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The ghosts of 'Economic Justice for All' (Part I)

On Saturday the New York Times publishedMark Oppenheimer's writeup of the controversy surrounding Duquesne University's refusal to allow teachers it pays no more than ten grand a year -- without health coverage -- to form a union. (Paul Moses covered it here.) Oppenheimer nicely summarizes the issue: "Catholic moral theologians say Catholics have a special duty to recognize unions and Catholic administrators say their university has a special right not to." Of course, as the piece makes clear, you could just as well substitute "popes" or "bishops" for "Catholic moral theologians." When Benedict XVI wrote that labor unions have always been encouraged and supported by the church, he wasn't kidding -- or innovating.Still, perhaps Benedict might chortle at one of his priest's interpretation of church teaching on the right of labor to organize. As is required of all exercises in journalistic coverage of Catholic economic questions, Oppenheimer's article features a predictable quote from free-market warrior Fr. Robert Sirico. Arguing for a curiously contingent view of Catholic social teaching, Sirico suggests that because Rerum novarum -- Pope Leo XIII's encyclical on labor and capital -- was written in 1891, it may not apply to the situation of Duquesne's adjunct professors. In the industrial revolution, the church was concerned about communism, and not just capitalism but savage capitalism, Sirico told Oppenheimer. People were being brutalized. Thats just not the case in Pittsburgh today.Of course, there's nothing particularly humane about a Catholic university paying half its faculty a wage below the poverty line. Yet that's not what's most galling -- or laughable -- about Sirico's comment. No, it's the idea that Rerum novarum had an expiration date. Needless to say, that's not exactly what Leo XIII had in mind when he wrote it: "We may lay it down as a general and lasting law," Leo taught, "that working men's associations should be so organized and governed as to furnish the best and most suitable means for attaining what is aimed at, that is to say, for helping each individual member to better his condition to the utmost in body, soul, and property." Why "general and lasting"? Because, as Vince Miller ably explains, the church's support for workers' right to unionize is rooted in natural law -- not merely a reading of the signs of the times. The U.S. bishops of the late 1980s understood this. No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself," they wrote inEconomic Justice for All (1986). A clear, strong statement. But is it one the bishops of today would endorse?

The subjects of that pastoral letter were discussed at some length during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting earlier this month. Bishop Stephen Blaire -- remember him? -- chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, sought the bishops' approval to begin drafting a "message" tentatively titled "Work, Poverty, and a Broken Economy." The motion won the bishops' support by a wide margin, but the signals Blaire felt he had to send in order to win that support says a lot about the makeup of today's USCCB.Blaire acknowledged that such a statement was "not only timely, but perhaps overdue" -- indeed, at its November 2011 meeting, the USCCB did not even acknowledge the twenty-fifth anniversary of Economic Justice for All, let alone reserve time to discuss the economic crisis. Yet Blaire was also careful to say what the message would not be. It won't be "another pastoral letter on the economy," Blaire reassured the bishops. "Its not going to be, 'Oh, weve got another program, one size fits all'.... Were not going to be writing a policy letter." In other words, this won't be the sequel to Economic Justice for All.Such assurances calmed the concerns of several bishops, notably Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan, and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas. Boyea thanked Blaire for "the caveats contained both in the report and that you have articulated as well from the podium." Still, "my objections are probably more a caution," Boyea said. About what? Perceived partisanship:

Because there have been some concerns raised by some lay Catholics, a good number, and especially some Catholic economists about what was perceived as a partisan action against Congressman Ryan and the budget that he had proposed. [He's referring to Blaire's committee's criticism of the Ryan budget, and conservative complaints about it.] One problem is that this was an action of the bishops, when it was only a committee. Another problem was that it was perceived as a wholesale dismissal of a very detailed plan when we...need to be only articulate in principles, and let the laity make these applications. Thirdly, it was perceived as partisan, and thus really didnt further a dialogue in our deeply divided country. Im somewhat reluctant to support this proposal, but your caveats have helped me a great deal, because Im not sure that we have the humility yet not to stray into areas where we lack competence, and where we need to let the laity take the lead.... We need to listen more than we need to speak. We already have an excellent, fine compendium of the social teachings of the Church, which is an excellent source of our Churchs theological positions on these matters.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is five hundred pages long.Archbishop Naumann seconded Boyea's emotion: "There really is a perception problem with the conference and with this committee particularly as being perceived at times as partisan." But he went further:

