For US Bishops, Economic Justice Isn't on the Agenda
Catholic leaders, meeting in Baltimore this week, fail to put
society's main problems front and center
By Francis X. Doyle
November 15, 2011
At a time of staggering poverty, rampant unemployment and
growing income inequality, Catholic bishops will gather for a
national meeting in Baltimore today and remain largely silent
about these profound moral issues. A recent Catholic News
Service headline about the meeting - "Bishops' agenda more
devoted to internal matters than societal ills" - is a
disappointing snapshot for a church that has long been a
powerful voice for economic justice.
The U.S. bishops' relative silence contrasts with a recent
Vatican document that urges stronger regulation of the
financial sector and a more just distribution of wealth.
Urging reforms to the left of even the most liberal Democrat
in Congress, the Vatican spoke in stark terms about a global
financial system that is unhinged from moral values. It's a
thoughtful critique of free-market fundamentalism, in keeping
with centuries of Catholic teaching as articulated by several
popes. A Vatican cardinal even acknowledged that the "basic
sentiment" behind the Occupy Wall Street movement aligns with
Catholic values on the need for ethical corporate practices
and humane financial systems.
Twenty-five years ago this month, Catholic bishops were
anything but quiet. They helped drive attention to poor and
working families with a landmark pastoral letter, "Economic
Justice for All," that offered a subtle but sober critique of
the Reagan administration's embrace of tax cuts for the rich
and draconian cuts to government protections for the poor.
The bishops spoke not as policymakers but as moral leaders in
touch with the needs of the unemployed and concerned about
conservative political leaders' efforts to strip workers of
basic union rights. As a longtime staff member at the U.S.
bishops' conference, I was so proud of the late Cardinal
Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and his colleagues, who insisted
that a Catholic vision for human dignity did not stop with
concern for the unborn but must include a commitment to
economic fairness, peace, care for the environment and
opposition to the death penalty.
Where are the bishops' priorities today? In recent years,
church leaders have opposed historic health care reform,
lashed out at the University of Notre Dame for inviting
President Barack Obama to give a commencement address, and
publicly chastised pro-choice Catholic politicians even as
they give a pass to Catholic lawmakers who push economic
policies antithetical to Catholic teaching about the common
good. The bishops' decades of advocacy for comprehensive
health care took a detour last year when they opposed the
Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act because of
concerns it would provide taxpayer funding of abortion - a
flawed policy analysis, according to independent experts,
some pro-life lawmakers and even the Catholic Health
In recent weeks, the bishops have augmented their campaign
against same-sex marriage, appointing a "defense of marriage
specialist" to a top position at the U.S. bishops'
conference, and challenged the Obama administration to create
a stronger exemption for Catholic organizations that oppose
insurance coverage of contraception.
These are important issues, properly addressed by the
bishops. However, at a time of economic crisis and growing
anti-government ideology embodied by the tea party, Catholic
bishops would do well to once again offer a compelling moral
response to radical individualism and unbridled capitalism.
Most Americans probably don't know that Catholic bishops
helped lay the groundwork for the New Deal as far back as
1919, when they advocated for a minimum wage and insurance
for the elderly, disabled and unemployed. Much of this proud
legacy is under threat today from lawmakers, including
prominent Catholics like House Speaker John Boehner and Rep.
Paul Ryan, who think tax breaks for the wealthiest 1 percent
of Americans are more important than funding nutrition
programs for low-income women and children.
The U.S. bishops deserve credit for their participation in an
interfaith coalition defending government safety-net programs
that save lives and provide a measure of dignity to the most
vulnerable. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president
of the bishops' conference, was right to recently urge
pastors to address poverty from the pulpit. And the bishops'
national anti-poverty initiative, the Catholic Campaign for
Human Development, is a vital resource that helps community-
based organizations empower those living on the margins of
society. But I fear the church's revered social justice
witness is being crowded out by divisive culture-war battles
at a time when Americans need a stronger moral message about
the dignity of work and economic justice for all.
A new generation of bishops must find their voice.
[Francis X. Doyle is former associate general secretary to
the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. His email is
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