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"If this document is not greatly changed, it should be withdrawn," said Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza -- a former president of the bishops conference.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.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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