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Catholic Tradition

Signs of the Times:
The US Catholic Bishops' Pastoral letter on the Economy-An Unfinished Agenda?


By Martin McLaughlin
from Center Focus, Issue 172/January 2007


Twenty years ago this month the U.S. Catholic bishops adopted their pastoral letter on the U.S. economy, which they called Economic Justice for All. In their foreword they wrote that they were “believers called to follow Our Lord Jesus Christ and proclaim his Gospel in the midst of a complex and powerful economy. Because “economic decisions have human consequences and moral content,” they described the letter as “a personal invitation to Catholics to use the resources of our faith, the strength of our economy, and the opportunities of our democracy to shape a society that better protects the dignity and basic rights of our sisters and brothers, both in this land and around the world.”

When these words were approved, after six years of “listening and refinement,” the country was at the midpoint of the Reagan-Bush twelve years. Today we are six years into the second (George W.) Bush administration; and it seems reasonable to pause, examine the present context, and raise some pertinent questions: How much progress has been made toward the goals articulated by the bishops? What significant changes have occurred in the U.S. and the global economy? Can we now look forward to a Phase Two in the pursuit of economic justice along the lines set forth by the bishops’ letter? Are the bishops’ goals and their understanding of economic reality in 1986 still valid? And if there have been significant changes in economic understanding and priorities, what has caused them and what can be done about them?

The five-man committee appointed by the Conference were a hard-working group: Archbishop Rembert Weakland, OSB, Archbishop of Milwaukee (now retired), chaired; he was assisted by Archbishop Thomas Donnellan of Atlanta, and Bishops George Speltz of LaCrosse, Wisconsin (both deceased), William Weigand of Salt Lake City (now in Sacramento), and Auxiliary Bishop Peter Rosazza of Hartford, Connecticut. They were further assisted by consultants from both within and outside the Conference. The committee and its consultants met in working sessions at least fifteen times in Chicago or Washington and produced three drafts before the final version, with well over 200 proposed amendments, was presented to the 1986 Annual Meeting. The final version was approved overwhelmingly by the 250-plus assembled bishops; only nine voted against it.

The text wasted no time in stating the bishops’ thesis, namely, that economic life must be founded on respect for the dignity of the human person created in God’s image. Chapter I begins with these words: “Every perspective on economic life that is human, moral, and Christian must be shaped by three questions. What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it?” In short, the economy is for people, not the other way round. The bishops spell that thesis out for this country and then immediately internationalize it: “And beyond our own shores, the reality of 800 million people living in absolute poverty and 450 million malnourished or facing starvation casts an ominous shadow over all the hopes and problems at home.

This global sign of the times, this deep understanding of the fact of interdependence and the virtue of solidarity that must inform it thus marks the text of the letter from its beginning. “…nations separated by geography, culture, and ideology are linked in a complex commercial, financial, technological, and environmental network…We must not look at the welfare of U.S. citizens as the only good to be sought. Nor may we overlook the disparities of power in the relationships between this nation and the developing countries. The United States is the major supplier of food to other countries, a major source of arms sales to developing countries, and a powerful influence in multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations.”

Having set forth their basic principles in Chapter II, The Christian Vision of Economic Life, the economic pastoral analyzed four broad issues in domestic and international policy––employment, poverty, food and agriculture, and the U.S. role in the global economy––and made several recommendations about them. First, in regard to work and workers, the bishops, reflecting nearly a century of tradition, set forth mainly in papal encyclicals, said that people have a right to a job, “to wages and other benefits sufficient to sustain life in dignity, ” and “to form unions and other associations to secure their rights.” The bishops favored full employment via targeted employment programs and “pay equity between men and women.”

