The USCCB’s draft message on the economy.
Tuesday morning the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will discuss and vote on the following draft of their “pastoral message on work, poverty, and the economy.” For ease of reading, I’ve incorporated footnotes into the main body of the text, between brackets.
THE HOPE OF THE GOSPEL IN DIFFICULT ECONOMIC TIMES
A Pastoral Message on Work, Poverty, and the Economy
I. The Hope of the Gospel
Today, we live in particularly difficult and challenging economic times. Many are suffering in various ways and are struggling to find hope.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the hope and light of the world and of each individual human life. He is the Good News. Through his Incarnation, life, Death, and Resurrection, he has revealed the love and mercy of God the Father and has poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit. In his Body, the Church, he calls us to grace and communion with him and with one another.
The Lord’s saving work among us transforms our lives according to the pattern of his own self-giving love. His grace makes its home in us through the gifts of faith, hope, and charity and touches every aspect of our lives from intimate moments of prayer to our public participation in the political process.
In the midst of these difficult economic times, we, the Catholic bishops of the United States, wish to speak directly to the faithful in our country about the hardships so many are facing. We do not intend to offer a comprehensive analysis of economic systems at work in our nation or in the world. Rather we want to offer a word of pastoral wisdom and encouragement based on the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We write during this Year of Faith, confident that the grace of the Lord can help us render our human relations and economic structures more humane and more just. It is our hope that this letter will encourage prayer and study, as well as conversation and discussion, within our parishes and our dioceses, in order that together we may find creative and constructive ways of resolving the economic problems we face.
Poverty, unemployment, hunger, violence, and isolation have been a tragic part of human history since sin and strife first entered the world. At this time in our nation’s history, these social wounds are especially widespread, and the human toll they take on our families, our children, and our neighbors is ever present to us. We are called in charity and truth to respond to the sufferings that afflict our neighbors. To achieve this, we must first be seriously committed to forming our consciences according to the truth, both human and divine. Then we should apply our minds and our hearts to the work of promoting justice within our national economic life. We should also stand in solidarity with those most adversely affected by our economy. Faith in Christ Jesus and humble obedience to his teaching can help us see more clearly what justice and solidarity truly require. Moreover, faith in the Lord’s victory over death is vital for the courage and stamina needed to persevere in our commitment to love one another as God has loved us. Therefore, let us not grow weary of doing good; if we do not relax our efforts, we shall reap our harvest in due time.
II. Our Difficult Times
In order to understand the economic difficulties of these days and our response to them, we must speak first of a “wounded economy.” The economy shares in the condition of the men and women whose labor and commerce give it shape. We are wounded by the effects of Original Sin. This wound expresses itself both in our own actual sins and in the enduring presence of sinful social conditions and structures in our world [Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2009, no. 34]. Engrained habits of selfishness, greed, and injustice, in addition to a kind of spiritual blindness to the plight of others, profoundly affect our economic relations [See Caritas in Veritate, no. 34]. The grace of the Gospel is our hope, because it purifies, heals, and elevates our thinking and conduct. What we do as Catholic families, Catholics in the workplace, and Catholics in public and political life is meant to be an expression of that grace that heals and elevates all human relations, including economic ones. The Gospel offers wisdom about the economy precisely because it offers a remedy for what most deeply ails our human condition, and it enables us to see our responsibility to be instruments of healing.
At this time our nation’s economic difficulties are especially acute. Particularly debilitating is the level of unemployment and the poverty that results from it. Unemployment in the United States has reached levels not seen in many decades. Many who have been out of work for a long time have simply given up and have stopped looking for employment. As a result, countless other aspects of the economic and social fabric of the nation also suffer. Not only are employers deciding to reduce their work forces, but businesses have also lost the market resources necessary to sustain their enterprises. Both workers and employers in our nation are in great distress. We also have a problem involving capital investment, necessary in the contemporary economy, which at times is scarcely available, poorly used, or selfishly squandered.
