A Difficult New Experiment in “Church”: Community Participation in the Evolution of Pastoral Letters


March 1, 1984

The bishops are wrestling with the problem of how to teach the vast populations of modern pluralistic nations. One of the most difficult tasks they face is evolving an effective mode for social teaching, especially if they stay convinced that they must address directly issues which divide men of good will politically. The bishops of Canada and the United States, like their confreres in Latin America, are so convinced, firmly rejecting the suggestion that the hierarchy should restrict itself to “the high ground.” There is certainly less risk in confining episcopal public teaching to the level of high moral principle where in fact, even in such a divided society as our North American ones, the overwhelming majority of people still basically agree. Few would be uncaring for instance about the ravages of long term unemployment, or the isolation of the old, or the basic need to provide decent opportunities for all the young to develop their talents. But the bishops are convinced that unless they descend into the melee over policy they will not be effective; unless they invite all men of good will, and especially their own faithful, to wrestle earnestly with actual policy alternatives, they will not have done their job.

But to do this in a way which is truly useful, and to avoid frittering away the prestige of their teaching office by backing policy suggestions which many people firmly committed to Christian morality find simply unworkable and wrong-headed: there lies the challenge. Clearly the bishops of Canada and the U.S. are going through a learning process — learning by doing — in the course of which innovations are occurring in the life of the Church the implications of which are not yet clear.

The epopee of the American bishops’ letter on nuclear disarmament has been amply covered in this journal, and much has been said about the critique of the Canadian economy issued last year by a committee of Canadian Bishops. (This World covered that event quite amply.) Now the whole of the West seems suspended in fascination awaiting the next exciting episode in the American bishops’ evolution of a draft of their letter on the U.S. economy.

But to date there has been overlooked a pastoral letter which, so far as I know, is the result of the pioneering effort at achieving wide participation in the generating of a pastoral letter, a regional Catholic bishops’ statement on land issues, entitled “Strangers and Guests: Towards Community in the Heartland,” issued by a group of 72 bishops from the Midwest on May 1, 1980. Interesting in its genesis and instructive in what it produced, this experiment holds some valuable lessons from which the Church can learn.

Inspiration for the project came from the Appalachian bishops’ pastoral letter (in the form of a long poem!), “This land is Home to me.” In 1978 a group of South Dakota farmers, disturbed by the trend to concentration of land ownership, proposed to the bishops of the middle west (of “the heartland” as they like to call it) that they address land tenure problems. The bishops agreed, appointed “contact persons” in their individual dioceses, who were to coordinate discussion within and then between dioceses, help decide the scope of the statement and formulate it. Public hearings were held in many of the dioceses during 1979, reaching no less than twelve states. According to the statement accompanying the letter, “at some four hundred hearings, almost twelve thousand participants — urban and rural — reflected on and debated the draft statement. Through this process they learned much about their social context, their Church’s teachings, their neighbors and themselves. The vast majority of them strongly endorsed efforts to ad-dress land issues from a moral perspective. They began responding to the changes occurring in their way of life.”

From these hearings, a further draft emerged, which then was discussed and amended by the bishops and the “contact person.” It was further refined at a subsequent meeting, and the final letter issued May 1, 1980.

This process produced two very different kinds of effects. The first are impossible to assess: the consciousness-raising, the good will and fellowship, the learning about the history of the region and the Church’s teaching that occurred during those four hundred meetings. Those who, like the present author, think it important that Christians be involved with one another and with their pastors in common endeavors of social and spiritual significance, must admire such an effort to bring people together. It would probably be unfair to conclude anything about the quality of those discussions from the other result — the actual published letter itself. That document I find frankly disappointing, especially when one thinks of the effort that went into its preparation.

I shall indicate very briefly its achievements and limitations, as I judge them, not in order to gainsay in any way the effort or the sincerity that went into this important undertaking but in order to point to some of the problems which bedevil (if the term is permitted) this kind of Church teaching in general.

The strengths of the document are what one would have a right to expect of such an important ecclesial teaching: compassion for the real suffering which changes in the agricultural economy are bringing on individuals and families; reaffirmation of the priority of man and of human dignity over every form of expediency; a burning zeal for the welfare of the family; a vigorous defense of community and an appreciation of many of the difficulties tearing up com-munities in the region; a sense of ecological outrage. All of these vital values are expressed and defended in heart-felt, sensitive language. No reader can fail to be moved or to see the reality and gravity of the problems.

Its major weakness, on the descriptive side, is a myopia which quite distorts the real nature of the problems, which are even more complex, far-ranging and perhaps in-tractable than the bishops’ description would lend one to believe. And for that reason the policy recommendations, because they do not address the whole complex structure of interacting dimensions of the problems are, although radical in implication, not well grounded in anything presented in the document. After explaining what I mean, I would like to speculate a moment on how it could be that such a grand effort should issue in such a disappointing result.