Second, when the letter turned to poverty, the bishops found themselves discussing and analyzing a somewhat more complex topic. Based on their own observations and the statistics of two decades ago, they concluded that about one seventh of the U.S. population experienced material poverty at various times: jobless, homeless people, single parents, senior citizens, malnourished children. They treated the situations of children, women, and racial minorities as distinct but related; and their analysis led them to an extended discussion of the inequality of wealth and income. Stemming from their “principle of participation,” the “conviction that the most appropriate and fundamental solutions to poverty will be those that enable people to take control of their own lives,” the bishops recommended building and maintaining a healthy economy, vigorous action to eliminate barriers to full and equal employment, self-help efforts among the poor, tax reform favoring the poor, a broadened commitment to education for the poor, programs to “support the strength and stability of families,” and “a thorough reform of the nation’s welfare and income support programs “

Third, besides realizing that food is essential to sustain life and that agriculture produces most of that food, the bishops were aware that there were about sixty dioceses in the country that were substantially rural and that many urban dioceses included farms and other rural enterprises. Moreover, as they noted, “While Catholic social teaching on the care of the environment and the management of natural resources is still in the process of development, a Christian moral perspective clearly gives weight and urgency to their use in meeting human needs.” Their consequent study left them with grave concerns about the U.S. food and agriculture system, both with respect to the national diet and the food security of the developing countries. These concerns included the decline of the family farm and the growth of a large “industrial agriculture” sector to produce for the market, the steady concentration of farm ownership in fewer hands, environmental damage and the loss of both crop and social diversity, and the plight of farm workers (closely related to the problem of immigration reform). The bishops’ recommendations included: restoration of priority to the family farm (small, diversified, and operated by a single family or cooperative with casual hired labor); protection of the opportunity to farm as a valuable form of work; review and reform of farm support programs that currently benefit the wealthier farmers; and more effective stewardship of natural resources used in farming.

Fourth, and finally, the bishops were acutely aware of the dominant position of the United States in the world and of the relevance of that power to Catholic social teaching on interdependence and solidarity. The periodic encyclical letters and other statements of Pope John Paul II in particular were pertinent and often cited. “The United States plays a leading role in the international economic system,” the bishops wrote, “and we are concerned that U.S. relations with all nations…reflect this teaching and be marked by fairness and mutual respect.” In a sense, the letter’s description of the global economy reflected an early stage of what is now the debate about globalization: “On the international economic scene three sets of actors warrant particular attention: individual nations, which retain great influence; multilateral institutions, which channel money, power, ideas, and influence; transnational corporations and banks, which have grown dramatically in number, size, scope, and strength since World War II…The interplay among all of them sets the context for policy choices that determine whether genuine interdependence is promoted or the dependence of the disadvantaged is deepened.”

The economic pastoral dealt in some degree with five aspects of relations with the developing countries (which the letter, like most such publications of that time, called the Third World): First, the bishops advocated an increase in the development aid made available to those countries (the global South) by the global North, including “a more affirmative role” in the multilateral institutions through which some of the aid was channeled. Second, the letter acknowledged the contribution trade made to economic growth, but favored greater emphasis on equitable distribution of the benefits of trade both within and among countries. Third, with regard to lending and investment, the letter pointed out that “The debtor-creditor relationship well exemplifies both the interdependence of the global economic order and its asymmetrical character, i.e., the aggregate dependence of the developing countries” (about $1 trillion of external debt at that time). The bishops favored a wide range of actions in this area, even “perhaps outright cancellation.” Fourth, the bishops felt that foreign investment in developing countries should be increased “consistent with the host country’s development goals and with benefits equitably distributed,” so that dependency is not perpetuated. Fifth, the bishops devoted particular attention to a problem of “special urgency,” namely, food security, which had clearly not been achieved in a world with more than half a billion hungry people that nevertheless produced more than enough food to feed all of them. At the conclusion of this segment the bishops acknowledged the responsibility of the United States in global development and called for “a U.S. international economic policy designed to empower people everywhere and enable them to continue to develop a sense of their own worth, improve the quality of their lives, and ensure that the benefits of economic growth are shared equitably.

At the end of their analysis and the presentation of their recommendations the bishops looked forward to what they called “A New American Experiment: Partnership for the Public Good.” They envisioned this in four forms of cooperation––within firms and industries, local and regional, in the development of national policies, and at the international level––leading to a “Commitment to the Future,” both for the Christian in the world and for the Church.

