Politics and Morality: A Critique of the Bishops’ First Draft

A Critique of the Bishops’ First Draft

The publication of the first draft of the pastoral letter of the American Bishops on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy has stimulated lively debate among Catholics of all political persuasions. As was to be expected, reactions were divided along political lines: conservatives were uneasy with the letter, while liberals were often effusive in their praise.

The first draft of the pastoral letter is, in many ways, a political document, and it is certainly appropriate to criticize it from a political standpoint. But the pastoral (when finally and formally adopted by the N.C.C.B.) also claims to be the official (if not binding) teaching of church authorities, and as such it is a theological document as well. It reflects a certain conception of the proper function of church teaching and of the competence of churchmen to address issues which lie outside of the strictly religious and theological arena. The following reflections suggest that there is much in the first draft which should be criticized from a theological point of view.

General reflections

When the bishops state those moral principles which should govern economic and political life, they make an important contribution to the discussion about the goals which characterize a truly human economic and political order. This is particularly true when the principles which are stated in the pastoral have a solid basis in scripture and in tradition.

However, in much of the letter, the bishops are not content to state these moral principles clearly and succinctly; rather, they go far beyond questions of principle to make practical judgments about the best ways of achieving desirable political and economic goals. However, on these practical questions of method, there is legitimate disagreement among men and women of good will — men and women who share the bishops’ convictions on matters of principle.

It is obvious that if our judgments in political, social, and economic matters are to be morally good, they must be made on the basis of good moral principles — principles which spring from the fact that all human beings are children of one Father, called in his son, Jesus Christ, to share eternal life with him. There is a connection (and a close one) between our moral principles and our political judgments, but they are not the same. In general terms, moral judgments deal with the goal or the purpose of political, social, and economic life, while political judgments deal with the question of practical and effective means of attaining that goal. In this pastoral we find some excellent statements of moral principle, but we also find a large number of judgments which are essentially political.

But not only are these judgments political. They come, in the main, from one end of the political spectrum, and they take up the cry of political, social, and economic activists for increased direct involvement of government in planning the economy. For the bishops to lend their authority to these essentially political positions seems inappropriate.

The bishops themselves seem to be aware that they are making prudential judgments which go beyond the biblical sources and beyond the Catholic tradition and that they are taking sides on questions where there is legitimate debate among men and women of good will. But they should also be aware that when they do this, they are no longer speaking precisely as bishops but as advocates of a particular political cause. In the long run, this will do great harm to the bishops’ proper teaching authority in matters of faith and moral principle.

The Positive Contribution

It is certainly true that “many…issues generally called economic, are, at root, moral, and therefore require the application of principles, derived from the Gospels and from the evolving social teaching of the church” [317. Numbers in brackets refer to paragraph numbers of the bishops’ pastoral.].

It is also very true that ‘the significance of economic policy…goes beyond purely secular or technical questions to profoundly human, and therefore moral matters” [4].

Perhaps most important is the assertion that “Catholic teaching… sees its main contribution as ensuring that moral considerations are not left out of the public policy debate” [283].

When the pastoral reminds “All U.S. citizens, especially parents [that they] must nurture the inner freedom to resist these pressures constantly to seek more” [141], the bishops touch on something of fundamental importance in the attitude of the Christian to worldly goods.

Finally, when the bishops point out that “a key element in removing poverty is prevention through a healthy economy” [209], they make what is perhaps the most practical statement of the pastoral.

Political Character of the Pastoral

The most serious problem with the pastoral is that many of the positions which the bishops take are not really moral positions at all; they are essentially political. It is very true that “the signs of the times direct the pastoral concern of the church to the moral aspects of economic activity” [4], but the bishops do not merely make judgments about the moral aspects of such activity. They make a large number of highly debatable political judgments.

The bishops seem to be aware that they are making essentially political judgments, and it is hard to read the following words as anything other than the attempt to shield themselves from this charge: “During the preparation of this letter, we have often been asked what possible connection there could be between Christian morality and the technical questions of economic policy” [15].