At the same time, our economic troubles pose serious challenges to healthy family life. Families are under great stress. Mothers and fathers struggle to find work that is sufficiently steady and gainful to support their children. They worry about how they will provide their children with the basics they need to grow up healthy, happy, and well educated. Many single parents, in particular, try to hold two or three part-time jobs just to make it possible to buy food, medicine, and school supplies for their children. Nor can we forget that many families carry responsibilities for elderly parents or relatives who depend on them to help them make it through the month. Many have lost their homes or are living in fear of losing their homes.
These difficulties experienced by individuals and families all exact a great human toll: parents and grandparents suffer when the young have to do without because there is either no work or insufficient work to meet the household bills. Likewise, our young people grow discouraged when they see the adults around them work as hard as they can to provide the necessities of life, and yet seem not quite able to make it from paycheck to paycheck. The young begin to doubt the possibility of making an honest living sufficient to raise a family. This kind of dejection leads to a sense of aimlessness about life and makes a young person susceptible to the ever-present offer of drugs, gang life, and violent crime. Many high school students doubt whether there is any hope for them to afford a college education and then to find a good job after that. Many young adults finish college with huge debts to pay and with little hope of finding work in the profession they have studied hard to prepare for. Those approaching retirement live with the fear and insecurity of not knowing how long they will be employed or how well their retirement savings will sustain them after they do retire. And thus unemployment, underemployment, and business failures all have the effect of weakening the sense of hope in the future, even as it lowers the sense of self-worth and purpose among those most severely affected [Pope John Paul II, Encyclical On Human Work (Laborem Exercens) (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1981), no. 9].
The homeless shelters found in so many of our local communities are full every night, giving testimony to the fact that among those who are hurting are persons who, for whatever reason, have no one to whom they can turn. And so they wander from city to city, from place to place, by whatever means are available, doing small jobs. Some who populate our streets and shelters are physically disabled or emotionally injured. We all witness how this kind of economic hardship tears away at the social fabric of our community.
We also see that municipalities, counties, state governments, and the federal government are limited in the resources they can offer to provide sufficient social assistance to families and individuals who are experiencing hardship. Contentious debates frequently occur over what resources are available and how to prioritize their allocation. At the same time, men and women rightly worry about what it means for the future of our nation and of our families to have a national debt of such unprecedented proportions. Anxiety about the future, indeed, seems to be a national mindset. The current wounded state of our economic and social fabric further manifests itself in the great numbers of people in our communities who experience a deep distrust of government and economic institutions. This distrust extends also, at times, to institutions founded to safeguard the welfare of workers. This distrust can come from many sources, but no one can deny that it eats away at amicable relations and good will that make life in a human society both truly social and truly humane.
The current situation foments a sense of powerlessness among our people, which can lead to a condition of spiritual dejection and despair that smothers our sense of hope and purpose. Without hope and purpose there is no effort, and if there is no effort, there can be no progress toward a more just and compassionate society. Tragic as material poverty is, more devastating still is the condition of despair and spiritual emptiness it frequently engenders.
We as Catholics who work and seek to contribute to the common good of our local and national communities ask this question: What can we do to help restore hope to those in poverty, to the unemployed, to youth and young adults, to the working poor, to those in retirement or approaching it, and to the homeless? We also wonder what we can do in the face of so much national distress; a distress that we know is so often impacted by decisions made far away in this massively complex reality known as the global economy. We must continue to turn to Christ and to the light of his Gospel as handed down by his Church in order to respond to our questions.
III. What Catholic Teaching Offers
Catholic teaching on economic matters has a long tradition. In our own time, Blessed Pope John Paul II and our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, have articulated for our contemporary and globalized society an authoritative enunciation of principles that serve to guide our reflections and our actions. To be sure, we cannot repeat here all the principles that Catholic social teaching enunciates. We do think it appropriate, however, to highlight some aspects of this teaching that can illuminate our current situation with the light of the Gospel.
