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'Economic Justice for All': the 1986 US bishops' pastoral letter.

This paper on the 1986 Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social teaching and the U.S. economy was presented on the first annual Business Ethics Day, November 20, 1990, at the Colleges of Business Administration, St. John's University.

It is entirely appropriate, on the occasion of the first Annual Business Ethics Day at St. John's University, that a portion of our attention be devoted to the topic of the United States Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the US Economy, "Economic Justice for All" (1986). I should point out that "portion" is an apt description of what will follow since this brief discussion will hardly do justice to a significant pastoral statement that involved three revisions and took six years to produce. While recommending the whole letter for your "things to read" list, today I hope to present the document's central message and its claim upon all people of good will, most especially upon those Catholic people immersed in the world of business.

For the benefit of Catholic and non-catholic alike, I suppose a good place to begin is to answer the question, what is a "pastoral letter" of bishops?

A pastoral letter is a literary product of a recognized teaching authority in the Catholic Church, in this case, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. That conference is a standing or permanent institution of all Catholic bishops in the United States, a "committee of the whole." Collectively, the bishops constitute a planning institute on a national level which exercises pastoral responsibility for Church-related activity and work on that level.

That this pastoral letter or any such statement is a product of a National Conference does not guarantee that every single bishop agrees with every single idea contained within the letter, any more than a group of economists will reach perfect agreement on the state of affairs in business today. Nor does it mean that the bishops reflections were produced without external consultation, as we shall see in a moment.

A pastoral letter represents the shared or collective teaching of the bishops, as they reflect upon the whole of Church tradition and revelation, in an attempt to raise questions and levels of consciousness which pose challenges to Church membership to live its faith effectively. Such a document should serve to instruct members of the Church on a specific topic in an effort to help them form a Christian vision which enables them to act and interact within the society as a whole.

A pastoral letter is not a "brainwashing;" it is not an infallible statement of the highest authority in the Church requiring absolute adherence and obedience; it is not a series of demands or a sine qua non for membership in the Church. It is, rather, a set of guidelines from a corporate body of legitimate teaching authorities in the Church designed to help inform the consciences of the faithful in such a way that their beliefs and actions are in harmony. It is a statement of vision that seeks translation into action.

Certainly, a pastoral letter must contain an authentic representation of what the Church holds as essential and undebatable truths. That is not to say, however, that everything in the letter is undebatable: a pastoral letter leaves room for dialogue, critique, and further development, and that is especially true of this particular document.

With this as a background, let us move quickly into a consideration of this document on the economy.

The concern of the Catholic Church for social ethics has roots and is reflected in what the Church considers an undeniable vision that is much older than the Church itself. In the Book of Genesis, we read that God created the world and everything in it, and that God created everything good, with an order and purpose aimed toward the good, with a reality that harmonized the Creator with the created.

From our earliest days, we learn that God created human beings in God's own image and gave human beings the primary responsibility for the rest of creation, its order and its maintenance. At the same time, God gave humans an intellect and a free will. At the some point in history, human beings made a conscious, free choice to alter the purpose for which God created the world, resulting in the appearance of another mode of being, no created by God but designed by humanity, "a parallel world-view" that was different, less perfect, somewhat alien for God's intentions. Christians call this "sin." Consequently, a hierarchy of choices emerged on the human horizon that included a system of lesser goods and even non-goods or evils, that is, things that militated against the original purposes and intentions of God. Life became a conflict of good versus evil, a struggle that only God could perfectly overcome. Our struggle, by contrast, is imperfect and the outcome here and now will reflect that limitation.

God would not change the human nature God created: humanity remained free and was left with its self-imposed burden of redirecting the world toward its original good. God, however, did promise humanity some assistance, despite - perhaps because of - freedom. Hence, Christ and from Christ, the Christian vision.

Jesus, the promised assistance, the "Messiah" as believed by Christians, entered into the human world to stimulate its "redirection" not from without but from within the world and its historic order. Jesus did not diminish human freedom but enlightened and enhanced it by lifting up its noblest elements as goals to be re-realized. Jesus invited others to join with him in this project, hence the Church. His pattern of life became a model, an ideal to be imitated. His free human choice was to minister to those on the fringe or margin of human society: the poor, the hungry, the suffering, the imprisoned, the alienated. In fact, Jesus became what he wanted to redeem: when I was hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, you came to my aid...whatever you do for the least of humanity, my sisters and brothers, you do for me.

Jesus then left for the Church the challenge of continuing for successive generations what he had done, both in teaching and in practice.

This is the remote context, not only of this "Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the US Economy," but all of the Church's social teachings, especially those embodied in official pronouncements from Church authorities who, as Jesus did, teach not from outside, as some critics claim, but from within human experience. The economy is as the pastoral states in its introduction "one of the chief areas where we live out our faith, love our neighbor, confront temptation, fulfill God's creative designs, and achieve our holiness (para. 6)."

The proximate context in which this letter was written is much simpler and, yet, quite significant for understanding the importance of this pastoral. At the annual Washington meeting of the United States Bishops in November 1980, another pastoral letter on "Marxist Communism" had been approved. One bishop present suggested that another letter be drafted on "Capitalism" and his idea received the endorsement of the bishops. A committee was then established and the first phases of the drafting process began.