Although the bishops were criticized in conservative Catholic circles, especially business, as beyond their authority, beyond their competence, and wrong, the letter was well received in secular liberal circles, and it provided the basis for a considerable educational effort within the Catholic community, in which the Center of Concern, among others, was deeply involved. A tenth anniversary conference took place at Marquette University, which reiterated the main theses, policy positions, and recommendations of a decade earlier. The Conference itself had followed up the letter by publishing policy papers on food and agriculture and on the debt of developing countries. Already by then, however, it was clear that the bishops were beginning to move away from the attention to public policy that expressed itself in the letters on peace and on economic justice. In truth, though the letter has had a considerable educational effect through a variety of organizations and programs, very little of what the bishops recommended has actually happened; and even less of their rationale is found in public policy today. We have not moved from the indicative to the imperative, and a good deal of what was then thought to be the indicative is still subject to argument.

For example, unemployment is lower; but the federal minimum wage has not been raised for a decade, the cost of living continues to rise, and 12 million undocumented foreign workers are here working at jobs that Americans do not want to do. Union members account for 13.5 percent of the labor force, very near the all-time low––though organizing efforts continue. The United States has a complicated, over-priced health care system that benefits pharmaceutical and insurance companies, but still leaves nearly one sixth of the population without guaranteed medical care. Welfare, “as we knew it,” has moved away from focus on individual people and toward block grants to the States; there are fewer people on welfare, but many more who qualify for it but do not get it. Food Stamps are a particular area of concern, mainly because of the daunting paper work needed by those who are eligible and wish to enroll. Homeless shelters and food kitchens have seen a steady increase in the numbers of people served. There are fewer family farms each year; there is more vertical integration, and the quasi-cartels in the several segments of the food and agriculture system grow ever stronger––a handful of companies dominate production (meat, poultry, dairy) inputs and services (seeds, machinery, water, pesticides), processing and manufacturing (cereals, pastries, canned goods); the international grain trade (wheat, corn, rice) retail sales and advertising; and the restaurant business (including fast foods and “family” chains). The expenditure of about $16 billion per year in food advertising has led not to improvement in the quality of the diet, but to the obesity and child malnutrition that vie for first place among long-term health threats in the United States.

In international economic activity there has been a slight decrease in foreign aid aimed at development and poverty reduction; and its character has not significantly changed, although there is a stronger emphasis on reducing “corruption” and tying aid to purchases from the donor country (tied aid). Efforts to make international trade more equitable via the newly established World Trade Organization (WTO) have run into the same obstacles that frustrated Lord Keynes at Bretton Woods in 1944 and led to the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which the WTO was intended to replace. Regional and bilateral trade regimes like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have benefited the rich member countries and generally impoverished the poor ones. Despite several attempts at reduction, the debt burden of developing countries has nevertheless grown to well over $1 trillion, with little relief in sight. Global hunger has remained steady at the 1996 World Food Summit’s estimate of about 850 million people and is unlikely to meet the Millennium Development Goal of approximately half that figure.

Such a litany of gloom surely calls for at least a quick list of events and trends over the past two decades that have led us to this point. First, chronologically, the end of the cold war, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which left the United States alone in the world as the sole hegemon. Second, the subsequent publication of PNAC (the Project for the New American Century), whose neo-conservative signers have so far controlled foreign policy in the Bush Administration today. Third, 9/11, the massive crime that murdered 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania farm and precipitated the PNAC group into the leadership of U.S. foreign policy. Fourth, the parallel triumph of the neo-liberals (academic economists, big investors, bankers, and businessmen) in the inexorable process of economic globalization via cartelization of economic sectors and sharpened competition for shares in the global “free market” built on the philosophy of Milton Friedman and maintained by multinational corporations and banks, mainly based in the United States. Fifth, the rise of militant Islam, though not exactly the clash of civilizations described by Samuel Huntington, which was further energized by U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sixth, the revolution in communications technology that has helped make all this possible, but whose immediate future may find itself more problematic when it reaches the poorer parts of the world. Seventh, demographics, which have had a mixed impact on global society during the past two decades. When the bishops issued their letter, world population was, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, just under 5 billion; today it is a little over 6.5 billion, with a projected downward growth trend. Global population, however, is also becoming more mobile, with more than half the migrants being female. Eighth, the growing consensus about the impact of climate change (global warming) on society and the various processes in which it is engaged; there is no consensus, however, on what to do about this phenomenon, which a strong majority of the scientific community views both with considerable alarm and as the most visible symbol of interdependence. Ninth, the change in partisan political power relationships in the United States in 1994, reflected in the so-called Gingrich revolution of that year, which cost the Democrats’ their forty-year-old House majority and with it their impact on congressional policy. Tenth, the comparable reverse of those power relationships and the opening up of what many are calling “a new populism” as a result of the 2006 Congressional elections.