Some see the whole solution as being a solution that the state solves, and the more people we get on to state assistance, the better. And that same group of people also seem to do other things that attack the structure of the family.... Weve seen some solutions tried now for decades with no real results, and I think, I hope that our statement wont just be again a reinforcement of that. And finally I think we need to talk about the debt and the real seriousness of that debt, and that we cant just simply go on, as sometimes were perceived as just encouraging the government to spend more money with no realistic way of how were going to afford to do this.

He failed to propose new revenue streams. (Naumann, you may recall, played that tune during the health-care-reform debate, darkly warning against "socialized medicine.")Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, echoed Boyea's sentiments too, urging the drafters of the statement to seek advice from economists at, for example, the University of Chicago or Notre Dame. (As president of the USCCB, Cardinal Dolan will select the drafting committee.)He closed with some advice of his own: "Jobs need to be created in the private sector, the long run I think thats the best way of helping people to have economic stability."Three bishops spoke in favor of the proposed statement, including Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore. Both Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, formerly of Galveston-Houston, reminded the bishops that Economic Justice for All still holds. "It was our pastoral," Fiorenza said. "It is our document. We voted for it. We stand by it. So it seems to be at least the basic principles that we incorporate in the pastoral could find a welcome place in your special message." Indeed, the letter was approved with just eight dissenting votes. "That document was such a milestone," Ramirez said, "and one of the proudest moments of this conference. And we need to say something about the economy since then. Its been a long time. Some things have changed. Things that have impacted our economy and every one of us and our poor people especially."But Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska -- no surprise -- wasn't buying it.

Id be willing to wager, from my anecdotal experience, that most of the priests in the United States have not read [Economic Justice for All], or much less studied it, or much less decided to implement it. And I often think many of the members of this elite body dont even know that document, or havent studied it or read it, or would be able even to quote a line from it. So I think we emit documents perhaps a little more effusively, we pour out things, a few years ago it was more ample than it is now, thank God, but most people pay very little attention.

Could Bruskewitz be right? It's not as though he has a front-row seat in Lincoln, Nebraska, but still: How did we get to the point where a meeting of the USCCB could entertain a conversation in which several bishops openly downplayed or denigrated one of the most important documents the conference ever issued? HasEconomic Justice for All become so embarrassing that in order to get the conference to support a committee document on an economic crisis more perilous than any since the Great Depression its chair must pinky-swear not to publish anything that approximates the 1986 pastoral letter?David J. O'Brien wrote about Economic Justice for All in Commonweal last year, recounting the history of the document's composition under the leadership of Archbishop Rembert Weakland, and providing a few theories about its "uncertain legacy." "At the peak of Reagan-era moral conservatism," O'Brien concludes, "the American bishops, in the name of their people, offered a vision of inclusiveness and human dignity. Let us hope the American Catholic community can do so again." Perhaps the wider Catholic community can. But this bishops conference? As it happens, Weakland took up that question in a paper he delivered at the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting earlier this month. Would he change anything about the process of putting together Economic Justice for All?

Naming a competent in house staff, selecting a group of diverse outside experts, scheduling numerous hearings across the country, publishing several drafts for public scrutiny and discussion before presenting to the bishops the final product for their vote. Even though the process lasted five years...I would not want to see one aspect of that process changed. But I acknowledge, a bit regretfully, that it would be impossible in our time to duplicate that process.

I'll write more about Weakland's talk later this week.

