Note to Big 3: Penance Before Absolution

Last Sunday, a preacher in Detroit caught the nation’s (and maybe even God’s) attention when he led a worship service … Continued

Last Sunday, a preacher in Detroit caught the nation’s (and maybe even God’s) attention when he led a worship service featuring three gleaming gas-electric hybrids on the altar. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we need prayer,” Bishop Charles Ellis told members of Greater Grace Temple. “When it’s all said and done, we’re all in this thing together.”

Suddenly, buying a new car is more than a personal economic decision. It’s starting to feel like an act of faith.

But while congregations in Detroit have been praying for government intervention to save the American auto industry from the sins of its corporate leaders, I keep waiting to hear the church call for accountability as well as mercy and charity.

Charity begins at home, they say. They also say confession is good for the soul.

In his Dec. 7 Pastoral Letter on the Economy, Detroit’s Cardinal Adam Maida wrote that the economy is about people, not money. “When I make decisions about economic matters for myself and my family and my co-workers, in what ways do I take into account the larger common good?”

So what is the larger common good in this case? If we buy a new American car, are we helping or enabling? If we bail out U.S. automakers, are we saving jobs and helping families and communities or are we letting greedy, selfish CEOs, board members and stockholders off the hook?

The Big Three bosses in Detroit — like their counterparts on Wall Street — are asking for absolution in the form of billions of taxpayer dollars. But as every Catholic school kid knows, absolution is the last step in the reconciliation process. Before absolution comes contrition, confession and penance.

General Motors issued a fairly contrite confession earlier this week in a full-page ad in Automotive News: “At times we violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs become lackluster. We have proliferated our brands and dealer network to the point where we lost adequate focus on our core U.S. market. We also biased our product mix toward pick-up trucks and SUVs. And, we made commitments to compensation plans that have proven to be unsustainable in today’s globally competitive industry.”

It would have sounded more genuine if it had included at least one reference to greed, but it’s a start. Let’s hope others will come, and that any confessions will be followed by sincere and sacrificial acts of penance on the part of the executives who “violated your trust.” Penance isn’t punishment, it’s restitution.

“Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much,” it says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “(Penance) must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices . . .”

Service. Sacrifice. Voluntary self-denial. Not as flashy as three new SUVs, but much more satisfying.

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  • mumj

    RE: “Holiday” displays on government property 12/11/08This makes perfect sense to me! As David Waters suggests, churches can display expressions of Christmas on their own property, and if they choose to use governmental space as well, then they will need to be willing to share the people’s space with all of the other beliefs represented in those communities. Government space belongs to us all. O’Reilly has it wrong, as usual. The display on government property isn’t “political correctness,” it represents the separation of church and state that rankles those officious, parochial Christians who insist on defying the law and refusing to show respect for any belief other than their own. It’s so………unChristian! And casts a dark shadow on the rest of Christianity!

  • CCNL

    “CNN: So what are they doing better than the U.S. car companies?Zakaria: It is simple — better management. Yes, Detroit has problems because of its legacy costs, the cost of paying health care and pensions to its retirees. But many other Americans firms in other industries have had to change their benefit systems or die. Detroit always managed to avoid making the change in part because of government assistance.But companies like Toyota, Honda, and BMW are not just skilled at cutting costs — they make better cars. They have more flexible factories and production systems, and understand what American consumers want.For example, Toyota and Honda are years ahead of American carmakers in designing and producing hybrid cars, and as consumer demand moves in that direction, they will reap the rewards. “

  • Paganplace

    Is “Penance” gonna give people back the jobs they’d still have if global warming deniers didn’t spend all that effort delaying adherence to CAFE standards?I’m kind of figuring more of the theology that got our industry into this ain’t gona get us out. So much for ‘small government,’ though: same people who proclaimed deregulation as ‘Godly’ now have the gun to our heads.Toldya so. Time to figure this out was six years ago.

  • CCNL

    It is called capitalism. Make products nobody wants and you go bankrupt. Pay too much for making said shody products and you go bankrupt.Should the US taxpayer buy these companies? Maybe but only if the current CEOs, board of directors, and unions are replaced. And whatever happened to carpooling?? It is not mpg but miles per person that are important!!And why do teenagers need cars to go to school?? The taxpayers are paying dearly for providing bus service to schools but the buses are almost empty.

  • bruce20

    I agree. I wrote more about the bailout at and at I think we should have a bailout for us and not corporate america. Have a great day.

  • globalone

    I am not opposed to “bailouts” per se, but in this case, absolutely not. A bailout of the “Big 3” only serves as a temporary jobs program. The long term viability of these companies is next to zero.And I don’t mean to interrupt Pagan’s self-aggrandizing, but the problem was not that they built the pickup’s and SUV’s, it’s that they put all their chips into that one hand. If they would have had even an ounce of vision and diversified their manufacturing platform, they wouldn’t be facing the death penalty.

  • catwoman147

    “And why do teenagers need cars to go to school?? The taxpayers are paying dearly for providing bus service to schools but the buses are almost empty.”