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

As I was saying:

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? Has Economic 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?

That's from my write-up of the U.S. Catholic bishops' June discussion of the document they failed to approve this morning by a vote of 134 to 85 (it required a two-thirds majority to pass). Let's give credit where it's due: In no way did the draft statement put before the bishops resemble their 1986 pastoral letter on the economy. In fact, before it was revised this morning, the draft did not even mention Economic Justice for All. Labor unions made a cameo appearance -- blink and you miss the bland reference to workers who "enjoy the right to assemble and form associations." Instead, the drafters apparently thought the bishops' statement on the economy was an appropriate venue to rehearse their concerns about gay marriage, the contraception mandate, and school vouchers. By doing so, and by producing a document so bizarrely unmoored from the topic it purports to address, the drafting committee badly misread the mood of the conference.

A few bishops spoke in support of the statement, but their endorsements were hardly ringing -- better this than nothing, they suggested. But most of the bishops who spoke up strongly criticized the document -- even in its revised form -- as too abstract and irrelevant. They did not mince words.

"If this document is not greatly changed, it should be withdrawn," said Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza -- a former president of the bishops conference. He predicted that the statement would be "lampooned" by scholars. He was joined by many long-serving members of the conference. Bishop Peter Rosazza, who was instrumental in producing Economic Justice for All, offered the following amendment for consideration by the drafting committee: "STRIKE: The whole document." He bemoaned the draft's failure to address income inequality, which is the result of our tax structures, the need to raise revenue, the preferential option for the poor -- along with its woefully inadequate treatment of the much-abused Catholic principle of subsidiarity. (Rather amazingly, the statement neglected to note that according to that principle, when a lower structure can't achieve its good goals, then the larger structure must intervene.) The bishops asked the drafting committee to consult economists, Rosazza pointed out, but they did not.

Younger bishops also voiced concerns. Bishop Thomas Tobin -- no liberal -- said, "The best thing we can do is scrap this document, go home, and find some very tangible ways to help the poor." As David Gibson notes in his report, Tobin's sentiments are reflective of many younger bishops who "believe the hierarchy should largely restrict their statements to matters of faith."

Bishop Blase Cupich criticized the "rushed" process, adding, "I don't see that I would share this with anybody, or that it would make any difference." Even the chair of theCommittee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Bishop Stephen Blaire, who asked for the bishops' permission to draft the statement, acknowledged its shortcomings. "Several bishops came up to me and said, 'I read your letter and Im depressed.'"

Who can blame them? The short life and quick death of this statement makes you wonder: Are the U.S. Catholic bishops capable of producing a significant document that responds to the real suffering of their people? That's a subject that Archbishop Rembert Weakland addressed in his presentation at the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting last June. We've just published an adaptation of that talk: "American Pastoral: Revisiting 'Economic Justice for All.'" Give it a read. Tomorrow I'll post on Weakland's take on the reasons why today's USCCB could not duplicate the process that produced that pastoral letter.

Comments

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Do the U.S. Catholic bishops know enough about economics to say anything worthwhile about the present economic crisis in this country? As far as I know, most bishops do not have any relevant expertise in economics.

The bishops should be able to see the signs of the times and preach about how the principles of Catholic doctrine, thought and teaching can apply to the economic situation.Just a related thought..... if Catholics truly believe Jesus asks us to help the poor and the oppressed, the fact that government funds much of that aid and support should be a sign of the positive influence Catholic thought has on our country's policies.

In the Weakland article that you link to, we can read: "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."There's been so much discussion this past year, in the context of contraception and health care, of "remote cooperation with evil". When you buy an Apple computer, is that remote cooperation with evil?

Bishops don't have to have degrees in economics to apply Catholic principles to the moral issues involved in the country's current economic condition, anymore than they need degrees in history, psychology, biology, anthropology or the law to apply the same to gay marriage, abortion, etc. It would help if they were all at least somewhat familiar with their own history with regard to unions, the fight for universal health care and, for that matter, the New Deal, but for many, that seems to be asking too much.