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Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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Sirico -- if he's accurately quoted by Oppenheimer -- argues that Catholic teaching on trade unions is "historically contingent," and that we must remember that Rerum Novarum was written over a century ago, to respond to conditions different from those found today (at least in Pittsburgh). This, of course, is tantamount to arguing that Rerum Novarum itself is historically contingent, and from that is a minor step to arguing that the Church's magisterium is itself historically contingent. In fact it seems to me that the argument for such contingency is nothing new. Shortly after it was issued, Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors was proving to be somewhat of an embarrassment, and Bishop Dupanloup of Orleans rode to the rescue with a famous commentary purporting to show that Pius's teachings here were not as broad as they sounded, but actually dealt only with specific issues in specific countries. In other words, Dupanloup historicized it, rather the way Sirico seeks to historicize Rerum Novarum. (Pius thanked him for his gloss, by the way).I myself have no objections to such historicization (regardless of how one views the Duquesne situation). It is after all a very useful practice when you look at the teachings on slavery, for example, or the possibility of salvation outside the Church (pretty severely condemned in 1291 by Boniface VIII). But if we're going to historicize the Church's magisterial expressions, at least we ought to be honest about what we are doing, rather than pretending nothing has changed. But what then can be changed, on the basis of historical contingency? And what can't be? This of course was the burden of John Noonan's book on the subject some years ago, but in some Catholic circles at the time I think his careful work was either dismissed or ignored.

With any document of this sort, there is always a historical context. And when a document makes a policy proposal, e.g., support for unions as we have known them, then of course these specific policy recommendations have a temporally limited shelf life. It does not follow, however, that they have no importance as precedents. When, as in this case, the issue is economic justice for all the members of our society, then, if one wants to contend that the policy proposals of "Economic Justice..." have outlived their shelf life, he or she has the burden to show that there is a better policy to achievee the objectives in question, here economic justice for all.So, in my judgment, the nay-saying bishops have an obligation to come up with some proposal that they would argue would more effectively promote the objective objectives of economic justice. Absent such an alternative way of arriving at the goals that gave point to "Rerum Novarum" and "Economic Justice..." neither we nor their fellow bishops have any reason to pay any attention to them.

I hereby solemnly vow to have every class I ever teach where it's even remotely relevant read EJFA. In honor of Bruskewitz.

$10,000 a year for a professor.? What the hell happened to the conservative mantra "you get what you pay for'? no health insurance either so why do they care about Thursday's opinion? The Students may lose mommie and daddy health insurance too. What is the student loan total at Duquesne for the last 4 years? How much is still owed?On line study had better happen fast...academia is on the same path as buggy whips...

Thanks, Grant. Can remember the process for the pastoral and used it in teaching. Amazed today at how many graduates of places such as Univ. of Dallas who come to teach at the private catholic high schools in Dallas have little to no understanding of the Church's social teaching; wouldn't know this pastoral at all; and rarely use or comment on economic social issues. Of course, can remember our auxiliary bishop stating that he would never preach on that because it might offend some donors.Question: have repeatedly heard folks such as Sirico make a *distinction* between social justice or life issues based upon "intrinsic evil" and some type of hierarchy of evils. Thus, they arrive at a distinction such that issues such as abortion are intrinsic evils and thus for a catholic it is black and white, even in a pluralistic society. OTOH, things such as economic systems, policies, etc. - there are no real intrinsic evils and thus the approach by a catholic can be determined by the catholic? Obviously, this skates over realities such as a thousand children a day die of hunger (wouldn't that be an intrinsic evil?); etc. But, of course, Sirico and company would again skew that line of thinking also.One comment - Commonweal has posted a number of issues since the June USCCB meeting which have included actual quotes from certain bishops - Burskewitcz and Naumann, prominently. Find it to be humorous that both were concerned about partisanship on any type of economic statement but had no concerns about partisanship on the religious liberty question. Neither strikes me as deep thinkers and come across more as the newly minted evangelical Catholic (nee Republican bishop). For some of us, it is beyond imaging that catholic bishops have adopted evangelical christian preachers in terms of various societal issues - would have told you 30 years ago that this would never happen.It only seems to reinforce many experts who describe the current episcopal members as themost mediocre in US history. One should ask how many of the 250+ US bishops have ever read the economic pastoral; much less understood it.

