THE U.S. CATHOLIC Bishops' Conference ruffled more than a few feathers last month in issuing a controversial document condemning the inequities of American capitalism.
Not only have the Bishops faced well-organized opposition from a group of affluent Catholic businessmen, but they've encountered accusations of overstepping their religious bounds, skepticism from a philosophically conservative Vatican, and growing estrangement from this country's faithful.
Much of the hullabaloo is, quite frankly, rhetorical diatribe stemming from a fear on the part of most Americans to examine something considered as wholesome as apple pie: making inordinate profits at the expense of others, Let's face it. It's un-American to come out and say that bankers, industrialists and politicians should consider the welfare of others when they determine economic policy.
Quixotic in the scope of their vision, the Catholic Bishops are essentially telling Americans that Christianity is incompatible with capitalism as it is currently practiced in the this country.
The Bishops are correct in proposing a radical realignment of this country's domestic and international agenda. They outline genuine policy objectives to reduce the unemployment rate to at most three or four percent. The Catholic Bishops also recommend budgetary allowances to promote "direct job creation programs targeted on the structurally unemployed." Finally, the Bishops' social justice platform suggests a greater cooperation between public and private sectors in expanding apprenticeship and job creation programs. All of these measures are necessary to insure that the United States doesn't resurrect its lagging economy while at the same time leaving masses of poor people behind.
On the international front, the first draft of the pastoral letter encourages the U.S. to pursue equitable and otherwise morally defensible economic policies towards the Third World. The letter specifically denounces an excessive level of military spending in which this country "budgeted more than 20 times as much for defense as for foreign assistance." Similarly, the letter chastises American leaders for promoting U.S. arms sales to countries which cannot afford them and were perceived solely as security interests and not as blighted countries. Calling on the United States to assume a position of greater moral responsibility in the World Bank, the pastoral denounces the shift in U.S. policy "from being a leading supporter of the poorest countries to becoming an obstacle to multilateral efforts to help poor people in these countries."
ARGUMENTS ABOUT the feasibility of such plans cannot cloud the questions raised here. The Bishops spent two years preparing this 120-page, first draft and called in over 125 experts in economics, government and theology to contribute ideas. Such notable panelists as Lamont University Professor of Economics John Dunlop, and Dr. John Warwick of the University's Institute for Economic Development, testified in support of the letter before the Bishops' Committee on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.
Arguments about the Catholic Church's ability to comment on social justice issues are not applicable either. The Church has been vigorously and continuously denouncing materialism while advocating the rights of the workingman for over a hundred years. From Pope Leo XIII's call for the dignity and rights of the laborer to Pope John Paul II's recent appeal that "the needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich,"' papal encyclicals have elucidated time and time again the moral implications of economic policy-making.
Nor can arguments about the timing of the pastoral letter obfuscate the Bishops' message. Some critics have angrily accused the Catholic hierarchy of waiting until after the Presidential election to release a document implicitly critical of the Reagan Administration, thus sparing the President unnecessary political damage. On the contrary, the Bishops wisely embargoed their document until November 14. The delay insured that their letter would be received by a captive American audience, not one already caught up in the flurry of political debate surrounding a national referendum. More importantly, the Bishops realized, as everyone else did, that Ronald Reagan was returning for another four years of social program slashing. Is it mere coincidence that the pastoral letter on economic policy and social justice landed on the President's White House desk just as he was deliberating over next year's proposed budget cuts? How could the President's shrewd advisers overlook the tone of the Bishops' statement which was just as critical of the federal government as last year's letter on the nuclear arms race?
Nor can ad hominem arguments which attack the Bishops, merely because they are religious authorities, mitigate the importance of their objectives. Haven't values of religion and morality influenced public policy in this nation for over two centuries? How can politicians make decisions without relying, upon their own convictions and beliefs? How could the Bishops keep silent on matters fundamentally linked to their flock?
Even noted constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe '62 of the Law School addressed this issue at a recent conference on church-state relations when he said "The attempt to silence the clergy on matters political... or to silence politicians on matters religious is fundamentally and deeply inimical to the First Amendment and its underlying spirit."
But if a counter-pastoral letter written by a group calling itself the Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy is any indication, then Americans just might not be ready for the radical changes called for by the Bishops. Jointly headed by former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon and Michael Novak of a Washington based think-tank, the lay critics advocated further economic development as the only real basis for greater social justice. The group, composed of notable business leaders and educators like Professor of Government James Q. Wilson, lavished praise on American capitalism, calling it the most effective economic system as well as the most moral one. It's unfortunate that such an asemblage of brilliant minds reached such a mediocre conclusion and upheld the status quo. And yet, isn't it ironic that none of these critical voices are heard when the Bishops speak out on abortion or nuclear arms, but only when their own interests are at stake?
In the end there can be "no legitimate disagreement on the basic moral objective" of the Catholic Bishops letter, the pastoral reads, although the matter of how to protect the human dignity and economic rights of all may be disputed. For like a single voice crying out in the wilderness of this country's selfish individualism, the Catholic Bishops Conference has articulated the needs of an estimated 9 million people who slipped below the poverty level between 1979 and 1983. They have called for greater social cooperation and justice, and in doing so, have rekindled the flame of biblical teaching--to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and clothe the naked.