Ethical Reflections on the Economy
AGAINST SOCIAL DARWINISM
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.”
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