The end of the Cold War opened the way for the neo-liberals to move into control of the process of globalization through their so-called Washington consensus; for all practical purposes, they run the global economy. In much the same way the tragedy of 9/11 put the neo-conservatives in charge of U.S. foreign policy, which they continue to run with violent arrogance and the quiet acquiescence of many neo-liberals. This is a much more powerful combination of opponents to their message than the U.S. bishops faced two decades ago; and the latter, too, must deal with the changes in the secular world at the same time that they have widely lost policy credibility in the wake of the pedophilia scandal and their initial lapses in governance––which also continue to weaken them financially. Moreover, the long reign of Pope John Paul II, which permitted him to promote or appoint nearly all current bishops and cardinals, resulted in a gradual but steady change in the attitude of the bishops away from their attention to many public policy questions and toward greater concentration on ecclesiastical matters. The sex and life issues, plus immigration and the war in Iraq, seem to be the major exceptions.

Although the 20-year-old letter ends on a note of hope, the bishops saw it as less an end than the beginning of a process of education, discussion, and action––and a continuation of the research into areas they dealt with and many others beyond the scope of the1986 document. Unfortunately, the most recent annual conference of the Catholic Bishops dealt with very few of the economic pastoral’s issues. The Bishops spent the four days of their annual conference, as they did from November 14 to 17 of this year debating and adopting, generally by tenfold majorities, statements on contraception and preparations for receiving Holy Communion, guidelines on dealing with persons of “homosexual inclination,” and changes in liturgy, lectionary, and hymns. Two months earlier, for example, the bishops in one State Conference had mounted a concerted statewide campaign via the internet and from the pulpit in favor of amending the State constitution to ban same-sex marriage (which is already illegal in the State) as a threat to the traditional family, but refused to testify in favor of legislation to increase the minimum wage to a level that could support a traditional family.

Equally significant at a time when the socio-political context is changing, with the notions of social justice and the common good returning to political discourse, much of what the bishops had to say in their economic letter is as valid today and at least as urgently representative of Catholic social thought as much of the standard homiletic vocabulary. One passage, in particular, seems germane: “The poor are often related to the lowly to whom God reveals what was hidden from the wise. When Jesus calls the poor ‘blessed,’ he is not praising their condition of poverty, but their openness to God. When he states that the reign of God is theirs, he voices God’s special concern for them, and promises that they are to be the beneficiaries of God’s mercy and justice. When he summons disciples to leave all and follow him, he is calling them to share in his own radical trust in the Father and his freedom from care and anxiety.”

The global economic situation today calls even more forcefully for the kinds of concern expressed in “Economic Justice for All.” And as U.S. theologian Rev. David Hollenbach, SJ, noted in America magazine last month, North American theologians at a recent conference in Padua “were challenged to respond much more effectively to the massive poverty in the world today––a central implication of the Gospel and our common humanity…Since the United States is the world’s most powerful nation, it has the greatest capacity to advance or impede our common humanity. Heightened capacity entails greater responsibility.” But, sad to say, it seems unlikely that there will be a Phase Two of the economic pastoral any time soon. Rather than an unfinished agenda, it looks more and more like an agenda barely begun before it was interrupted. Just as the “outside” world appears ready to deal with real-world topics discussed in the Bishops’ letter, the hierarchy appears to be turning itself inward and the clock backward.

What would Jesus do?

Martin McLaughlin is an adjunct associate of the Center of Concern. He was part of the original staff committee producing the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on the U.S. Economy