The US does not generally look favorably towards unions. Catholics who were part and parcel of unions at the beginning withdrew support as their wealth increased. Yet in Germany unions remain strong while maintaining a healthy relationship with employers. is troubling about the tepidity of the US bishops towards unions is their abandonment of the downtrodden as they increasingly cater to wealthier Catholics to build their horrible cathedrals. What the lack of support for unions may show above all is that the American Catholic church is ethnically formed and has a poor idea of who our neighbor is. The Catholic church too often has been more ethnic than Catholic/universal.

This distinction between principles and their contingent application is the basis of Benedict's explanation that the statements of Vatican Ii do not contradict prior teachings of the church:

It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists. In this process of innovation in continuity we must learn to understand more practically than before that the Church's decisions on contingent matters - for example, certain practical forms of liberalism or a free interpretation of the Bible - should necessarily be contingent themselves, precisely because they refer to a specific reality that is changeable in itself. It was necessary to learn to recognize that in these decisions it is only the principles that express the permanent aspect, since they remain as an undercurrent, motivating decisions from within. On the other hand, not so permanent are the practical forms that depend on the historical situation and are therefore subject to change.

In theory, you could argue that he principles of Rerum Novarum are still correct but the stated application of those principles related to the context of that time and can change as the context changes. That's how you would reconcile Nostra Aetate or Dignitatis Humanae with prior teachings.However, as recently as 2009, Benedict wrote:

Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum[60], for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.

So here does not seem to be any support for Fr. Sirico's claim that the context is different.

I don't have a problem with the notion that there was a historical context to Rerum Novarum - or, for that matter, to Economic Justice for All. Most exercises of the magisterium, I suppose, combine principles (which may be immutable or contingent) with applications of those principles. It's not always easy for us to tease out which is which. It wouldn't surprise me if the authors of some magisterial statements aren't always aware of the distinctions, either.The labor movement has accumulated 120 years of history and human experience, in many different cultures, since Rerum Novarum was written. It ranges from Communist domination in pre- and post-war Europe to Solidarity in Poland. In the US it covers situations as diverse as the heroic and bloody early organizing efforts and hard-won basic rights, to the mob influence of the Jimmy Hoffa era, to the decline of unionized basic industry, to the current transformation of the labor movement to a primarily public-sector institution. Has the church's teaching developed in tandem with this history? What principles from Rerum Novarum are still applicable today, and in what ways are they applicable? It seems to me that these are questions worth examining.

Thanks Grant - excellent pieceThe tacit partisanship of the bishops while overtly complaining about partisanship is one of the more amusing twists above. I only wish it were not so. No, the trouble in achieving an undertaking like EJFA in our time would be the close conservative minds of many of the loudest voices in the conference as noted here. I wish we could truly celebrate EJFA. As you say, there are too many Catholic commentators today who choose to ignore it or treat it, along with Rerum Novarum, as contingent.