I cannot imagine that any serious Christian with even moderate intelligence would doubt that there is a connection: the technical questions of economic policy should be resolved in a way which helps in attaining the end and goal of human life. But this does not mean that those who are competent as moral teachers (and who have been given specifically that office and function) are also competent in determining which economic policy decisions will be most useful in attaining moral goals.

The Bishops know that they are addressing areas in which “persons of good will may in some cases reach differing conclusions” [20], and they admit that they appeal to “many sources of analysis which are not strictly religious or theological” and that they “necessarily have to make judgments about which philosophical frameworks, economic theories, and explanations of particular economic problems are more rationally defensible” [20]. But precisely this is the real problem with the letter: when the bishops talk about “philosophical frameworks” and “economic theories,” they have moved into areas which are beyond their competence as bishops.

The bishops are on target when they assert that “moral values have an important role to play in determining public policy, but…that ethical principles in themselves do not dictate specific kinds of programs or provide blueprints for action” [151]. They affirm correctly that “the effectiveness of our prudential judgments in this area will depend not only on the moral force of our principles but also on the empirical accuracy of our information and our assumptions” [151].

But again, this is the precise point. In respect to the empirical accuracy of their information and the correctness of their assumptions, the bishops have no particular advantage over the rest of the human race. There is nothing in the episcopal office, nothing in their office as teachers in matters of faith and moral life, which gives any particular weight to their judgments about specific ways of implementing moral principles and fulfilling moral demands in political and economic questions.

The bishops affirm that they do not intend to offer a technical blueprint, but they see their document as “an attempt to foster a serious moral analysis of economic justice” [151]. Furthermore, while admitting that “prudential judgments are involved, based on specific circumstances which can change or which can be interpreted differently by people of good will” [155], they add: “the moral judgments that we make in specific cases, while not binding in conscience, are to be given serious attention and consideration by Catholics….” [155].

However, in this pastoral, the bishops are not making merely moral judgments. Whether or not they intend to offer a technical blueprint is irrelevant; they are clearly making political judgments. Many of the statements they make are not simply judgments about conduct which is necessary if we are to act as those who are created by God and who have a responsibility for his world, but they are judgments about very specific policies and means to attain (perhaps) desirable goals. The two types of judgments should be distinguished and the pastoral does not do this. Interestingly, the bishops themselves assert their “conviction that earthly affairs have a rightful independence which the church and we, as bishops, must respect” [320]. But they seem to use this in the attempt to justify their specific recommendations on political and economic questions — that is, their political judgments. The following paragraphs in this section illustrate this point.

To point out that racial discrimination is a violation of human dignity is a moral judgment, and it is one which the bishops ought to make and which all of us ought to heed. But to argue that “judiciously administered affirmative action programs” are an appropriate means of promoting justice in this area, as the bishops do [101], is a political judgment.

To assert, as the bishops do (in regard to these same affirmative action programs), that “this conclusion simply applies the general principle that persons with special needs deserve special treatment if their equal dignity is to be respected” [101] is simply not true. This political judgment (about affirmative action) is anything but a simple application of a general moral principle. It is a disputable and tendentious judgment about the best means to attain a desirable goal. Bishops should not be making such judgments as bishops.

To “recommend increased support by the government for direct [my italics] job-creation programs” [180] is a political judgment about the best means to attain a morally desirable end.

To insist that the economy serve all and not just a privileged few is a moral judgment, but to “specifically recommend…federally established and federally funded national minimum benefit levels in cash assistance programs…” [237] is a political judgment and a most tendentious and debatable one at that.

