At this week’s meeting of the USCCB, the Conference voted 171 to 26 in favor of drafting a Catholic Pastoral Reflection tentatively titled: “Catholic Reflections on Work, Poverty, and a Broken Economy.” The title and a draft outline presented to the Conference by Bishop Stephen Blaire, Chairman of the USCCB Domestic Justice and Human Development Committee. The impetus for a pastoral reflection of 12-15 pages (not an pastoral letter like Economic Justice for All, which was considerably longer) is grounded in the contemporary situation of suffering and hopelessness. The USCCB press release on the vote states:
“It has been a long time since the body of bishops has addressed the moral and human dimensions of economic life in light of Catholic teaching,” said Bishop Blaire. “This is especially urgent when so many of our people are suffering and wonder whether their Church cares and has anything to say about their situation and the economy that has left them behind.”
The goal of Catholic Reflections on Work, Poverty and Broken Economy is to communicate the bishops’ concern for people hurt by the economy, especially the jobless and those living in poverty. It will apply the human, family, moral and social costs of the economic crisis to Catholic teaching on economic life, especially the encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate.
Now, I am glad that the June meeting has been televised and transparent. The discussion of the economy and a pastoral reflection caused a vibrant and at times heated floor debate -which has prompted quite the reaction. (for examples see: Bishop Criticizes USCCB Committe’s Reaction to Ryan Budget and Bishops Doubt their competency to to address economy not contraception). On both sides, those upset the Bishops are taking a strong stand on economic justice and those who wish the Conference would take stronger, more decisive action have been focusing on those heated negative comments made in the floor debate – specifically those by 2 Bishops who questioned both opposition to the Ryan budget and the competency of USCCB to speak on economic matters. And I will admit, as someone fiercely committed to Catholic social teaching on economic justice some of the debate is difficult to read.
As a result, however, it is tempting to focus on a limited number of episcopal comments instead of the conclusive action. The Conference overwhelmingly voted in support of drafting the pastoral reflection. Moreover, in the spirit of this blog – some important points in favor of the Church’s commitment to economic justice, the poor and CST should be highlighted. (Quotes taken from the ourdailythread link above, but the video can be watched on the USCCB wesite)
Bishop Ramirez of New Mexico: “I speak in favor of this resolution. The principles enunciated in our pastoral, Economic Justice for All, still hold. That document was such a milestone, one of the proudest moments of this conference and we need to say something about the economy since then. It’s been a long time. Some things have changed. Things that have impacted our economy and every one of us, and our poor people especially. Things like globalization, communications technology. The pastoral letter then didn’t address the issue of the Internet which now figures prominently in the economic life of the globe. Then of course we have the great recession of 2008, the difficulties we are having presently in economic recovery, the political polarization of our nation, the challenges of immigration and issues of climate change and the environment. It is to be hoped that this document will have wide public attention and that it will have a real impact especially on the consciences of those whose decisions that affect the poor, the most vulnerable in our society.”
Archbishop Lori of Baltimore: “Express my support for the document. If CRS is a well-kept secret, our Social Teaching is even a better kept secret. I think bringing it to bear on this burning question, problem in our culture is hugely important. I would especially like to stress using the new media, unfiltered means of communication to get the principles of our social teaching out there to encourage discussion.”
It is easy to focus on the dissenting opinions and it is quite clear the way the politicization of this floor debate is beginning on both sides. But in the spirit of this blog, I think it is helpful to point out that while there are divisions and divides within the American Church — 171 – 26 represents significant agreement on the commitment to Catholic social teaching on economic justice and the poor. As Dennis Sadowski at Catholic News Service reports,
“It would be a document asking for engagement, asking our people and all who are out there as part of the larger community to engage, to reflect, to pray, to discuss and to see what the Gospel can bring into the economy,” Bishop Blaire said.
As Catholics, we must do just that and despite the temptations of the instant media/soundbite climate – take a step back, seeking the consolation of the Spirit and the inspiration of the Gospel and not rest in the desolation of division and frustration.
I find the objective of the proposed reflection on the economy by the bishops… befuddling. How does one go about applying the “moral and social costs of the economic crisis to Catholic” teaching? What does that even mean? Are the bishops going to propose solutions to our economic problems? To immigration? To climate change? Is that what we are to expect – and if not, what are they going to say?
Whenever the bishops get together to come out with these quasi-political papers I cannot help but wonder if they have seriously considered their own problems and this is just a way to avoid addressing them. It has long been reported that about 85% of all Catholics use contraception. Is it unreasonable to assume since the bishops have done nothing whatever to address this situation that they don’t consider it important?
