The Bishops’ Pastoral on the Economy & the Scandal of Catholicism

September 2017By Dale Vree

In January-February 1987, Dale Vree was Editor of the NOR.

Ed. Note: Throughout 2017, in commemoration of our fortieth year of publication, we are featuring one article per issue from the NOR’s past. This article originally appeared in our January-February 1987 issue (volume LIV, number 1) and is presented here unabridged. Copyright © 1987.

The Gospel is, as we know, a scandal to those who seek a convenient religion or easy answers or routine formulas or cheap grace. The Gospel is arresting, demanding, and full of surprises — and this is why it so often scandalizes. Because the Gospel is a scandal to the world and its thought patterns, the world (and representatives of worldly thinking inside the churches themselves) is always seeking to tame the Gospel and harness it to its priorities. Yet, if the Gospel did not remain a scandal, it would lose its authenticity, its power, its uncanny ability to compel people’s assent and devotion.

As Christians, we are called to be in the world, but not of it. The Gospel is both incarnate and transcendent. It connects with real people and real problems in the world, but it is not their captive. We are called to transform the world in light of the Gospel, and yet, more often than not, it seems we allow the Gospel — especially its institutional forms as found in the churches — to be conformed to one or another worldly imperative, especially the imperative of this or that ironclad ideology.

As we know, most people are either at least a little bit liberal or a little bit conservative. Often they are born that way: it’s a matter of temperament and psychology. Or they’re raised that way (or they rebel against the way they were raised). Or they come to learn an ideological “language” that suits their material or occupational interests. Whatever, we can say that there is a category of humans that is hopeful about the possibilities of change and optimistic about the future, and an opposite category that adheres to the wisdom of the past and is pessimistic about the future.

And so, we have Leftists who are willing to take risks for peace, are hopeful that economic reform can narrow the gap between the prosperous and the deprived, and are eager to embrace all sorts of new ideas. On the other hand, we have Rightists who are strongly attached to their national community (and it doesn’t matter which nation we’re talking about) and so are more concerned with national security than with any experiments in peace­making; they know that throughout history there have always been the rich and the poor, and they doubt that any social reforms can significantly alter that brute fact; and they instinctively defer to conventional ideas — not only political ones, but moral and religious ones as well.

There is a rather grim predictability to all this. Thus, for example, if you tell me you are a committed Southern Baptist or Missouri-Synod Lutheran or Pentecostalist — and I know nothing else about you — I can predict with a high degree of accuracy that you are more likely than the average American to favor S.D.I. (“Star Wars”) and aid to the Contras, oppose sanctions against South Africa, favor cuts in domestic social spending, oppose socialized medicine, and to be dubious of any arms negotiations with the Soviets. But if you are an enthusiastic member of one of the theologically liberal denominations, such as the United Church of Christ, the United Methodists, or the Unitarians — or if you are a “secular humanist” or an agnostic or an atheist — I can predict that you are more likely than the average American to take the exactly opposite positions. Of course, there are exceptions, but they remain exceptions.

If there were no exceptions, I’d really worry. Why? Because I am myself theologically conservative. If conservative theology and conservative politics always went hand-in-hand, and if — as I believe — there is no intrinsic reason why they should (why, for example, should affirmation of the Virgin Birth lead one to oppose sanctions against South Africa?), I would seriously doubt if theologi­cal orthodoxy had any integrity or life of its own. Maybe then we would have to admit that orthodoxy is but a reflex of conservative ideology and/or conservative upbringing and/or conservative temperament. The key variable in a person’s life, then, would not be whether he believed in God or not; nor would it be whether his faith were orthodox or heterodox. No, it would simply be whether his personality, his environment, or his interests made him into a conservative or a liberal. And then religion — not to mention orthodox Christian religion — would lose all credibility to thinking persons.

Without presuming to judge the authenticity of anyone’s faith life, I think most of us have known orthodox believers — let’s say, orthodox Catholics — whose love of orthodoxy seems inextricably intertwined with their love of whatever is old-fashioned. Their orthodoxy seems to be of a piece with their love of the antique: their affirmation of the Nicene Creed comes as effortlessly as their love of classical music, Greek philosophy, the Latin Mass, medieval society, kings and queens, baroque architecture, the politics of the 1920s, and their hatred of fast-food restaurants.