Three drafts were prepared by the committee during the next six years and widely circulated among economists, theologians, corporate executives, welfare recipients, third world bishops, Catholics on every rung of the social ladder, and representatives of other religious denominations. The consultation was so extensive that it can be honestly claimed that no other pastoral document received such widespread scrutiny and criticism, "a unique moment in the history of the US Church, "according to committee chair Archbishop Rembert Weakland.

The final text was approved and released on November 13, 1986, at which time the Church initiated a campaign to have the message reach as wide an audience as possible. This discussion today at St. John's University, four years later, represents part of that continuing effort.

The pastoral letter itself, composed of an introduction and five chapters, is actually divided into three principal parts. The first part, the introduction and chapter one, presents the reasons why the bishops chose to write the document: namely, to stir up Christian faith as a means to measure the economy not only by what it produces (the task of all intelligent, sincere human beings). Chapter one specifically presents the bishops' view on how this is to be done in terms of three questions: first, what does the economy do for people? second, what does the economy do to people? and third, how do people participate in the economy?

It is my conviction that these three central questions of the pastoral should be the touchstones of every action of our lives.

The bishops are honest in their assessment of the strengths of US economy, both for this nation in particular and for the world at large. Similarly, I believe, they are fair in their representation of its deficiencies. They present factual data available to them in 1986, data which today is already outdated. Chapter one, nevertheless, makes clear that there is not only room for but also an urgent need for ongoing economic self-reflection in this nation.

The third part of the pastoral offers a review and critique of selected economic issues: employment, poverty, food/agriculture, United States' involvement in the economy of developing nations. In this third section, the bishops also present their own recommendations, based upon wide consultation, concerning how the US economy should impact and affect these issues. Here, critics argue, there is much debatable and negotiable matter in the pastoral and the bishops themselves admit that fact. What is noteworthy here is that this third part of the pastoral makes abundantly clear the Church's place in the debate and its unwillingness to stand idly by avoiding, dictating, or foreclosing discussion. Similarly, the bishops should be commended for not leaving their teaching and the social doctrine of the Church at the level of "appealing generalities." The bishops "did their homework" and related their teaching to real life data, offering suggestions for consideration.

Whether one agrees with their conclusions and recommendations or not (and there are many who do not), the central strength of this letter appears to me to be the assertion that there is not can there ever be a dichotomy between what we believe as Christians (this is the "moral vision") and the way we live as Christians (a large part of which is our economic patterns of behavior).

You may have noticed that I went from part one to part three of the pastoral letter. I did so intentionally. The topic of this seminar is "business with a moral perspective" using the pastoral as that perspective. Part two of the letter presents "the moral perspective for and the Christian vision of economic life" and is the heart of the statement, its central message, from which the real strength and vitality of the letter flow.

This part of the letter, this vision," is non-negotiable and non-debatable, according to the bishops. "The dignity of the human person, realized in community (society) with others, is the criterion against which all aspects of the human life must be measured (para.28)."

That statement is not new; it was present in the writing of Pope John XXIII ("Mater et Magistra," para. 219-220) over 20 years prior to the pastoral and in the documents of Vatican Council II ("The Church in the Modem World," para. 63). As the idea, however, is presented anew in this pastoral, four propositions flow from its realization, according to the bishops, as constitutive of the Christian vision for the economic life. First, the needs of the poor (nutrition, shelter, medicine) take priority over the luxuries of the rich. Second, the rights of people to participate in decisions that affect their lives (employment, property, politics) take priority over the maximization of profits. Third, social needs (education, mass transit, environment) take effective priority over military production. Fourth and finally, the time has come for the United States to take initiative in an experiment to secure economic rights that guarantee minimum economic conditions of human dignity for every person. These are the challenges that the bishops present to the American economy, to the business people who make it work, and to the consciences of all people who live within this nation and within the world, affecting or being affected by its economic pulse.

As you can see, the content of this pastoral letter, though briefly described, offers much food for thought and even for debate. But that is precisely the point of any attempt to raise consciousness.

The bishops acknowledge diversity of opinion on how to promote and protect human dignity and economic rights, as long as they are promoted and protected. But they firmly state that there should be no disagreement on the basic moral letter Economic Justice For All."

For you who are or who will be the academic and professional leaders in business as we move into the next century and millennium, for you who will claim St. John's University as your alma mater, your teacher in this field of endeavor, may I close by recalling and paraphrasing the three simple questions that the bishops propose early on in their statement as guides for your business decision making, today and in the future:

* First, what will my economic perspective do for


* Second, what will my economic perspective do to


* Third, and finally, how will my economic perspective

help all people participate in the economic life

of the age to come?

Rev. David M. C'Connell, C.M., J.C.D., is Academic Dean of St. John's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, St. John's University, New York.
COPYRIGHT 1991 St. John's University, College of Business Administration
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Symposium: Ethics in Business; National Conference of Catholic Bishops
Author:O'Connell, David M.
Publication:Review of Business
Date:Dec 22, 1991
Previous Article:A Guide to Business Research: Developing, Conducting and Writing Research Projects.
Next Article:Is there a Christian economic system?

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