Economic theories can intricately describe how economic cycles follow certain laws, how recessions and recoveries may or may not follow from certain kinds of economic forces, and how economic institutions rise and fall. Yet Catholic teaching—and this point is deeply rooted in the Gospel itself—insists that economic structures and systems are at the service of the human person, and not the other way around. The inviolable dignity of every human person is fundamental. This means that individual persons and their relationships, especially marriage and the family, are paramount when we think about the economy. Pope Benedict XVI, recalling the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, states it succinctly: “Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life” [Caritas in Veritate, no. 25 (quoting Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes], no. 63)]. People are not put on this earth to make economies function better; rather the health of an economy is judged by how well it serves the good of the human person.
The matrix of relations that make up the economic life of a nation is meant to serve the common good. But what is the common good? Rooted in a long philosophical and theological heritage in the Christian tradition, we recall that the common good involves three basic elements [Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana–USCCB, 2000) nos. 1907-1909]. First, it entails respect for the whole person as such. This means that a just economy and a just society are ordered to safeguard the life of the human person and proper development of his or her legitimate freedom. A justly ordered society leaves space for people to aspire and to act in a truly human way, to seek the truth, and to adhere to a religious faith according to the call of conscience. Second, the common good requires that economic life and society itself be ordered in such a way as to make accessible to all in the community what is needed for a flourishing human life. This includes food, clothing, health, work, and education. It would also include the all-important right to establish a family, founded on marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and to raise children according to the well-formed consciences of the parents. Third, the common good involves a stable and peaceful order within the community. Strife and violence are opposed to this aspect of the common good. Thus, at the forefront of her teaching about the economy, the Church emphasizes the gift and intrinsic dignity of the human person, which embraces the sacredness of life, the unique meaning of marriage and the good of the family, and the dignity of work and workers. These priorities are basic to the promotion of the common good.
Catholic teaching also emphasizes that economic problems cannot be understood in isolation; they are interconnected with larger social and cultural concerns. One of the most profound concerns affecting our national and economic life is the breakdown of family life. For any society, healthy family life, founded on God the Father’s wise design for marriage and children, is indispensable for economic health. The first priority of parents is to provide for both the moral formation and material security of their children. The decline in the number of stable homes with a father and a mother can be seen as one of the root causes of our economic troubles. In our nation, marriage and family are in crisis. The plague of divorce and broken families has led to a destabilized social culture, which in turn contributes to a weakened economic culture. More young people are choosing to forego marriage indefinitely. Cohabitation is rising while marriage is declining. At a time when marriage should be strengthened, the very meaning of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, as the only institution that unites children to their mother and father, thus forming the fundamental building block of society, is being questioned and even redefined in the law.
An economy under severe stress further weakens an already weak culture of marriage and family. If a mother or a father, or both, have to work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, to sustain a family household in today’s economy, something is severely disordered, and the common good is debilitated. The good of the family depends on things other than simply the money gained from employment. The good of the family depends on husbands and wives having the time and energy to be with each other and with their children.
Further, Catholic teaching emphasizes the respect that is owed to those who work for a living. There is great dignity and honor in human work. Human labor is a way of exercising our human gifts and putting them at the service of the wider community. Work is more than just a burdensome necessity of life done in order merely to survive. It is a way of sharing in God’s creativity. Insofar as it produces fruit, our work is a practical expression of our being created in the divine image. Done with virtue and integrity, work perfects us and brings satisfaction. This satisfaction is not simply a personal good feeling; rather it is a deeper satisfaction in knowing that what we do contributes to the good of others, beautifying and ennobling the world in which we live [Laborem Exercens, nos. 7, 9, and 24]. Human effort and work is a good in itself, because it is good for the human person. We cannot separate the work from the worker. The men and women who work are not meant to be cogs in the many wheels turning within an impersonal economic system. Workers enjoy the right to assemble and form associations, which has long been recognized by the Church’s social Magisterium.
The Church’s social teaching also involves a call to both personal responsibility and to communal solidarity. These two elements are basic to how we as Catholics are obliged to respond to suffering of any kind. They also offer much needed instruction to help us as we grapple with our current economic suffering. We will therefore examine each of these more closely as we reflect on our Christian response to the current situation.