For sex there is no hesitation to make pronouncements on the moral dimension, and shout a simple message: no sex outside marriage, no artificial contraception, for example. Do clergy similarly have a role to play in highlighting the moral dimension of economic questions?Consumerism: is it unethical to, say, own two houses (or a house with unused bedrooms) at a time where there are so many homeless people? Less specifically, is there a principle according to which it is immoral to buy and own superfluous stuff when other people are deprived of the necessary, or is it only immoral when one can establish a direct connection between what one person has and what the other person lacks, or...? What about what parents used to say to their children to make them eat: "Finish what's on your plate, because it would be immoral to throw it away. Think of all the hungry children in Africa..." ? Is it justified to take what's not yours, like Jean Valjean stealing bread to feed his children, or to what extent does the protection of private property have priority over basic human rights? What about getting rid of something before it's broken? Is it immoral to buy a new, "better" car when the old one is still running, or is ethics irrelevant to such choices?Investments: what are the questions Catholics ought to consider as they invest their money? Is it immoral for a company to open branches abroad so as to circumvent worker protection laws, and is it immoral for the affluent Catholic to invest in such a company? Are there simple guidelines that might give clarity when trying to think of priorities in investing?

Weakland has a lot of good things to say. I agree with him that if the bishops are going to tackle this topic on a large scale, they should be prepared to do it the right way: take years, solicit lots of input from a variety of experts, hold hearings, etc.Perhaps the bishops felt that there is no way, with the election still so fresh in everyone's mind, that this document would be accepted as a good-faith and unbiased contribution to public discourse. And the bishops just completed another task that took years: revising the missal. Maybe this current group doesn't have the energy to tackle what Weakland advocates.It's not a new insight to note that the US bishops have a tremendous credibility problem. It will take decades of patience to rebuild their brand. (Whether they realize this, I am not certain; that they declined to move on this topic may be a sign that they do). I don't know if a major pastoral undertaking would help restore that credibility any more quickly. If it were outstanding, perhaps it would. The bishops might be better advised to think smaller. A lot of Weakland's specific topic suggestions are excellent. Perhaps the bishops could tackle some of them piecemeal. For example, perhaps they could say something insightful (if they can come up with some compelling insights) on the growing income gap, and the stagnation of wages in the middle and lower classes. Personally, I hope it would be something beyond, 'The gap between the well-off and the needy should be avoided. New ways of allowing the poor to flourish should be explored.' (This is not an actual quote, it's my caricature.)As I mentioned in a previous comment, there were some elements in the rejected draft that were pretty strong: the link between personal virtue and economic behavior, and the centrality of Jesus Christ. These are topics on which the bishops are credible (and they aren't particularly credible on economics), and these connections are almost completely missing from public discourse right now; it might be a genuine contribution to put them forward. Parish homilies that explored these connections would be much more edifying and challenging than parish homilies that reiterate the talking points of the Ryan budget or the Obama plan for the Fiscal Cliff.

What about health care? Think about super-expensive care that cannot be given to everyone who would benefit from it: some intensive neonatal care, some super-expensive cancer drugs that currently are only offered to those who have the best health insurance. Is that the ethically correct way to ration care - i.e. in a situation of scarcity, to provide it only to the rich - or are there alternatives? Is it moral, when you can afford it, to choose "the best health insurance", or is that too much? There are a whole range of questions which concern people individually and where, without being specific about the economic mechanisms, it would be possible for clergy to give a simple message about general principles. "Sex outside marriage is wrong" - got the message. "Owning superfluous stuff is wrong" - didn't hear that message!