I do not look to the bishops – and especially the USCCB – for direction on how best to resolve political issues, especially economic ones. I would like the bishops to instead become more focused on the moral problems within their purview instead of going off the reservation to dabble in politics. Alas, neither of us is likely to get what he seeks as I am no more likely to read documents addressing their political concerns than they are to write documents addressing my moral ones.
Ender, isn’t determining the best public policy strategy for defending the value of prenatal human life also “politics”? What public policy advocacy *isn’t* politics? Do you accept arguments, made by some pro-choice Catholics, that while they agree with the Church that the fetus is a person, there can be legitimate disagreements about how best to recognize that personhood in a public policy, and that the Bishops have no particular competency or authority when it comes to crafting such a policy?
I am surprised that you find this action by the USCCB befuddling. Nothing could be more in line with Catholic social teaching – do you find the entire teaching befuddling? Since the beginning of its modern incarnation with Leo XIII and Rerum Novarum (on the condition of workers) in 1891 catholic teaching has been brought to bear and into conversation with the moral and social costs of economic systems and economic crisis. Through the tradition – in populous progressio, in laborem exercens, in economic justice for all – concrete reflections on work, poverty and the broken economy are central within this tradition. I realize that politics is front and center and we are all caught up in it…..but it is important to remember that this is first and foremost an economic and human crisis we are in, not merely a political one. The USCCB has maintained and called for the principles of CST in economic matters in times of crisis and times of boom (when it is easy to forget those left behind by the boom). In line with the recent activity of both Pope Benedict and the pontifical council of peace and justice…..both of whom have called for greater moral reflection and ethical reflection (as well as pastoral ) on the economic crisis.
Charles: There are but a handful of issues where specific solutions can be said to be immoral; abortion is clearly one (resolving economic problems, by contrast is not). While there can be no debate on the morality of abortions there can be legitimate disagreement on how best to proscribe the practice. If a proposal is immoral it is the bishops prerogative to point that out. In disagreements over tactics, however, they have no special expertise and it can be misleading of them to favor one approach over another as this implies a moral distinction between competing proposals which is rarely present.
Meghan: You say we are in the midst of “an economic and human crisis.” In what way is input from the bishops helpful in resolving this crisis? If you assume that (some) politicians are indifferent to the suffering of the poor it is legitimate to remind them of their obligations but it is not legitimate to claim that Budget Plan A is a moral solution while Budget Plan B is an immoral one and it is certainly inappropriate for bishops to make such judgments.
As you said, the USCCB has “called for the principles of CST” to be observed, but principles give us the objectives we should strive to meet – they tell us nothing whatever about the means appropriate to achieve those ends. If the bishops and the USCCB are simply going to reiterate Catholic social teaching I hardly see the point, but doing that would surely be better than specifying economic proposals that they think would work. That after all is our job, not theirs.
So Ender, following your logic, would you be forced to claim that the Bishops offer no special expertise and have no authority in adjudicating between the following two claims:
1. The value of prenatal human life is best defended by a constitutional amendment banning direct abortion.
2. In part because a constitutional amendment banning direct abortion would not lower the abortion rate (and thus would not save one prenatal child from dying), the best way to defend the value of prenatal life is to work to create a social welfare system that would push back against systems of oppression that cause women to choose abortion, and not to try to ban direct abortion.
Do I have you right? Both claims already agree on the moral questions: a fetus is a person and abortion is the seriously wrong taking a personal life. They disagree about the politics involved in making a prudential judgment about the practical matter of how best to put that moral principle into a public policy. But this is precisely the kind of matters about which you think that the Bishops have no special authority–at least when it comes to economic issues. Is there a reason that you (at least appear) to have a different way of thinking about this when it comes to life issues?
I am not certain that you understand what a pastoral reflection (or even an encyclical or pastoral letter) is. It is not a budget, it is not a political document for politicians. Moreover, while catholic social teaching is not a 3rd way or policy portfolio it certainly does give principles and criteria from which to evaluate and state a particular budget policy may be immoral. IF what you are really objecting to, is the critique of the Ryan budget – I’m happy to have that debate as I have blogged about that numerous times – but that is not the same as a pastoral reflection on work, poverty and a broken economy which is sorely needed. People are suffering, we have a culture that cannot recover and sustain the practices that led to where we are – we need to rebuild community and society along with a sustainable economy – the moral vision of CST in my opinion has a great deal to say about that.
Charles: I distinguish between moral issues that have political implications (those involving actions defined by the Church as intrinsically evil) and prudential issues (where, except at the extremes, the choices are essentially tactical rather than moral). My point about the proposed pastoral reflection is that it does not deal with a moral issue so I question the involvement of the bishops in this case. I recognize that there is no bright line separating moral problems from prudential ones and accept that examples can be created that lie in those fuzzy areas.