IV. Responsibility and the Call to a Life of Virtue
Economic institutions, governments, and businesses, even the most complex of them, are not uncontrollable and impersonal entities. At least they need not be. Nor are these institutions invested with some mysterious deterministic force that turns the cycles in this globalized economy [Caritas in Veritate, no. 42]. They are human institutions. They are as just and responsible, as truthful and generous, and as mindful of the poor, as the people who administer them. Human relations are prior to purely economic relations involving contracts and legal exchanges. It is an error, as Pope Benedict XVI teaches, to think that economic dynamics should not be influenced by criteria of moral judgment [Caritas in Veritate, no. 34]. Respect for moral truth is essential for a just economic life. This is why Catholic teaching on economic and social matters always builds upon the bedrock of the human virtues that make our living a joy and a source of human betterment.
All of us need to rediscover and renew our sense of the basic human virtues and the theological virtues as well, so that we can more deeply appreciate the kind of character formation that governs everything from how a young mother pays her grocery bill on time to how experienced investors use the money others have entrusted to them. From the simplest human relation to the most complex, we must hear the call to cultivate honest and just hearts. St. Paul tells us, “Brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. . . . Then the God of peace will be with you” [See Phil 4:8, 9]. A good place to begin a renewed understanding of virtue would be through individual or group study of the section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that treats “The Human Community” [CCC, nos. 1877-1948].
Justice is a norm of reason that requires that we give to our neighbors what is their due. Put another way, it arises from a judgment that a fellow human being has a right to be treated in a way that respects his or her life and dignity as a person. “The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor” [CCC, no. 1807]. If we want just and upright institutions, we must teach and form one another in what it means to have a just and upright conscience. This does not happen automatically. Justice must be taught and exemplified, and it requires the gift of grace for it to reach its full stature.
A mature sense of justice can only arise in a human soul purified of selfishness, cowardice, or thoughtlessness. Thus, a just person is also one who cultivates a cohesive sense of the virtues of temperance, fortitude, and prudence. For example, to deny a hungry man a piece of bread when it is within our power to give it is both a sin against temperance and against justice. For if we greedily overestimate the importance of having more than enough, we will unfairly deny to a hungry person what in justice that person should have to survive. Temperance moderates our own appetites in accord with right reason.
Justice also requires fortitude. It is not enough to recognize what is owed in justice to another; it is also necessary that we have the fortitude to act on what we recognize. Unfortunately, many persons may see an injustice but lack the moral courage to act so as to remedy it. Justice also needs prudence. Prudence entails a steady ability to make decisions based on a realistic reading of the situation a person is facing and the true good at stake. It is possible to have a noble zeal for justice and a courageous will to seek it, but then fail to judge wisely the best way to secure it. To promote violence, for example, as a protest against injustices in the economy would be itself a sin against justice and a sign of a grave imprudence.
All of us, from the worker who lives below the poverty level in this country to the chief executive officer who operates a major corporation, have an obligation to cultivate an authentic life of moral virtue. Professional investors can be driven to unethical risk-taking with other people’s money unless their quest for profit is tempered by a real sense of justice, prudence, and courage. Large-scale failures in justice can result in what amounts to massive theft. Profit is necessary in most economic exchanges, but maximizing profit is not the only criterion for a human judgment about whether an economic decision is in fact a just decision. Employers have a moral responsibility in justice to treat employees with equity and fairness, and to provide a living wage that compensates the employee for the true value of his or her labor [Le, 19]. A sense of temperance and justice protects employers and managers from forgetting that there are people behind the numbers. By the same token, employees have a responsibility in justice to give an honest day’s labor, be it physical or mental, for an honest day’s wage. Without a sense of justice in the workplace, it becomes all too easy for workers to fall into deceptive practices, gossip, envy, and even theft.
