I was enthusiastic when I first heard that the USCCB was working on a pastoral letter for difficult economic times. I remember when the 1986 USCCB Pastoral Letter”Economic Justice for All” was released — giving a strong voice to Catholic teaching about society as a whole and its organization. More recently, I appreciated Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate — and used it in a sociology class to help students see the strengths and weakness of both socialism and capitalism by reading a well-structured critique from a third view point.
Pastoral Message has no message
Today, I’m glad that the bishops voted down the current draft of the pastoral message.
- The 1986 Pastoral Letter and Caritas in Veritate were founded on solid social science analysis and grounded in awareness of contrasting theories. Neither feared to come down on one side or another of an argument — and did not tie itself to either a left or right political view. This letter, with its wishy-washy “Catholics in good conscience can debate about what models and forms of governmental authority…” ends up saying nothing. The absence of solid analysis, of an understanding of economic and social theory, is evident throughout. Consultation with social scientists would have helped.
- This document presents a confused discussion of causality, sometimes implying that poverty and unemployment lead to a breakdown in family life, and at others implying that problems in family life lead to unemployment. There is truth to both perspectives. As written, however, they simply describe a hopeless cycle and then call for conversion of heart to break it. This is an exhortation, but not a message with practical application.
- This message lost its way by trying to incorporate too many social issues. I stand solidly with the Church in its concern for the breakdown in family life — and for the added stress that unemployment and debt places on families. I hoped this letter would speak to the sources of economic stress — but it did not. Caritas in Veritate took the risk of stating a solid position that was at odds with both left and right. This document attempted to be acceptable to both left and right; it ended up satisfying no one.
- The draft letter documents the conflicting and contrasting views of how society should be ordered, but does not truly identify specific principles or practices that are supported or contravened by Catholic Social Teaching. Most of the exhortations are about individual virtue and holiness — and thereby misses the primary focus of a letter for difficult economic times: the social structure in which economic and social institutions function.
Our culture is individualistic; we tend to see problems as the amalgamation of individual choices — a psychological approach — and miss the structural dimensions. It is easy for religious thinking to be equally individualistic, holding that individual holiness will amalgamate into patterns of social holiness. This is where rigorous social science models can be a help, showing a pattern choices that are individually moral can, nonetheless, generate structures of severe inequality, segregation, vastly disparate life chances, and more.
Bishops: keep on working – but get more input
I hope the bishops continue to pursue this topic, but draw on the insights of economists and sociologists in addition to theologians and moral philosophers. Social science can occur within a framework of a Christian anthropology — and both the theology and the social science are strengthened by the interchange.
- Catholic bishops fail to agree on statement on the economy – Articles (religionnews.com)
- The USCCB has made a Mistake in choosing “The Acton Institute” as their “Consulting Firm.” (catholicglasses.com)
- We need labor unions, higher minimum wage, voices for the poor (unionsandsocialjustice.wordpress.com)