Twenty-five years ago the United States bishops issued their last comprehensive commentary on the moral dimensions of the American political economy. The anniversary of their pastoral message Economic Justice for All arrives during the nation’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, at a time when Americans yearn for a positive vision of an economy that can support struggling families, restrain private greed, and provide resources for enriching the common life.

How the American episcopacy addressed a similar yearning a quarter-century ago, only to turn in a very different, more sectarian direction afterward, is a story worth retelling. It begins in November 1980, when the U.S. bishops, meeting in Washington, D.C., adopted a pastoral message on the subject of Marxist communism. Such a letter had been requested by bishops worried that some church leaders, concerned about the threat of nuclear weapons, or in sympathy with the poor in Latin America, were ignoring the evils of communism. The letter, drafted by Yale University philosopher Louis Dupré, avoided politics and offered a clear, nuanced, and convincing philosophic argument against the Marxist view of the nature and destiny of mankind. In 1980 it was “morning in America,” and some bishops were worried about the drift of public policy as President-elect Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter. When the vote on the anticommunist letter was completed, Auxiliary Bishop Peter Rosazza of Hartford, long an inner-city pastor, rose to offer a motion. With the letter on communism approved, Rosazza suggested, it might be appropriate to develop a comparable letter on capitalism. An ally, Bishop William Weigand of Salt Lake City, backed Rosazza’s motion, offering remarks about his experiences working in Latin America. After some discussion, the bishops approved the motion by voice vote.

In the spring of 1981, the conference president, Archbishop John Roach, asked Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee to chair a committee to write what became known as “the economics pastoral.” Together Roach and Weakland added Rosazza, known for his commitment to the poor and long associated with the bishops’ Campaign for Human Development; Bishop Weigand, who would represent international concerns; Bishop George Speltz of St. Cloud, a close friend of Roach’s and a voice for rural America; and Archbishop Thomas Donnellan, an Irish-American New Yorker and archbishop of Atlanta. Donnellan good-naturedly told colleagues and the press that he was the “token conservative” on the committee. From a working-class family, he turned out to be a strong supporter of unions and working people. Jesuit Provincial Michael Lavelle of Detroit, a trained economist, joined the committee as a representative of male religious, and Anne Margaret Cahill, OP, represented religious women. Weakland insisted that conference veteran and long-time labor priest, Msgr. George G. Higgins, serve as well, and Fr. Bryan Hehir, director of the Office of Social Development and World Peace, asked Martin McLaughlin, a veteran economic development advocate and conference consultant, to assist with sections dealing with agriculture and international trade. Hehir also recruited Donald Warwick, a Harvard social scientist associated with the Center for International Affairs.

Initially, the Weakland committee struggled to clarify the theological foundations of its project. To help with this challenge, they invited two Jesuits, biblical scholar John Donahue and moral theologian David Hollenbach, to join the project. Donahue, deeply engaged with the historic commitment of the Jesuits to the option for the poor and the integration of faith and justice, provided powerful scriptural arguments for some of the pastoral’s central themes. Hollenbach, like Hehir, was a disciple of the great Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, and shared Hehir’s remarkable ability to articulate the church’s moral teachings and speak with genuine authority to the wider public. He eventually became the major drafter of the letter.

From the start the committee thought that capitalism was too vast a subject, and members had no appetite for the kind of extended theoretical discussion that appeared in the pastoral on communism. Instead, after discussing capitalism with socialist Michael Harrington, Nixon White House adviser Herbert Stein, and Carter economic adviser Charles Schultz, the committee opted to apply Catholic social teaching to the American economy, with particular attention to four areas: unemployment; poverty; food and agriculture; and relations between the United States and world economies.

As Rosazza recalls, the discussions and the project itself came to focus on two objectives: educating the public about Catholic social teaching and helping the bishops offer a coherent moral voice on economic policies. This focus embodied Murray’s vision of a responsible public church, at once serving its own members as a community of conscience while helping develop a public moral consensus.