Pope Benedict XVI teaches us that “if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests” [Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical God Is Love (Deus Caritas Est) (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2006), no. 28]. This reminds us that, by themselves, the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude can only imperfectly ensure good human relations and a sound economic life. Sin agitates against our best desires and obscures our capacity to make good judgments. Thus the healing and elevating work of grace present in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love is ever needed to purify our thinking and our acting. Ultimately, the Lord Jesus, full of grace and truth, is the perfect model and source of all the moral virtues in their fullness. By seeking a share in his grace we become sharers in his resplendent holiness. Prayer and regular participation in the sacraments confided to the Church, especially the Holy Eucharist and Penance, are the primary ways we receive a share in the Lord’s goodness and thus cultivate the life of virtue.
This purification of which the Holy Father speaks bears particular fruit in our ability to recognize the gratuitousness of life [Deus Caritas Est, no. 34]. Life is a gift, and we ourselves are not the authors of it. This truth profoundly impacts the way we view and treat one another, for we must humbly acknowledge that all of our brothers and sisters in this world are here also because God has loved them into existence. We cannot live in isolation, blind to the lives of those who share this gift of life with us. Although justice recognizes what is rightly due to another person or to the community, our promptness in treating one another justly finds its strength in our generous willingness to give freely of ourselves for the good of others: “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give” [Mt 10:8]. Our Holy Father points out that a spirit of gratuity has a place in our personal lives as well as a place in the wider social and economic world [Deus Caritas Est, no. 39].
V. Communal Responsibility and Authentic Solidarity
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, lived and taught generation after generation in the Church, is first and foremost an announcement of grace and eternal salvation. We know this because the Lord Jesus “by his suffering, canceled out our sins,” and “by his rising from the dead . . . has opened the way to eternal life” [Roman Missal, Preface IV for Sundays in Ordinary Time]. Our destiny as men and women redeemed by Christ Jesus reaches beyond this life and extends to eternal communion with God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are made for the Communion of Saints, in that blessed cloud of witnesses gathered around the throne of the Lamb who was slain. Because we know this in faith, we are protected from falling into the delusional notion that human ingenuity and effort can create a perfect utopian society, something akin to paradise on earth [Caritas in Veritate, no. 34]. Both the teaching of the Lord and the lessons of history testify that this is not possible. To remain firm in our faith is to remain firm in a realism that recognizes that it is not within our power finally to fix the world of all its ills.
Nevertheless, our vocation to eternal life in the communion of the Most Holy Trinity cannot be fulfilled if we avoid or ignore the challenges, trials, and struggles of this life. The Lord requires us to engage these struggles with authentic generosity toward our suffering neighbor. The Lord teaches this clearly in the great parables recorded in the Holy Gospels, like the story of the Good Samaritan, or the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. The Lord Jesus gives us the sobering injunction to live our daily encounters with one another as a daily encounter with the grace of his sacred presence. “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” he told us in one of the solemn parables of Last Judgment [Mt 25:40]. We know by faith and from history that it is not within our power to fix the world of all its ills. Nevertheless, our vocation to eternal life cannot let us avoid or ignore the challenges, trials, and struggles of this life.
This is, in effect, what Catholic social teaching refers to when it speaks of solidarity. Christians are obliged to view themselves as morally and humanly connected to all other members of the human family. The supreme expression of solidarity is found in the witness of the martyrs, such as St. Maximilian Kolbe. St. Maximilian gave his life in the concentration camp of Auschwitz so that another man, a stranger, might have a chance to live. Of course, St. Maximilian did not see this man simply as a stranger, but rather he saw him as a brother and a friend; he saw him also as a man with responsibilities toward his wife and children.
As Pope Benedict teaches, solidarity is not only a Christian virtue made to flourish by the grace of faith; it is also a social virtue which all of society needs in order to cohere and to promote the common good effectively. We cannot live in isolation from one another [Caritas in Veritate, no. 36]. Martyrs like St. Maximilian serve as an example for everyone, believer and nonbeliever alike. Their witness strikes a deeply human chord, reminding us all that our connections to one another are not simply voluntary or contractual; they are deeply embedded in who we are, as creatures made for communion with God and with one another.
“Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone” [Caritas in Veritate, no. 38]. Solidarity can and should be a part of our daily lives and of the economic life of our nation, and not simply relegated to a place outside the world of work and business affairs [See Caritas in Veritate, no. 36]. It is “not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress,” but rather it is a “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself” to the good of all and to the good of each individual [Pope John Paul II, Encyclical On Social Concern (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis) (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1988), no. 38]. Solidarity has an important part to play in moving toward a more humane and just economic life. As Catholics, we are called to witness to the virtue of solidarity by the ways we respond to our current economic struggles.
VI. Responding in Truth and in Love
Pope Benedict reminds us that Catholic service to the suffering must be marked by effective and good stewardship of our resources. But more important even than our competence as stewards of the material goods God puts at our disposal is the gift of ourselves present in the gift we give [Deus Caritas Est, nos. 31, 34]. Any act of kindness is an act of charity if it is informed by a sacrificial love in imitation of the Savior. Such acts redound to the good in many ways, both seen and unseen. Among countless examples are Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who prayerfully gave herself completely to caring for the poorest of the poor, the gravely ill, and those dying in the streets of India; St. Damian of Molokai, who gave himself by becoming one with the lepers he served in Hawaii; and St. Katherine Anne Drexel, who gave her fortune and her life in dedication to the education of the poor in the United States. These and other canonized saints, along with numerous people in our parishes and communities, have shown us the powerful effects for the good that selflessness and generosity can have upon the most vulnerable and upon the whole of our society.
The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is ever applicable to us, and is a call to cultivate a “heart which sees,” as Pope Benedict so profoundly states it, adding, “This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly” [Deus Caritas Est, no. 31]. In our parishes and schools, our prayer groups and apostolic movements, and other associations of Catholic life in this country, let us be a little more forgetful of ourselves, so that we might better see the needs of those whose suffering is greater than our own. Effective charity pulls us out of ourselves and extends first our hearts and then our hands to the marred Face of Christ we encounter in the hungry child, or in the woman tired after a long night-shift at a twenty-four-hour convenience store, or in the older man who is discouraged and humiliated because he cannot find a job. “Let us not be conceited, provoking one another, envious of one another. . . . Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” [Gal 5:26; 6:2]. Parishes do this by intensifying their ministry of charity. Now more than ever, we must come together in common service to the practical needs of persons who lack food, adequate clothing, and funds to pay their basic bills, such as electricity and water. Often this is most effectively done in coordination with ecclesial entities of service, such as Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and Catholic hospitals, or the other arms of the Church dedicated to the corporal works of mercy. It is our responsibility as Catholics to work with people of good will to ensure that there is an adequate safety net for those who are in poverty or struggling to stay out of poverty. As a nation we must provide assistance and relief to our poorest brothers and sisters around the world.
The social charity of the Church is not some extraneous aspect of our identity and mission as Catholics. On the contrary, as Pope Benedict XVI states, “the Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word” [Deus Caritas Est, no. 22]. For this very reason the Church must insist upon the freedom of her institutions and her individual members acting within the larger society so as to be of genuine service to the common good. In a free society such as ours, no religious body should be asked by the government to violate its own teachings as a prerequisite to helping the poor, educating the student, healing the sick, or feeding the hungry. It is a tragedy when so many children go to bed hungry every night.
We must draw special attention to the fact that economic hardship makes it difficult for those who wish to establish a family actually to do so. Something is terribly wrong when lack of employment discourages a man and a woman from marrying and having children. We must do all we can to promote, strengthen, and defend the institution of marriage and to support and strengthen families. A culture of life and justice, including economic justice, will not be possible without a culture of strong marriages and families.
