During their fall meeting in 1986, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops passed by a vote of 225 to 9 the final draft of Economic Justice for All (.pdf). Many had hoped that the bishops would celebrate the letter’s twenty-fifth  anniversary in 2011 by updating it in light of all that had transpired during those twenty-five years—especially the changing nature of the global economy. Instead, the USCCB chose to write a much shorter and less comprehensive pastoral statement to the American people without reference to the bishops’ previous documents on social justice, which spanned almost a century—the last major effort in that field having been Economic Justice for All. The new statement failed to receive enough votes to pass.

In the spring of 1981, the president of the USCCB, Archbishop John Roach, asked me to lead a committee tasked with writing a pastoral letter that would come to be called Economic Justice for All. It was published five years later. As today’s bishops prepared to discuss the more modest document, I could not help but ask myself many questions. The first was: If we bishops were to write a major pastoral letter on the economy today, would I recommend a change from our previous method?

There’s a reason it took us five years to issue the pastoral letter. The process wasn’t easy. It involved naming competent in-house staff, selecting a group of diverse outside experts, scheduling many hearings across the country, publishing several drafts for public discussion—all before presenting the final product to the bishops for their vote. I would not want to see one aspect of that procedure changed. But I acknowledge, a bit regretfully, that it would be impossible in our time to duplicate such a consultative process.

If I wouldn’t change anything about the way we wrote the document, what about its content? During the past twenty-six years, what has been added to the body of Catholic social teaching that would have to be taken into account in writing a document today?  First, it would be essential to examine papal pronouncements touching economic issues, documents from the Roman Curia, and, not least of all, pastoral letters from other official church entities, including bishops conferences from around the world. Then a committee would have to look at the important literature on economic justice written by experts in the field.

The most important piece of papal magisterial teaching would be Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus annus (1991). It marked the hundredth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum, a document that had inspired a series of papal reflections on basic principles of Catholic social teaching--for example, Pope Pius IX’s Quadragesimo anno (1931), Pope John XXIII’s Mater et magistra (1961), Pope Paul’s letter Octogesima adveniens (1971), and Pope John Paul II’s own Laborem exercens (1981).

By 1991, John Paul II had abandoned the idea of a “third economic way,” accepting a free-market economy as the only viable option, while exploring how it could more equitably operate. “Such a society is not directed against the market,” he wrote, “but demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society, and by the state, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied” (Centesimus annus, no. 35).

John Paul wrote another key document in 1999: the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America. There Pope John Paul II included almost all the propositions voted on by the Bishops Synod for America of 1998. Most important among those topics was globalization. Most South American bishops reacted strongly against that phenomenon, just as they opposed the neoliberal (Americans would call them neoconservative) interpretations of Catholic social teaching that were presented by some North American members.

Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 encyclical Caritas in veritate would also have to be considered. It took courage for Pope Benedict to base his new document on Pope Paul VI’s Populorum progressio (1967) and Pope John Paul II’s Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987). Pope Paul’s work was one of the most contested papal documents on economic justice, in part because it emphasized the need to go beyond a purely materialist analysis of human fulfillment. That approach, which Pope Paul introduced and Benedict made his own, is seemingly in discontinuity with previous papal social teaching. Benedict included several paragraphs to defend his approach. What is novel in Benedict’s work is his use, from Johanine sources, of the biblical word “agape,”  translated into Latin as “caritas” and into English as “charity.” 

It remains to be seen whether “charity” can bear the weight of the Greek “agape.” In the main body of literature on Catholic social teaching “charity” has been used with the more common English meaning in order to distinguish it from the concept of “justice.” There charity means temporary and gratuitous assistance in time of need without expectation of profit or reimbursement; justice, on the other hand, is an attempt to uncover the root causes of poverty. If the U.S. bishops were to write a new pastoral letter on the economy,  the first listening sessions would have to include theologians who could clarify this distinction in discussing the import of Caritas in veritate

The full list of ecclesial documents of Catholic social teaching over the past twenty-five years would not be complete without the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994, second ed. 1997). It presents Catholic social teaching as integral to the whole body of Church teachings. The book is pastorally useful in addressing parishes, many often deeply divided on sensitive social issues.

In October 2011, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace published a document with the ambitious title Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority. The writers reiterated the need for a higher political body to regulate the world’s economic markets. Although that idea was first proposed by Pope John XXIII in the 1960s, and has been repeated by every pope since, the document’s reiteration of that proposal received strong, sometimes outlandish criticism from some Americans.

Other Vatican documents are of mixed weight. I would omit, for example, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2004. Rather than an exposition of papal teaching, it appears more like an interpretation. Its style of presentation reminds me of the old theological manuals in use before Vatican Council II. There each paragraph began with a sentence summing up the teaching followed by a paragraph giving the proofs. Catholic social teaching cannot be separated from its biblical and historical roots; nor should it be frozen into apodictic statements.

Finally, were the U.S. bishops to revisit the themes of Economic Justice for All, we would have to attend to documents produced by many other bishops’ conferences around the globe. They are a trove of information, especially about the application of the tradition to specific cases. The documents of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales are exceptionally good. So is the work of the International Institute Jacques Maritain, an independent lay study-group based in Rome, which gathered most of these documents and presented them in a series of symposiums across five continents.

So much for the source materials. How would they be applied? In other words, what has happened on the economic scene in the past twenty-five years that might persuade us to rethink our emphases?

Globalization stands out. At the Synod of Bishops for America in 1998, I stated that globalization could be seen as a God-given opportunity to a church that seeks to be truly universal and in solidarity with the rest of the world. But, after listening to bishops from South America, I came to realize something important: In a globalized world, what will keep the rich from just becoming richer and the poor from just becoming poorer? It dawned on me that in Catholic social teaching the church had never dealt sufficiently with the relationship between wealth and power. For many bishops from other nations, talking about the rich and the poor was the equivalent of talking about the powerful and the powerless.