To underline the responsibility of all, Americans included, for the whole human family, is a moral judgment, and an important one. But to deplore the fact that bilateral aid (from the United States to a developing country) has grown at the expense of multilateral aid (e.g. U.S. contributions to the World Bank…” [291]) is a political judgment, and in making it, the bishops exceed their competence as bishops. (Many of us feel that it is a good thing for a developing country to know where the help is coming from and that it gives our country more effective control over the use of the funds. Our experience with some U.N. agencies would seems to bear this out.)

To call for a just international economic order is a moral judgment which should be made. But to make statements (concerning the debt of developing countries) which assert that “commercial banks, awash in petrodollars were only too happy to lend these funds” [304] is a political judgment.

Similarly, to suggest “some measures of forgiveness” [305] for the debts of, among others, those middle income Latin American countries (Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina) which are mainly affected by the debt crisis (the question of whose debts are to be forgiven is not entirely clear), is a political judgment. Corruption, inefficiency, and (in the case of Argentina) a useless and extremely costly war are the main causes of the debt crisis. To argue that the people of the United States should fund these antics through forgiving the debts in whole or in part is a political judgment and one which should not be identified as the uniquely Christian response to the problem.

To argue that the right to organize for collective bargaining is a basic human right is to make a moral judgment, but to imply that the primary problem with U.S. labor-law is that it does not offer workers enough protection from intimidation by management and does not provide remedies in a more timely manner for unfair labor practices [111] is a political judgment.

There are other questions of labor-law reform which many of us feel are important. Are workers to be forced to join a union, when they know that their union dues will be used to support political causes with which they are not in agreement? People may legitimately hold different positions on these questions, but in telling us what the principal problems with labor-law are, the bishops have moved out of the moral area and into the field of political judgment.

The Political “Tilt” of the Pastoral

Not only does the document contain a plethora of purely political judgments, but these political judgments largely reflect the thought of one end of the political spectrum. Although the bishops claim to have listened to “many proposed policies” [68] and to have “drawn heavily on the experience and knowledge of persons engaged in the daily affairs of economic life and on the writings of a variety of economists and social scientists” [320], it is hardly an exaggeration to say that their views would be more welcome at a meeting of Americans for Democratic Action than they would be at one of the more prominent conservative “think tanks” and that their opinions echo those of John Galbraith rather than Milton Friedman. These observations are not intended to be facetious: the views of the political left are no more Christian than those of the political center or right.

The bishops seems to be aware of this, and it is hard to read the words, “We are well aware that the mere mention of the notion of economic planning is likely to produce a violent allergic reaction in U.S. society” [261], without seeing in them the attempt to shield themselves against this reaction.

The bishops urge on us very specific forms of government involvement — for example, “funding cash payments” to those on public assistance and “engaging in direct programs of job-creation.” Such programs are those favored, in general, by community organizers and social activists of all hues, but whether they are specifically Christian, or more Christian than quite different programs and policies, is very debatable. In short, it is a point on which serious and intelligent men and women may legitimately disagree — men and women who agree on the underlying moral issues and who are convinced that moral considerations must not be left out of the debate on public policy.

When the bishops engage in special pleading for particular solutions, they are not speaking as bishops. They are espousing a particular political position, and in so doing they exceed their competence as bishops.

To argue that “all levels of government should help to assure the provision of adequate care of children whose parents must work” and that “the current level of federal and state subsidies for day care is inadequate” [217] is to make a political statement, which any American is free to make, but which the bishops should not be making as bishops. Such statements are the expression of a very particular conception of the task and competence and responsibility of government. But such a conception is not necessarily more Christian than its opposite. In regard to the question of day care, one should at least be permitted to raise the question of whether the availability of federally subsidized day care might not inspire many more mothers to enter the labor market and therefore have a harmful influence on the American family, in addition to exacerbating the problem of unemployment.

The bishops’ observations on Americans’ “punitive attitude toward the poor” are supported [222, footnote 26] by references to authors whose views on political and social questions are slanted in one direction. The same is true of those cited in regard to the “collaborative spirit” which is lacking in American society [241, footnote 1]. (It is asserted that the views of these writers “parallel” those of Paul VI. But what does the word “parallel” mean here? Statements like this are so vague that they are really useless.)