Claire --It seems to me that some of your questions are unanswerable because the assumptions behind them apply to simple farming or village economic systems in which the relationship between, say, a tenant farmer and the owner of the land or the relationship between a hoe-maker and the farmer were a one-on-one relationship. In simple societies people can barter goods and services. But we do not, we cannot, barter services and goods in a society this size and this complex. We don't even know all the people who produce the varied things we buy. So it is really sort of meaningless to say you own those little Chinese or African children a glass of milk. We do owe them help of some sort. Besides, if you gave away everything to equalize distribution of goods, you would eliminate jobs here. replacing one set of poor people with a different set.So the solution to one starving farmer is not necessarily for one rich land owner to give him food from the land he himself farms, and the watch maker doesn't produce any food in the first place, so he can't stop the starvation, and when everyone is starving no one needs a watch.My point is that we have to start thinking about the morality of the relationship of individuals to the whole complex modern system in which the individual lives, not about one-to-one economic relationships. When the tenant farmer is hungry, then his landowner probably hasn't produced any food that year either, but he probably does have some money left over to buy food for both of them from some other place. Hence taxes for the welfare. And if the landlord's house is burning down, then the tenant farmer would owe him some labor to help him put out the fire. Hence taxes for fire departments.Also, we can't just think in terms of "those who work and produce goods get to eat and enjoy life". There are times when people cannot produce. There are droughts and there are losses of jobs, and lack of deman, and those unfortunate people who suffer from droughts, lay-offs, etc., are *owed* help by the rest of us. Maybe we should start thinking of government as equalizing risks of many sorts. A large portion of the citizenry should normally produce a share, but when a person can't produce whether from lack of ability or opportunity, then the others owe the non-producers. (We all risk being non-producers at times -- that especially goes for children who only consume, have never produced and can't produce (but later they *will* produce).It's all very well to insist on "responsibility" (producing what one needs oneself), but when there are insufficient opportunities to take care of oneself then the take-responsibility rule does not apply.

Ann - it would be easy enough to declare, for example, "One should not own superfluous stuff" - if there are ethical reasons to take that general stand -, and leave it to each parish to work on defining that further. We get detailed (unwelcome) directives regarding our sex lives, but none regarding our insertion into society as economic agents (except "you should give some money to the church and to charity".) Surely there is room for (also unwelcome) directives regarding how we live our economic lives!

"For sex there is no hesitation to make pronouncements on the moral dimension, and shout a simple message: no sex outside marriage, no artificial contraception, for example. Do clergy similarly have a role to play in highlighting the moral dimension of economic questions?"Yes, they do. And there is no shortage of biblical passages in the Sunday Lectionary that can serve as a starting point for highlighting the moral dimension of economic questions. This past Sunday, with the Gospel passage of the scribes who devour the houses of widows ,and the widow who gives her little all to the treasury, and the first reading with Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, are good examples.I expect that many clergy are uncomfortable drawing economic morality lessons out of these stories, because they don't feel that they are fluent in economics and the morality of economics. This is where a document from the US bishops would have a lot of practical value; it could guide preachers in drawing out the right lessons. Assuming the bishops get it right. Questions of the morality of sex are more amenable to simple answers than questions of the morality of economic behavior.

I wrote, "there is no shortage of biblical passages in the Sunday Lectionary that can serve as a starting point for highlighting the moral dimension of economic questions."I should add: there are a lot more Sunday Lectionary passages amenable to economic morality than there are to sexual morality.

@Jim Pauwels (11/14, 11:05 am) "Questions of the morality of sex are more amenable to simple answers than questions of the morality of economic behavior."Really?I suppose arguments can be made that that's the case. A counterargument would be that there's far more explicit teaching in scripture (and in Catholic tradition) about the morality of economic behavior than there is about sexual behavior. Combine that with the wealth of experience bishops have as economic actors throughout their adult lives, and I find it hard to agree fully with those who would argue that our bishops should refrain from commenting and teaching on economic matters.

(My comment published at 11:19 am was written before seeing your comment* at 11:12 am. Sorry for any confusion.)*with which I agree

"Consumerism: is it unethical to, say, own two houses (or a house with unused bedrooms) at a time where there are so many homeless people? Less specifically, is there a principle according to which it is immoral to buy and own superfluous stuff when other people are deprived of the necessary, or is it only immoral when one can establish a direct connection between what one person has and what the other person lacks, or? What about what parents used to say to their children to make them eat: Finish whats on your plate, because it would be immoral to throw it away. Think of all the hungry children in Africa ? "Hi, Claire, I think your instincts are sound here, but if you transfer them to employers exploiting employees, or property owners exploiting tenants, there are a wealth of Biblical passages that are pretty directly applicable, including applicable today all over the world, that could be the basis for what the bishops would teach.

Questions of the morality of sex are more amenable to simple answers than questions of the morality of economic behavior.I venture a guess: that the reason would be that, as they promise celibacy, they can then say whatever they wish on sexual behavior, whereas, regarding economics, they would have to practice what they preach, which immediately makes them much more prudent and realistic in advocating this or that economic behavior.

