Two Views on the Economy: A Comparison of the Bishops’ and Lay Commission’s Letters

Anyone unfamiliar with the terms of debate within American Catholicism in recent years, and given untitled copies of both the bishops’ proposed pastoral letter on the economy and the “lay letter” on the same subject issued by a committee, might easily jump to the conclusion that what is in fact the bishops’ document is the lay letter, and vice versa. This is because the lay letter, whose principal signers are Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute and William Simon, former secretary of the treasury, can legitimately be called the more spiritual of the two documents, while the episcopal statement adheres fairly closely to what can be called a materialist economic perspective. Thus the lay letter begins with an episcopal statement of 1884, in praise of American liberties, then moves to Jesus’ injunction to feed the hungry in Matthew 25, and follows with two questions from the traditional daily examination of conscience. The episcopal document, although hardly lacking in religious citations, plunges directly into the issues at hand.

The lay letter can also be called more spiritual in that it situates economic issues in the widest cultural context, implicitly affirming that economics is not sovereign nor wholly autonomous and that economic values are not ultimate. The bishops, on the other hand, choose to hew very closely to economic issues and, although they do not say so and would no doubt make a disclaimer if asked, seem indeed to imply that economics ought to be the major concern of morally sensitive people.

The spiritual quality of the lay letter is manifest chiefly in two ways: in the attempt to situate economic activity and economic values in a broader human context, and in the frequent reminder that there are indeed higher goods than economic ones.

Thus the authors of the lay letter are eager to root the concept of human labor in the deepest moral and spiritual values, in ways similar to John Paul II’s efforts in Laborem Exercens (about which, however, the lay authors seem to be somewhat ambivalent). Labor is not to be treated merely as a commodity, nor as valuable merely for the income it brings, but is to be understood as a properly human and creative activity. By contrast, the bishops for the most part limit their own discussion to the economic dimensions of labor, and particularly to the production of income.

Where the lay letter differs somewhat from Laborem Exercens is in insisting with equal emphasis that capital too must be understood in this way, not as mere material wealth but as the conglomerate of creative economic resources, including not least the spirit of enterprise itself. The authors believe that John Paul paid insufficient attention to this in Laborem Exercens, but note several papal speeches where the point is indeed made.

This bishops’ perspective can legitimately be called pragmatic, in that their clear purpose is to identify economic injustices in society, then to propose remedies. They do not offer a detailed program of policy suggestions, but they stop just short of that, and clearly indicate policy directions at several key points.

Given this unwavering pragmatism—a preoccupation with the likely results of social policy—the bishops have little time for the kind of philosophical and theological questions which the lay letter raises, even if its answers are not always completely satisfactory. There is indeed a lengthy section of scriptural citations early in the episcopal document, but (rather curiously in terms of the bishops’ general eagerness to be in touch with modern thought) it falls into the familiar category of “proof texts”—the Scriptures are ransacked for all possible passages having to do with poverty or economic justice, and these are put forward in steady succession as though their meaning were self-evident. Theologians adept at “demythologizing” the Bible have obviously not been put to work in drafting the episcopal letter.

Similarly, the last section of the bishops’ letter is on the subject of “work and worship,” where the obligation to do justice to the needy is proposed as an intimate part of the act of worship itself. However, this brief section seems very much like an afterthought; missing, once again, is any sense of the richness of the theme as found, for example, in the writings of the present Pope.

Not for the first time, “practical” men have gone out of their way to demonstrate that they understand the widest significance of what they do, while those who could be easily dismissed as idle dreamers have shown themselves determined to be “realistic.”

The very act of comparing the two documents cannot help but be troubling to a believing Catholic, since there is no basis for making official episcopal pronouncements, even in preliminary form, morally equivalent to the utterances of lay committees, no matter how perspicacious. The fact that such a comparison is, at this point in history, inevitable is evidence of the confused state of American Catholicism. There can be no doubt that the Novak-Simon committee was formed, and issued its letter, because of fear that the bishops would fail to do justice to the capitalist system, and that alternative Catholic voices would be needed. There is, up to this point, an uncomfortable parallel with those Catholics who have undertaken to speak for the Church, in opposition to its hierarchy, on contraception, abortion, the ordination of women, and other contested doctrines.

Read carefully, however, the lay letter is not a work of dissent. To begin with, its tone is unfailingly respectful and in no sense contentious. It does not even begin to approximate, in shrillness of tone, the manifestos so often issued by those (mainly priests and nuns) who dispute Catholic teaching on other subjects.

The authors also do not reject any fundamental principle of Catholic social morality. They recognize, however, as honest people on the other side must also acknowledge, that in the nature of things Catholic teaching relative to economic questions is less clear-cut and specific than it is on most questions of sexual morality, for example. There is no absolute Catholic teaching about taxation, welfare programs, or international trade policies comparable to the Catholic position on abortion nor, given the vast amount of empirical data which affects moral judgments about economics, could there be.

