Friday, November 16, 2012

Talking about the Economy

Over lunch today, I finally got to look at The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times, the proposed "pastoral message on work, poverty, and the economy," that somewhat embarassingly flopped at last week's USCCB meeting. It's probably yet another symptom of our national political polarization (sadly now also part of the internal life of the Church in this country) that most comments tend to be completely on one side or the other. Of course, to be fair, it is in the nature of the case that the Bishops had to vote one way or the other, either to issue or not to issue the message. On the narrow issue of whether or not it should have been issued, one inevitably can only take one side. My own sense is that the Bishops probably chose rightly in not issuing it.
That said, again to be fair, there is a lot that is well said in the draft. (Ultimately, its problem was not so much what it said but what it seemed to leave unsaid). In its favor, first of all, is the document's generally spiritual tone - as befits a message from the Church. Lobbyists do their thing; political parties produce platforms; and think tanks generate programatic policy proposals. The Church's mandate is different. It is distinclty spiritual in origin and nature, and its pronouncements - even on political and economic questions - should always reflect that.
The statement is adamant that "economic systems and structures are at the service of the human person, and not the other way around" and that "People are not put on this earth to make economies function better; rather the health of an economy is judged by how well it serves the good of the human person. The matrix of relations that make up the economic life of a nation is meant to serve the common good." In the same vein, the document insists that "Economic institutions, governments, and businesses, even the most complex of them, are not uncontrollable and impersonal entitites. ... They are human institutions. They are as just and responsible, as truthful and generous, and as mindful fo the poor, as the people who administer them. Human relations are prior to purely economic relations involving contracts and legal exchanges. It is an error, as Pope Benedict XVI teaches, to think that economic dynamics should not be influenced by criteria of moral judgment."
All well said - but all at a certain level of generality. Much commented on, for example, has been the apparent absence of explicit reference to labor unions. "Workers," we read, "enjoy the right to assemble and form associations, which has long been recognized by the Church's social Magisterium." Why the reluctance to use the actual word "unions"? Elsewhere the text speaks eloquently about the importance of good education as "the doorway to economic well-being." Wouldn't that have been an obivous place to say something about the unconscionable levels of debt so many students are forced to assume to get an education? That, at least, might have somewhat balanced the document's "worry" about our "national debt." One wonders whether, if the nation's poor and unemployed had been consulted, how many would have cited the "national debt" as one of their worries.
Predictably, the document says good things about the respect due to immigrants. Importantly, it also recognizes the need to balance the invocation of "subsidiarity" language with the language of solidarity. It recognizes that "subsidiarity without solidarity  risks a kind of 'social privatism' that lacks the vision and cohesion needed to be truly effective." (While it would be beyond the scope of such a pastoral message, I think perhaps the time may have come to re-evaluate the language of subsidiarity and perhaps even to retire the term).
Critics have noted the absence of any reference to the Bishops' 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All. That earlier document was much longer and considerably more detailed. It could be - and was - ctiticized by some for getting too specific in its recommendations. That document did, however, make very clear the difference between moral principles and policy proposals which are inevitably matters of prudential judgment and hence less certain and more open to legitimate debate and disagreement. It is important for those who speak officially in the name of the Church to respect the competences of others in secular disicplines and not presume to be equipped to resolve every issue.  On the other hand, one of the things that enabled  Economic Justice for All to have the impact that it had was that it did highlight the connection between principles with policies. It facilitated a real debate about policies in the light of principles. For whatever reason, this document appears shy about doing that. And that may have been its major weakness.

1 comment:

  1. City Father,
    I wonder if part of the problem the bishops face today is the lack of a social movement to support. The labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave the US hierarchy (in pre-conference days) a clear focus for their support. Similarly, the post-WWII civil rights movement was an organized force to which the bishops could collectively lend a pastoral voice of support. Honestly, I don’t think they know how to apply the Gospel to the present economic mess because they just don’t see a target for their support. Perhaps you will suggest labor unions, and I’m a fan. But I don’t have the impression they are taking the lead here this time, at least not in the form of a social movement.
    But, the USCCB should have come up with something. Perhaps alternate version could have been presented. I know Catholic graduate students who could have composed them, if the committees were too busy.