The committee was not starting from scratch. In the 1960s the bishops had emerged from the Second Vatican Council to wrestle with racism, civil rights, urban violence, poverty, and an unpopular war. Their experience in parishes, schools, hospitals, and social services formed the basis for a series of statements: on welfare reform in 1970, the environment in ’71, correctional reform in ’73, the world food crisis in ’74, domestic food policy and gun control in ’75, the aged and new immigrants in ’76, Native Americans in ’77, the handicapped in ’78, and the energy crisis in 1980. The bishops gave consistent attention to issues that slipped from national attention, including health care and affordable housing. In 1976 they pulled their teaching together into a comprehensive statement, “The Economy: Human Dimensions,” in which they affirmed the principles that would guide their work throughout the 1980s.

As the Weakland committee proceeded, members kept in mind the example of Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in terris (1963), which was written in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. Its publication was followed by a round of international and interfaith conferences, and then by a near-revolutionary reconsideration of church teaching on peace at Vatican II. Another committee, chaired by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, was working on a pastoral letter on nuclear weapons. Published in 1983, that letter received unprecedented attention in the national media. The Weakland committee hoped its letter might have a similar impact, as interest in the ethics of economics was intense. The postwar American assumption of ever-increasing abundance had given way to pessimism in the 1970s, and then to a resurgence of once-discredited ideas about free markets and a surprisingly broad consensus on the need to reduce government oversight. The tax cuts and deregulation that resulted from this new consensus in the 1980s helped stir widespread concern about economic values, behavior, and policy.

Committee members knew Catholic social teaching and were experienced pastors and administrators, but they also knew they had a lot to learn. And so they met with almost everyone—some 120 experts over the course of eighteen meetings and hearings. They met with Nobel laureates and officials of world and national banks and treasuries, and with representatives of economic interest groups, including corporate CEOs and union leaders. With the help of the church’s networks with community organizations at home and abroad, they met with many poor people. For the bishops it was a genuine learning process, and Weakland, a musicologist and Benedictine monk, led the way, reading everything he could and listening to all comers, even at one point successfully contesting a point with Nobel Prize–winner Kenneth Arrow. Invited to some highly publicized meetings with top corporate leaders, Weakland and other high-ranking bishops were respectful but not intimidated, confident of their position as pastoral leaders and champions of Catholic social teaching.

The committee was of course critical of many aspects of American economic life. Led by Donahue and Hollenbach, members took their stand with Scripture’s option for the poor and affirmed the longstanding emphasis of American Catholics on the right of all persons to full participation in economic life. This commitment informed their approach to specific issues of unemployment, poverty, agriculture, and trade, and found fullest expression in a section on cooperation. While they had deliberately decided against an evaluation of the capitalist system, the bishops did want to bring their specific examples together in a comprehensive recommendation for social cooperation within that system. This section, eventually titled “A New American Experiment: Partnership for the Public Good,” called for private-public partnerships comparable to those the bishops knew well from local economic development work. Like their policy recommendations, this section marked the distance between Catholic social teaching and rigid free-market approaches to economic and social problems.

This critical approach, and concern that the bishops would criticize capitalism as a whole, drew the committee into controversy from the start. The most important opposition came from freelance theologian Michael Novak, who testified before the bishops on three occasions. A public intellectual well schooled in the Catholic tradition and deeply committed to making Catholicism a constructive force in American culture, Novak thought church teaching gave too little attention to human freedom, first on the questions of religious liberty, a problem resolved at Vatican II, then in Catholic social teaching dealing with political economy. He opposed Catholic social activists who applied scriptural quotes and papal mandates to American society without sufficient attention, as he saw it, to American achievements. Offering a critical response to liberation theology, Novak put forward arguments that mixed anticommunism with resistance to biblical literalism and a critique of classic Catholic social teaching. In his view, bishops and theologians underestimated the importance of the free market and the institutions of what he had come to call “democratic capitalism.”

