Fasting for church/state

Posted: Jul 22, 2002 12:00 AM
The church/state correspondences were never more graphically demonstrated than in recent months. The church, especially the Catholic Church, is in disarray because the scandals sometimes appear to overwhelm institutional claims. When one priest is found guilty of child abuse, one's instinct is to wince and quickly remind oneself that, after all, one of the 12 Apostles was feckless. But when day after day fresh evidence accumulates of priestly malfeasance, the observer begins to wonder if the problem is endemic. And some go on to wonder whether institutional weakness denotes a structural weakness. Denotes ... a bleeding faith.

So is it in the secular world. One chief executive who cheats brings on nothing more than a shrug. If all that he has done is cheat on his taxes, he can go on to jail more or less unnoticed.

But if he cheats by concealing the truth, he has done this at the expense not merely of Uncle Sam, who can get by with one man's pared-down tax return. He is cheating an entire community -- a very large community. Most directly affected, of course, are the investors in the CEO's company. But the damage is not limited even to them. Also injured are investment advisers, who project and make recommendations based on figures released by the CEO, and the men and women guided by them.

Suddenly the whole world seems to weaken from misplaced trust. On Monday the euro, which we sometimes discountenanced as the Confederate money of Europe, rose and actually surpassed the dollar, and now we ask which will come first, a reordering of the trade balance brought on by the cheaper dollar, or a deliberated refusal by foreign investors to make up that trade imbalance by buying deeper into the U.S. economy.

So that attention turns to the ground rules. What does the pope say? What could the pope say to turn the stricken church to safety? What new rules might be promulgated? Did the bishops, meeting in Dallas, go far enough? Did President Bush, addressing Wall Street, go far enough? If immediate impressions are informative, not nearly far enough to curb sheer anger in investors.

Television provides us with a truly insolent barometer of public reaction to public poultices. I began this reflection with the television image, intending with the corner of my eye to note only the trajectory of Dow Jones. When Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was introduced to the Senate Banking Committee, the Dow was down 180 points. He is still talking his soothing words -- Inflation continues low ... economy on road to recovery ... housing starts are high -- and the Dow is down 228 points.

The pope has no equivalent means of judging immediate reactions by the faithful, though probably a reasonable start would be to look into the rate of vocations -- one hardly checks into a seminary if doubting the entire thesis of Christianity.

But the president and the Congress can certainly act before judging the capitalist Weltanschauung terminally infirm. Clearly the accountants must be made to perform more reliably, which may be reason to forbid practices that are conflicts of interest, auditing vs. consulting. Just as priests are now to report any evidence of sinful behavior to public prosecutors, so chief executives can reasonably face tougher laws than those now on the books, so to speak accelerating the journey of the sinners to jail.

And Congress could act profitably for the investment class. Writing in The Wall Street Journal for the Club for Growth, Richard Gilder and Thomas Rhodes have made specific recommendations. Most immediately applicable is the proposal that beginning immediately, capital-gains taxes should be reduced to one-half the current level. The design is obvious, to entice investors back into the market by eliminating one part of the burden of a successful round.

Meanwhile the gross figures crowd in on us. The states of the union, with one or two remarkable exceptions, are drowning in deficit spending. Waterlogged hulls float less easily, and now manifestly is not the time to add to the national deficit $1 trillion in federal drug programs.

The metaphors for spiritual nourishment apply in the world of getting and spending. The Christian is invited to mortification of the flesh -- traditionally, to fasting and prayer. The secular equivalent of that is to spend less, work more. We operate in both worlds in the faith that just as no legion of failed priests can undermine the faith, so no legion of failed CEOs can undermine the free market.