That you have contested my assertions by using a moral issue such as abortion rather than the prudential issue of economics (which is the relevant topic), I think shows the difficulty of providing a moral rationale for what the bishops are involved in here. I believe the bishops have become way too politically active and that there is nothing useful they can contribute to the topic of the economy.
Meghan: I reject the notion that the principles and objectives of Catholic social teaching provide any means to judge the morality of a budget proposal. We may violently disagree over the impacts of different proposals but a belief that the effect of a proposal would be disastrous is in no way a moral judgment that that proposal is therefore immoral.
People are suffering – granted – but what moral question is involved in figuring out how best to alleviate that suffering and right our economy? If I support Proposal X (which you think is an appallingly bad idea) does that mean I am venal or just mistaken? Budgets in and of themselves are not moral documents; it is the intent and inclinations of those who craft them that determines the morality of their actions, not the specific content of their plans.
What could the bishops say that would provide insight into solving our financial woes?
Ender, by your logic, the only “moral decisions” we make in our lives are ones involving intrinsically evil acts. One can simply look at the Catechism’s sections on the commandments to see that the whole range of our everyday actions, from gossip to taxation to art, are “moral” and therefore reflect a choice between right and wrong, or in some cases better and worse. The word “prudential” does not mean “random” or “non-moral” – it is a classic virtue that involves regulating and properly ordering the means to our ultimate end of charity (=love of God and neighbor) (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, ST, II-II, 47, 4-6).
To say that our economic life (or our artistic life or all elements of our family life that do not involve intrinsic evil acts) “does not deal with a moral issue” is simply mistaken. Prudence is a moral virtue, involving moral judgment. Morality – aiming our actions properly at our ultimate end of charity – pervades all human action.
Thanks for this David. I was trying to figure out to say something similar. Ender, it really seems like you are more concerned with the authority of the bishops to speak on certain matters. On certain moral issues (i.e. authoritative doctrine), they have authority and the faithful are obligated to obey in faithful docility. Abortion or birth control might be such issues. The bishops say it is wrong, the faithful say “Amen.” (CMTers: Feel free to contest this. You all know I am trying to figure out this authority issue). On other moral issues (i.e. prudential admonitions), the faithful are obligated to listen closely, to take seriously what the bishops say, but are free to disagree. Applying CST to, say, an immigration bill and deciding to support it might be such an issue. It’s prudential because it deals with so many contingencies, and the more contingencies, the less authority the bishops have to speak with authority. So all of this might be putting words in your mouth but can we say that the bishops may prayerfully and thoughtfully, in consultation with trusted economic experts, try and make certain prudential judgments about the economy in a pastoral letter, trying to bring Catholic moral theology to bear on a complicated topic. The faithful are obligated to listen (after all, I trust there to be more prudence behind the pastoral letter than in my own individual reflection) but they are free to disagree on practical matters (how to make the economy better). However, on certain authoritative moral principles that the bishops are sure to raise (the economy serves people, not the other way around; no economic decision can intentionally harm the dignity of a group of individuals; there must be a preferential option for the poorest and most vulnerable), I would argue that Catholics do have to submit in obsequium. In doing so, the bishops are not going to make the economy better, to answer your earlier question, but they are framing the question so that it is not just pragmatism that drives the debate about finding an economic solution(s).
David: No, that’s not at all what I’m saying. Clearly we make moral choices all the time but as any parent will tell you, wanting to do the best thing for ones children is no help at all in making good decisions. My point is that making choices about what we think is best does not involve any moral calculation. Is my child old enough to cross the street by himself? Should I allow my daughter to sleep over at a friends?
We face similar questions with the economy, questions that are entirely practical and have no moral dimension. We face some tough decisions on how to right our economy and those decisions are tough precisely because we realize we can’t solve everyone’s problem, but there is no justification for the USCCB to suggest that (e.g.) my solutions are immoral because they believe they will be harmful. If you protest that this is not what they’re claiming then I’ll ask again: if they are not claiming a moral transgression then what is the basis for their involvement?
Beth: Your comments touch on my concerns. You are right to state that we are obligated to listen carefully to what the bishops say on prudential issues but we are free to disagree. The point being that if we are free to disagree then we are not faced with moral choices since we are clearly not free to choose what is immoral.