The same comments must be made about the bishops’ remarks concerning the responsibility of the United States for the poverty of other countries [272, footnote 1] [274, footnote 4] and about their remarks concerning the “interaction of nations, multilateral agencies, and transnational corporations” [281, footnote 15]. Here and there, on all of these questions, there are references to neutral sources, but the overwhelming majority of citations come from the works of social scientists with a pronounced “liberal” bias.

These social scientists are entitled to their views, and they have the right to propagate them freely. We Catholics have the right to accept or to reject them, and it is not appropriate that our bishops try to lend to these views their authority as bishops.

Lack of Realism

When the pastoral asserts that “eligibility for public assistance should…not depend on work requirements or work tests” [235] and when it argues that “providing assistance in the form of cash grants rather than food stamps or vouchers will reduce stigma” and that “the risk that the money will be used for purposes other than those intended…does not appear to be great” [237], this seems extremely naive.

But it is not only naive. It will harm the cause of those who really need and merit public assistance because nothing will erode public support for such programs as quickly as the perception that some of those receiving it are using it not for the necessities of life, but for the superfluities (to say nothing of alcohol and drugs). The same is true when the bishops “specifically suggest a moratorium on rhetoric about ‘welfare cheaters’ and on stereotypes of welfare recipients” [240]. Those who are really concerned about providing a safety net for people who deserve public assistance should be most interested in identifying abuses in such programs, because it is these abuses which drag the whole system into disrepute.

It is not enough to point out that such abuses occur in a minority of cases. The bishops are correct in finding that “Americans are a generous, compassionate people” [294], but whenever Americans see able-bodied young men in their twenties and thirties shopping with food stamps, and doing this in areas where jobs are going begging, this strikes a serious blow at both generosity and compassion.

Under the heading of unrealistic approaches we could also allude to a number of half-truths and oversimplifications in the pastoral. The question, “Will this decision help the poor and deprived members of the human community?” [21], is a good question, provided that we answer it intelligently and not superficially. The best way of dealing with poverty is not the application of a series of costly and ineffective “band-aids” which are liable to create patterns of dependence, but rather by the commitment to an economic climate of low inflation and healthy growth. Counterinflationary measures may not look, at first glance, to be of great help to the poor, but they are the only way of coping with the spiraling inflation which erodes the savings and security of the elderly (both middle-income and poor), who are very often on a fixed income.

Theology of the Pastoral

The statement that “the option for the poor is the social and ecclesiological counterpart of the emptying (kenosis) of Jesus in the incarnation” [54], is more pretentious than meaningful. In the modern world we have more than enough “psychobabble” — it would be good if we were spared the new genre of “theobabble.”

I also think the pastoral would be much helped by excising references to “sinful structures which continue to alienate the world from God’s creative design” [38] or “sinful structures which institutionalize injustice” [62]. We can say many negative things about the structures of society (e.g. that they are destructive in human terms, that they conspire against the attainment of the human goal), but sin resides in the will of the individual human being. If it is necessary, why not have the pastoral speak of the effects of sin in human social institutions?

The attempts to support various assertions in the letter with New Testament texts is extremely weak. To point to texts such as the widow’s mite (Mk. 12:41-44), the good Samaritan (Lk. 17:11-19), the story of the sinful woman (Lk. 7:36-50), and the story of Jesus and the children (Mk. 10:13-16) and then state that “like the prophets, Jesus takes the side of the powerless or of those on the margin of society” [46] misses the point of each of these pericopes.

In the story of the widow’s mite, Jesus asserts that one’s openness to God and one’s gift of self to Him cannot be measured quantitatively. The story of the good Samaritan is an illustration of the fact that one’s love must transcend religious and ethnic barriers (a point which could well be made and which would make good use of the text). The story of Jesus and the children points to the fact that children know how to accept a gift that they have done nothing to deserve. The parables in chapters 14, 16, and 18 of Luke’s Gospel are really a criticism of putting one’s hope in material goods and wealth and an exhortation to persevering prayer.