I’m not putting down such people, for they are always intriguing and delightful. The ways of God are mysterious, and maybe it is only through the love of the old that He can reach such people. But this does present a problem for people not so enamored of the old-fashioned — and for people who can’t accept God if He only comes as part of a cultural package deal.

Religion has been around since at least the beginning of recorded history, and it is hard to deny that there is something old-fashioned about it, especial­ly the more orthodox or traditional it is. But if being religious is but a function of being old-fashioned, then religion has no future — nor should it. And because religion does so often go hand-in-hand with the conservative outlook, it is persistently in danger of losing its credibility.


Happily, however, among Christians there is one monumental exception to the above patterns. And, ironically, it is the least likely exception, because it is the oldest — nay, the most antiquated — form of Christianity in existence. I speak of Roman Catholicism. If the Methodists trace their be­ginnings to John Wesley, and the Quakers trace theirs to George Fox, Catholicism is the only form of Christianity that can, without any jiggery-pokery, trace its origins right back to the commission Jesus Christ gave St. Peter in Matthew 16:17-19. Antique, indeed!

And in so many ways, Catholicism is completely out of step with modern times. Its gover­nance is “monarchial” and blatantly hierarchical (it is not a representative democracy, and never could be). Its priesthood is limited to males. It has no Bill of Rights, and its flagrant dissenters are subject to discipline and (even in this day and age) excommunication. It doesn’t recognize the existence of divorce, and “remarriage” in the Church is impossible. Abortion and sterilization and homosexual practice are forbidden. And even within the bounds of marriage, couples may not practice artificial birth control. Conservative, indeed!

And so, it is shocking — perhaps scandalous — that out of an antique and conservative Church such as this we are presented by her bishops in America with a pastoral letter on the economy that is strikingly progressive and has earned the unanimous wrath of America’s political conservatives, not least those who hold power in Washington, D.C. If it is shocking it is because the pastoral is nothing much more than a restatement of traditional Catholic social teaching, which in America is one of the Church’s best kept secrets. And if it is scandalous, it may have something to do with the Gospel.

The pastoral in question is called “Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy,” and it was promulgated by the bishops at the November 13 meeting by an overwhelming vote of 225 to nine.

Conservative churchmen from Jerry Falwell to Michael Novak have denounced the pastoral for being “socialistic.” The same charge can be — and has been — leveled against the social pronouncements of recent popes, particularly John Paul II, whose encyclical Laborem Exercens is easily more anti-capitalist than the U.S. bishops’ pastoral. Indeed, some of the most clearly “socialistic” aspects of the pastoral are taken directly from papal teaching.

Let’s consider some of the pastoral’s more pointed passages:

(1) “More than 33 million Americans — about one in every seven people in our nation — are poor by the government’s official definition [elsewhere the bishops add that another 20-30 million are needy]…. Since 1973 the poverty rate has in­creased by nearly a third. Although the recent recovery has brought a slight decline in the rate, it remains at a level that is higher than at almost any other time during the last two decades…. Alleviating poverty will require fundamental changes in social and economic structures…” (paras. 170-171, 187).

(2) “We believe that [the current] 6 percent to 7 percent unemployment [in the U.S.] is neither inevitable nor acceptable…. It should be regarded as intolerable…. The market alone will not automatically produce full employment. Therefore, the government must act to ensure that this goal is achieved…” (paras. 152 & 154).

(3) “It is estimated that 28 percent of the total net wealth [in the U.S.] is held by the richest 2 percent of families…. In 1984 the bottom 20 percent of American families received only 4.7 percent of the total income in the nation, and the bottom 40 percent received only 15.7 percent, the lowest share on record in U.S. history. In contrast, the top one-fifth received 42.9 percent of the total income, the highest share since 1948…. In comparison with other industrialized nations, the United States is among the more unequal in terms of income distribution. Moreover, the gap between rich and poor in our nation has increased during the last decade…. [The] moral principles we have enunciated…. establish a strong presumption against extreme inequality of income and wealth as long as there are poor, hungry and homeless people in our midst…. We find the disparities of income and wealth in the United States to be unacceptable” (paras. 183-185).