"The tacit partisanship of the bishops"The alleged partisanship of a handful of bishops. According to Grant's report above, the motion to write whatever it is that is going to be written - a letter? - passed by "a wide margin", with only eight dissenting votes. That strikes me as a pretty solid consensus.If it's possible to put on Objectivity Glasses and re-read Boyea's and Naumann's comments above, it can be seen that their concerns actually have some merit. This is an election season during a sharply divided time in our history, and criticisms of political positions will be widely perceived as partisan. As illustrations of this tendency: I perceive the so-called "Nuns on the Bus" tour to be essentially a partisan stunt; and at least some folks who hang out here perceive the Fortnight for Freedom to be an essentially partisan stunt. And Naumann gets at something that is undeniable: EJfA, while still having some powerful things to say and while saying good things about some issues that are still relevant today, nonetheless, because it is 26 years old, is badly in need of updating. As an example, which Naumann seems to be pointing out: it says almost nothing about the irresponsible and in some cases catastrophic levels of debt that all levels of government have accumulated, which imperils their collective ability to meet their promises to government workers, contribute to the common good and provide a preferential option for the poor.I take Paprocki's comment to mean that EJfA strove to be non-partisan, but didn't succeed. That's a defensible position. I think he's calling for some balance.I don't take any of those comments (let's just ignore Bruskewitz) as reasons not to proceed with the letter, or whatever it's going to be. My view is that what is really needed is a successor document, and if that were to be undertaken, the concerns voiced by Boyea, Naumann and Paprocki would be not only legitimate but extremely important.

Jim, they don't want a successor document. Don't you find the handwringing about the partisanship of what will be a short, likely inconsequential document, a bit much? The word didn't come up during the religious-freedom debate.P.S. Governments need to accumulate debt in order to get out of recessions. Raising taxes might not be a bad idea. But Naumann didn't propose that, did he?

"P.S. Governments need to accumulate debt in order to get out of recessions."... And they need to pay it down when recessions end - as this one did some three years ago, and as previous recessions have ended over the last thirty years - yet the debt kept piling up, in good times and bad.But back to the topic: they may not want a successor document, but they should - that's just my view. EJfA is dismissable, rightly or wrongly, because so much of it is dated. The conference's 80s-vintage liturgy documents have been updated or will be updated. The same treatment is due for their economic and peace pastorals.I take what you characterize as handwringing to be signs of division within the conference on economic views. Perhaps the conference as a whole is not sharply divided - as you note, only eight bishops voted against the new letter. But personally, I'd like to see the bishops, as a body, tackle the sources of disagreement - to discern, as a body and with wide consultation (whatever that would look like these days), what Catholic teaching is and how it should be applied to our current situation, which is very different than the situation in 1986.

Re the future of Catholic Social Teaching: Don't miss the report of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson's speech at the Catholic Media meeting. It' in today' NCR online."Looney Tunes" at high volume!

Just so we are clear about an adjunct professor: Its a professor employed by a college or university for a specific purpose or length of time and often part-time. Adjunct employment often gives full-time working professionals the chance to share real-world expertise with today's college students.So its $10,000 per year for part-time employment. And I believe most part-time jobs come with no benefits.The characterization of ...theres nothing particularly humane about a Catholic university paying half its faculty a wage below the poverty line... is patently unfair

"Governments need to accumulate debt in order to get out of recessions. Raising taxes might not be a bad idea. But Naumann didnt propose that, did he?"Nor did Bill Clinton or Alice Rivlin recently.

And they need to pay it down when recessions end as this one did some three years ago...yet the debt kept piling up, in good times and bad.i dont think that people people who still can't find a job would agree that his recession is over.

I trust that we can agree that for the Christian there is no such thing as an undeserving poor person. Every person in need, even if he or she has done terrible things, deserves to have us willing to help alleviate his or her poverty.There is, of course, such a thing as "tough love." But lest we engage in self-deception, when we dish out the "tough"part, we darned well better check to make sure that we really are giving expression to a genuine love for the target of our toughness. For me, at least, it's much more easily said than done.

In reply to Bruce and his comment "Just so we are clear about an adjunct professor: Its a professor employed by a college or university for a specific purpose or length of time and often part-time. Adjunct employment often gives full-time working professionals the chance to share real-world expertise with todays college students....The characterization of theres nothing particularly humane about a Catholic university paying half its faculty a wage below the poverty line is patently unfair."With all respect, this is simply not so, though it once was common. Most sections in most subjects in most universities and colleges now are taught by adjunct and contingent faculty who often must work at two or three institutions to make a living. This is the new normal, to use an overworked phrase, at "Religious" and and secular schools alike. Please take time to educate yourself on these matters at and With respect, Dr. Alan Trevithick, adjunct at Fordham University (50% adjunct),LaGuardia Community College (CUNY, 50% plus adjunct) and Westchester CommunityCollege (SUNY, 75% plus adjunct), and board member, New Faculty Majority: TheNational Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity.