One topic that I found missing in the draft and well worth a page of principled moral guidance for US Catholics in our economic times is the place in life of personal financial debt. The ease with which one can willingly incur financial debt today in contrast to decades ago is striking to me, having watched the development, and it demonstrably has significant effects on widespread behavior. One can immediately satisfy personal needs and desires and defer the costs. A "pastoral message on work, poverty, and the economy" might do well to offer "pastoral wisdom and encouragement" on this subject, understandable by the intended audience. If carefully thought through, it might serve for a standalone document.The equivalent of the showdown at harvest time between tenant farmer and landlord commonly doesn't occur because the debt can be deferred again in some fashion, whether one is rich or poor. One can tithe on a credit card, charitably contributing assets one doesn't have, to a corporation sole that is financially bankrupt and trapped by its own debts as some of the bishops in Baltimore could explain. Relevant quotes from Jesus or Scripture could undoubtedly be found as in other matters. Claire -- The parallel sought to directives on sexuality is of limited use in my view. The simplicity of the directives about sex lives is possible only because the bishops concentrate on the mechanical aspects of transactions - who, how, when - while ignoring (or unaware of) the inescapable complexities in which such transactions and thinking about them are embedded. If depth of thought analogous to what Ann O. (11/14 1:40am) points to as necessary for economic matters were applied to ubiquitous human sexuality, it might be found to be less amenable to simplistic answers.

"One topic that I found missing in the draft and well worth a page of principled moral guidance for US Catholics in our economic times is the place in life of personal financial debt ... A pastoral message on work, poverty, and the economy might do well to offer pastoral wisdom and encouragement on this subject, understandable by the intended audience. If carefully thought through, it might serve for a standalone document."Jack - I agree.

"I venture a guess: that the reason would be that, as they promise celibacy, they can then say whatever they wish on sexual behavior, whereas, regarding economics, they would have to practice what they preach, which immediately makes them much more prudent and realistic in advocating this or that economic behavior."Not all clergy have promised celibacy. I just think that the answers for a lot of common questions of sexual morality are actually pretty straightforward."Can I go out to the bars and pick up women every night?" "No.""My boyfriend and I are engaged. Do we have to wait until we're married to have sex?" "Yes"."Can I have an abortion?" "No.""My husband and I are in graduate school. Can we use contraception to delay having children?" "No"."Should we cut taxes?" "It depends""Should we go on strike?" "It depends""Should I lay off workers?" "It depends""Do I have to include mental health treatment in worker health care benefits?" "It depends""What wages should I pay workers in Malaysia?" "It depends""Can I hire illegal immigrants?" "It depends""Can I close this plant and open one overseas?" "probably not, but it depends""Can I bust the union?" "No""Can I reclassify workers from full-time to part-time to save money?" "No""Can I pay women less than men for the same work?" "No""Can I show hiring preference to heterosexuals?" "No""If I've laid off thousands of workers, can I pay a stock dividend to stockholders and bonuses to executives?" "No"

To Jim the oracle."I am drowning in debt. Should I still give money to charity?""If I'm deep in debt but still spend money for an occasional treat, is that a form of stealing?""I can choose between saving money for retirement but not give to charity, or give money to charity but not save money for retirement and have to rely entirely on state aid (or charity if state aid no longer exists or is insufficient) when the time comes. What's the correct choice?""I cannot afford to get work done on my house except by hiring illegal workers. It's that or nothing. If I hire them the work gets done and they receive some small income. If I don't, the work does not get done and they starve. What is the right thing to do?""I chose to have kids instead of abortions, but now I can't afford daycare. Should I give my kids up for adoption, or quit work to take care of them and rely on stat aid to raise them in poverty, or stick to work and hire an illegal immigrant as a nanny? Those are my three options, Which one is most prudent?"

Claire --If we didn't buy superfluous stuff, then many, many people would be out of jobs. Also, I'm constantly amazed at what young people throw away because it's "old". However, the constant rebuying of essentials, old or not, does contribute to the number of jobs available. Itseems to me that part of the solution to "obsolescence" would be to build/make better, more durable products. But again, that would squelch to some extent the emergence of better products and inventions. The complexity of economic systems is incredible. And I'm not at all sure that having little in the way of materiall things is necessarily a good spiritually for this era. Yes, material goods can distract from spiritual goods, but that is true in even the poorest economies. In fact, as I see it, the notion that God doesn't want us to have beautiful stuff, even a lot of it sometimes, is downright anti-Christian. God is not stingy. Yes, asceticism seems necessary for the strictly contemplative life, but I don't think that many are called to that.