(4) “Norms that should guide economic choices…. were strongly affirmed…by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Canada in 1984: ‘The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximization of profits…production to meet social needs over production for military purposes’” (para. 94).

(5) “The common good may sometimes demand that the right to own be limited by public involvement in the planning or ownership of certain sectors of the economy…. ‘Private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute or unconditioned right. No one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities’ [Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio]. Pope John Paul II has referred to limits placed on ownership by the duty to serve the common good as a ‘social mortgage’ on private property…. Therefore, as Pope John Paul II has argued [in Laborem Exercens], ‘One cannot exclude the socialization, in suitable conditions, of certain means of production’” (para. 115).

At this point, it is clear that the bishops are calling for greater government initiative to remedy poverty, unemployment, and unconscionable disparities in wealth and income. It can be retorted that in the past, some or many such initiatives have not worked out as they were intended. Of course, experts will debate this point. But the bishops say that while some programs were failures, others have been successes and we should build on those successes. Moreover, they are saying that if you fail, don’t give up; try and try again. The point is the effort. Why? Because it is a Christian imperative. As they say: “No one may claim the name Christian and be comfortable in the face of…hunger, homelessness, insecurity and injustice” (para. 27). If one persists in dogmatically arguing the debatable proposition that attempts to remedy injustice always produce more taxes and bureaucracy and inflation and regulations and a lower Gross National Product, the bishops present you with the Bible, in which there are countless calls to seek justice, aid the poor, share the wealth, avoid selfishness and greed — and virtually no calls to worry about taxes, bureaucracy, inflation, regulations, and the size of the GNP. If justice comes at a price to the prosperous, this doesn’t seem to bother the bishops. As they say: “Christian faith and the norms of justice impose distinct limits on what we consume and how we view material goods” (para. 75).


Poverty is a relative thing and wealth is no absolute value. If we must choose between tripling the income of the poor by first multiplying the income of the prosperous 10 times over, or doubling the income of the poor by reducing the income of the prosperous a bit, the bishops would seem to prefer the latter course. More important than the size of the GNP is the way we share it.

Moreover, as attached as we Americans are to the model of economic competition and every-man-for-himself, the bishops — while acknowledging that competition has its benefits — stress that it has “too many negative consequences for family life, the economically vulnerable and the environment” (para. 296). As for family life, the bishops note that “the constant seeking for self-gratification and the exaggerated individualism of our age, spurred on by false values often seen in advertising and on television, contribute to the lack of firm commitment in marriage…” (para. 345). Conservative critics of the pastoral talk as if the size of the GNP is the only relevant consideration. Free-market capitalism, they claim (with less than infallible authority), produces more wealth than any other arrangement. End of argument. But Christians know that man does not live by bread alone, and that there are many other considerations that must be balanced off against the brute size of the GNP.

If one argues that private charity is adequate, the bishops — who, as major philanthropists, are in a position to know — will tell you that, in fact, private charity doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of the hurt and disadvantaged. Indeed, if charity had been sufficient historically, government would never have had to get into the social-welfare business in the first place. Furthermore, the bishops would present you with the Catholic social tradition, wherein acts of charity must be complemented with acts of justice. (If pedestrians regularly get run over at a busy intersection, it is good for you to run to their rescue, but it is also good for you to go to the local governmental authority and see to it that a traffic light is installed.)

So, does the above add up to a Catholic endorsement of a democratic socialism? That is a clumsy question, to be sure, and it admits of no easy answer. Much depends on what you mean by socialism. If you mean the abolition of private productive property and the market, and government ownership and/or regulation of all economic activity, the answer is clearly no. If you mean a utopian blueprint, some closed system, a leveling of all economic differences, or some immanentization of the Eschaton, the answer is clearly no. But if you mean vigorous government action to remedy poverty, unemployment, and gross inequality, there is certainly at least a coincidence between what the bishops advocate and what reformist socialists (or “social democrats”) advocate. In brief, the bishops support our mixed economy, but they’d like to see it more mixed — and less Darwinian — than it currently is.

