Volume > Issue > Ethical Reflections on the Economy

Ethical Reflections on the Economy


By Canadian Bishops’ Commission | December 1984

Ed. Note: In his travels throughout the world, Pope John Paul II has gained a reputation for speaking “hard words” on various topics. During his September trip to Canada, John Paul again de­nounced abortion and artificial contraception, and (to the surprise of those who don’t fully under­stand this Pope or the Roman Catholic social tra­dition) he again spoke critically of Western eco­nomic arrangements.

Speaking on a Gospel text about the Last Judgment (Mt. 25: 32-40), he warned that, “In the light of Christ’s words, this poor south [the people of the Southern Hemisphere] will judge the rich north [the people of the Northern Hemi­sphere].” Speaking loudly and forcefully, he add­ed, “And the poor people and poor nations — poor in different ways, not only lacking food, but also deprived of freedom and other human rights — will judge those people who take these goods away from them, amassing to themselves the imperialis­tic monopoly of economic and political supremacy at the expense of others.”

Elaborating on his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, the Pope rebuked economic situations where enterprises respond “only to the forces of the marketplace” and are ruled by “the profit mo­tive of the few rather than the needs of the many.” Lambasting unemployment, he said: “The human costs of…unemployment, especially the havoc it brings to family life, have frequently been deplored by the Canadian bishops. I join with them in ap­pealing to those in positions of responsibility and to ail involved to work together to find appropriate solutions to the problems at hand, including re­structuring of the economy, so that human needs are put before mere financial gain.” John Paul said that “alternate solutions” should “aim at ensuring that the workers have a voice in the decision mak­ing affecting their own lives and the lives of their families.” As “possible solutions,” he recommend­ed worker cooperatives and some form of joint ownership and control of enterprises by managers and workers.

The Pope’s remarks were widely interpreted as meant to encourage the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops who were at the time preparing their pas­toral letter on the U.S. economy, as well as to give strong support to the 1983 statement of the Social Affairs Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, entitled “Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis.”

The latter statement was written by eight Canadian Roman Catholic bishops, and its analysis drew heavily upon John Paul’s encyclical Laborem Exercens. The Canadian bishops’ statement pro­voked great controversy in Canada. It was attacked both by business leaders and by then-Prime Minis­ter Pierre Trudeau, and was the subject of a full-scale de­bate in the Canadian Parliament. While the contro­versy still rages in Canada to this day, the state­ment received scant attention outside Canada.

In light of this situation, and in view of the Pope’s strong words in Canada, we are herewith publishing (with permission of the Canadian Con­ference of Catholic Bishops) an abridged version of the Canadian bishops’ statement. Also, we believe the statement, which continues to be pertinent to questions of economics and morality, will be help­ful in considering the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on the U.S. economy, the first draft of which was released last month, and about which we will have more to offer in upcoming issues.


In recent years the Catholic Church has be­come increasingly concerned about the scourge of unemployment that plagues our society today and the corresponding struggles of workers. On this oc­casion we wish to make some brief comments on the immediate economic and social problems, fol­lowed by some brief observations on the deeper social and ethical issues at stake in developing fu­ture economic strategies.

As pastors, our concerns about the economy are not based on any specific political options. In­stead, they are inspired by the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. In particular, we cite two fundamental Gospel principles that underlie our concerns.

The first principle has to do with the prefer­ential option for the poor, the afflicted, and the oppressed. In the tradition of the prophets, Jesus dedicated his ministry to bringing “good news to the poor” and “liberty to the oppressed.” As Chris­tians, we are called to follow Jesus by identifying with the victims of injustice by analyzing the dom­inant attitudes and structures that cause human suffering, and by actively supporting the poor and oppressed in their struggles to transform society. For, as Jesus declared, “when you did it unto these, the least of my brethren, you did it unto me.”

Enjoyed reading this?



You May Also Enjoy

Short-Term Thinking & the Decline in Values

We are controlled by numerical systems run amok — creating lists and statistics, SAT scores and Nielsen ratings, Gallup and Harris polls, and the fearsome “bottom line.”

"Rembert the Reconciler"

Ah yes, Rembert the Compassionate. Rembert the Great Communicator. Yeah, right.

An Afflicter of the Comfortable & a Comforter of the Afflicted

Father Peter left a profound and enduring legacy as a pastor who knew the “smell of the sheep,” working with zeal and love on behalf of the poor.