The Bishops’ Second Draft

In Milwaukee, they say the second draft is better than the first. So it is with the second draft of the Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on the U.S. economy. The bishops cut 20 pages (of 112) from the original draft, made some key rearrangements, clarified some disputed concepts, and helpfully altered the document’s tone.

I would love to be able to praise the second draft fully and completely. It really isn’t much fun criticizing the works of one’s own bishops, particularly when one admires each of the five on the drafting committee as pastors and good men. One knows full well that they are doing their best to help the poor.

One also admires the open process the bishops have been pursuing—positively inviting public criticism—and the good-faith changes they have made in response. In scores of passages, the bishops have made helpful changes at points severely criticized in the first draft.

The tone is much less condemnatory. Love and praise for the American system are expressed. Statements that in the first draft were harsh and overly simple have been modified by crucial distinctions and wiser judgments.

On the other hand, the second draft still shows many faults. It has not penetrated the inmost secrets of the U.S. political economy. It is still written from a point of view closer to that of European social democracy. And it is still far too blind to the profound moral and religious principles that animate conservative writers on the same subjects.

Toward the end of their letter, the bishops write: “Because of the complexity of the world, we may often be tempted to seek simple and self-centered ‘solutions.” And again: “Where many options are available, it must be our concern in such debates that we as Catholics do not become polarized.” Still, the second draft may, alas, contribute to some polarization; its descriptions of reality may still seem to some “simple and self-centered.”

For example, the second draft’s descriptions of reality, as the footnotes show, tilt heavily toward the point of view of writers on the left (even the far left). This is especially true in the sections on the world economy (one of the least adequate sections); on U.S. poverty and equality; and on job creation. The same subjects have been analyzed quite differently by conservative writers, who also share passionate moral and religious commitment. Why couldn’t the bishops be a little more “ecumenical” by incorporating these views? Clearly, they have made some attempts to cite a few conservatives; but the second draft seems woefully narrow regarding such materials.

Toward the end, the second draft states: “Part of the American dream has been to make this world a better place in which to live; at this moment of history that dream must include everyone on this globe.” But this was the original liberal vision (now called “conservative”) two centuries ago. Adam Smith did not call his book “The Wealth of Individuals” but “The Wealth of Nations“—all nations—and was the first to imagine a global, interdependent, free, and dynamic world. The Seal of the United States announces Novus Ordo Seclorum—”the new order of the ages.”

Consistently, the bishops describe the American Founders as launching an experiment in “political democracy.” They fail to see that the most original part of the Founders’ thinking lay in launching an experiment in “political economy.” It was the economic experiment that was most decisively novel, and launched the entire world upon the path of development. The Founders, too, were thinking of economic justice, participation (the classic American words are “opportunity” and “initiative” and “enterprise”), and economic dynamism.

This failure to grasp the economic side of political economy bedevils the second draft. The bishops fail to understand the relation of profit to the common good, at one point treating profit as “a vexing problem,” rather than as the new wealth created by economic dynamism. In treating less developed countries, the draft makes few if any attempts to assess the role of state authorities in impeding economic dynamism. Many small nations poor in natural resources—such as Japan, the East Asia “Gang of Four” (and now even Red China)—have grasped the secrets of economic dynamism better than the second draft does.

Similarly, in dealing with U.S. poverty, the second draft still fails to grasp the “structural” causes of the “new poverty”—the new “family structure” impairing the economic prospects of large numbers of Americans: divorce, separation, and abandonment. More than any other factor except inflation, this new “structural problem” accounts for the fastest-growing segment of the poor: single female heads of households and their children. This is a supremely moral problem, on which the second draft says far too little.

Intact husband-wife couples in 1984 were hardly ever poor—93.1 percent were not. The bishops should say more in the third draft about the value of the intact husband-wife family in overcoming poverty.

Another great weakness in the second draft is its treatment of biblical texts. It is not enough to recount what the Bible said in a pre-democratic, pre-growth, pre-capitalist era. It is also necessary to show how the themes of the Bible, reflected on over centuries, have led to the invention of a political economy such as that of the United States.

An example of how Scripture leads to new insights is offered by Pope John Paul II in his letter on work (1981), wherein he derived from Genesis “the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator… advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values in the whole of creation.”

This is exactly right. Invention and creativity are the causes of the wealth of nations. On this principle, the U.S. erected the land-grant colleges and the Extension Service. This is the American principle Abraham Lincoln often celebrated. The second draft has not yet captured the biblically rooted originality of the U.S. political economy.

But the second draft shows much progress. We can hope that the third draft—which unimpeachable sources say will be thoroughly revised again—will come closer still to comprehending the spiritual resources inherent in the capitalist idea. The beauty of capitalism is, as the bishops rightly recommend, that it can and must always be reformed, and that it forever faces “unfinished business.”

I hope the third draft is more “ecumenical,” more open to the religious insights of conservatives as well as of leftists, more profound about the American idea, and more true to the still-undeveloped possibilities within the Catholic tradition itself.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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