The other point you make is that “no economic decision can intentionally harm the dignity of a group of individuals.” This is surely true, but economic plans can only be held to be immoral if the assumption is made that whatever harm one foresees a plan would cause is the result of intent and not ignorance. This is what I fear would proceed from the USCCB: not a direct moral condemnation of any particular budget plan or a statement of any specific solutions that must be included, but implications and innuendo that some plans are suspect and that some particulars are obligations.
What we need to solve our budget (which includes social) problems are solutions that make economic sense. If the bishops cannot provide that – and there is no reason to suppose that they can – then I cannot see any benefit in their involvement.
Three points in response to Ender:
1. Despite your claim to the contrary, you really do seem to believe that morality is limited to questions of intrinsically evil acts, and that everything else is “prudential,” meaning “non-moral.” Several of your posts include comments along these lines, and this seems to be your primary reason that the bishops should not pronounce on matters of the economy, because economic issues are not issues of “morality.”
But as David pointed out, this is simply a false definition of the boundaries of “morality.” You could not find such a narrow definition of morality in Catholic teaching. Also, this is an oversimplification of the Catholic approach to social issues. Yes, there are few intrinsically wrong actions when it comes to social issues, but that is only at the level of specifics. There are more general moral principles that are themselves absolute that must be applied in specific cases. A pretty clear example is the issue of war. Yes, in Catholic teaching war is not intrinsically evil; there are a set of principles, the just-war criteria, that must be applied, but these principles themselves are absolute. Just because war is not intrinsically evil doesn’t mean that Hitler’s aggression was not immoral, merely imprudent; that would be absurd. In more controversial cases, people could in good conscience reach different conclusions about a war while applying the same principles, but that is not the same thing as saying that it is not a moral question, simply that we do not always have all of the information we need to reach certainty in answering the question. It would be a serious mistake to extrapolate from this uncertainty in controversial cases to the conclusion that war is not really a moral question.
But that is precisely what you are doing on the issue of the economy. You write that “if we are free to disagree then we are not faced with moral choices since we are clearly not free to choose what is immoral.” You are free to disagree, but within the bounds set by more general principles. You are not free to disagree in any way you like. Catholic teaching has clear and absolute moral principles related to the economy, such as that all workers should be paid a just wage and that society has a responsibility to ensure a dignified life for all its members. It does allow for different answers on what exactly those things mean in a given context and how best to achieve them. But again, that does not mean that economic questions are not also moral questions, or that certain policies are in fact immoral because they violate these principles, or that these principles cannot be used to evaluate a specific economic policy, like a budget plan. You seem to recognize this when you admit that immorality could exist at the extremes, but why should we believe that what passes for mainstream thinking in our society is incapable of immorality?
2.In one of your posts, you refer to disagreements over economic policies as disagreements over “tactics.” This assumes that the goals for economic policy are agreed upon, but this is clearly not the case. Americans do not merely disagree over means, they disagree strongly over the ends of our government’s economic policy, which is a moral disagreement. Even if we did agree on the ends, we would have to agree, as you seem to do, that they are also multiple and potentially conflict with one another; we want to create jobs, help people get out of poverty, help people accumulate wealth, protect the environment, etc. We might come up with different ways to achieve these goals and different trade-offs among them, and that is tactical. But if a budget plan unduly neglects one of these goals, or proposes sacrifices in one area when needless expenses are being made in another, then that is in fact more than just a tactical question, but one of morality and justice. And that is precisely the sort of thing that is at stake today and which the bishops are trying to address; as we discussed here a few weeks ago, as part of the Ryan Plan the House Agriculture Committee plans to cut billions of dollars from food stamps without cutting a single dollar from agricultural subsidies, which primarily go to huge corporations. That is a moral issue. You write that we need proposals that make “economic sense” as if it was obvious what that means, but it is not. Yes, we must be able to afford everything we want, but fiscal sanity is a means to our ends, not an end in itself.
3. I actually mostly agree with your original post, although for different reasons. For the past two generations, at least, the U.S. Catholic Church has put too much focus on being “publicly relevant,” meaning having influence on the state, at the expense of forming its own members in their faith. It has put the focus on legislating a just wage rather than on forming Catholic managers to be just managers, on immigration reform rather than promoting solidarity for immigrants, and so on. We can see the same thing with the upcoming Fortnight of Freedom. There is something a bit sad about the U.S. bishops putting up such a fight over the freedom to exercise a religious tenet that hardly any Catholics even follow anymore. My point is not that the bishops are wrong to fight, but that there is something misguided about seeing the state as a greater threat to the church than the church’s failure to live its own teachings. I do not think that the bishops are wrong for speaking out on issues of public policy, I just think they have things backwards, and that getting Catholics to actually believe and practice what our church teaches would have a lot more influence on public policy.