John H. and Jim P. ==In that oft-quoted text of Benedict there seems to me to be a highly ambiguous use of the word "contingent". We know what "contingent" means, but what is it that Benedict is *calling* contingent? The particular events to which the moral principles are applied? Or is he calling "contingent" the varying application of the principles? Given the context, he seems to be sayng that "man has a right to form organizations" is a perennial principle, i.e., one that is always true. If it is always true, then there can be no question of whether or not the principle ought to be applied. If it is always true, then every group may organize regardless of the contingent circumstances.

I read very recently that the bishops say they are preparing a new statement on social justice, and it is scheduled to be published in November. (I forget where I read it.)November 3 maybe?

Bernard is right about how blithely we talk about stuff; Grand Knisght Anderson last night urging non-partisanship. See the text at "In All things" at America -which won the best blog award.)But I think here as in many other threads spin dominates.(On CNN the other night, a Romeny rep complained he hadn't offered enough facts to spin off.)bernard is also right about our approach to the poor - not the phony stuff we saw on the thread about nuns on the bus -BTW who was the congresman in Iowa who stood by(approved?) another radio taklker who said the nuns should be"pistol whipped?"If only the world of blogdom was makrked by full diclosure and intellectual honesty, maybe the converstion about the por and the Catholic posture about that could advance.

Ann, I agree with your characterization of Benedict's words. I think Sirico is incorrect if he is arguing that the right of workers to organize is contingent on historical and economic circumstances that no longer exist. My view is that the circumstances of 1891 in Europe have certainly changed, but the right of workers to associate hasn't.I would add that unions aren't exempt from critique, and the church needs to speak more forthrightly of some of the failings and abuses that unionization has exhibited. But I don't see that those are coming into play in the Duquesne situation. Unions and the union movement have a bad reputation in the US today, partly because of their enemies' successful rhetoric, and partly because of their own ineptitude and even moral failings. But it would be difficult to find a better case for organizing workers who are underpaid and exploitable than adjunct faculty. Well, actually, it's not that difficult: there are retail workers, and call center employees, and the guys who do lawn care, and ...

Jim P. ==Agreed!

I don't think many secular citizens would appreciate their tax money going to teach religion or a religious culture. I think in the future even the tax break for religious donations will be looked at more closely. More young people today are non-affiliated. Roughly a quarter of Millennials and Gen X appears to be getting less religious as they age. It's all very well to have a you can teach your mythology if I can teach mine attitude and I'll pay for yours if you pay for mine but if larger numbers keep opting out of mythology all together, I think it becomes unsustainable.

No doubt Bernard Dauenhauer is correct: Those bishops who disagree ought to propose an alternative. Unfortunately, one of them already has: Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis is unilaterally terminating the archdiocese's Catholic newspaper union (according to an NCR story dated June 22). The article by Tom Gallagher continues: "Instead of working through whatever managerial challenges the archbishop might have had with the 13-member newspaper guild, he just disbands it."And with a presumably straight face, he puts forward a worker-protection policy implemented by his predecessor, Archbishop Harry Flynn, called "Justice in Employment," which created certain safeguards for archdiocesan employees prior to being fired. Back in early 2009, I wrote an NCR story about the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis' Justice in Employment policy." It appears that we now know where Archbishop Nienstedt stands on the question of contingency.

Fr. Siricos response to America Magazine blog comment, also pertinent to Grant Gallichos post:

Grant,I look forward to your promised comments on RGW's talk. In the meantime would you provide a copy of his talk?

[...] I was saying: How did we get to the point where a meeting of the USCCB could entertain a conversation in which [...]

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