The one text which is employed correctly is that of Mt. 25:31-46. It is eminently true that “to turn away from those on the margins of society is to turn away from Jesus” [46], but the real question is this: In the real world, what policies will do the most good, over the long pull, for the poor, the needy, and the powerless? This is too important a question to allow it to be answered in a hasty and oversimplified way. We act morally when we use our intelligence to discover apt and effective means to attain morally desirable goals. But the moral desirability of our goals does not provide automatic cover for our decisions about the means to be used, and no one should assume that these decisions about apt and appropriate means are Christian simply because the goals are.

One final point should be made, in view of the contemporary tendency to romanticize the relationship of Jesus to the problem of poverty. A careful reading of the Gospels indicates that Jesus associated with both the poor and the moderately well-to-do. More important still: there is not a trace in the Gospels of any desire on Jesus’ part for reform of the social and economic structures of his world. Theologies of revolution, whether radical or tame, are, by and large, a tissue of speculation about what Jesus might have done or would have done had he lived in our day (or, even more tendentiously, what he should have done and said in his own day!)

When it is said that “Paul gathers funds from the relatively more prosperous churches of Greece for the impoverished Christians of Judea” [51], this goes beyond the evidence of the text. Not once in the Pauline corpus is this collection motivated by the actual poverty of the Judean communities. “The poor” may have been a symbolic religious designation for the Jerusalem community, but in any case, Paul’s reasons for making the collection were almost certainly theological and had much to do with his view of the significance of the agreements reached at the Council of Jerusalem.

Finally, the pastoral asserts that “faced with the concerns of the weaker members of the community, Paul is ready to renounce his own freedom and become ‘a slave of all, that I might win the more’ (1 Cor. 9:19)” [59]. The “weaker” members of the community here are not the poor or the powerless, but those who have not yet come to a full understanding of Christian freedom. To try to draw from this text a reference to the economically poor or politically powerless is to use scripture as window-dressing and is an insult to Paul.

Final Observations

From before the Second World War almost up to the time of the Second Vatican Council, we had what might be called an alliance of the church with the political right. Pius XII’s obsessive anti-communism was the order of the day, and almost every communion breakfast had a speaker on the menu who expatiated at length on the evils of atheistic communism. The speakers were, in general, woefully ignorant of the realities of political and economic life. This preoccupation of churchmen, high and low, with the “bolshevist menace” blinded a number of them, in Germany, in France, and in the United States, to the evils of the other equally vicious brand of totalitarianism which was loose in the world at the time.

It would seem very unfortunate if we were now to substitute an alliance of the church with the “new left” for the discredited alliance of the church with the “old right.” Neither the left nor the right is specifically Christian, and those who have mastered the rhetoric of concern for the poor and the powerless and who have preempted the term “compassion” are not necessarily those who have practical programs which will help poor people on a long-term basis in the real world.

The teaching office of the bishops, whether they exercise it individually or in concert, is of vital importance for the church. As successors of the Apostles, bishops have the right, the authority, and the duty to teach in matters of faith and moral life. It is because of this that we look to the bishops for moral leadership. But we do not look to them for political leadership. Furthermore, when they venture into areas which are not covered by their specific charism, they can do real harm to the teaching office itself. Bishops as bishops should not be making political judgments. I would certainly not ask bishops to restrict themselves to repeating vague moral generalities or truisms with which no one could disagree. I would ask them to give us a clear, succinct, and powerful statement of the moral principles which must be kept in mind in all of the political, social, and economic judgments which we make. Unfortunately, the pastoral spends most of its time trying to do something else.


In 1985, John C. Dwyer was Professor of Religious Studies and Professor of Theology at St. Mary's College of California in Moraga, California.