Wednesday, November 14, 2012

American Catholic Bishops retreat fom Social Justice

The Washington Post reports that the U.S. Conference of Bishops was unable to agree on a statement about the economy due to sharp differences in the various bishop's views on social justice. The document, The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Times: A Pastoral Message on Work, Poverty and the Economy failed to garner the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. The reason seems to be that the letter does not actually address the economy s solidly as many bishops felt it should. "There's no sting, no bite to this," said retired Auxiliary Bishop Peter A. Rosazza of Hartford, CT.

In 1986 the bishops produced a 99 page document "Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social teaching and the U.S. Economy" that dealt in full with economic and social justice in progressive terms such as the rights of workers to unionize and the importance of collective bargaining. For instance, on page 73-74 it is stated that:
When companies are considering plant closures or the movement of capital, it is patently unjust to deny workers any role in shaping the outcome of these difficult choices…. [At] a minimum, workers have a right to be informed in advance when such decisions are under consideration, a right to negotiate with management about possible alternatives, and a right to fair compensation and assistance with retraining and relocation expenses should these be necessary. Since even these minimal rights are jeopardized without collective negotiation, industrial cooperation requires a strong role for labor unions in our changing economy.
According to Wikipedia, "The letter was written at a time when the Reagan administration was implementing libertarian policies of laissez-faire capitalism, and it may be interpreted as a reaction to what was seen as hostility towards the Catholic Church's teachings on social justice, subsidiarity, corporatism and distributes."

Of course, a lot has changed in the nearly thirty years since the bishop's last statement on the economy. The Catholic Church has turned its focus away from social justice and towards such issues as marriage equality and reproductive freedom, both of which the church opposes. The church has also begun a quixotic effort to redefine the meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution as meaning that we have freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion.

The problems with the new document, which is said to be long at 14 pages (but much shorter than the 1986 statement) is, according to the Washington Post:
…there was criticism that the document repeatedly highlighted the church’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion and its support for school vouchers in ways that distracted from the economic issues that were supposed to be at the heart of the message.

The bishops also complained that the document overlooked issues of tax fairness, budget cuts to the safety net, the economic plight of the middle class, regulation of the financial sector, and greed and criminality in the lending industry.
The Washington Post sees the problem as "a sign of the growing generational and ideological split among the bishops, some of the younger and more conservative bishops wanted to kill the statement because they believe the hierarchy should largely restrict their statements to matters of faith. They also view traditional Catholic social teaching with suspicion, and say the church should emphasize private charity rather than government action to cure social ills."

As an example of a younger, conservative bishop the Washington Post quoted Providence's own Bishop Tobin:
"I think the best thing we can do is to scrap the document and go home and find some tangible and practical ways to help the poor,” said Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., who dismissed the document as irrelevant.
The Catholic News Service quotes Tobin further:
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, R.I., said he would vote against the document not so much because of its content, "but because I wonder about its relevance. I don't think there are too many people who will read ... or benefit from it."

He added that "there are some real issues we have to deal with and if we want to give a message of hope to our people it's not going to be in another document."

He said the bishops "should veto the document and go home and find ways to help people in tangible, practical ways."
I long ago addressed the conservative politics of Tobin ("The Bishop Wears no Clothes")  pointing out that Tobin voices opinions on a range of conservative issues, but on things like the death penalty and now economic injustice, he shows himself reluctant to embrace values that might appear to be progressive.

The emphasis on private charity rather than government action in dealing with issues like poverty is a conservative economic position, and if this is what we can expect from the younger bishops in the ranks of the church. Most of the objections to the document came from retired, older bishops, not their up-and-coming replacements.

According to Kevin Clarke, writing for America Magazine in the article "Revolt of the Bishops? Statement on the Economy Voted Down":
According to the USCCB twitter feed from the meeting yesterday, Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston quickly criticized the document following its introduction by Archbishop Vigneron. "Why don't we address the growing gulf between the haves and the have nots?" he asked. 
Archbishop Fiorenza said, "I have very serious questions about this," adding he had only received the draft for review three days earlier. "I am very disappointed, and I fear that this draft, if not changed in a major way," will harm the U.S. bishops' record on Catholic social teaching. He observed that the subtitle is about work: "A pastoral message on work, poverty and the economy," yet he said the document includes just one short reference on the right of workers to unionize. 
"One sentence," he added. "It's almost like it was an afterthought. But when you look at the compendium of the social teachings of the church, there are three long paragraphs on the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike." He asked why "Hope of the Gospel" includes no reference, "not even a footnote," about the U.S. bishops' 1986 pastoral letter on the economy, "Economic Justice for All," which he noted was the product of several years of work. 
Retired Auxiliary Bishop Peter A. Rosazza of Hartford, Conn., asked whether the drafting committee had consulted with an economist, which he said was one of the recommendations of the bishops in June.

Retired Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn, N.Y., said the document "doesn't address in any way the major shift in the American economy." He also said it ought to reference the 1986 document "to show the continuity of what we said then."
These retired bishops were joined by some active bishops:
Bishop Rosazza complained that the document has "no sting, no bite" and doesn't address cuts to government programs that help the poor. Albany's Bishop Howard Hubbard said the statement did not adequately address causes of economic collapse, the role of government, the decline of labor and Catholic social teaching. The document doesn't offer comfort or hope to anyone, complained Bishop Cupich, it speaks of market forces but not deregulation and immoral behavior that created the financial crisis.
For Catholics, Clarke ends his coverage on a bit of a downer:
Have moderates in the conference finally decided to push back against the conference's conservative drift? Hard to say, (especially when your "insight" is based on a twitter feed!) but as many of the objectors here appear to be retired, non-voting members, there does not appear to be too much cause for celebration among Catholic progressives.
This rift is especially ironic as the Catholic Church considers the canonization of anarchist Dorothy Day, "an American journalist, social activist, and devout Catholic convert; she advocated the Catholic economic theory of distributism." Day "suggested abolishing legal enforcement of interest-rate contracts" and was in favor of anti-trust legislation. She was also a pacifist that opposed United States involvement in the second world war. Her economic position are steeped in Roman Catholicism but are radically progressive (and I would say primitivist) by today's standards.

As the 2012 elections indicate, conservative economic and social policies are being rejected by the voting public in ever increasing numbers. Right now there is a battle within the church between progressives and conservatives. If the church to doubles down on policies and ideas that reject progressive values and favor monied interests they simply ensure their inevitable decline into irrelevance.


  1. You say they "insure their inevitable decline into irrelevance" like it's a BAD thing.

  2. A lot of it is that JP II packed the hierarchy with his pet conservatives. It explains why there is a conservative streak in the younger ranks of the USCCB.

  3. .... Very informative article...... I hope the Bishops can set their regional.. social.. and political perspectives aside and agree some where in the middle for the common good of Catholics and non- catholics alike ...