It is also true that abortion rates are particularly high among the poor. Abortion is never an acceptable solution to any difficulty. The common good is profoundly injured when economic distress even remotely tempts a mother or a father to think that it might be better not to allow a child to be born. Innocent lives must never be sacrificed because of difficult economic circumstances. Not only is a child’s life destroyed in abortion, but a mother is wounded in her soul by the burden of having rejected the life of her child. A culture of life, something we as Catholics earnestly pray and work for, seeks to address this chasm in the common good. We need to marshal the resources needed to assure a mother in this kind of situation that she is not alone and that there are ways to overcome the fear of not being able to provide for her newborn child. Solidarity must extend to protecting the dignity of life in the womb, and it must address the tragedy of a mother with no immediate means to support her child.
There is a tendency in the human condition, especially in times of economic hardship, to give in to temptations to envy, jealousy, and inordinate fears. We can become possessive and disinclined to recognize the plight of others. This is especially true in attitudes that develop toward the stranger and the immigrant. We can fall into a habit that looks to identify those whom we can label as the source of the problem, or who can be said not to belong to our community. It is true that immigration should be governed by laws and thus be a safe and orderly process. It is not true that we can treat immigrant populations lacking in proper documentation as if they do not deserve the respect due to their human dignity: “Every migrant is a human person who, as such, possesses fundamental, inalienable rights that must be respected by everyone and in every circumstance” [Caritas in Veritate, no. 62]. And while it is true that resources must be prudently allocated to those in the community who have the most need of them, it is not true that justice and mercy are due only to those who have proof of citizenship.
The social teaching of the Church insists that all men and women have a right to the basic necessities of life. The prophet Jeremiah rightly admonishes ancient Israel, and all of us, to “do what is right and just. Rescue the victims from the hand of their oppressors. Do not wrong or oppress the resident alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood” [Jer 22:3]. The truth is that immigrant populations contribute their labor and ingenuity to the economic life of this country. It is an injustice that often their work is not properly compensated or is manipulated by dishonest employers, or that their contributions to society are dismissed as insignificant. “Obviously, these laborers cannot be considered as a commodity or a mere workforce” [Caritas in Veritate, no. 62]. But that is precisely the attitude the current economy promotes when it accepts immigrant labor when needed, but rejects the immigrant in need. A serious step forward in improving our economy and the common good includes a comprehensive immigration reform, one that recognizes that workers have a right to be protected, and their labor justly compensated.
Our current economic difficulties are not only about failing businesses, and unemployment rates that rise and fall, and about the fairness of lending institutions. They are also about the character of the people who lead our country, operate businesses, create employment opportunities, and make decisions about where to invest capital. Today’s young children and adolescents are tomorrow’s workers and employers. When seeking to provide their children with a solid education, most parents are not simply thinking about the academic or athletic excellence of a school. They are also concerned about whether a school encourages the basic human virtues of honesty, justice, and compassion. Young people who are well-formed in these virtues are best able to contribute their talents and energies to the economic life of the nation. A good education is the doorway to economic well-being, and serves the common good. Parents should have the right to educate their children, including in formation in the faith, in the best way they can. This should include affordable access to the full range of educational options, religious and nonreligious alike. Many poor families, particularly in these difficult economic times, struggle mightily to pay tuition for their children. Many more families cannot afford tuition and find their children in less than adequate school settings. They should not be unjustly burdened because they choose to send their children to a school they trust to give a sound religious and academic education. Educational institutions must respect the values and the integrity of their students and not denigrate their spiritual ideals and religious convictions.
Catholic teaching insists on the application of the principle of subsidiarity as we address common problems in a spirit of solidarity for the common good. Subsidiarity means that what is best accomplished on the local level should be allowed to operate freely there. “A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order . . . but rather should support it . . . and help to co-ordinate its activities with the activities of the rest of society” [CCC, no. 1883]. Social concern that does not take subsidiarity into account can easily turn into a kind of “paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need” [Caritas in Veritate, no. 58]. This has the effect of robbing the individual and the local community of the human drive to marshal freely and energetically their own resources for bettering community life. On the other hand, subsidiarity without solidarity risks a kind of “social privatism” that lacks the vision and cohesion needed to be truly effective [Caritas in Veritate, no. 58; see also Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 351]. Solidarity and subsidiarity belong together.
