The cover story of a recent Time magazine suggests that some of the roots of infidelity lie within our very genes. The evolution of the human species, it contends, depends upon a certain ruthlessness that we are hard-wired to which, while wreaking an emotional havoc throughout history, has, in fact, been beneficial for our survival. At the root of infidelity lies a genetic pressure to perpetuate oneself and to do whatever is necessary to bring that about, irrespective of who gets hurt. Self-interest, therefore, comes naturally to us. 

The article then goes on to suggest that, for this reason, morality must be based upon something beyond self-interest: “Natural selection was [formerly] thought of almost as a benign deity, constantly ‘improving’ our species for the greater good. But … natural selection does not work toward overall social welfare, much of human nature boils down to ruthless genetic self-interest, [and] people are naturally oblivious to their ruthlessness.” (Time, August 15/94) 

That insight is helpful in understanding infidelity as well as injustice. Infidelity and injustice have the same root, a self-interest that is part of our genetic make-up. This leads to something Darwin called “the survival of the fittest” and we call “the law of the marketplace.” Either way it tends to make us ruthless and immoral. 

So let us apply this to the area of economics and justice: Most of us in the Western world have been raised to believe that we have a right, even a sacred one, to own whatever we can earn honestly, no matter how large that accumulation. Private property, wealth, big bank accounts, surplus clothing, an extra car, a summer cottage, consumer items of every kind, these are considered legitimate and moral, so long as we have come by them honestly. This is our belief and Western law and morality, for the most part, sanction it, but … perhaps, like infidelity, that authorization is more rooted in self-interested genes than it is in the moral order. Let me quote from some Papal Encyclicals, starting with Leo XIII and ending with John Paul II. I suspect that you will be somewhat surprised: 

  • God intended the earth and everything in it for the sake of all human beings and persons. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should flow fairly to all. All other rights, whatever they may be, are subordinated to this principle. (Popularum Progressio, 22 & Gaudium et Spes, 69)
  • The right to private property is subordinated to the right of common use, to the fact that goods are intended for everyone.Laboren Exercens, 14
  • No person (or country) may have a surplus if others do not have the basic necessities. (Rerum Novarum, 19; Quadragesima Anno, 50-51; Mater et Magistra, 119-121 & 157-165; Popularum Progressio, 230)

Thus …

  • No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life. (Popularum Progressio, 23)
  • The Fathers and Doctors of the Church hold this view, teaching that people are obliged to come to the relief of the poor … and if a person is in extreme necessity, he has the right to take from the riches of others what he himself needs (Gaudium et Spes, 69)
  • The present situation is immoral and must be redressed (Popularum Progressio, 6, 26, 32; Gaudium et Spes, 66; and Octogesimus Adveniens, 43). Side by side with the miseries of underdevelopment, themselves unacceptable, we find ourselves up against a form of superdevelopment, equally inadmissible because, like the former, it is contrary to what is good and true happiness. (Sollecitudo Rei Socialis, 28)
  • The law of supply and demand, free enterprise, competition, the profit motive, and private ownership of the means of production may not be given completely free reign. They are not absolute rights and are only good within certain limits. (Popularum Progressio, 26; Quadragesima Anno 88 & 110)
  • The condemnation of evils and injustices is part of the ministry of evangelization in the social field, which is an aspect of the Church’s prophetic role. (Sollecitudo Rei/42.)

The laws of the marketplace might be good evolutionary theory. They are less sound morally.