But the most interesting aspect of the pastoral’s “socialism” comes in its fourth chapter, headed “A New Experiment: Partnership for the Public Good.” Following the lead of earlier papal encyclicals and their own 1919 Program of Social Reconstruction, the bishops say that workers should increasingly participate in the ownership and management of enterprises, adding that, “initiatives of this sort can enhance productivity, increase the profitability of firms, provide greater job security and worker satisfaction…and reduce adversarial relations” (para. 300). It is at this point where the bishops meet conservative arguments about efficiency and incentives and productivity head-on.

As we all know, a homeowner takes much better care of his home than a renter takes of his apartment, and so if workers own and manage their own enterprises — and if their income goes up if the enterprise does well and goes down if it doesn’t — they will work harder and be more efficient and responsible and innovative than if they merely rent their labor time to a boss in exchange for a paycheck. As the bishops say, the best-known American examples of worker ownership and/or self-management have been worker buyouts of ailing companies. If such worker takeovers “can help a firm avoid collapse, why should [they] not give added strength to healthy businesses?” (para. 301).

Workers Taking Over Businesses: If socialism can be defined in a single phrase, this is it. The original inspiration behind socialism was that ownership and control of enterprises should be transferred from capitalists to workers. Of course, the history of this century shows how socialists — whether of the Bolshevik or Menshevik variety — have betrayed their own dream. They may have been able to expropriate capitalists, but usually they have transferred ownership and control, not to the workers, but to a state bureaucracy. Only since World War II have socialists re-evaluated their programs and begun shifting their objective from state ownership (“nationalization”) to worker ownership (“socialization”). Indeed, the most determined advocates and practitioners of worker ownership — besides the Catholic Church — are the democratic socialists of Western Europe. But even communists (of the less dogmatic type) have been experimenting in this direction, most notably in Yugoslavia, Hungary, and China.

Of course, the bishops don’t invoke the word “socialism” in their pastoral — and they’d be crazy if they did. Socialism is a dirty word in America. Moreover, it is not the vocation of the Church to baptize particular “isms” or prescribe economic panaceas. But if the critics of the pastoral accuse it of socialism, it might be salutary to accept the charge and see in it further evidence of the scandal of Catholicism. For indeed, the Church, like the Gospel, has “bite” — in the area of economics as well as in the area of sex.


If the scandal of contemporary Catholicism evokes memories of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” it also summons forth memories of the God-man who turned the world upside down 2,000 years ago. It is a scandal which refutes the skeptics who see Christianity as nothing but a pillar of whatever establishment is in power — and in particular it refutes Karl Marx who saw religion as but a reflex of the dominant economic ideology. No, Christianity is not just a junior partner in the conservative project. It has a life and a mind of its own. It is not a captive of conservative personalities, ideologies, or interests. It is able and willing to challenge the reigning ideologies and vested interests — whether of the Right or the Left.

More precisely, Catholicism is a scandal because it will not capitulate to our various cravings for comfort and convenience. In its opposition to abortion, birth control, premarital and extramarital sex, sterilization, and homosexual practice, it challenges and scandalizes the Left’s proclivities for self-indulgence. And in its opposition to nuclear brinksmanship, might-makes-right nationalism, consumerism, the idolatry of money and success, and excessive economic inequality, it scandalizes the Right’s proclivities for self-indulgence. I can think of no other major organization in the world that is so consistently scandalous.

Obviously, I mean “scandalous” in an approbatory sense. Catholicism is scandalous for the same reason the Gospel is, and that reason is Love Incarnate. The test of love is the willingness to suffer. Accepting an unexpected pregnancy, remaining faithful in marriage, being open to the generation of new life — all this requires a suffering love. And likewise, renouncing murderous weapons strategies, controlling one’s appetite to buy and consume, sharing one’s resources with those more needy, even to the point of being willing to pay more taxes — all this too requires a suffering love. What Catholicism offers is a consistent vision of Love, which is sacrifice, while the world offers dreams of money, power, and fast pleasure. In the eyes of the world, the Church is foolish. Let’s hope she always remains so — foolish, that is, for the Lord and Savior who gave her birth.

“At least the rich young ruler in the Gospel had the integrity to recognize his shortcomings. Had he been a modern American capitalist, he would have gotten into an argument with Jesus over how many ‘jobs’ he and his loot had ‘created.’”
Stephen Settle

DOSSIER: Economics & Catholic Social Teaching

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