In fact, as I see it, the notion that God doesnt want us to have beautiful stuff, even a lot of it sometimes, is downright anti-Christian.As I see it, ownership of "beautiful stuff" is suspect. Whatever is beautiful, you want not just to enjoy but to share with others, don't you? Books, art, and what not. The place for beautiful things is perhaps in a public location such as a church, library or museum, not in a private house.

Jim P: you must be one of the very few Catholics who can and will give the one-word answers to the questions about "pelvic issues" that you did. One of the VERY few. I don't know anyone ... straight or gay ... who is that convinced that whatever the celibate magisterium says is, ipso facto, gospel.

Claire --You seem to think that what the clergy owe us are moral directives/commands. Yes, there are a few of those that are possible, and they start with the 10 commandments. But it seems to me that what the clergy would offer us ideally would be ways, methods of answering moral questions that are adequate to the circumstances we find ourselves in. In other words, they would help us to be prudent and fair. About morality and economics, Marx thought that capitalism was intrinsically immoral. (Proudhon: Property is theft.) Other economists think that capitalism is morally neutral -- as with a machine, it is what we do with capitalism that is moral or immoral. The question is, is our own economic system unfair because it favors the rich? (See the American tax system.)It seems to me that this question can be answered only if we looks at the various laws of the various capitalist nations to see whether or not the laws governing the economic relationships are fair or not. That immediately gets us into question of the common good and whether or not the (temporary) favoring of one group in the interests of the whole group is ever fair. For instance, is it fair to eliminate taxes on a company that is experimenting with alternative sources of energy which would greatly benefit the whole nation? I'd say yes. But it also seems obvious that tax loopholes for favored companies or industries which do not thereby serve the nation are not just.The fundamental question is: is it wrong for some people to have more than others? Always? Never? Sometimes? Why? Why not? Answer in 100 words or less. (Should envy be outlawed?)

Ann, I agree with your first paragraph.I don't understand economics, but I have the nagging fear that some economic behaviors that are adopted now as a matter of course will later be revealed to be absolutely wrong and maybe criminal.

Claire --The older I get the more I think that economics should be a required subject all the way back into the high schools, and I mean all high schools. I remember seeing a TV documentary years ago about an attempt to teach first graders some economic principles. I particularly remember that when one question was asked, the little ones enthusiastically answered all together, "SCARCITY!" They had gotten one message loud and clear :-) So it's possible. And with more teachers like Nate Silver, it will be done.Sometimes I think that we educated folk have a moral obligation to learn some. And that includes the bishops. And Claire. So there :-)DIGRESSION FOR BASEBALL LOVERS: Nate has a particularly interesting explanation today of why Cabrera really shouldn't get the MVP award. Beautiful mind, has that kid. And fair-minded too.

It is common to think of needy people in terms of food, shelter, warm clothing, diapers, and the like. Claire's questions at 11/14 4:02pm describe another category of people with a need that deserves the Catholic bishops' attention. Her examples struck me with the high plausibility of the questions if from ordinary people trying to do the right thing in realistic situations in our world of work, poverty, and the economy. They involve multiple conflicting effects, incommensurate degrees of good, desirability, and evil, present vs. unpredictable future, and other people's welfare, among other things. Recent discussions of intrinsic evil led easily to proper judgments. Prudential judgments are the stuff of life. Where are general principles of Catholic moral guidance available that are understandable and applicable by one who needs to answer one of these questions and act? (Looking back, I am agreeing with Ann O.'s first para. at 11/14 - 5:43 pm)

Claire --Beauty leads to God, so I say the more of it the better. And why should there be so little of it that it needs to be kept in a museum or church? I say the more the better, and besides, that makes more employment for the artists. Artists in our culture are treated badly unless they have hit shows or movies or records. If the economists could figure out a way to have shorter work-weeks for everyone, then more people could exercise their God-given artistic abilities.