Novak assembled a group of business leaders and intellectuals, led by former Treasury Secretary William Simon, to issue its own counterpastoral in advance of the bishops’ first draft, a few days before the 1984 presidential election. The so-called lay letter’s celebration of “creative capitalism” argued that Catholic social teaching in general, and American Catholic social thought in particular, gave too little credit to the free market and the productive achievements of the American economy. After all, the Novak group argued, wealth was a prerequisite for distributive justice, and capitalist economies produced wealth while socialist economies did not. In Reagan-era terms, if you wanted to help poor people—poor people anywhere—economic growth had to be your top priority. Prosperity, which made economic justice possible, required values and practices supportive of free markets, individual responsibility, enterprise, and the family.

The themes of the “lay letter” played into important movements among American Catholics, and in the years following its issuance, Novak and Simon, joined by a handful of conservative Catholic intellectuals, lobbied hard in church circles and popular culture to win Catholic support for neoliberal social and economic policies. For their part, Weakland and his colleagues handled such criticism skillfully. Prior to releasing their draft on Election Day 1984, committee members took extra time to train for handling the press—a task Weakland himself performed masterfully.

Two hundred and fifty correspondents attended the press conference, along with fifty television cameras, to scrutinize a draft that began with a “personal invitation to Catholics to use the resources of faith, the strength of our economy, and the opportunities of our democracy to shape a society that better protects the dignity and basic rights of our sisters and brothers, both in this land and around the world.” The bishops then outlined the core themes and principles of the letter: that “every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person”; that human dignity “can be realized and protected only in community” and according to ethical norms of love, solidarity, and the common good; that “all people have a right to participate in the economic life of society”; that “all members of society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable” and that “the investment of wealth, talent, and human energy should be specially directed to benefit those who are poor or economically insecure”; and, finally, that “human rights are the minimum conditions for life in community” and they include social and economic as well as political and civil rights.

From there the bishops went on to explore “urgent problems,” drawing on their own experience to emphasize poverty and human needs. While clearly backing the provision of an adequate social-welfare safety net, they gave special attention to the need for full employment. Work, they argued, was necessary for human dignity and social justice; having a job was a right, one entailed in the right to life and the means to sustain it. In 1981, Pope John Paul II had called work “the key to the social question,” arguing that human beings are the subjects of work, not mere commodities or instruments of production. Examining the scope and effects of unemployment, its human and social costs, in the context of structural factors like technology and international competition, the bishops argued that it was wrong for any person or group to be excluded, unable to contribute to the economy and deprived of the participation that is so vital to human development.

Such arguments were part of a larger exhortation to Catholics of all classes to join faith and everyday life. “We cannot separate what we believe from how we act in the marketplace and the broader community,” the bishops argued, “for this is where we make our primary contribution to the pursuit of economic justice.” The bishops thus placed government policy in the larger context of shared responsibility, hoping for a Catholic “constituency of conscience” whose members would assess every policy, public or private, “by how it touches the least, the lost, and the left out among us.”

Most mainstream media welcomed the letter and its invitation to a dialogue about economic morality. Editorials in the major papers praised the emphasis on poverty, portraying the bishops as champions of poor people beleaguered by the shifting political currents of the 1980s. But some papers derided the pastoral. The liberal Boston Globe was upset that by delaying its release till election day, the bishops had “ducked a fight” with President Reagan. The Worcester Telegram, on the other hand, had little doubt who would win such a fight. The pastoral, the editors said, was

fatally burdened with the Great Society conviction that more government intervention is the answer to poverty. It is shot through with the sentimental notion that some people are poor because others are rich and that wealth should be redistributed somehow. The bishops seem blithely innocent of the knowledge that wealth must first be created and that the free enterprise system wins hands down over any government-controlled plan.

Conservative columnist George Will was less charitable. He charged the bishops with implying that “God subscribes to the liberal agenda” and accused them of “moral complacency born of sloth.”

