Bishops Move Diagonally

Originally published March 23, 1987

I’VE BEEN reading a document called “Economic Justice for All.” It is the pastoral “letter” (a small book, actually) approved last fall by a vote of 225 to 9 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

I hasten to put on the record that I am not now and never have been a member of the Catholic Church. I admit that, once upon a time when the world was young and I was 12, I was received as a member by the State Street Congregational Church of Portland, Maine; and I recognize that there is a sense in which all of us in the West are Christians, just as we all are also Jews, Greeks, Romans, and Visigoths. But as to theology, it’s been a long time since I was even agnostic.

So I approached the bishops’ letter warily. I would not have approached it at all if it hadn’t been attacked by George Will, William E. Simon, and William F. Buckley Jr. Anything hated by these people can’t be all bad. And, in fact, I found it a fascinating document. Let me quote:

  • “Every economic decision and institution must be judged in the light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person.”
  • “All people have a right to participate in the economic life of society …. For it is through employment that most individuals and families meet their material needs, exercise their talents and have an opportunity to contribute to the larger community.”
  • “We cannot separate what we believe from how we act in the marketplace and the broader community, for this is where we make our primary contribution to economic justice.”
  • “In some industries the mobility of capital and technology makes wages the main variable in the cost of production. Overseas competitors with the same technology but with wage rates as low as one-tenth of ours put enormous pressure on U.S. firms to cut wages, relocate abroad or close. U.S. workers and their communities should not be expected to bear these burdens alone.”
  • “The investment of human creativity and material resources in the production of weapons of war makes these economic problems even more difficult to solve.”
  • “Minimum material resources are an absolute necessity for human life. If persons are to be recognized as members of the human community, then the community has an obligation to help fulfill these basic needs unless an absolute scarcity of resources makes this strictly impossible. No such scarcity exists in the United States today.”
  • “Social justice implies that persons have an obligation to be active and productive participants in the life of society, and that society has a duty to enable them to participate in this way.”
  • “The concentration of privilege that exists today results far more from institutional relationships that distribute power and wealth inequitably than from differences in talent or lack of desire to work.”
  • “As individuals and as a nation we are called to make a fundamental ‘option for the poor.’ “
  • “The ‘option for the poor’ is not an adversarial slogan that pits one group or class against another. Rather, it states that the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community.”
  • “Basic justice … recognizes the priority of policies and programs that support family life and enhance economic participation through employment and widespread ownership of property.”
  • “The economy is not a machine that operates according to its own inexorable laws, and persons are not mere objects tossed about by economic forces.”
  • “The dignity of workers also requires adequate health care, security for old age or disability, unemployment compensation, healthful working conditions, weekly rest, periodic holidays for recreation and leisure, and reasonable security against arbitrary dismissal.”
  • “We firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those now regrettably seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing. Migrant agricultural workers today are particularly in need of the protection, including the right to organize and bargain collectively. U .S. labor law reform is needed to meet these problems as well as to provide more timely and effective remedies for unfair labor practices.”
  • “It is unfair to expect unions to make concessions if managers and stockholders do not make at least equal sacrifices.”
  • “Large corporations and large financial institutions have considerable power to help shape economic institutions within the United States and throughout the world. With this power goes responsibility and the need for those who manage it to be held to moral and institutional responsibility.”
  • “Business and finance have the duty to be faithful trustees of the resources at their disposal. No one can ever own capital resources absolutely or control their use without regard for others and society as a whole.”
  • “Widespread distribution of property can help avoid excessive concentration of economic and political power. For these reasons ownership should be made possible for a broad sector of our population. “
  • “Support of private ownership does not mean that anyone has the right to unlimited accumulation of wealth.”
  • “Governments must provide regulations and a system of taxation which encourage firms to preserve the environment, employ disadvantaged workers and create jobs in depressed areas. Managers and stockholders should not be torn between their responsibilities to their organizations and their responsibilities toward society as a whole.”
  • “The risk of inflationary pressures resulting from expansionary policies is very real. Our response to this risk, however, must not be to abandon the goal of full employment, but to develop effective policies that keep inflation under control.”
  • “We recommend increased support for direct job creation programs targeted on the long-term unemployed and those with special needs.”
  • “Across the nation, in every state and locality, there is ample evidence of social needs that are going unmet. Many of our parks and recreation facilities are in need of maintenance and repair. Many of the nation’s bridges and highways are in disrepair. We have a desperate need for more low-income housing. Our educational systems, day care services, senior citizens services and other community programs need to be expanded. At the same time there are 8 million Americans looking for productive and useful work.”
  • “The nation should renew its efforts to develop effective affirmative action policies that assist those who have been excluded by racial or sexual discrimination in the past.”
  • “In comparison with other industrialized nations, the United States is among the more unequal in terms of income distribution. Moreover, the gap between rich and poor in our nation has increased during the last decade.”
  • “We believe Congress should raise the minimum wage in order to restore some of the purchasing power it has lost due to inflation.”
  • “Diversity and richness in American society are lost as farm people leave the land and rural communities decay.”
  • “We continue to support a progressive land tax on farm acreage to discourage the accumulation of excessively large holdings.”
  • “We are dismayed that the United States, once the pioneer in foreign aid, is last among the 17 industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in percentage of gross national product devoted to aid.”
  • “Rather than promoting U.S. arms sales, especially to countries that cannot afford them, we should be campaigning for an international agreement to reduce this lethal trade.”
  • “In our 1919 Program of Social Reconstruction we observed that ‘the full possibilities of increased production will not be realized as long as the majority of workers remain mere wage earners. The majority must somehow become owners, at least in part, of the instruments of production.’ “