"To Jim the oracle."I prefer Jim the Magic Eight Ball. Or better yet, Jim the Magic Conch.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOlq2Lf2SMY

I am drowning in debt. Should I still give money to charity?The Magic Conch answer is, "It depends." The Super-Deluxe Version with a longer soundtrack would add, "Most debtors need to strike a balance between their duties to their creditors, to themselves and their households, and to their brothers and sisters in Christ. One of the reasons that taking on large amounts of debt can be viewed as imprudent, perhaps even sinful, is that it can crowd out our ability to care for those in need. But consider that most homeowners are in debt, some of them deeply in debt, and yet many are able to budget their income such that they are able to give alms."If Im deep in debt but still spend money for an occasional treat, is that a form of stealing?It depends. Treats are not always superfluous; they can be occasions for building loving relationships, or a panacea for depression. A debt that was freely incurred on fair terms and with understanding by both parties is a grave responsibility and is not to be lightly set aside. But my take on Catholic Social Teaching is that the Gospel imperative applies more to the creditor than to the debtor; thus, the creditor should not impose payment terms that crush the debtor. Certainly, government can play a role in this regard with prudent regulation of terms of debt.I can choose between saving money for retirement but not give to charity, or give money to charity but not save money for retirement and have to rely entirely on state aid (or charity if state aid no longer exists or is insufficient) when the time comes. Whats the correct choice?There is no simple answer. It depends on the judgment of the saver/donor, and the needs of the recipients of the alms. We have a right to a sustainable retirement. I don't think we have a right to a lavish retirement. (This is my own judgment, for what it's worth). I know people who would like to travel when they retire. That desire is not wrong, but if saving for retirement vacations is at the expense of people in dire need, then that seems out of whack to me. Also, a number of people plan, not only for their own retirement, but to preserve estates for their heirs. This is something else that must be subjected to prudence. These are very complex considerations. My view is that it is not for the church to dictate how much must be saved vs how much must be donated as alms; but it is for the church to insist that the needs of the poor can't be neglected as we determine how much to save and how much to spend on ourselves.I cannot afford to get work done on my house except by hiring illegal workers. Its that or nothing. If I hire them the work gets done and they receive some small income. If I dont, the work does not get done and they starve. What is the right thing to do?My view is that the controlling imperative of Catholic Social Teaching in this scenario is to pay a living wage, or to patronize contractors who pay a living wage. If that means that we get less work done on our house, or that we must learn to do more work ourselves - then it does. Illegal immigrants are human beings and are entitled to living wages. I understand that in the world of building/construction contractors around here, the ones who use union workers generally cost more than the ones who use non-union workers. Do we have an obligation to extend a preferential option to unionized workers? I dunno. Again, I'd say, it depends.I chose to have kids instead of abortions, but now I cant afford daycare. Should I give my kids up for adoption, or quit work to take care of them and rely on stat aid to raise them in poverty, or stick to work and hire an illegal immigrant as a nanny? Those are my three options, Which one is most prudent?You would need to decide. The contribution of Catholic social teaching in this case is to help you to see that your chief obligation is to your children, so you need to ask, "what is best for them?" I think that in real life sometimes there are more options than people can see or imagine for themselves. One of the reasons that I am proud to be associated with Catholic Charities is that they take a holistic approach to cases that come to them; they don't just give alms, but look for ways to lift clients out of poverty. Not infrequently, there are government aid programs that people aren't aware exist or that they would qualify for. Sometimes options may involve sacrifice: moving to live near a grandparent who can help with childcare, or to get away from an abusive partner, or going to night school to be able to earn higher wages, or in some cases, reforming bad habits that are root causes of poverty, like substance abuse.

I for one am delighted with the appearance of Jim the Magic Conch. I foresee a regular weekly advice column appearing in diocesan newspapers and on Catholic websites across the country!

"Jim P: you must be one of the very few Catholics who can and will give the one-word answers to the questions about pelvic issues that you did."Jim McC: when the question is, "Should I sin?", there are both succinct and long-winded ways of saying "no". Questions of economic morality are seldom reducible to, "Should I sin?"Here's the thing, though, with pelvic issues: let's extend the dialogue by a level and see what happens. Thus:My husband and I are in graduate school. Can we use contraception to delay having children? No."Um ... but ... we already are. My husband disagrees with your answer. What do I do?"At this point, the pastoral minister, or parent, or counselor, needs to put down his conch, and think and listen and pray and be willing to work with a couple and walk a journey with them. That's my opinion, anyway.

