Implementing the Economic Pastoral

Don’t look now, but our bishops are thinking about writing a pastoral letter.

When the bishops met in Collegeville this past June for their annual brainstorming session, Archbishop Weakland presented a progress report on behalf of his committee, which is drafting the pastoral letter on economics. His report contained several very intriguing suggestions.

First, he dealt with some criticisms of his committee’s first draft. There is nearly universal agreement that the document is too long, and the drafting committee hopes to cut back significantly on the second draft. However, the committee has not accepted the widespread argument that a bishops’ statement should not involve so many detailed political judgments. Look for a second draft that is equally detailed, but not nearly so long. And don’t ask me how they can do it.

Second, Archbishop Weakland indicated that his committee is particularly concerned about the implementation of this pastoral letter. The bishops are determined that their statement will not be an academic exercise, to be debated, ratified, and then forgotten. If the drafting committee has its way, this statement will include a “certain and sure commitment” to pursue the quest for economic justice as outlined in the pastoral.

What would such “implementation” involve? Weakland suggested a major educational effort, spearheaded of course by the Catholic schools. Diocesan justice-and-peace commissions should join the effort, too. But more than that. The church, he suggested, should be ready to encourage further research and discussion. And (here the question becomes very interesting indeed) “there is the question of the implementation of policies here discussed.” Roughly translated, that means “implementation” of the pastoral will include some form of lobbying on behalf of those detailed political judgments that the bishops intend to make.

Of course, Archbishop Weakland acknowledges the problems that such “implementation” programs might incur. For instance, “How will they avoid politicizing our people even when they must challenge them?” But anyone who doubts the political intent of the drafting committee need only read the next question on Archbishop Weakland’s agenda for the bishops’ discussion. How, he asked, could the pastoral letter on economics be effectively linked with the bishops’ previous effort on nuclear weaponry? How could the two be “implemented” in concert?

A few solid Catholic laymen have suggested that this pastoral letter might be forgotten two weeks after it is published. Maybe so. (I doubt it, but leave that aside for the moment.) But imagine a permanent, high-profile USCC effort to “implement” the bishops’ views on both economics and defense. Imagine a whole host of diocesan justice-and-peace commissions, working devotedly to further the cause. The letter itself might be forgotten, but this issue will not go away.

This third intriguing aspect of the Archbishop’s report involved the presentation of the document. The current draft is long, detailed, and complex. A number of bishops, apparently, wonder whether the ordinary Catholic faithful will read such a document. To address that problem, Archbishop Weakland’s committee suggested that the document “could be accompanied by a pastoral message that would be relatively short, addressed primarily to our own people and contain the major theses of the longer document but not really be an abridgement of the whole.” If other bishops have their way, this accompanying document would be hortatory rather than analytical, encouraging moral virtues rather than denouncing economic woes.

Now suppose the bishops do decide to issue such an accompanying document. What would it be called? It would, by Archbishop Weakland’s description, be “pastoral” in nature and tone. It would be addressed primarily to Catholics, rather than to public policy analysts. It would be short and accessible. Possibly it could be read from the pulpits. In other words, it would be the sort of document that was once called a pastoral letter!

But if the short document is a pastoral letter, what will the longer version be called? Ah, there’s the rub. The common usage is to speak of the “Bishops’ pastoral letter.” But it’s not a letter; it’s a monograph. And it’s not pastoral; it’s analytical. And for that matter it’s not really written by the bishops; it’s written by a small committee of five bishops, amply assisted (to put it mildly) by their professional staff.

A few months ago I would have been astounded to hear anyone say what I myself am about to say. But maybe the best thing the Catholic laity can hope for is the possibility that the bishops will issue a pastoral letter. A real pastoral letter, I mean. Inevitably, when they compare the pastoral letter with the public-policy monograph, they will ask themselves a crucial question: Which one of these documents does more to advance our apostolic mission?


Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

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