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen how the financial markets gradually began to separate themselves from the rest of the economic system. The rich did become richer and the middle class and the poor were squeezed out. Economic Justice for All did not discuss Wall Street at any length. We talked about the World Bank and other such organizations, but not about how large private banks were becoming more like gigantic investors than lenders, and prone to high risk. Certainly today we could not ignore complex financial instruments such as derivatives, nor could we remain silent about the transactions that go under the name “private equity.” If we were to write a new economic pastoral now, however, we would have to inquire about the appearance these entities give of rightly wanting to create more profit for their shareholders when their decisions harm workers’ wages and benefits. We’d also need to look to the victims of globalization in the developing world. To them, it appears as just another form of economic colonialism.

The tradition offers a response to the shadow side of globalization: solidarity. One of the most shocking news stories over the past year appeared on the front page of the New York Times; it chronicled the inhuman working conditions in Chinese factories that produce for Apple those electronic devices that we find so indispensable. If ever we needed another look at Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum, it is now. In Pacem in terris Pope John XXIII writes about the need for strengthening international labor unions. Just as corporations have become international, he notes, so should those organizations that support justice for laborers.

During one of my ad limina visits to Rome in the late 1980s, Pope John Paul asked me if there was anything that made the writing of Economic Justice for All more difficult. I replied that it was the debate in the United States over the role of government. He understood immediately. As the 2012 presidential race showed, the role of government remains a divisive domestic issue, but, given the extent of interdependency between nations, it is also a global issue. The Catholic social tradition believes in a positive role for government, more positive than is admitted in some American political circles. We have seen Catholic politicians and their supporters defend a minimal role for government by claiming they are only following the principle of subsidiarity. On the contrary, the role of government in Quadragesimo anno, the document where the theory of subsidiarity is first explained at length, is positive: the government helps lower social entities, a concept found in the word “subsidy,” so that those responsible on the lower levels can have the means necessary to accomplish their aims. Subsidiarity has never meant federalism. So this is another area the bishops would need to cover: our people’s understanding of the role of government in Catholic teaching, which seems in danger of being lost.

Other changes have happened on the economic scene. We decided to abandon the project of studying natural resources and ecology for a larger section on agriculture. Twenty-five years ago, in order to win support from bishops in the heartland, our committee had to deal with farming, then in the midst of a major upheaval caused by the introduction of agribusiness, the sale of many family farms, and the urbanization of farm land. This section of the letter was a divisive one for our committee, as some wanted to treat other topics instead, such as pollution and the ecosystem, or ownership of natural resources and their exploitation, sources of energy, and so on. What we didn’t address, however, was the use of crops for energy resources and the impact such a use is having on the price of those commodities in the food markets.

And, of course, we could not neglect to reiterate our concern for the poor. That concern was the reason our pastoral letter received so much attention in the press and made the bishops’ voice important in the national discussion. That concern is no less crucial today, as increasing rates of income inequality threaten to keep the rich rich, and the poor poor--or make them poorer. This question then must be seen as a major concern for any global approach to the economy where the distinction between rich and poor nations becomes more acute.  And there is no discussing poverty without talking about race. If the bishops were to issue an economic pastoral today, we would have to take up the failings of far too many members of our white population to come to terms with their racial prejudices toward people of color. The subject is indeed a delicate one, and some white readers might reason that they are not responsible for what happened in the past and thus dismiss the issue. But I would propose that we reflect on this issue according to a challenging framework proposed by Pope John Paul II in Laborum exercens. In that encyclical, he asserts the responsibility of the whole of society for abuses against workers. He uses the concept of the “indirect employer” to include all of us who buy the products and are thus responsible for the conditions under which they are made. In this way, he catches us all up in the net of responsibility with no easy way out, and solidarity takes on a concrete form.

Lastly, I would like to point out that how we pray affects how we act. One of the deepest convictions of the founders of the Liturgical Movement in the first quarter of the nineteenth century was that true liturgy, as the prophet Isaiah had already noted, must lead to the creating and nourishing of a peaceful and just society. Why have we forgotten this aspect of liturgical reform? Over the past two decades, out of a fear that liturgy was becoming too banal, too lacking in reverence or a sense of transcendence and prayerfulness, and out of a fear that the hierarchical nature of the church was being sacrificed to a democratic ethos guided by the whims of an uninformed assembly, the leaders of the church moved liturgical reform back toward a more devotional approach, reducing emphasis on the congregation. Perhaps it was inevitable that the hyper-individualism of American culture would result in placing the accent on personal devotion, which would win out over the more difficult task of building a sense of a community called to be nourished and challenged by God’s word. Social justice will thrive as the product of our worship only when the assembly is inspired to perform works of charity and justice as a community united by the Holy Spirit. We are far from implementing such a liturgical reform.

The most vexing problem in drafting Economic Justice for All twenty-five years ago arose from its magnitude: almost every aspect of human life is touched by economic concerns. As markets have become increasingly international and interdependent, economic questions have become more complicated and more difficult to answer. But that does not mean we can just sit back and let market forces determine our future. Rather, we should continue to reflect on the values of solidarity that the church has begun to inculcate—even if that virtue demands we make sacrifices that might force us to re-evaluate aspects of our American lifestyle. In short, we must become truly Catholic.


This article is adapted from a presentation Archbishop Weakland made at the 2012 meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America. It was given in response to the essays collected in The Almighty and the Dollar: Reflections on Economic Justice for All, edited by Mark Allman (Anselm Academic). The full version of the talk will be published on Anselm Academic’s website.

Rembert G. Weakland, OSB, was archbishop of Milwaukee from 1977 until 2002.

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