Jim the Magic Conch: that's perfect for you! But, wait, since when is "preserving estate for heirs" competing with charity on the Catholic Social Teaching radar? I think that that's a first.

You guys, we're looking at this all wrong. First of all, "Catholic left-wingers...are in despair," according to the wise and insightful William Donohue of the Catholic League. He makes this announcement in his latest press release, "Bishops Reject Left-Wing Agenda." The first reason all those left-wing radicals "lost big time" is that the bishops resolved to keep saying what they've been saying about gay marriage, the HHS mandate, etc. It's a shock, I know. But Donohue goes on: "Moreover, a vaguely worded document on the poor, which was not distributed to the bishops until they arrived at the meeting, was shot down."Nice try, left-wingers, but the bishops saw through your "vaguely worded document on the poor"! Imagine the rejoicing that would have gone on in the halls of the anti-Catholic left if the bishops had only approved this document.(That's the extent of Donohue's commentary on that topic. But you should read on for his attempt to characterize E. J. Dionne as a partisan hypocrite -- and even more to enjoy the irony of Donohue's warning about "front groups...who deceitfully use the Catholic label to advance their agenda.")

Jim P. --- What actually usable guidance (11/15 12:21am) is presented to the questioner (11/14 4:02pm) who is swamped with Christmas solicitations flooding in and asks I am drowning in debt. Should I still give money to charity?. Non-responsive generalities about "most debtors" and "most homeowners" ignore the individual and her question -- one person is not a statistic. Your hint of imprudence possibly even becoming sinful is likely to increase any vague sense of guilt already in the questioner. Is that your purpose in a brief response? Does that draw her in for more Church guidance on morality and economics or does it push her away? (Cf. decades of experience of magisterial teaching on contraception.)There is good reason to suspect that her very question could be seriously asked this year by many an individual, not all obviously poor, who might hope for useful guidance from the Church. It's too bad Claire didn't get to present her excellent set of test questions to the USCCB assembly Monday. She might have helped them start to reduce their evident incoherence on "work, poverty, and the economy", which was, unfortunately, widely reported in a nation and world agonizing over precisely those things. While we wait for them, relevant and usable Church wisdom needs to be available in the streets and blogs. Most Catholics are seldom in the pews. Then it might make a difference. (A conch is an empty shell to blow air through in order to make meaningless noise. Another metaphor might be preferred.)

Molly Wilson O'Reilly:The right wing Catholics have their Bill Donohue and he right wing Republicans have their Rush Limbaugh Both of them are so full of hot air that they could be cartoon character balloons in the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Grammar Correction:Molly Wilson OReilly:The right wing Catholics have their Bill Donohue and the right wing Republicans have their Rush Limbaugh. Both of them are so full of hot air that they could be cartoon character balloons in the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade.

"Jim P. What actually usable guidance (11/15 12:21am) is presented to the questioner (11/14 4:02pm) who is swamped with Christmas solicitations flooding in and asks I am drowning in debt. Should I still give money to charity?"Jack - Sorry. Let me pull the string on the conch shell again for something more digestible: "The church can't and doesn't micromanage every decision for every believer. It puts forth principles to guide decisions. The questioner needs to decide." Actually, that was the Super-Deluxe conch. The Magic Conch, basic model, replies, "It depends."I take it you're not a Spongebob Squarepants fan. Pity.

The church cant and doesnt micromanage every decision for every believer. It puts forth principles to guide decisions.That describes Roman Law from which Canon Law is derived. We in the U.S. base our laws on English Common Law, which is more specific than general and has less room for personal decision.

The conch shell symbolizes civilization in "Lord of the flies"; its sound brings people together. Conch shells were found in Hebron, Jericho, etc., and are believed to have been used to call people to battle.

Three educated American adults (and possibly more) have never heard of a Magic Conch. They associate the conch with Triton, who came to mind this year because of Libya, where he used to live, and Sandy, which he may have caused by blowing through his conch.