The draft of the pastoral was just that—a draft—and the committee invited responses, which soon came pouring in. Over time this helped shape a series of questions for consideration by the bishops, who met in the summer of 1985. The assembled bishops recommended shortening the letter, clarifying the different moral weight of principles and specific recommendations, and strengthening the sections on farming, family life, and education. These changes were incorporated into the second draft, and a third and final draft was submitted for consideration and a final vote at the November 1986 meeting. After extended discussion, and a diversionary effort to insert references to abortion, Economic Justice for All was approved with only eight negative votes.

The 1986 pastoral remains an important and valuable resource, its central messages largely confirmed by innumerable papal pronouncements and by the recent compendium of Catholic social teaching. Twenty-five years later, however, one notes an uncertain legacy. Historian John McGreevy once suggested that the two most important changes in the United States over the last half of the twentieth century were the civil-rights movement, which dominated the postwar era until the 1970s, and the subsequent conservative revival that reshaped every area of American life. At the time the pastoral letter was published, the bishops seemed to be resisting that conservative trend, following the lead of the pastoral letter on peace and nuclear weapons, issued three years earlier by a committee under the supervision of Cardinal Bernardin. In resisting that encroaching conservatism, the bishops on both committees were attempting to set forth, in the words of Bernardin’s mentor, Cardinal John Dearden, “a new way of doing the work of the church in America.” Yet seen through the lens of subsequent U.S. Catholic history, the letters appear in retrospect to have marked not the start of an era, but the end. As the years passed, the American church the bishops envisioned gave way instead to internal conflict, well documented in Peter Steinfels’s A People Adrift. Support for the national bishops conference weakened dramatically, as Vatican directives limited its capacity to make authoritative statements, the public-policy agenda narrowed to emphasize abortion and other “life issues,” and support for parish- and diocesan-based social ministry declined.

Three points seem relevant to discussion of the economic pastoral. First is the tumultuous nature of church politics at the time. The year of the pastoral, 1986, has been called (by the journalist Kenneth Briggs) “the year that shook Catholic America.” That year the Vatican launched a formal investigation of Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who had withheld income taxes as a protest against nuclear-weapons policy, and ousted controversial liberal theologian Charles Curran from his tenured position at the Catholic University of America. It also began to rein in the work of national bishops conferences. Appointments to key sees went to bishops less sympathetic than their predecessors to appeals to collegiality and shared political responsibility for a broad range of policy issues. The skills of Bernardin, Weakland, and others helped mask these shifts for a while, but divisions were sharpening, and unmistakable retreats from national collegiality were evident even as the two pastoral letters were completed. Gradually the approach to public life fostered by John Courtney Murray lost support inside the institutional church, as more sectarian and evangelical currents of pastoral and political life held sway.

Second, while the economics pastoral affirmed the post–Vatican II renewal of the Catholic mission to share responsibility for human history, it also exposed the shortcomings of ecclesiastical reform. Commitment to peacemaking and to a preferential option for the poor were now enshrined at the center of Catholic social teaching, and care for “the least among us” was evident in polling data even among those with reservations about the post–Vatican II church. Yet reform had not worked out as well. Nationally and locally the bishops experimented with consultation, but never found ways to help the community work together; shared responsibility went up the road of consultation with parish and diocesan pastoral councils and experiments like the 1976 Call to Action conference. Peacemaking and justice-seeking must be works of the whole church, but the whole church struggled to translate that reality into piety and pastoral care, and a growing number of pastors and church leaders saw no need to do so.