The lay letter is mildly critical, at a few points, of the tradition of Catholic social teaching itself, arguing that it is too limited by Continental European perspectives and insufficiently appreciative of the American experience. Its criticisms in that respect are less sweeping than some of those Novak has made in his own writings. Beyond that, the lay letter simply questions whether familiar liberal remedies for economic problems will really accomplish what they promise and, perhaps even more important, whether some of those remedies do not damage deeper moral values, such as a respect for freedom or the integrity of the family.

It should be noted immediately that both documents are moderate, at least in contrast to what might have been anticipated. The bishops are not advocating socialism, although some of their advisors might wish that they were, and they are far from condemning the American economic system. Similarly, the lay letter is not offering a blanket defense of the free-enterprise system, nor claiming that property rights are absolute. Both documents are situated within the broad limits of the modern capitalist welfare state.

The lay letter did anticipate fairly well the directions in which the bishops have in fact moved. Its anticipatory criticism of the episcopal statement can perhaps be reduced to three points, each of which, once again, can be seen as more spiritual and more in keeping with authentic Catholic social doctrine than what is present in the bishops’ own letter.

The first of these is the principle of subsidiarity, namely, the traditional Catholic teaching that social problems are best dealt with at the lowest level of society capable of dealing with them, with appeal to higher centralized authority only in case of necessity. Since the days of the New Deal, American liberals have reflexively looked to the Federal government for the solution of all social ills, and the bishops fall unquestioningly into that pattern.

Second, the lay letter places much more emphasis on human freedom, on the ability to make choices and to take responsibility for one’s own fate, than do the bishops, an affirmation which is deeply rooted in the mainstream of the Catholic theological tradition, especially in contrast to classical Protestantism. The bishops, understandably, wish to avoid a social strategy of “blaming the victim,” insisting that those who are in need suffer mainly through their own fault and they correctly insist that certain social maladies are beyond the control of individuals. However, there is practically no discussion in the episcopal letter of the role of free choice or enterprising action in alleviating economic distress, and there is, alternatively, an unyielding emphasis on government action on behalf of peoples who are presumably unable to help themselves.

The lay letter points out that the experience of poor people, and of different racial minorities, has been by no means uniform in the United States, and implicitly therefore raises the question of the “culture of poverty” and its impact on the needy. This is a subject which the bishops ignore, just as they ignore the equivalent questions with regard to the international order—are some poor nations less willing to take responsibility for their fate than others? why have some “third world” countries prospered since World War II, while others languish?

Third, as regards domestic policy, it is the lay letter which shows proper respect for the institution which Catholic social doctrine identifies as the most basic of all—the family. The lay commission points out that family breakdown is often a cause of poverty, whereas the bishops treat it merely as a result. It is the lay letter which affirms family integrity as a good in itself, and questions whether certain economic policies undermine it, while the bishops seem to treat family pathology as regrettable mainly because of its economic consequences.

Altogether, then, the lay letter insists that economics is not ultimate and that economic problems usually have roots beyond economics itself, while the bishops treat the economy, and economic goals, as autonomous, if not as primary.

Specific differences as to public policy are numerous but also fairly predictable, and can be summarized briefly. In general the bishops accept, largely without question, the essential thrust of liberal American policy over the past fifty years, and question only whether it has gone far enough, while the lay committee argues that bold new strategies are now called for and that the traditional ones have often been counter-productive.

Thus on the domestic front the bishops mainly desire the strengthening and the extension of the welfare state, along with concerted action by the government to stimulate the economy with an aim to creating full employment. The lay committee argues that such policies no longer work, if they ever did, and that the spirit of enterprise is America’s best hope for an economic growth which will bring prosperity to everyone.

Internationally, the bishops readily accept the image of “third world” nations as helpless victims of the more prosperous countries and call for expanded aid programs, easier loans, and revised trade patterns to redistribute wealth from north to south. The lay committee points to the striking differences between one “third world” nation and another and argue that the key to overcoming poverty lies primarily within each nation, specifically in the attitudes and habits of its people and its government.

At least formally, the two documents agree on goals—the alleviation of poverty both at home and abroad and the pursuit of policies geared to those ends. They are rather sharply at odds, however, on what those policies should be. Obviously the bishops are not ignorant of the wider moral perspective which can be found in the lay, letter, but for whatever reason they have chosen not to incorporate it into their own document.

The bishops’ letter does convey a certain sense of moral urgency, insisting that dire poverty and injustice are unacceptable to Christians, and its greatest strength is its unflinching insistence that every kind of public policy must be rigorously scrutinized with regard to its affects on the poor. By contrast, the lay committee’s letter can be regarded as somewhat speculative, arguing the probably beneficent results of policies most of which are unproven, given the dominance of the welfare state for the past fifty years.

Not for the first time, however, does it appear that the bishops, in their concern to be contemporary, have lent their authority to a phase of modem history which is already rapidly passing, and have been forced to ignore much of what is best in their own tradition in order to do so.


  • James Hitchcock

    James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. He is the author of many books including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton) and, most recently, The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 2012).

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