With this in mind, Pope Benedict teaches us that government has a responsibility to promote the common good in economic relations through laws that help order these relations to the good of the community and the human person [See Caritas in Veritate, nos. 36 and 41]. Government has an important role to play in securing appropriate resources to assist those who suffer. Government, though, is not to be identified with the whole of society; society includes also vigorous and active intermediate organizations such as churches, civic associations of public service, and philanthropic institutions. Society also includes families and each of us individually [See Caritas in Veritate, no. 41]. The importance of intermediary institutions that exist to pursue their own legitimate goals within the context of the common good for our American society cannot be overestimated. In particular, the preeminence of the family founded upon marriage as the union of husband and wife and understood as the basic cell of society is vital for a proper understanding of and respect for the principle of subsidiarity. Many of the matters about which we speak can and should be addressed by concerned Catholics as individuals, and in their local parishes and in local civic organizations. But we must also insist that Catholics have a responsibility and a right to participate in the wider political process and in larger organized bodies, making our voices and votes heard on all levels of government; this is an important aspect of how we address the current situation. We Catholics, in whatever role we play in civil society, bring our teaching about solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good to our deliberations about such questions as the proper role of government, both its duties and its limits, in healing the wounds of our economy; how to secure the well-being of the vulnerable without establishing a permanent underclass; and strategies for ensuring that the burden of national debt will not crush the hope of the next generation.
Some matters before our Catholic conscience are bedrock principles of human dignity and the common good, the protection of human life, and the nature of marriage as given to us by God. Some things are of a more prudential nature, such as how to regulate banking and lending institutions, or how best to allocate public funds to assist those who are in need of assistance. Catholics in good conscience can debate about what models and forms of governmental authority truly serve the interests of the poor and the wider community. But even in these kinds of prudential matters, we all stand firm on the principle that the poor and the vulnerable are everyone’s responsibility.
VII. A Word of Grace and Gratitude
The Lord Jesus Christ, who is the same, yesterday, today, and forever, continues to offer us the truth that sets us free and grounds our place and purpose within the circle of human affairs. God our Father, in Christ Jesus and through the Holy Spirit, has broken through to a world so often closed in on itself. By the grace of faith, we accept and respond to this redemptive love. And by faith we see the face of God revealed in Christ Jesus. He enlivens the sense of our own dignity and our true capacities for good as we navigate through these difficult times. We are not powerless in a world of indifferent or hostile economic forces. Through the grace offered in Christ and through his Church, we must exert anew our energies and creative powers that can humanize our natural and socio-economic environment. “You were called for freedom . . . But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Our closing word in this message is one of gratitude. “We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We give thanks to God the Father, through his Son Jesus Christ, for the vibrant witness to the faith and hope of the Church that you give to this nation. By the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Church in the United States abounds in generous examples of commitment and solidarity. Our parishes, our schools and universities, our institutions of active charity, our hospitals, and so many other expressions of Catholic life in our land all testify to how richly we have been blessed by the Lord. We have much to be grateful for when we see so many Catholics, both workers and employers, those in positions of high responsibility within large corporations, and in government, committed to living out in the workplace the authentic demands of justice and love, according to the integrity of a Catholic conscience. And we can take strength and encouragement from the witness of so many courageous individuals, those in consecrated life, the lay faithful, deacons, and priests who give generously of their time and treasure to offer effective help to those in distress.
May this Year of Faith draw all of us closer to the enduring love of our Savior, especially as he offers himself in our midst through the great Eucharistic Sacrifice of praise. May our drawing near to him bear fruit in a more intense love offered to him in return. And may our “faith working through love” reach effectively to our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, and especially the hungry stranger, the struggling employer or worker, and the isolated retiree. And lastly, may our “faith working through love” give to him, who has triumphed definitively over sin and death, all glory and praise, for ever and ever. Amen.