The Twilight of Socialism

Without evidence or documentation, predicting the content of the next pastoral letter of the American Catholic bishops, on capitalism and the United States economy, is no more instructive than a parlor game. Yet there does exist one document that may contain some clues about the eventual outcome of the bishops’ study of economics. It is “Strangers and Guests,” a 12,000-word statement by midwestern bishops on agricultural and land issues, issued in June 1980 after two years of consultation. It was signed by 72 bishops from 44 dioceses in 12 states — Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, and Colorado. Seventy-two bishops constitute nearly one-fourth of the membership of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, so the economic analysis found in “Strangers and Guests” may foretell some of the themes of the forthcoming economic pastoral letter. Moreover, two of the five committee members drafting the new letter — Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., of Milwaukee (chairman) and Bishop George Speltz of St. Cloud, Minnesota — were among the signers of “Strangers and Guests.”

The title of “Strangers and Guests” comes from the Book of Leviticus, where in Chapter 25 God says to Moses, “. . . the land belongs to me and to me you are only strangers and guests.” This reference establishes the thesis of the bishops’ statement, that land is “entrusted to us by God as our common inheritance, for which we must be stewards.”

Stewardship, the exercise of responsibility for God’s gifts, is a powerful principle; it should certainly be applied to more than land and its resources. The demands of stewardship are equally compelling when applied to all other material resources and to human resources as well. Although the midwestern bishops’ statement naturally emphasizes problems of land use and farming, their thesis can readily be extended to the broader economy. Should the concept of stewardship control the thinking in the NCCB pastoral letter on U.S. capitalism, it could be an inspiring idea.

But in “Strangers and Guests,” having stated their thesis, the authors develop it in ways that portend ill for any future episcopal economics. First, they indulge themselves in questionable denunciations of American society; second, they state vague or meaningless “principles of land stewardship”; and third, they offer half-baked recommendations for new public policies. If any of these aspects of the land-stewardship letter are generalized in the letter on the economy, there is trouble ahead.

(1) “Strangers and Guests” condemns four “social values” that the bishops claim “contradict traditional religious values”; these are “excessive competitiveness, consumerism, orientation toward profit maximization and an unquestioning acceptance of economic, political and legal structures that oppress people at home and abroad.” Their censuring of excessive competitiveness can be compared to disapproving of sin; nothing is said about what constitutes the excess. Consumerism similarly goes undefined — and where would American farmers be without consumption at a high level in this country and significant consumption abroad?

But to denounce profit maximization is another thing entirely; the midwestern bishops evidently intended to attach the market economy itself. What is their preferred alternative? The final condemnation, against “economic, political and legal structures that oppress people,” appears to allege that the economic, political, and judicial systems of the United States — not of totalitarian nations — are oppressive. No defense is presented — what could it be? — for this preposterous charge.

(2) Among the principles that “Strangers and Guests” finds in “the Bible and the teaching tradition of the church” are the following:

• “The land should be distributed equitably.”

• “The land should provide a moderate livelihood.”

• “The land’s workers should be able to become the land’s owners.”

Read without concern for precision or attention to consequences, these statements can command everyone’s acquiescence. But beyond their status as good intentions, what do they really mean? It is clear, moreover, that all such principles could be broadened to refer to productive Property other than land. If all the means of production in an industrial society were brought under the sway of such principles, what then would be their implications? This is a huge question addressed most inadequately with respect to land by the midwestern bishops.

(3) Specific policy proposals in “Strangers and Guests” range from the trivial to the discriminatory to the administratively impossible. For example, the bishops “propose that the rights of individual investors and of investor-owned companies to acquire land be limited.” Can they possibly mean to make such a sweeping suggestion? Or do they define “limited” in a way to restrict this recommendation to a policy such as a homestead exemption on property taxes? The bishops also “urge that agricultural land be taxed according to its productive value rather than according to its speculative value.” Probably “speculative value” is a pejorative term for market value. The effect of such a tax policy on local governments and school districts would be devastating, to say nothing of the difficulty in determining the productive value of land in a market economy.

“Strangers and Guests” goes on to recommend the taxation of land “progressively” without admitting the infeasibility of such an idea. It supports stable international food prices, “a broad reform of land ownership,” and “strict enforcement” of the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act. It opposes using food “as a weapon against any nation or people as a tool of oppression to starve them into submission.” It is “disturbed by the acquisition of seed companies and patents by multinational corporations.” With little explanation or argument, the policy statements of “Strangers and Guests” oscillate between the banal and the appalling.

At times in this document, one senses a simplicity, a romanticism out of place in public debates over economic principle and policy. To assert that “our consumption hurts people at home and abroad” is more than factually incorrect, it is simple-minded and unrealistic.

If the economic thinking that resulted in “Strangers and Guests” determines the content of the proposed NCCB pastoral letter on the U.S. economy, American Catholics might have to prepare themselves for a potentially disastrous document.


  • Robert Spaeth

    Robert L. Spaeth came to Saint John’s University, Minnesota, as a visiting professor in Liberal Studies and director of Freshman Colloquium in 1977. He was appointed dean in 1979 and held that post for nine years. He resigned in 1988 to return to teaching. He died in 1994.

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