that's what you can look forward to in Penny Justice. Thanks for joining me in this new ezine. We have such power; let's use it!

Bill Powell
December 26, 2007



There's more than one way to make money. At the Federal Reserve, chairman Ben Bernanke does it the easy way. If you've never given inflation the slightest thought, this quick discussion of the Fed's latest shenanigans may be worth a read.



"Chinese sweatshops now produce not only the toys under our Christmas trees, but even the ornaments that hang on those trees. It is completely against the spirit of Christmas to produce ornaments in sweatshop factories where the workers are physically abused and financially cheated. We need to get serious about keeping the products of foreign sweatshops off American shelves. And we shouldn't wait until next year's holiday season rolls around before we take action."

Press release: http://www.nlcnet.org/article.php?id=499
Video: http://www.nlcnet.org/article.php?id=500


Here's a wee Christmas present: a short Star Wars parody starring Cuke Skywalker, Obi Wan Canoli, and other live-action food puppets battling the evil Lord Tader and his army of factory foods. Very cool.

Flash site: http://www.storewars.org/flash/index.html Direct downloads of various resolutions and formats:

ACTION: Keep the Twelve Days of Christmas!

Okay, so maybe you already got the little sermon about waiting until Christmas for Christmas, instead of partying all through Advent. But now's the sequel to the sermon: let the feasts begin!

The traditional twelve days of Christmas ran from Christmas to Epiphany. (Yes, if you include both Christmas and Epiphany, that's 13 days. Oh well.) For Catholics today, the feast of Christmas itself actually lasts eight days --the Octave of Christmas, one long feast. And the Christmas season goes on until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the first Sunday after Epiphany.

Short version: It's still Christmas!

What does keeping Christmas for the whole season have to do with social justice? Everything! We're crafting a just and lovely life here; whose idea was it to hack off all the feasts at the knees? In our unavoidable battles in the dollar wars, we musn't forget the wealth we can make without spending a penny. Like what? Read on...


Ideas abound for keeping the Twelve Days

If you're hunting for Christmas traditions, the best place to start is probably your local matriarch. Barring that, you can hunt around on the Internet.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas": an entire 1955 book of customs, prayers, and even recipes. The last, alas, are sugar-infected, but you can always use honey. ;) The prayers and customs look interesting.

Sing! It's free! You don't even have to plug anything in. Of course, if you're tired of old chestnuts (especially the term "chestnut"), I don't blame you. But some of the lesser known carols are gorgeous.

A few lovely carols I got to sing this year:

  • Riu, Riu, Chiu
  • Adam Lay Ybounden
  • Blessed Be that Maid Marie
  • Past Three O'Clock
  • Swete Was the Song

(I'm not sure all these are online: you can also try the Shorter Oxford Book of Carols.)

For your reading pleasure (perhaps even out loud), there's a potpourri of Christmas literature at the Gutenberg Christmas Bookshelf:

Rather lengthy, but worth a perusal, is this Catholic Encyclopedia article on the history of Christmas.

And if you must work, at least you can listen to the Librivox Christmas Short Works Collection 2007:

Not that I've listened to all these stories yet myself, mind you. Or read all these pages in full, especially the Encyclopedia article. Christmas is starting. But I look forward to good things.


Pius XI: Justice won't work without Love.

[NOTE: It's the season of love and goodwill, but hate's not exactly vanquished. As this ezine embarks on a career of discussing justice, it's well to begin by seeing justice in the light of love. In a world full of love, we wouldn't need to enforce justice; and in world without any love, we couldn't enforce justice. Love comes first.

Pius XI explores this thought; but you might not agree with the idea of a communal God love being the only bedrock foundation for a just society. (This edges closer to the Incarnation than the Minimum Wage on the Accessibility Spectrum.) But it raises the question: why will people treat each other with justice? Self-interest's had a few centuries now, and it doesn't seem to be working.]

The sordid love of wealth, which is the shame and great sin of our age, will be opposed in actual fact by the gentle yet effective law of Christian moderation which commands man to seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice, with the assurance that, by virtue of God's kindness and unfailing promise, temporal goods also, in so far as he has need of them, shall be given him besides.

But in effecting all this, the law of charity, "which is the bond of perfection," must always take a leading role. How completely deceived, therefore, are those rash reformers who concern themselves with the enforcement of justice alone - and this, commutative justice - and in their pride reject the assistance of charity!

Admittedly, no vicarious charity can substitute for justice which is due as an obligation and is wrongfully denied. Yet even supposing that everyone should finally receive all that is due him, the widest field for charity will always remain open. For justice alone can, if faithfully observed, remove the causes of social conflict but can never bring about union of minds and hearts.

Indeed all the institutions for the establishment of peace and the promotion of mutual help among men, however perfect these may seem, have the principal foundation of their stability in the mutual bond of minds and hearts whereby the members are united with one another. If this bond is lacking, the best of regulations come to naught, as we have learned by too frequent experience.

And so, then only will true cooperation be possible for a single common good when the constituent parts of society deeply feel themselves members of one great family and children of the same Heavenly Father; nay, that they are one body in Christ, "but severally members one of another," so that "if one member suffers anything, all the members suffer with it."

-- Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 136-37

Copyright - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Footnotes removed and paragraph breaks inserted for the purposes of sanity. :) Full document at:


"The God in the Cave"

A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded. It is at least like a jest in this, that it is something which the scientific critic cannot see. He laboriously explains the difficulty which we have always defiantly and almost derisively exaggerated; and mildly condemns as improbable something that we have almost madly exalted as incredible; as something that would be much too good to be true, except that it is true. When that contrast between the cosmic creation and the little local infancy has been repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasised, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled, in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems, and popular sermons, it may be suggested that we hardly need a higher critic to draw our attention to something a little odd about it...

G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

Full document at: http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/books/everlasting_man.html

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    Penny Justice is a free bimonthly ezine featuring thoughts, news, resources, and concrete ideas on how to live justice right now, one penny and one moment at a time.

  • Pennies

    Life is made of pennies. We think in terms of dollars: thousands of dollars, millions, billions, trillions. You might not even pick a penny off the ground. But the most gigantic corporation would wither and die without pennies. And for many a man, woman, and child, a few hundred pennies is the work of a day.

    We don't control great fortunes, but we do control our pennies. We don't control our years, but we do control this moment. Billionare or beggar, we live one instant at a time.