Third, the bishops failed to explore in any depth the role of the laity. In 1985 Weakland lamented the absence of a national lay forum comparable to the bishops conference; the Call to Action program had in fact been designed with this in mind, but its open process and democratic spirit now seemed at odds with Catholic institutional identity. The very meaning of the lay vocation was coming into question. One of the most notable changes over the several drafts of the economics pastoral was the reduction of attention to vocation. In the first draft, the bishops referred to the quest for human dignity in the workplace and public arena as the laity’s path to holiness. “This holiness is achieved in the midst of the world,” the draft asserted. “Men and women in business, on farms, in factories, in governments, in scientific and technical institutions, and in every other field of labor can achieve true sanctity when they respond to the call of discipleship in the midst of their work.” Most of this language was eliminated, and corresponding sections of the final version content themselves with worrying about maintaining proper religious values amid rampant materialism and consumerism. This reticence stands in sharp contrast to Weakland’s ringing call, in one of his remarkable reflections on the committee’s encounter with business leaders, for enlarging and recentering the scope of Christian life. The church, Weakland asserted, is the presence of Christ all the time, “24/7,” and not just when Catholics were gathered in a church.

It is clear in retrospect that the bishops had difficulty combining social teaching and pastoral advice. In the crisis of the Great Depression a half-century earlier, Catholic support for labor unions and for social assistance had sprung from pastoral experience, and bishops did not hesitate to preach and act for social justice. In the postwar years social ministries among immigrants and the poor continued to find broad pastoral and institutional support. But Catholics who had been liberated from dire necessity by increased education, income, and social status now had the insider’s responsibility to help shape institutions and policies that would ensure the welfare of the whole community. They rarely found the spiritual, pastoral, and institutional resources they needed for these new responsibilities. Pope John Paul II stated that work was “the key to the social question,” but in 1986 the bishops had not yet found a way to translate that idea into an inspiring pastoral strategy.

Behind this, finally, stood a fourth factor—the resurgence among Catholics of a countercultural impulse. The 1983 peace pastoral yielded an appeal for an ethic of conscientious exemption, extended to defense workers as well as military personnel. That pastoral reflection offered an extraordinarily pessimistic assessment of an American society all but lost to paganism and ready to persecute committed Christians. The Weakland committee’s cultural conclusions were nowhere near as bleak, yet they too reflected the church’s tendency to put greater weight on its negative criticisms of society than on its obligations to work for constructive reforms.

This was and is understandable. After all, isn’t it Catholic identity that establishes the Catholic difference from the prevailing culture? Indeed, a potential for countercultural posturing seems built into the American religious landscape. John A. Ryan and John Courtney Murray, Cardinals Dearden and Bernardin, Archbishop Weakland and Bishop Rosazza, Fathers Hehir, Donahue, and Hollenbach—all of them sought another way to understand citizenship and shared responsibility for the fate of the nation and the earth. But their position drew on reservoirs of Americanism, and Catholic Americanism was waning in the 1980s. Americanism was challenged by those who reduced discipleship to the rejection of the country’s prevailing powers and demanded that serious Christians become conscientious objectors to the system. But when the chips are down, as America’s greatest leaders have always known, the common life of the American community will be transformed in the direction of justice only by those who love it. The American Christian question behind both pastoral letters was not whether their specific policy prescriptions were right or wrong but whether, in the end, America really matters.

My critical comments notwithstanding, I stand in awe of the dedication and brilliance of that day’s bishops and their key advisers, and I have been honored to count some as friends. Economic Justice for All set forth a broad framework that must remain the bulwark of our mission: a church in sacramental solidarity with the human family, especially with those who are “poor or in any way afflicted”; an ethic of shared responsibility in public life; and an understanding that the church is church round-the-clock, in all aspects of its members’ lives. If today we see the economics pastoral as the end of an era, let us pray that in the future others will see it, as they will see Vatican II, as an important signal of grace in the zig-zagging journey of American Catholics from outsiders to insiders—and will see their church, reshaped by freedom and diversity, as an ever closer approximation of the Kingdom of God. In 1986, at the peak of Reagan-era conservatism, 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.

This article was funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Related: Justice & Economics, by the Editors

David J. O’Brien is University Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of Dayton.
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Published in the 2011-11-18 issue: View Contents
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