The following passage, purporting to offer some explanation for the demise of the family farm, contains a hint of the underlying grief that alternative was present from the start of the project, strongly steering the discussion and drafting process, I would surmise, and accounting for the much too narrow context in which the problem is posed and perhaps explaining why the radical solution implied is never really soundly examined.

In an agricultural economy built on a “bigger is better” philosophy, family farm operators have expanded in size and capitalization in order- to survive, to provide land for their heirs or to satisfy personal greed. Young people aspiring to be farmers experience difficulty in finding a point of entry into agriculture. Some farm equipment has increased in size and cost to such an extent that farmers do not control but rather are controlled by technology. Higher concentrations of expensive chemicals seem necessary every year. Survival seems to require expansion; expansion necessitates increased capitalization; capitalization forces further expansion. Meanwhile, prices never keep pace with growth and inflate costs. Many people continually face financial collapse. (Para. 27, p. 7.)

What to do about this? Amidst a number of thoughtful suggestions, about peripheral problems (often quite import-ant in their own right) we find that one seems directly ad-dressed to the problem just described, and goes to the heart of the issue. It is sweeping in its implications, forcing us to return to the description itself in search of a more adequate context for the discussion.

Some farmers feel forced to buy more crop land because they receive a poor financial return from their harvest. We believe that agricultural prices, including prices for farm labor, should be equitably managed according to public policy and law. Farm prices ought to be stabilized at levels which provide fair and equitable returns to producers, and adjusted for changes in the cost of production, so that a day of labor on the farm and a dollar invested in farming yield economic returns comparable to similar contributions in other occupations. (Para. 90, p. 24.)

Do the bishops wish to suggest that the family farm is such a greenhouse of human values that it, above all other kinds of enterprise, should be sheltered and nurtured by the government, inevitably at the cost, of course, of others, (a hard fact never even remotely hinted at by the letter). Do the bishops consider, for instance, the Vietnamese family running their milk store 18 hours a day as worthy of protection? Would they propose guaranteed profitability for them too? And what about medium sized enterprises of all sorts? Stability, sanity, family intactness will be served if we stop all mergers, bankruptcies and periods of inhuman hard work to keep them afloat. And what about the large enterprises, those with tens of thousands of employees and investors, who are also badly served by bankruptcies and every form of abrupt change? Logically, ought we not to then “manage according to public policy and law” the entire economy? If that is what the bishops believe is necessary for a truly humane society, protected from “the bigger is better philosophy,” they should come straight out and say so! if not, if for some reason only the dwindling number of family farms are to be kept afloat by subsidy — taxes taken from other working people — they should argue the case for such an exception.

One cannot help suspecting that the real target of those who guided the letter to completion was “the bigger is better philosophy,” the true roots of which are, they seem to think, just “the satisfaction of personal greed.” Is the completely “managed” economy the infallible cure? A no growth, and indeed a slowly growing poorer society does not cure greed, it just renders the competition for bigger shares of a shrinking pie more vicious.

If the bishops of the heartland have concluded in their own heart of hearts that entrepreneurial society is, all things considered, undesirable from a Christian point of view, then, I believe, they should come out and say it bluntly and directly, and then argue the point. They would surely not wish to claim that government-managed economy follows evidently from Christian principles. I should imagine they would think it necessary to offer some reasons why Christian principles demand, in the area of political economy, a centrally-managed planned economy. (Interestingly one of the four issues singled out for attention by the committee of bishops drafting the awaited letter on the U.S. economy is that of planning.) And if that is indeed what they do hold, then they should be prepared to argue openly for the lower standard of living which will follow, they must show how inequities in income distribution, still rampant in all the existing centrally managed so called “socialist” countries, are to be overcome, and they must convince us that the grave peril to personal liberties preached in all the Papal encyclicals and held up by all opponents of centrally managed economies can be avoided. Otherwise the very real evils they sincerely want to combat will be replaced by others, perhaps far worse.

I do not mean to imply that there are no serious difficulties for the Christian in a political economy which drives relentlessly for greater efficiency and through it the production of more wealth to the relative neglect of many other important human factors, each of which of course has its costs in lost production and lower societal wealth. I am simply saying that there is something wrong in a drafting process which leads to a letter which does not say squarely what it really seems to imply, and does not argue at all directly for the quite radical change of political economy which it suggests.

Why did the Heartland bishops allow themselves to get into such a position, one that falls far short of the canons of good teaching and comes closer instead to a kind of manipulation of the public? Did the bishops who signed it fully understand what their letter really seems to be advocating, in all its radicality? If they did, why were they unwilling to come straight out with it and to offer arguments for the position?