THERE IS nothing in the passages I have quoted – and, aside from some theology, very little in the pastoral as a whole – that constant readers have not read in this space, perhaps somewhat less solemnly expressed. This is what disturbs me about the document. My instinctive response is to follow the Ben Hecht-like film writer in Boy Meets Girl who, when seconded in skulduggery by a pompous producer, responds by snarling, “Stay off of our side, B.G.”

Why do I respond in this way? Well, for one thing, the Catholic Church in America has a long record of association with illiberal causes. As prime examples, I think of the Legion of Decency (which tried to censor Faulkner, among others), the holding of Federal aid to education for ransom (until outmaneuvered by President Lyndon Johnson), and the continuing world-wide opposition to birth control. Somehow, causes like these have been enthusiastically nurtured by the Church, while liberal causes, like the astonishing 1919 call for employee ownership, have tended to be stillborn.

Then there is the issue of the separation of church and state. This issue has been raised for their purposes by Catholic laymen who disagree with the bishops. James J. Kilpatrick, writing for the Universal Press Syndicate, climaxes his diatribe with a citation (obligatory in such polemics) of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and concludes ungraciously: “The bishops know the workings of the marketplace by hearsay; they themselves, living well fed and protected lives, are as innocent as kittens of economic risk and insecurity. When they involve the church in lobbying for changes at the World Bank and the IMF, all in the name of moral instruction, they trespass upon the boundary that wisely separates the pulpit from the political arena.” Instinctively I find the argument of his final clause congenial. And yet…

And yet there is nothing in the First Amendment that forbids clergymen of whatever persuasion from speaking their minds on any matter whatever. (If you argue that churches engaging in politics should lose their tax exemptions, I counter that all churches should lose their tax exemptions.) Furthermore, for years a standard charge against the Catholic Church in Latin America was that its silence on social questions in effect supported political and economic repression.

What is truly dangerous – what absolutely corrupts the democratic process – is one-issue politics, such as the current Right-to-Life movement. “Economic Justice for All” is not a one-issue document. The public press has given it less attention that it deserves. I fear that the bishops’ parishioners, too, have passed by on the other side. They know not what they do.

 The New Leader

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