What is sobering and indeed discouraging about this otherwise grand experiment in “Church” is that, for all the immense and courageous effort, it produced such a flawed document, one which fails to come to grips at all with the underlying, real issues embedded in the only context within which any meaningful solution can be found: the entire free world economic-political system. One can understand any bishop’s hesitation to tangle with the enormous world-systems problems with which we are today con-fronted and of which serious students of the planetary situation are acutely aware. But if one is going to enter this game (and I am not suggesting the bishops should not), it is on that scale it has to be played.

There is precisely the problem confronting the North American bishops as they continue to sally forth in the political-economic arena: one must not only command a rather daunting expertise to understand the issues, he must be prepared, if he plans to go beyond hand-wringing and condemning all the obvious sufferings, too offer a direction — I do not say a solution, but a direction which gives some reasonable hope of moving the society towards a better state of affairs than the one he is denouncing. That is today, given the complexity, novelty, scale and dynamism of our high technology, high productivity, world scale political economy, a very demanding task indeed. To wade into this arena when one is not well equipped and to issue over-easy condemnations and half thought-out policy suggestions is not only, in my view, not helpful, it can be mischievous. On the one hand, it plays into the hands of ideologues, ready with their over-simple solutions. On the other, it risks frittering away the prestige of the Church, which is a precious good in the arena, where the bishops should be seen giving moral guidance.

The argument that the bishops must at all costs point out that the great economic issues are fraught with moral dimensions and that if they show a bias, they will attract more attention and thus the importance of morality will be affirmed, is superficial. First of all, most serious people are aware that all the economic issues are moral issues, but they also know that they are as well technical issues, that is all the good wishes in the world will not abrogate the basic laws of economics. Where help is needed is in discovering the right policies, ones that work technically, to deliver the moral ends, while producing the least suffering in the process. A truly hopeful, well worked out policy suggestion is worth a ton of righteous (and usually rather obvious) denunciations of the very real sufferings men of good will want to alleviate (at as little cost to themselves as possible, of course!). Secondly, it is not the task of the bishops to show a bias, but as far as is humanly possible, to teach the truth, which is precisely always complex and requires balance in formulating a position. The media, it is perfectly true, get rather bored with nuanced and complex positions. And it is indeed a problem to attract the attention of the vast society other than through the media. But the bishops, I am sure they would agree, should not attract attention at the price of sensationalism. The “Heartland” document shows no sign of wanting to shock, or anything like that. It is like neither the first draft of the letter on nuclear arms or the statement on the Canadian economy. Its underlying flaw seems more a failure to grasp what is really at stake in the most basic issue raised by those rightly concerned.

The pastoral letter, “Strangers and Guests,” leaves one with the disturbing worry that through such an energetic and vast process of consultation, “contact persons” with a rather obvious ideological bias were able to steer the process so as to come out with the document we now see, one implying the need for a radical political transformation with which few Americans would agree. This suspicion may be unfair. If indeed the preponderance of the 12,000 participants in the consultative process were so distressed with what is happening to our heartland that they are indeed desirous of a radical transformation of the political economy in the direction of a centrally managed one, then the letter may only be reflecting fairly what the bishops and their contact persons heard, a vast popular revolution with which they came to agree. Funny, this is not how the mid-west has tended to vote. If however the process was steered to produce a radical position pretty largely decided in advance, then at least one should ask whether it truly represents the thinking of the 72 bishops who signed the document. If they fully grasped the implications of what they signed, then our Midwestern bishops are a surprisingly radical bunch! This too I hesitate to believe.

Whether the bishops simply allow in the future, as they most often have in the past, their staffs to draft pastoral letters, or if they continue the experiment with consultation, in both events they are going to have to be more alert to the possibility of ideological bias in their staffs. If they themselves are not equipped to discern this, then they should give up the effort to teach in these areas. It would of course be better were they to be entirely cognizant of it, and if per chance they share the same convictions, then they should encourage their staffs to write pastoral letters which come straight out to confront us with their radical challenge. Then we shall be on good clear grounds when we demand some arguments and justification for the sweeping claims which would then be squarely put. The present practice — imbedding radical policy implications in the midst of descriptions of real pain and many sensible suggestions for evolution — is not good teaching practice for such high authorities. No sincere Christian wants the bishops to back away from their commitment to be “a voice for the voiceless,” to bring the plight of the poor to the most urgent attention of a wealthy society. On the contrary, I am suggesting they not allow their great moral prestige to be lessened through the inadequate or at times even abusive actions of those staff people who do much of the work of guiding pastoral letters through the institution.


  • Thomas Langan

    Thomas Langan was a member of the Department of Philosophy at St. Michael's College in The University of Toronto. He passed away in 2012.

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